The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to
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Can philanthropy alleviate inequality? Do anti-poverty programs work on the ground? In this eye-opening analysis, Erica Kohl-Arenas bores deeply into how these issues play out in California’s Central Valley, simultaneously one of the wealthiest agricultural production regions in the world and home to the poorest people in the United States.
Through the lens of a provocative set of case studies, The Self-Help Myth reveals how philanthropy maintains systems of inequality by attracting attention to the “behavior” of poor people while shifting the focus away from structural inequities and relationships of power that produce poverty. In Fresno County, for example, which has a $5.6 billion plus agricultural industry, migrant farm workers depend heavily on food banks, religious organizations, and family networks to feed and clothe their families. Foundation professionals espouse well-intentioned, hopeful strategies to improve the lives of the poor. These strategies contain specific ideas - in philanthropy terminology, “theories of change” -that rely on traditional American ideals of individualism and hard work, such as self-help, civic participation, and mutual prosperity. But when used in partnership with well-defined limits around what foundations will and will not fund, these ideals become fuzzy concepts that promote professional and institutional behaviors that leave relationships of poverty and inequality untouched.
Erica Kohl-Arenas is Assistant Professor at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at The New School in New York.
"In a field dominated by shallow analysis and self-promotion, The Self Help Myth stands out as a model of engaged and critical scholarship. Beautifully written and carefully researched, this book is a must-read for anyone concerned with transforming philanthropy into a genuine force for social change."
Senior Fellow at Demos and former Ford Foundation Director
"Offers a stunning example of the failure of philanthrocapitalism and NGO humanitarianism to solve long-standing problems of poverty in America among migrant farmworkers. This book provides a critical missing link in the literature that scrutinizes neoliberal tactics for provisioning the safety net in America."
Professor of Medical Anthropology,
University of California San Francisco and
author of Markets of Sorry, Labors of Faith
Territories of Poverty: Rethinking North and South
Edited by Ananya Roy and Emma Shaw Crane
Chapter by Erica Kohl-Arenas
'Funding the Other California: An Anatomy of Consensus and Consent'
Territories of Poverty challenges the conventional North-South geographies through which poverty scholarship is organized. Staging theoretical interventions that traverse social histories of the American welfare state and critical ethnographies of international development regimes, these essays confront how poverty is constituted as a problem. In the process, the book analyzes bureaucracies of poverty, poor people’s movements, and global networks of poverty expertise, as well as more intimate modes of poverty action such as volunteerism. From post-Katrina New Orleans to Korean church missions in Africa, this book is fundamentally concerned with how poverty is territorialized.
In contrast to studies concerned with locations of poverty, Territories of Povertyengages with spatial technologies of power, be they community development and counterinsurgency during the American 1960s or the unceasing anticipation of war in Beirut. Within this territorial matrix, contributors uncover dissent, rupture, and mobilization. This book helps us understand the regulation of poverty—whether by globally circulating models of fast policy or vast webs of mobile money or philanthrocapitalist foundations—as multiple terrains of struggle for justice and social transformation.
"If there was such a thing as an award for best chapter in a monograph, I would definitely nominate the first chapter of Erica Kohl-Arenas’ book ‘The Self-Help Myth-How Philanthropy fails to alleviate poverty’. The chapter provides an excellent overview over core debates about philanthropy, beneficiary participation in self-help projects and how such approaches have a historical legacy of failing farmworkers in California."
Senior Lecturer for Communications and Development
Malmo University in Sweden
“Hard-hitting, solidly researched, and well-written, The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty by Erica Kohl-Arenas, a researcher at the New School, explains how philanthropy has left farmworker organizations to ameliorate their own living conditions and create their own social-service groups. The story sheds light on major problems that affect all of philanthropy — especially its unwillingness to finance advocates who want to change the system — and for that reason the book is worth reading by everyone committed to social change.”
Senior Fellow at Georgetown Public Policy Institute
"Kohl-Arenas combines nuanced ethnography and compelling historical analysis to show how the structural interests of philanthropic foundations remain at odds with their stated goals to reduce poverty and inequality."
Associate Professor of American Studies, University of New Mexico, and author of Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action during the American Century
“Kohl-Arenas offers an especially acute critique of the widely influential ideas about social capital and civic engagement underlying this initiative, which put a premium on network building, leadership development, cultural diversity, and social integration while actively discouraging any kind of confrontational organizing or acknowledgement of structural inequality at all . . . At the same time, she makes it clear that the grantee organizations did not passively buy in to the foundation’s framing, but tried to adapt it for their own purposes while also educating funders about the needs of their communities.”
Professor, Department of History,
University of California, Santa Barbara