I’m a social anthropologist and I’ve worked on issues related to poverty in cities, trying to mediate between government and communities. I started to learn a lot about what is called the informal sector and that includes everything from informal settlements to informal transport and the reason why these communities do not have access to certain services. I started to see how important the informal sector was for the daily life of people and a major component of that is access to food. That’s how I started getting interested on why it’s such an important part of the daily life and the actual functioning not only of the communities but also of the city itself. Traditional economic theory says that the informal sector emerges because of the failure of the system to provide for those services. However when you start looking on how these things are structured in cities you start questioning whether it’s really because the system fails or is it actually part of the system itself? If informal activities are actually part of what makes the city function then the solution is not to get rid of it. The solution is to find a middle way where you can get the advantages from lets say informal street food but at the same time try minimize the disadvantages which come with it. This is not just an issue of creating more jobs. Now it’s in issue of formalization becoming a standard response to informal activities. If you formalize street food and if you don’t do it properly then what you’re going to have is an inflation in the city because food will be same price as in the formal shops. So it’s not an issue of creating more jobs necessarily. It actually needs a better understanding of how the city functions. I find cities in particularly Southeast Asia absolutely fascinating. They’re incredibly dynamic and incredibly diverse. They are an organic thing that is constantly changing. So trying to regulate that and trying to decide that informal things are ugly and they have no place in the city makes no sense. Try to understand further. What is it that the city is all about? The city can be at the same time about Icon Siam and about the Wang Lang Market. It can be about both. The way I have come to think about these things is that I see cities as incredibly complex with lots of little pieces connected to each other and sometimes we don’t see the connections.
When I was in the third year at the university in Venezuela I was hired for this huge survey about socio-, economic condition of people in the slum areas. It was the first time that I was exposed directly to slums and getting inside people’s houses and see how they lived and so that I would say that was probably the moment when something started going like: “ok I’m privileged”. We had problems in my family and we were not rich but I went to school. I went to university, I was able to travel. I had clothes. I could go to the cinema with my friends and then you see this. However it was just an awareness of being privileged without being very much aware of what I could do about it. I have to be totally honest. It was one of these reactions, ok I have it good.
The other component was that there was a detachment between my work and my life. I studied chemical engineering. It was like completely schizophrenia. You go the lab you do this experiment, you take a note, you do the statistics, you leave it there, switch off the light and out there you are on your own. I couldn’t find a way to bring that into my daily life or bring my daily life into that. And so I think it was then when these two things combined. It wasn’t from the beginning into I need to do something for these people. No. I must say I was very self-centered in the sense that I wanted to something that I feel more fulfilled. If I’m going to be doing something as a career that has to somehow have an impact on how I live my life. That’s when I switched to anthropology at a time where all these French anthropologists from the 1960’s and 1970’s were coming to the Anglo Saxon World. I was studying in London in 1975. All the literature of all these anthropologists that former students have never read were then accessible because they were being translated. Levy Strauss and all the structuralists gave a totally different perspective to what anthropology was all about. What came from France was the consequences of May 1968 when all these left-wing Marxist philosophers, writers and student movements started to come out. That changed a lot on how academia was taught. Because up to then anthropology was, they would go and study people as if they were objects. They would not interact. There was this distance all the time. It was during the 70’s and in the early 1980’s when this big wave came, where you need to hear the voice of the people. You need to give people the space within your work. I think that’s what shaped the way I approach everything, even with my social life. Everything was affected by the way I was studying because I was studying social interactions, that shaped me and the point is, you cannot switch that off. So I get to the end of my career at the UN and I cannot just turn around and say ok I don’t care anymore. That doesn’t work that way. Pursuing the project Beyond Food after retirement is driven half for me because I feel I need to do it. Whether it has an impact or not is irrelevant. I have to do it. I cannot not do it. I can’t sit there and go through Facebook and then see an article about street vendors in Paraguay I cannot not read it. I have to stop and read the thing. The other part is that my experience tells me that after all these years there is still so much to do that every little bit counts.
I see my project Beyond Food as contributing a little bit in showing how the things are connected. Like the package delivery service in Mumbai, if you trace the routes of these bicycles messengers it’s like the bloodline of the city. If you block the flow of that blood you kill the city and I feel that a lot of things are interconnected that way. The government may regulate a lot of things but it’s an illusion that they can control what happens in the city. They can set up the general framework, the general boundaries but inside? In Bangkok? Everything goes. That’s the nature of cities. Cities are not static. Some people push hard on trying to preserve things the way they are right now. I see problems with that too. Looking at the conditions in which people live and work, they obviously don’t have the power, they don’t have the resources or access. I tend to side with the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalized in general but I think it’s a little bit of a disservice too. For the sake of trying to preserve something you’re forcing them to stay in that lifestyle. The street food vendors have health vulnerabilities as they’re facing pollution and contaminated lungs. Their life is very hard. I don’t think preserving the look of a street or the feeling of a neighborhood should come at the expense of their well-being. So, yes I’m going to fight on their side most likely but I’m not going to fight on their side if they tell me that they what they actually want is actually a job elsewhere. However, given my situation here. I don’t think I have a lot of power to influence things. The only thing I can do is to try to put ideas out there and try to get people to think about things slightly differently. Hopefully that snowballs a little bit and gets to a point were they are in a better position to do something about it. That’s what drives me. The hope that an idea that I throw out in the wind somebody grabs it.
Want to learn more about Beyond Food? Visit BEYOND FOOD on Facebook or read the article on bangkokvanguards to learn more about Jorge’s cause.