Azu Goes to New Hampshire: A Recap of the Bretton Woods Conference
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a conference in New Hampshire hosted at the Omni Mount Washington Resort that is nestled in the White Mountains; a three-hour drive north of Boston. The event was held to honor the 75th anniversary of the Bretton Woods agreement where 730 delegates from 44 countries gathered to design the international monetary and financial order to create stability post-World War II. It was at this precise location where they gave birth to the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development. This year, a carefully curated group of people were convened from all over the world to reflect on the original framework and explore the future of global economics.
We heard from authors, activists, and scholars who led rich (no pun intended) conversations and forced sometimes uncomfortable dialogue about how the present system has created massive inequality across the world. Inclusive Action for the City was invited to present on a panel, “Small is Beautiful: Local Economics and Municipal Innovation,” to share our work with the Semi’a Fund loan (more on that in a bit).
Let me start by painting a picture for you about the environment, the Omni is a white structure built in the early 1900s with a bright red roof, a nod to Spanish Renaissance. The Veranda and its 122 columns is amazingly picturesque with views of the surrounding mountains and trees. As I entered the Resort, I could feel the grooves of the lifted floor from old age. The high ceilings were adorned with artwork and Tiffany glass; fixtures included a beautiful crafted grandfather clock from the 19th century and an 1881 Steinway piano. You get the picture? Old money. As for the conference, it was thoughtfully planned with engagements started at 5am (think nature walks and yoga), panels and discussions throughout the day, regenerative breaks (imagine sound meditation or piano concerts), delicious meals, musical entertainment, concluding at midnight by the pool or under the stars. The instructions given: do it all or just some, go where you’re called to participate. I appreciated that it was a careful balance of content and rejuvenation because let’s be real - this work is physically and emotionally taxing.
On the first night, we sat around a firepit to listen to Clemantine “Joyful” Wamariya (author of The Girl Who Smiled Beads) talk about her 381-mile journey with her sister from Malawi to Mozambique fleeing for safety and an opportunity to live.
Clemantine shared how after walking for hours, the person helping them advises to “be quiet we are about to cross the border.” She laughed because she imagined a giant hole that she’d have to leap over and worried less about the military and more about jumping and not falling into the hole she envisioned in her mind. When they eventually crossed she remembered asking herself “how can I have missed this giant hole we had to jump over.” She realized after the border wasn’t real, but an artificial concept. Her story reminded me of the migrant kids currently caged up on US soil and the millions of dollars that corporations are profiting from the commodification of human lives and imaginary borders.
Clemantine was joined in the discussion by tribal attorney, Tara Houska, Couchiching First Nation, who talked about the irony in borders being erected on lands where the Native People were welcoming and operated from a place of abundance. We talked about how it is difficult to translate these values into facts and figures when values we uphold in life are at odds with each other. For me, it was clear that our existence lays in their hands as they are the protectors of water. Tara left us with the following questions: Why is it so hard to see an alternative to consumerism and consumption? If we can’t imagine an alternative, how will we work to preserve our livelihoods?
On another night we were treated to the words of Boniface Mwangi, Kenyan photojournalist and activist, who did not come to play. He held up the mirror and forced us to consider this Country’s truths. Two key takeaways from Boniface: 1) Work on your own backyard and 2) Death is a given. He asked the audience, “beyond your titles, beyond what pays you, what are we doing to change our communities?” He was right in pointing out that we don’t have to go very far to see there’s issues within our borders that we need address, for example in Los Angeles it is the rising number of people without homes. He drilled on the point of initiating change locally; then considering going abroad but “you can’t say you’re going to save Africa or change Kenya when your country is in shits.” He could have dropped the mic there but there’s more. “Go where your mouth is,” he stressed, live and walk in the communities; he cautioned us to listen and create solutions with communities. He talked about the 26 billionaires in the world controlling $1.4 trillion and their unwillingness to end poverty by simply paying their fair share of taxes. The reality is that we will all die (most of us will need a GoFund Me or car wash to pay for the services) but his point was how do we make it illegal to be this greedy? He left us with the African philosophy of Ubuntu to stress the interconnectedness of our existence and survival; “I am what I am because of who we all are.”
Small is Beautiful Panel
I represented Inclusive Action on a panel titled “Small is Beautiful: Local Economics and Municipal Innovation along with three other panelists. It was truly special to share space with New York State Assemblymember Ron Kim who is proposing legislation to rid residents of debt such as a one-time student debt cancellation and organizing against giants like Amazon; Kimchi Moyer from Bhutan shared their use of the Gross National Happiness, an alternative to the Gross National Product; George Ferguson, ex-Mayor of Bristol, England who talked about their local currency to retain purchasing power. I talked about the Semi’a Fund, our micro-loan program that offers low-interest rate loans to primarily street vendors and home-based businesses who may not otherwise have access to healthy capital. I shared my concern that we, as a single organization, are unable to fill the capital needs of all applicants but dreamed of the day when our counterparts aligned their values to center the economic stability of borrowers and not their spread.
I am grateful for the opportunity I had to attend the Bretton Woods 75 Summit. I left New Hampshire with a mixed bag of emotions. I walked away from these conversations with a painfully clear understanding that our economic system has become one of extraction and exploitation. Where we’ve divorced our economic and social systems by failing to take into consideration how we are pillaging the environment and disinvesting from the programs that support the most marginalized. It was a confirmation that we have a role to play in challenging systems. Collectively, we can challenge existing paradigms, think creatively about how to organize people and money, reclaim practices that ground us and connect us to our ancestors, and not stop; not now, not ever.
Ubuntu. “I am what I am because of who we all are.”