Saturday, March 13, 2010

Stealth Philanthrocapitalism? New World Bank "Game" Raises Concerns

A few days ago, a friend of mine sent me a link to a educational web based "computer game" called Urgent: Evoke. The game is produced by the World Bank's educational arm, the World Bank Institute. I've always been interested in the pedagogical potential of computer games, so I decided to check it out.

The first thing that struck me was that Urgent: Evoke is not actually a computer game, at least not in the conventional sense of the term. Computer games usually immerse the player in some sort of virtual world; Urgent: Evoke does not do this (or, at least, it certainly doesn't do it effectively). Instead, Urgent: Evoke draws students' attention to current social problems and offers them points for completing "missions" that are focused on analyzing and solving these problems. In short, Urgent: Evoke isn't a computer game at all. It's a web based curriculum with a reward scheme attached to it.

This highlights another important question: if Urgent: Evoke is a web-based curriculum, what are its intended goals? Ostensibly, Urgent: Evoke is supposed to raise awareness of social problems and galvanize students to work toward solutions. However, a quick inspection of the "game" reveals that the purpose of the game is to extol the virtues of a variety of philanthrocapitalism called "social entrepreneurship." Philanthrocapitalism, to put it bluntly, is basically the idea that one can do good and promote capitalist solutions at the same time.

The curriculum opens with a cartoon that introduces students to the Urgent: Evoke team. In the first episode of the cartoon, the team, a group of technocratic superheroes, is preparing to swoop in to solve a food shortage that is facing Tokyo (you can click on the cartoons for a closer look).

In this panel, one of the social change superheroes is talking on his cellphone. He comments, "I think we'd better move fast before someone else corners the market in Tokyo." He adds, "...once we show the world the enterprise potential, we'll be fighting for a slice." This food shortage is a social problem with moneymaking possibilities!

This conversation is continued in the next panel:

As our World Bank hero gets ready to climb into his helicopter, he remarks, "Feed the people, clean the air, cool the climate...and make a few dollars in the process." The social entrepreneurship dream is thus nicely summed up.

After the students are finished reading the first episode of the cartoon, they are invited to join the Urgent: Evoke "team" and complete a series of "missions." In the first mission, the students are assigned to discover the "secrets of social innovation." The 33 secrets include the following notable insights:

Tip #3: Embrace market mechanisms (Giving stuff away rarely works as well as selling it.)

Tip #19: Think like a child. Children have no limit to their thinking.

Tip #26: Keep learning from your customers.

Once they have mastered these recondite secrets of social change, the students are assigned to choose a real-life "social innovation hero" to shadow. Shadowing, in this instance, means following the "hero" on Twitter or friending them on Facebook. The student could, for example, choose to shadow Nigel Waller, who heroically sells cellular phones to people who earn less than $2/day.

Once the students have learned the necessary lessons from the first episode, they can check out the second episode of the cartoon, in which our Urgent: Evoke social change heroes save Tokyo. Naturally, being technocrats, they do this without the knowledge of the hidebound locals (see panel below):

The governor of Tokyo doesn't know what our heroes are up to, but that's no problem. That's just the way that social innovation works!

In the panel above, the leader of the Urgent: Evoke team responds to the governor's concerns, "We like our secrets, Mr. Governor. Our strategy is not up for negotiation. Secret is how we work." Obviously, it doesn't matter whether one wants social entrepreneurship--it's coming anyway!

After the heroes have saved Tokyo, the student is prompted to learn more about food security. They can, for example, learn about how the One Acre Fund is helping farmers in Africa. This organization is strongly committed to philanthrocapitalism. The website proclaims, "We don’t hand out—we empower farmers with tools, and they pay us back." Remember secret #3 of how to create social change: don't give things away--embrace market mechanisms! The tools which are provided include encouraging farmers to grow more lucrative cash crops as well as providing them with hybrid seed (which cannot be reproduced) and fertilizer.

The ideology behind this curriculum is crystal clear, and no one should be shocked that it is the World Bank that has created it. The head of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, is a George W. Bush appointee and a former Goldman-Sachs investment banker. For the World Bank, capitalism isn't the problem--it's the solution.

As far as the idea of philanthrocapitalism itself is concerned, I have serious doubts. I am always reminded of the following scene in Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, in which the schoolmasters, Mr. and Mrs. Squeers, are doling out doses of brimstone to their unfortunate students:
Mrs. Squeers was stationed at one end of the room, where she was feeding out brimstone and treacle to each boy in turn. "Medicates 'em," said Squeers. "Rot!" said Mrs. Squeers. "It takes away their appetites, and that's good for us. It purifies their blood, and I hope that's good for them."
Philanthrocapitalism is supposed to provide a sunnier version of this kind of win-win, good-for-us/good-for-them situation. But does it really? In a review of Michael Edwards' new book, Small Change: Why Business Won't Save the World, authors Mark Engler and Arthur Phillips explain some of the shortcomings of this idea. Even in its more palatable forms (e.g. where the philanthrocapitalist is not trying to make money him/herself), philanthrocapitalism does little to question the system that, arguably, produced many of the social disparities that it is supposed to address.

Notably, as educators, we can turn to our own tradition for criticism of philanthrocapitalism. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire wrote about false generosity. The falsely generous person, Freire claimed, tries to ameliorate the problems of the poor while simultaneously upholding the unjust social system. Philanthrocapitalism is simply the latest variation on this old theme.

Update: there's a great parody of the game at Urgent: Invoke. Check it out!

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