In the Dominican Republic years ago, a school without walls or ceiling was created in Buenos Aires, one of the new barrios in Herrera on the northwest side of Santo Domingo. This school had hundreds of students, but no building. Classes were held in tiny backyard spaces behind family homes. Neighbours struggled to get the government to agree to pay the teachers’ salaries and to have a school building constructed.

Elsewhere in the city, school buildings were used for three shifts of students every day; those who attended school in the evening shift suffered the extra burden of the Dominican Republic’s chronic electricity shortages, and classes were often cancelled.

Stories like these abound, and all are related in one way or another to the failure of governments to meet the basic needs of their citizens. In Mexico, neighbours work for years to obtain running water and sewage facilities. In Chile, students go on strike to maintain access to education. In the United States, hundreds of thousands of people are losing their homes because of the banking crisis. In Canada, many First Nations communities lack access to safe drinking water.

Port-au-Prince, Sept. 12, 2011

Tolstoy, Lenin and Jesus

Soon after my return to Canada from that first visit to the Dominican Republic in 1983, I saw Peter Weir’s brilliant film, In a Year of Living Dangerously. As a socialist option in Indonesia collapses through local intrigue and U.S. intervention, Linda Hunt’s character, Billy Kwan, asks obsessively: “What is to be done?”

In the wake of my encounters with Haitian cane-cutters and Dominican and Haitian activists, it became my question too.

Billy Kwan’s question alludes to Lenin’s 1902 manifesto that called for a new vanguard organization that would be dedicated to taking power. Lenin took his title from two earlier works by Russian authors. In 1863, Nicholas Chernyshevsky issued a manifesto that imagined a new social order. Twenty years later, Leo Tolstoy took the same title to offer a vision of the renewal of individual moral responsibility.

But the question actually comes from the Bible. In Luke 3:10, the people ask John the Baptist: “What are we to do?” And John answered, “If you have two coats, give one to the person who has none; and if you have food, do the same.”

Later, in Luke 12:16-21, the question appears in Jesus’ story about the rich fool: “There was a rich man and his land had produced a good harvest. He thought: ‘What shall I do? For I am short of room to store my harvest.’ So this is what he planned: ‘I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones to store all this grain, which is my wealth. Then I may say to myself: My friend, you have a lot of good things put by for many years. Rest, eat, drink and enjoy yourself.’ But God said to him: ‘You fool! This very night your life will be taken from you; tell me who shall get all you have put aside?’ This is the lot of the one who stores up riches instead of amassing for God.”

Life is too short for the poor to wait for wealth to trickle across the greatest breach between rich and poor that this planet has ever known. While some of us in the North think we have the luxury of sitting back to see how things go—except that climate change seems to have finally got our attention—the impoverished must always take risks and try something new.

Confronted by poverty, after “lost decades” of development, social movements in Latin America began to develop alternative policy approaches in the 1990s. Smart politicians paid attention and in one country after another—imperfectly, with lots of mistakes—the “formal democracies” of old are being transformed.

Tomorrow: How then shall we live?


One Response to What is to be done?

  1. […] Okay, let’s grant that Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video achieved its goal of making Joseph Kony famous. Tens of millions of people have been made aware of child soldiers and the problems they face. Now, the old question: what is to be done? […]


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