Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Why Do I Care?

One of the assignments in the Master of Development Studies programme is to keep a 'journal' of our own 'ideas on development theories and issues' You can imagine that I hardly greeted this task with too much trepidation, given that my amateur musings on trade, energy, poverty reduction, labour rights, economic growth, government policy etc have themselves formed a kind of intermittent journal over the last couple of years.

Indeed, it will be an excellent excuse to follow through with a number of ideas for posts that I had shelved or never started, as priorities such as work, other projects, and generally having a life have intruded.

The suggested starting point for our 'journals' is to bring it all back to our raison d'etre for being interested in development.

So here is my two cents' worth.

Those of us in the handful of 'first world' countries roughly defined by OECD membership are among the few materially luckiest people to have ever lived. About two hundred years ago, things started changing for our forebears in Northern Europe. Whether through the dynamism of the new industrial economies, rapacious exploitation of raw materials from recently 'discovered' colonies, or the unprecedentedly cheap energy delivered by fossil fuels, economic growth started to accelerate. This allowed the production and adoption of a range of new technologies that have literally transformed the world.

We've ended up with longer, healthier, more comfortable lives, and individual freedoms unthinkable even a couple of of generations ago.

Greater material wealth hardly brings utopia. There is some evidence that the contribution of wealth to happiness tops out at between $15,000--20,000 USD per capita. Humans seem to have an in-built status anxiety that means relative wealth differences create stress even when everyone is better off.

Nevertheless, you'd have to be quite perverse to wish yourself into a different place and time. Apart from a very, very few people who really want to live in mud huts, most people who completely reject the 'system' in which they were born and grew up, do so in bad faith. From a personal perspective, having the freedom to travel, and being able to afford effective laser eye surgery, are two things I remain eternally grateful for.

In my view, working out how the rest of the world can have the same opportunities is at least a very interesting puzzle. Ensuring that they do, has at least some moral weight.

There are other, more pragmatic reasons for supporting global development. Increasing prosperity is what writer Robert Wright calls a 'non-zero sum game'. People are just as naturally greedy and conniving when they're rich as when they're poor -- but when there are more riches to go around, there's less of an imperative to grab someone else's share. Greater prosperity gives people more time and space to learn to tame their more venal impulses. If we care about reducing the number of people getting shot or blown up, supporting sustainable material wellbeing is a necessary -- though probably not sufficient -- condition.

It also appears that there may be a tipping point of prosperity when societies begin to see the natural environment as something precious that needs to be cared for, rather than an adversary to be exploited. Again, material prosperity allows us to care about more than where the next meal is coming from.

That's the potted summary of my overall philosophy. My detailed views, and my obsessions and prejudices, mostly derive from my personal experiences living and travelling in Latin America.

Before I ever made it to the continent, I thought I knew something about its history and politics. It's hardly a surprise that my instintctive sympathies were firmly left-wing. I'd been inspired by seeing a film sympathetic to the Sandinista revolutionaries in Nicaragua, and stirred by stories of CIA conspiracies to undermine democratic progress at the behest of neocolonial corporations like United Fruit. On the other hand, reluctant readings of excerpts from the Economist had partially eroded any faith in romantically socialist alternatives.

I was aware that a common way of engaging in these countries -- and a good way to get to stay around -- was working in some kind of aid or development project. But the more I travelled, the more I wondered how I could offer 'assistance' to anyone. For a clumsy gringo with a bright backpack and not even much money, it seemed far more likely to be the other way around. The young guys manouvering dilapidated chicken buses around impossible mountain bends; the women handweaving elaborate and colourful textiles; the peasant farmers raising corn and chickens on difficult patches of land: all were far more capable than I of meeting life's practical challenges.

It's true that their were deep inequalities and horrible injustices on view. But I found that many of my preconceptions were undermined or turned on their head. Some of the charming, educated people that I met and were treated kindly by could probably be characterised as part of the 'oligarchy'. On the other hand, I felt it difficult to engage with the working people and campesinos, except occasionally after a bottle of aguardiente. The villains of some of my reading, the 'oppressive' police and military, were staffed by guys from the same working class, mestizo background as the workers and farmers. And I had to acknowledge that as a vulnerable lone traveller, it was sometimes a comfort to see them around.

I also began to see ways in which people's problems were in part due to simple things that they themselves could change.

Most people were eager to see tourism -- yet couldn't see that the tendency to harass, rip off and otherwise squeeze out every last penny from visitors was the quickest way to ensure they didn't stay around and spend more money. Worse was the tendency to behave the same way towards each other.

I was also surprised by the prevalence of nationalism. While it seems clear to an outsider that the ordinary people of Latin American countries have far more in common with each other than with their local elites, it was depressingly common to see people with unexamined hostility towards a neighbouring nation based on the territorial squabbles of a hundred years ago. Attitudes about race and ethnicity could charitably be described as unreconstructed.

After more time spent in Peru in particular, and study of its history, politics and culture, I started to better understand the underlying reasons for these things -- but continued to believe they could be different.

If I've ended up with any strong belief about development, it would be a kind of militant pragmatism. To take advantage of the potential of the modern economy, there are probably some sine qua nons relating to containing inflation and keeping a relatively stable currency. Beyond that, what works for a particular country will depend very much on that country's people, culture, history, and even physical geography.

I'm sceptical about the simplistic narratives that blame all Latin America's problems on outside exploitation. But I'm far more irritated by those neoliberals who would remake countries in the image of their textbook, based on highly ideologised theories, without any appreciation of the realities of individual societies, or even of their own countries' histories.

One thing I believe firmly is that the countries of Latin America -- and by extension other 'developing ' countries -- ought to be able to work out their own priorities and the mix of policies that will best meet the needs of their citizens.

At the same time, I would call into question any notion of some kind of Hegelian pathway to a 'state of development' that more or less resembles how we live. For all the difficulties of Latin America, there are many aspects of life there that are preferable to New Zealand.

Latin America retains many traditions, languages, skills and cultural memories that have been steamrolled over in many industrialised societies. People have much warmer and more regular contact with their families and neighbours, and those who have visited western countries are often horrified at the neglect sometimes suffered by elderly parents. Children may in my view be over-indulged, but Latin Americans would be rather shocked that what has most stirred New Zealanders to political action in the last couple of years has been defending the right to hit their kids.

Life is intense, exciting, passionate. Romance exists -- though gender politics are often fraught. Music and dancing are part of everyday life. Middle class people like my friends Hugo and Lizbeth have lives that are a little less comfortable and more chaotic than New Zealand suburbanites, but enjoy less commuting and better parties They get to eat a homecooked meal around the kitchen table at lunchtime.

It may sound like a pious cliche, but for me international development is about an exchange of experiences and perspectives, ideally for mutual benefit.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

The Andean Observer

It's taking a while, and involves more work than you might imagine, but I'm gradually putting together my website, the Andean Observer. The site has several purposes, reflected in its different sections:

1. To bring together my dilettante-ish collection of writings on Latin America, including travel stories, accounts of life in Peru, vaguely journalistic pieces of reporting and opinion, and retellings of the strange and spooky stories told by local people.

2. To be a showcase for the susbtantial collection of photos from Latin America, and also to use them as a basis for commenting on the strange and wonderful places, people and things that don't necessarily fit in the confines of a story or article.

3. In due course, to provide a section giving travel information and advice, in a similar, though perhaps slightly less irreverent, fashion as my 'guide to New Zealand'. This would include the kind of material I've been asked to provide on several occasions by people who've wanted some background before travelling to Latin America, which I've ended up squeezing into one or more lengthy emails.

4. To be a platform for new blogging, stories and photos when (let's rule out the 'if') I make it back to spend more time in Latin America.

Some people have commented to me that I can't really claim to be interested in 'Latin America' when Peru is far and away the dominant topic. That may be fair enough, but some of the stories and photos do (or will) touch on Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil and Guatemala, so I defend the description of the site as covering 'Peru and beyond'.

The site is still a terrible mess of bits and pieces -- there are dead links, fragments of text, photos missing or in the wrong place, unformatted screeds of text, and so forth. Most of the stories and articles aren't even up yet. It will be a while before I even get around to my intended task of sprucing up several of the more prominent stories to make them punchier and more interesting. It's also true that the site has a very, very basic design, and still retains aspects of the blogger.com template that was the original homepage (the site is hosted on my own server space, but the blog content is sent there through Blogger). I may try and make it a bit prettier at some stage, although that's not really my forté.

When the site close to being acceptably complete I will pester readers of this blog to check it out, and make a serious effort to attract wider attention through link exchanges and other methods. In the meantime, I'd welcome any constuctive comments on ways to make it more attractive and accessible -- for example, are the resizable thumbnails on the 'images' pages a good way of presenting these photos?

Also, far be it from me to solicit ad clicks, but if anyone were to visit the site and become interested enough in the products advertised in the Google AdSense spaces to follow those links, I would be credited with a few cents for each 'click-through', which would in turn go some tiny way towards making the whole effort sustainable.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Academic Life

Well, I've finally gone and done it. Gone back to school, that is. From next week, I'll be formally enrolled in a Master of Development Studies at Victoria University here in Wellington.

Development studies is based in the department of geography, but is an 'interdiscplinary' programme, straying into economics, political science, environmental science, and others. This appeals to a dilettante like me. Professionally, it appears to be a pathway into all kinds of international do-goodery in the institutional or NGO sectors, as well as good background for further academic study or the kind of serious journalism that I'd love to do on a fulltime basis.

I understand from the teaching staff that students are expected to become especially interested in development issues in a particular region of the world. That's fine, since for me Latin America is a no-brainer. For those who are either interested or bored silly by the regular musings here on development issues in Latin America, it's hard to know yet whether there will be more or less blogging on these topics as the essays and assignments cut in.

In any case, I've done the natural thing for someone with an obsessive interest in Latin American issues -- pay large sums of money to carry on reading and writing about them.

No, wait...

The downside is that with the need to work a little less to fit in the study, finance may not permit the yearly visit to South America, meaning that I risk losing some of my personal connections with the place. The upside is that when I do make it back, there, I'll have sound academic reasons for staying around for a while.

Monday, February 04, 2008

On the Road, Irreverently

Road Junky is a web site aimed at travellers and adventurers -- wannabe and otherwise, which has the singular aim of not being the Lonely Planet.

It's a mixture of travel stories, best and worst lists, written and visual dispatches, and destination guides. The latter are described as 'irreverent', skipping all the long list of hostels and eateries from the Lonely Planet but touching on themes that are too sensitive for the latter publication -- such as romance and drugs.

The content ranges from somewhat sophomore to gonzo-like brilliance. Stumbling across it by chance, I liked some of the material, and took the liberty of sending them some of my own stories.

The reply suggested that I write a guide to New Zealand, which I've now gone ahead and done (one of the reasons for being a little quiet in blogland of late). It isn't as amusing and edgy as some of the stuff on there, but hopefully will pass muster.

I understand they're putting my 'guide' up within the next month. If possible, I may also eventually serialise some of it here.

Update: my 'guide to New Zealand' is now up on the home page at Road Junky.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Democracy Under All Circumstances?

A very interesting piece in the Economist reports the results of the Latinobarómetro survey, a five-yearly study by a Santiago-based nonprofit research group of Latin Americans' attitudes of to politics and economics.

I haven't had a chance to properly check out the Latinbarometro website itself and some of their links seem to be dead ends, so I'm relying on the Economist's summary. The 2007 survey involved face-to-face interviews with 20,212 people by local opinion-research companies in 18 countries. That doesn't seem very many, and I wonder whether the full diversity of views in, say, Brazil is really captured by a sample of a couple of thousand people.

Nevertheless, the beauty of this survey is that it is repeated regularly, so it shows changes in attitudes over time.

There's a fair spread of views on politics. The countries that most agree with the statement that 'democracy is preferable to any other type of government' are stable, moderate Costa Rica and Urugay. But also high up are Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. The Economist interprets this as reflecting the rise to power in these countries of openly leftist governments that have made a prominent issue of representing previously excluded groups.

In countries with orthodox market economies like Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Peru, the proportion of people favouring democracy is lower, and has actually declined in recent years.

The proportion of people who believe that 'in certain circumstances an authoritarian government can be preferable to a democratic one' is also higher in Peru and Chile (around 20 percent) than in many other countries.

Least likely of all to favour democracy and most amenable to authoritarian role are the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, along with Paraguay. These are among the poorest and most corrupt countries in the region, and the survey results likely reflect despair at the weakness of the state in performing its basic functions. However, there are incresingly favourable attitudes towards democracy in Nicaragua, another country to recently elect an openly leftist leader (Sandinista throwback Daniel Ortega).

For anybody who has followed my previous comments about deep frustration in Peru with the pace of change and the fragility of democracy there, these are borne out by the survey findings
Since 1996, Peru has seen a big drop in people preferring democracy (63 to 47 percent), and an increase in those who support authoritarian rule (from 13 to 22 percent). Peruvians are also second-to-least likely to be satisfied with how democracy is working in their country (ahead of only Paraguay). Less than 20 percent were 'satisfied' or 'very satisfied', down from 30 percent in 1996.

That was in the dark days of the authoritarian rule of the now-despised Fujimori. Back then, a return to full democracy would have appeared to promise much. The current scepticism may well reflect just how little 'responsible change' the Peruvian electorate feels it has seen in the intervening years.