Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Paradoxes of Development Part 1

If I'm asked to think of how life should be, I think of my time in La Antigua, Guatemala. In a valley with a climate of eternal spring, in a town of cobblestone streets with flowers growing from rooftops, I and scores of other backpackers happily wiled away our days studying or teaching in language schools. We drank mojitos and played dominoes with the beautiful daughters of the local oligarchy; relaxed in splendid baroque courtyards full of hanging plants in large ceramic pots; ate delicious late breakfasts of fresh beans and eggs, seasoned with green chili and served by indulgent mestizo matrons.

In the streets, local women in colourful, elaborately woven ponchos sold crafts or plump bocadillos of chicken and avocado. People were friendly and smiled a lot. On Sundays, people gathered to gossip and flirt in the plaza, as the hazy outline of Volcan de Agua hovered over the 17th-century arches. To this day it brings me pleasant memories.

But did not the whole reality of this idyll rest -- from the 16th century to the modern day -- on hierarchy, exploitation and oppression?

Beyond the pretty plazas of Antigua was a polluted capital of slums and rampant crime, a rural hinterland of peasants struggling to subsist on patches of land, rich landlords exporting cash crops on the back of exploited rural labourers. The whole country was still traumatized by a vicious, twenty-year civil war that had seen death squads rampaging through indigenous villages.

Gazing dreamily over the volcanoes from our sunny courtyards as we drank the damn fine coffee, we were inheriting the role of the Spanish colonial elite. Look into almost any critical history of Latin America, and this lot come out the villains. Whether as the first wave of a long line of outsiders tapping the continent's 'open veins'; a corrupt and decadent culture who bequeathed fatalism, supersitition and lethargy to their mestizo descendants; or simply inflexible defenders of privilege who failed to ever achieve political reform, the Spanish tend to get the blame.

And yet...has anyone devised an urban layout more harmonious, an architecture more suited for living; a religion richer in ritual, metaphor and existential comfort, a more seductive blend of music and food and romance?

Compared to Guatemala, New Zealand is an oasis of peace, equitable wealth distribution, transparent government and progressive politics. Despite a few economic hiccups in the past forty years, we're still in the world's twenty 'most developed' countries. We've always been at the forefront: land reform, the vote for women, social welfare programmes, rejection of the nuclear umbrella, civil rights for gay people. We're thirty years into an imperfect but world-leading process to compensate indigenous tribes for historical abuses.

Life should be good, right?

Instead, people are grumpy and bitter that they aren't even better off. The political issues that most excite people are tax cuts are retaining the legal right to hit their kids. There's precious little respect for the life of the intellect. The popular press has nearly scraped right though the bottom of the barrel. Our cities have nothing that is visionary and very little that is even attractive. The slums of third world cities are hardly more depressing, and certainly more colourful, than the surburban monotony of Papakura, Tawa, or Bishopdale. Social interaction is timid and superficial. We go out to bars where we can't hear, and drink until we can't speak. When we win at our favourite sport we feel only relief; when we lose we're plunged into wordless despair. An undercurrent of violence simmers uncomfortably beneath the surface of our society.

Do the most pleasant ways of organising life need to be the province of a privileged elite? Does opportunity to contemplate the volcanoes over a coffee rely on an underclass of peasants slaving in the fields? Does it take antidemocratic tyranny to make the imaginative leap beyond acquiring the next consumer good?

Does equity and progress produce only people envious of each other's imagined advantages, squabbling over their rightful share? Does successful political compromise and the rule of law just produce a nation of NIMBYs? Does beauty, charm and passion require hierarchy, oppression and supersitition? Does development equal banality?

Or could it be that it's all even more complicated than we thought; that there are good things hidden in the middle of the worst systems? That our greatest satisfactions might be our greatest illusions? That we haven't even really started to figure it out?


Simon said...

That reminds me of when I was travelling through Xinjiang, through the south of the Taklamakan with a Uighur friend. We visited Hotan which I thought was truly an amazing place, preserving a lot of the Uighur peoples' culture and way of life. Then we went to Kashgar, which is connected through to China by railway, and which as a result is much more developed. My friend preferred Kashgar as representing the future of his people.

An interesting lesson there for me.

Anonymous said...

Somos lo que somos y como somos, sencillamente porque los problemas en sí mismos nos enseñaron el valor y la alegria que ofrecen las cosas simples de cada día. Cosas que en paises como el tuyo no se encuentran, porque de alguna manera la "perfección", como la comida enlatada, viene pre-fabricada. No creas, yo también extraño la casas de teja de barro y sentarme a tomar mazato (aunque dudo que en Guatemala tomen mazato) en frente de la tienda de algun pueblito de calles coloniales... o de dónde crees que vengo yo?

Paola said...

Ah! y olvide decirte... me trajiste recuerdos de infancia que que estaban muy escondidos. Qué susto... creí que se habían perdido!!

Anonymous said...

Great writing Simon - it's a paradox I feel like printing out your post and pinning it up on my office wall. Pity the Spanish comments are inaccessible to some of us!

Simon Bidwell said...

Thanks for the comments.

Simon: yep, likewise, I've just been talking to a Mexican friend who is intensely proud of the (industrial, westernised or 'agringada') city of Monterrey as the emblem of his country's development.

Paola: to paraphrase, "we are what we are, because our very problems taught us to appreciate the joy of simple everyday things...that you don't have in your country because perfection comes pre-fabricated".


Do we conclude from this that struggle and suffering forges the spirit? But no one would choose needless suffering, and surely our goal is to help others avoid it?

terri said...

It's not all bad...
I got up this morning and jogged to work at the hospital to see my patients (and perform one small operation) I then ran up Mt Eden and looked out over the beautiful view. The bright sun encouraged me to head for the waterfront. As I ran past the coffee shop at Mission Bay I spotted a bunch of my cycling buddies at their regular Sat am post bike ride gathering. I stopped and chatted to catch up. One of my friends who used to ride but just had a baby had brought the baby to visit. (Oh I promise our social interactions are not timid or superficial. The cycling crowd is like a village - some people good, some pains in the ass, some variable...)From there I went past Ferg's kayaks and as it was such a great day for a paddle, jumped in one of their demo kayaks ( I'm allowed cos I know them) and paddled for about 1.5 hrs. This had me recalling my kayak trip of last weekend when Jeremy and I caught 13 snapper (of legal size) from the kayaks. Jem gave one away to someone on the beach who was amazed at our catch. The day before he gave some away to a Korean fisherman who was line fishing off the rocks and had caught nothing. The guy spoke no English but was really grateful.That day ended with me kayaking in watching the sunset over the harbour and then us filleting the fish and making ceviche and sashimi with it and eating some fried. Oh - we had to call up Jeremy's mate Nga who has a huge Rarotongan family to come get some for a feast as we couldn't eat it all.
What does tomorrow bring? Probably a bike ride and definitely another kayak attack on the fish at low tide (10am).
Surely this is living the dream?
Oh - and I have a job to go to next week and I absolutely know I am going to get paid and that most of our equipment works most of the time...

I do take your point on some levels. When I was in China 2 weeks ago I spent time in Beijing, Ji Xian (rural city) and some villages near the Great Wall. The preservation of "village life" there was noted, especially in the rural areas. The public parks were full of people (old and young) playing games of ping pong, basketball and in the early morning full of old people doing exercises and tai chi and laughing and chatting with each other. These things can become lost in a society when everyone has their own house, car and garage door with remote control! Alot of NZders have managed to recreate a village life for ourselves because of group sports or in some cases culture (eg many Maori live in very socially interactive settings and also know how to enjoy the gifts of the forests and the sea - although I know the newspaper would prefer to report on the ones hitting their kids). Plenty of people are very happy and satisfied in NZ, but is just isn't newsworthy.

The Economist (Jan 2007) explored the issue of how much capitalism/growth/money can make us happy: Basically, past a certain threshold (below which there is significant stress) greater incomes do not make us happier. Capitalism tends to turn luxuries into "necessities", ever raising the bar. Relative wealth has a far greater impact on perceived happiness than actual wealth (just being better off than the rest of the village, whether that is Grenwich Village or Huangya Guan). Their conclusion: "Capitalism makes you well off.And it also leaves you free to be as unhappy as you choose. Asking anything more of it would be asking too much."

terri said...

Our Cities...
"Our cities have nothing that is visionary and very little that is even attractive"

I immeditately invite you to come at any time to visit my current hometown of Auckland - city of sails, beaches big and small, boats, bikes, kayaks, the scenic Waitakere ranges..need I go on? Were you just talking about man made attractions/buildings? I'm not sure we need many... we have great views of the harbour from every hill (even most of our workplaces), most of us can get to a beach in less than 20 mins. You can catch a fish off the wharf or 100m out in a kayak. The trail runs I do in the Waitaks are along mindblowingly cool coastal clifftops through flax and toi toi that barely gives up space for a path and reminds me of what it must have been like when the Maori's chased the moa.
I can't comment on Wellington as I don't live there but seem to remember watching the dawn as I ran along Oriental parade on previous visits was pretty nice.
As for Christchurch - certainly the place that could most easily succumb to flat grey boringness - the Sumner area is great and another playground for cycling kayaking and trail running. And they have got a park and a river in midtown. And just to the south in a place you may remember...the tops of the Southern Alps are visible in the distance on a clear day.
Why people choose to live in Tawa or Papakura beats me. I can only guess that they are focussed on other things, prepared to travel further, or simply able to find enough beauty in their own flower gardens.

The sun rises and sets every day, every where. It is hard to find anything more beautiful than the coming and going of the sun over the oceans and the hills. It doesn't really matter whether the buildings are pretty or not. Man just cannot compete with nature on this level. I also loved the Zambesi sunsets, Oh and the ones on Santorini Island just like you liked the ones in Antigua. But I also think that when people are travelling they take more time to look. You can't forget to do it at home too or you will miss them.

Simon Bidwell said...

Terri, thanks for the comments -- I think you have most certainly outdone my original post as far as defining quality of life, as well as providing another perspective. However, you can be sure that I was most certainly not playing down the natural beauty of New Zealand in its myriad permutations -- I invite first post of this 'development' series.

I appreciate how you really make the most of the opportunities around you and maybe wouldn't want to be anywhere else (for people into adventure sports, there are few better places than NZ). On the other hand, I'm not alone in finding that shallow, negative, materialist attitudes are quite pervasive here -- a number of foreign migrants have mentioned that NZers often aren't very interested in engaging beyond a superficial level.

In any case, this wasn't meant to be a put down of NZ. It could equally apply to most other 'developed' places. In some respects it was (in a questioning way) a possible self-critique of myself and others who have similar experiences. What is so charming and attractive about places like Antigua? Could it just be that we enjoy a position of privilege -- inherited from those whose surroundings were designed around a life guarantee of privilege?

I think there is maybe slightly more to it than that, which I will try to explore in some future posts.

Simon Bidwell said...

Ups! Somehow half of the text in that first paragraph was lost. It should have said "I invite you to read my Guide to New Zealand.

Than it said: "I also read that Economist article, and have argued something similar in the first post of this 'development series'.

Then I also mentioned that I was just referring to the man-made aspect of the urban environments, and referred to a post from a couple of years ago on New Zealand towns.

terri said...

Very true and your previous posts are noted. Your observations are not lost on me either and yes, they do refer to the developed world not just us. The Americans I was with in China were suprised to find a laughing chattering people playing games in the parks in the afternoon. They admitted to thinking it would be all dull and depressing as it was a communist country.One of my friends was pondering as to why this apparent enjoyment and community life was not really the case at home. The conclusions we came to: Everyone drives everywhere, then straight into the garage at home at night to their own house. No community interaction there. They aren't free to play ping pong at 5pm 'cos they're still working to pay for all their cars and houses. People are lucky to have time for their spouse and kids. In rural china it's no point working more as you won't be paid more and there isn't much to buy anyway. (Of course the Chinese are hellbent on progress and many absolutely aspire to what we have. There is a saying there which goes "A man is happy when he has a Western house and a Japanese wife who cooks Chinese food".)I'm not sure the happy afternoons will always be the same in Ji Xian. I was however very impressed at how the old people were so fit and all working out at the parks and not marginalized and isolated like they are here.(Losing their license not an issue when they have never had one)
The flip side of that society is the unimaginable grief caused by things like the one child policy when all those only children were killed in the collapsing schools. State employees in China still lose their jobs if they violate the rule and only the wealthy can afford the heavy fines imposed.

New Zealand is not without it's shallow negative and materialistic attitudes. Not as bad here as in the States where you can meet significant numbers of people who really have been brainwashed by marketing and yes, even whole groups prepared to judge their peers and acquaintances primarily by what they have.

My take on it:
Someone (and I'm sorry I have forgotten who...) once said that to be happy a man (or woman)needs:

1. something to do
2. something to love
3. something to hope for.

This is very true. You will note that "something to have" is not listed. And, in my opinion, anything that interferes with one of these fundamentals tends to decrease happiness and stisfaction not increase it.
For example - working so hard to pay for your new cars that you are grumpy with your family and never talk to your wife anymore (taking away something you love). The Chinese 1 child policy violates this rule in a different way. But note that in the first case a choice was made.
At least we have the choice to be as happy as we want.Especially you, who has never even looked like getting sucked into pointless consumerism.

And one last thing:
Alot of cultures are more vibrant than ours. Sometimes this seems to correlate with sunshine... the more dour races in the world seem to live closer to the poles. Sometimes it seems to correlate with development or lack of it as you point out.
In the case of New Zealand I think many people are just quietly happy and satisfied. Because there is no big struggle in the past or present there is not that much need to emphasize it. That makes us much less colorful to the outsider but no less personally happy.