Ideas and Reflections by the MPhil Development Studies Students
On May 4th, Kevin Seely, assistant cooridnator of the Donor Committee for Enterprise Development (DCED) came to share some tips on getting a career in development. Kevin attended the MPhil Development Studies in Cambridge few years ago and took the time to compile the thoughts of past MPhil Alumni to share with us. It was very interesting to hear what past students have learned and would have done differently. Kevin also introduced us to the work of the DCED. The Committee has an internship opportunity available for the summer that you should really look into.
Kevin was so kind to make the slides of his presentations available here. Enjoy!
by Kari Jacobsen
I’ve taken off to Mexico in every vacation during this course. I’ve managed to write about Mexico in every essay I have handed in (without realizing it myself). Sometimes I’m sure my friends in the course get very tired of hearing of Mexico and must think it’s the only thing on my mind (which it pretty much is).
The reactions I get when I say I’m going (again) almost always includes “Oh how nice. Enjoy the beach and the sun!” but also often an “is it safe?” or “now that’s a messed up place”. The violence that has been ravaging Mexico over the past few years has not gone by unnoticed. The view of Mexico as a tropical paradise has been invaded by the fear of violence that seems to be increasingly out of control and is now keeping tourists away from popular vacation spots. When I started my undergraduate studies in Latin American studies four years ago, no one was talking about ‘the violence’ in Mexico. There was an awareness of the growing importance of Mexico in the illegal drug trade, but for those interested in this issue, Colombia and Bolivia were still more important.
Since Thursday, May 5th, an 80 kilometer March against Violence started in Mexico, culminating in a large-scale protest against violence in Mexico City on Sunday May 8th. Civil society, as expressed through various media and campaigns, is ‘fed up’ with ‘the violence’. I can’t help but wonder, what is ‘the violence’ really? Did some bad people suddenly decide to start killing innocent people who just happen to cross their paths? I also wonder, what is civil society and what is its role in the changes that must necessarily take place in Mexico in the near future?
First of all, one must address the core issues facing Mexico at the moment. It makes no sense to discuss ‘the violence’ without addressing its underlying causes. There is now decades of experience in Latin American countries of the War on Drugs. For decades the USA has refused to see the issue of illegal drugs as a demand-side problem, but has focused on the supply-side. The USA established military bases in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia to fight the production of cocaine leaving the countries for destination countries in Europe and North America. It was accepted that if a plane flying under the radar did not respond, it was shot down. It happened on several occasions that innocent civilians were killed. In Peru, Fujimori was elected president in 1990 largely on the promise to end the violence associated with the guerrilla group Shining Path. The group was connected to illegal drug production and export to finance its activities. With brutal military force and US help, he was able to do this. As is well known, the case of Colombia and the FARC has been much less of a success story. Overall, considering the fact that the War on Drugs attacking the production side of the illegal drug industry has been going on for three decades, it cannot be characterized as anything but a failure. A failure which has cost great human suffering.
In the case of Mexico, it might be tempting to use similar tactics to deal with the issue of illegal drugs. However, Mexico presents one crucial difference that cannot be ignored; the 3169 kilometer long border with the USA. Mexico has for a long time been the entry point into the USA for illegal drugs originating in Andean production countries. It is evident that issues surrounding illegal drugs and resulting violence in Mexico is not a purely domestic one. Mexico is a crucial link between strong demand in the USA and production in various Latin American countries. It presents extremely lucrative opportunities. These opportunities are linked to two issues; the existence of other opportunities and the illegal nature of the drug industry.
Illegal drug trade, particularly cocaine, is extremely lucrative. From small-scale coca-leaf farming to street sale in a major US city, there is good profit to be made in every part of the value chain. The profit also increases with the risk higher up in the value chain. Given the lack of alternatives in Latin American countries, very few options can compare. People do not enter into the illegal drug industry because they are less moral or more evil than other people. They enter into it because of a lack of real options. With the pressures of competition that builds up as more people enter into it, the fact that the industry cannot be regulated is the major issue. Given the illegal status of the industry, competition will be cut-throat. Literally. With the extreme profit opportunities up for grabs, it is no surprise to see rivaling cartels engage in violent confrontation over territories and market access.
Mexico lacks opportunities that can compete with the illegal drug industry. People cannot be expected to willingly enter into the extreme precariousness of the informal sector if there is a more lucrative alternative. A lack of opportunities in the formal sector pushes more and more people into illegal activities. This issue is one Mexico can begin to address domestically. Unfortunately, president Calderon has done nothing of the sort. In fact, he has only exacerbated the problems. Calderon’s election in 2006 was hotly contested, to say the least. In a move similar to that of Fujimori of Peru, he might have felt the need to justify his position by showing real strength and determination; he took on the War on Drugs and sent in the army. However, what he might have expected to be a relatively easy battle has turned into a nightmare, with the people now turning against him and demanding an end to the violence.
The issue of legalization needs to be addressed. This problem can only be addressed internationally. The USA has played two important roles in the illegal drug industry. The USA became the most important market through a stable, strong demand. However, it also led the international War on Drugs through United Nations initiatives. All of the major UN conventions on illegal drugs were mainly shaped by the USA, most importantly the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961. This clearly sends mixed signals; ‘American values’ do not seem to correspond to the American reality. It is easier to blame others for offering something illegal to you than it is to deal with your own addiction. Suffice to say that legalization can make regulation (and government taxation) possible and will most likely result in a fall in prices and thus a fall in the extremely high profits. This will make it possible not only to regulate competition between cartels, which might reduce the direct violence. It will also be less lucrative to enter into the industry. However, in the short term, it seems very unlikely that the USA will let reality change its values.
What is the role for civil society in ending the violence in Mexico? “Civil Society” is at the heart of the protests against the violence – but aren’t the cartels also part of civil society? In Gramscian terms, the cartels might actually form an extremely strong and quite successful counter-hegemony against the power of the state. This might not be in terms of a concrete ideology or common cause, but the cartels successfully question the authority of the state, which seems weaker by the minute. It is a mistake to see civil society as something inherently good or positive for social change. Given recent events in the Middle East, civil society is very fashionable. But its role in social change should not be exaggerated, particularly in the current Mexican situation. I talked to a leading blogger and civil society ‘activist’ in Mexico last month, and he told me about how he tried to get people to ‘reclaim the streets’ and not hide away in their houses when bullets are flying in cities that used to be safe. This lack of understanding of the underlying issues might potentially only make things worse and put more lives in danger.
The solution is in the much, much bigger picture, which civil society is a part of, no doubt. But it would be naïve to think that marches against the violence will fix things. There is an urgent need to address broad domestic economic and social policies and the political climate in general. However, not even this is a picture that is large enough. The role of the USA cannot be left out of a real solution, however discouraging this may sound. However, this role is not military, it is not a continuation of the War on Drugs. Rather, what is needed is a complete reassessment of the US relation to illegal drugs and its role in this global value chain.
By protesting, marching, and tweeting against violence, civil society is merely fighting the symptoms, not the disease. It is paramount that ‘civil society’ understands the underlying causes of the suffering they are experiencing. It is also paramount that civil society uses its powers as political society and fights for a change in policy in the presidential elections next year.
by Zach Warner
I’ve hemmed and hawed over writing this post, largely because the critique I make is of an essay whose author is a good friend and colleague of mine. Writing on the Cambridge MPhil Development Studies Blog, Mike has passionately argued the case for neo-liberalism in three parts. he does so not for ideological or intellectual support of the ideas themselves but rather for his belief in thinking freely. Perceiving a heterodox slant in the Cambridge DevStudies Committee, Mike has taken the position simply as a way of keeping himself from being indoctrinated. For that, I commend him.
That said, I’m compelled to write a response to a number of points. Though not necessarily heterodox, I do not find the neo-liberal (NL) argument convincing. The rest of this post will outline why.
Perhaps neoliberalism’s greatest failing is that it has developed an ossifying ideology that no longer heeds the advice of people outside its political and academic circle. This has stifled critical debate and broad based thinking causing neoliberals and their institutions to fall into groupthink. Unfortunately, I believe our course, with its lack [of] neoliberal counter criticisms, is falling into the same trap.
This is problematic in that Mike’s critique of the department is that it has an overzealous focus on ripping apart NL. If this is the case, how can the lectures be said to mimic NL in that they “no longer [heed] the advice of people outside [their] political and academic circle”? Mike’s position is revealed in his titling of the post: a “defense” of NL is only required if it is under attack. The two positions are logically incompatible.
Disregarding this incongruence, many would take issue with the claim that the “greatest failing” of NL is developing an “ossifying ideology.” The problem is not that the ideology exists per se, but rather that it is used as a mechanism of power, a rhetorical and economic program to enforce policies that actually hinder development. If this is the case, the challenge can hardly be levied that development from a heterodox perspective makes the same error.
Much of neoliberalism’s rise can be attributed to a paradigm shift in economic thinking that occurred during the 1970s. This shift was not the result of some political coup; rather it was the result of an honest assessment of facts.
…Read the rest on Zach Warner’s Blog
by Mike Doyle
In Defense of Neoliberalism: Part I
We have all spent the past sixth months learning about how bad neo-liberalism is. Unfortunately, we have heard comparatively little from the other side. If neo-liberalism is to stand trial, it deserves a good defense as well as a good prosecution. This is why I have attempted to issue a defense of neoliberalism. What you are about to read are not necessarily my views. However, I think it is important to describe the thinking of the neoliberalism since we have, in my opinion, received very little of it in our course. Before I begin however, I want to state a few reasons why reading an article like this is important even if you have already made up your mind on this issue.
Perhaps neoliberalism’s greatest failing is that it has developed an ossifying ideology that no longer heeds the advice of people outside its political and academic circle. This has stifled critical debate and broad based thinking causing neoliberals and their institutions to fall into groupthink. Unfortunately, I believe our course, with its lack neoliberal counter criticisms, is falling into the same trap. I fundamentally believe that very smart people can make themselves very stupid by failing to consider views outside their already established ideology.
Regrettably, this happens far too often because ideologies are very tempting to adopt. It is very uncomfortable to honestly assess contrary views and come to the conclusion that what you thought you knew was wrong. Moreover, becoming part of a political or intellectual “team” is very reassuring. It isn’t often recognized that learning and scholarship are social activities, but they very much are. It feels good to associate with people, publications, and organizations that think as you do. It is equally difficult to reject these associations when you change your views. Just as leaving your job, your hometown, or a club comes with social costs, so can changing your ideological beliefs. While you won’t be cast into the streets by your free-market friends because you became a socialist, the social bonds that used to connect you to your old buddies can become frayed.
Another reason why adopting an ideology proves tempting is because it makes thinking much easier. Without such intellectual rubrics, it becomes much harder to take a stance on an issue or formulate propositions. Without an ideology, we find ourselves in a nebulous space always questioning facts and suppositions and unable to come to any clear conclusions. The constant feeling of “I don’t know” plagues us. To be sure, this is not a bad place to be, intellectually speaking, but it certainly isn’t comfortable. It feels much better when we “know” the right answer and are able to ascertain the “true” facts. This is probably why so many smart people have caved in to ideologies over the years even though ideology has long been known to stifle thinking and lead to poor decision-making. This is also the reason why you should endeavor to consider the other side’s view, irritating as it may be.
Now, enough of my pontificating and on to Neoliberalism.
Why Neoliberalism Reigns
The first thing I want to cover about neoliberalism is why it rose to preeminence in the first place. It is often portrayed as if neoliberalism came into being solely because of a political shift in rich countries. This is normally illustrated with the election of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. While this is not entirely false, it is an oversimplification. Much of neoliberalism’s rise can be attributed to a paradigm shift in economic thinking that occurred during the 1970s. This shift was not the result of some political coup; rather it was the result of an honest assessment of facts.
What happened in the 1970s that so changed economic thinking? Basically, a series of policy failures that resulted from the attempt to control the economic crises of that decade. For example, interventionist policies instituted by US President Richard Nixon, such as price controls, failed to produce the expected results.
Secondly, predictions made by Milton Friedman were actually born out in the stagflation that gripped the US economy in the late 1970s. Before this time, mainstream economists thought that rising inflation AND rising unemployment were impossible. After this intellectual coup, Friedman and the Chicago school went on to produce a lot of highly regarded work that quickly rose to the forefront of the economic community.
Thirdly, ISI and state-led economic policies started to be perceived as failures, even if a few countries were doing relatively well under ISI. Many of these policies were also plagued by corruption and political favoritism. Moreover, these policies were extremely expensive and were leading to fiscal and balance of payments crises in many developing countries. In the opinion of many, these interventionist policies were driving many poor countries into bankruptcy.
In addition to several policy failures, there was a profound methodological change that occurred in the economic community in the last decades of the 20th century. A new wave neoliberal economists began using sophisticated econometric methods to “prove” that their theories were right. While many of these econometric studies had flaws, their sophistication has impressed many observers. Moreover, the other side has not been able to amass nearly as much convincing econometric evidence as the neoliberal side has. This superiority in econometric evidence has probably been neoliberalism’s most effective tool for silencing its critics
Finally, the ailing communist economies, the final collapse of the USSR, and China’s move towards a more market-oriented policies seemed to convince the public that neoliberalism was right after all. It was these changes, not some political counterrevolution that secured neoliberalism’s preeminence.
In Defense of the Communist Transition
We have often heard that transition to communism, while politically liberating, was economically devastating. I will not attempt to defend the “big bang” or “shock therapy” policies of the early 1990s. There seems to be a consensus that a gradual transition would have been better. However, I would like to challenge the supposition that only Poland emerged from the transition wealthier than it came in. In fact, Hungry, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia were all close to, or above their 1989 GDP numbers. The Baltic States also did very well from 2000 until the current financial crises. Even so, there is no doubt that the transition was extremely difficult, but there is reason to be suspicious of the numbers we are often presented with. Here is why:
by Mike Doyle
In Defense of Conditionality
Conditionality is perhaps the most frequently cited criticism of the World Bank and the IMF. Critics argue that such conditions exacerbate poverty and have little to do with loan repayment. It is also implied that conditionality is used to further rich-country interests at the expense of the poor. Let me offer some counterpoints to these views.
For starters, no nation HAS TO take an IMF or World Bank loan. The fact that most continue to take them implies that countries are better off with the loan, conditionalties and all, then without it.
Another point is that countries often don’t meet the conditionality agreements anyway. In fact, Easterly has found that there seems to be little correlation between meeting the conditions of a loan and whether a borrower receives subsequent loans. This implies that there are few repercussions for failing to meet conditions.
Some critics seem to imply that conditionality is unique to the World Bank and IMF. In fact, conditions are often placed on loans that occur between countries, between banks and companies, and between banks and individuals. The counterpoint to this argument is that the conditions imposed by the IFIs go beyond what is required for loan repayment. However, this stance is open to interpretation. Broadly speaking, any policy that affects economic growth affects the ability of the country to pay back the loan and, more importantly, reduce the chances that the borrowing country will need to be bailed out in the future. Under this broad interpretation, almost any policy can be a legitimate conditionality if it is believed to have a positive effect on economic growth and/or reduce the chances of fiscal or balance of payments crises.
My final defense of conditionality is that we should not be so naïve. Indeed, many of the “conditions” set by the IFIs would have occurred anyway. Countries in severe crises often have to make painful budget cuts. It should be no surprise that it proves very politically convenient to blame the IFIs for these cuts. As mentioned before, there doesn’t seem to be strong repercussions for ignoring loan conditions. This calls into question the idea that countries were somehow strong-armed into certain policies. More likely, the IFIs provided the political scapegoat needed to push tough policies into practice.
In Defense of the IMF
Firstly, I would like to say that the IMF is not a development agency. It is responsible for the stability of the global financial and currency system. Therefore, we should not judge it by the standards of, say, the World Bank, which is a development agency. The fact that these two organizations work so closely together is a situation that continues to boggle my mind. If I were the World Bank, I would stay very far away from the IMF for reasons I am about to make clear.
The IMF is the bad guy. In fact, it is supposed to be the bad buy. Getting bailed out by the IMF is not supposed to be easy. If it was, we would have a situation of moral hazard were countries could maintain unsustainable policies because they could always run to the IMF for help.
Another issue to consider is the true intent of IMF policies. I question how much an IMF loan is really supposed to help the actual borrower. In fact, I think the loan is really intended to prevent an economic crisis from spreading through contagion and beggar thy neighbor policies. The IMF is less like a rescue worker responding to an emergency, and more like a doctor trying maintain quarantine. This may be the reason why the IMF seems so callous to it borrowers, it is less worried about them, and more worried about the other countries that may be affected by a crisis.
Another criticism of the IMF is that it pressures nations into paying back foreign creditors first even at the expense of social programs. However, there is justification for this action. If countries continually default on their foreign debt their cost of borrowing will skyrocket and they will have to have to be continually bailed out by the IMF. Secondly, when the IMF conducts a bailout it does not go in alone. It teams up with other lenders. In order for these lenders to want to team up with the IMF, the IMF has to have a credible history that its lending partners get paid back after a lending action. Without this credibility the IMF will not attract partnering lenders and its ability to confront future crises will be curtailed.
In Defense of TRIPS
TRIPS has come under withering criticism because it is believed to have made certain drugs unaffordable for the poor people who need them most. It should be noted that TRIPS is not necessarily neoliberal. In fact, most independent observers seem to think that it was a mistake. Although TRIPS is indeed a hard issue to defend, I will do my best. My first defense is that we should not at one moment criticize the pharmaceutical industry for investing more into erectile dysfunction medication than anti-malarial drugs, and at the same time lambast them when they try to recoup the investment they have made on medications for the poor. If we want the pharmaceutical industry to put its formidable resources towards the fight against AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis we should not expect them to do it for free. Better that governments fund research in these vital areas and/or reimburse pharmaceutical companies when they do develop medications that serve the poor.
Another defense of TRIPS extends beyond the industry of pharmaceuticals. Poor countries often complain that TRIPS makes certain technologies unaffordable even though they are vital for the economic development of poor nations. While I can be sympathetic to this view, I help but notice that the poor countries are not entirely innocent either. The United States loses billions of dollars every year due to piracy of entertainment media. This intellectual property is not vital for development, in fact it may do just the opposite. Yet, many countries, even wealthy ones, do almost nothing to stop it. Many people think that such piracy only affects the ultra-rich movie and rock stars. But look at any movie credit, there are literally hundreds of people who participate in the making of a feature film. These people are not rich, yet piracy affects them deeply.
Furthermore, many wealthy countries have seen their manufacturing sector shrink because of developing country competition. As a result, their comparative advantage has shifted towards “knowledge” products. As this knowledge sector becomes more economically vital, it will become increasingly difficult for us to ask the rich countries to give away their knowledge products for free.
If countries want to repeal TRIPS, they should give a little in order to get a little. They should start protecting intellectual property that has no impact on development and in return they can be granted affordable access to those technologies that affect health, education, poverty, and economic growth.
by Mike Doyle
In Defense of Rich Countries
We have heard a lot about how the rich countries have hurt the poor. Indeed, many of their actions over the years have done damage. However, I can think of no other time in human history when there has been so much genuine effort by so many powerful countries to assist and empower less powerful ones. In the past, more powerful nations just used to conquer or colonize weaker states. In contrast, there has been over a trillion dollars transferred to the developing world in the last 50 years. To be sure, that money came with strings but in most cases it was given out of a genuine desire to help the downtrodden of the world.
Another often-voiced criticism is that rich countries almost entirely control the World Bank and the IMF. This is true, but it should be remembered that is because the World Bank and the IMF are almost entirely funded by rich countries. It is rich country money, why should we be surprised if they attempt to control how it is spent. After all, most rich countries have voters to answer to. These voters have a justifiable interest that their tax dollars are being well used.
Additionally, these organizations are maintained mostly for the benefit of poor countries. I am not sure how much rich countries actually gain through the IMF and the World Bank. I doubt that the IMF has the resources to bailout a large economy such as Japan, the US, or the UK. It is not as if rich countries aren’t fully capable of making bi-lateral loans and using their own development agencies. To be sure, most wealthy countries do engage in this type of activity. However, if rich countries exclusively spent development dollars this way, they would have far more control and flexibility than they do when they spend indirectly through the IFIs. To think that the IFIs are a major tool of rich country power is laughable. It is much easier for them to go it alone. I think wealthy states use the IFIs because it gives an aura of multi-lateral legitimacy and because wealthy countries realize that development is a long-term project and cannot be compromised by the election cycles of wealthy nations.
More worryingly, there seems to be a common perception that the people who staff the IFIs are rich-country infiltrators who want to sabotage up and coming poor nations. To be sure, I have not encountered this in academic work, but some conspiracy theorists types seem to imply this in the pop literature. I find this very sad because although the staff of the IFIs may be wrong or misguided, it is hard to believe that they are diabolical. In fact, I looked into working for the World Bank until I saw what a PhD economist made there. Although the World Bank is able to recruit some of the best young economists in the world, their pay is a half to a third of what a top-level economist would make on Wall Street. These men and women chose to work at the World Bank because they are genuinely interested in helping the world’s poor. Stiglitz, who worked at the World Bank and has since been a critic of the IFIs, has acknowledged this as well. It is important that critics distinguish between bad policy and bad people. Ad hominem attacks do little to move the debate forward..
Another fact, not often acknowledged, is that some residents of wealthy countries have lost a lot to developing countries. The West pumped billions of dollars into non-communist East Asia, provided a blanket of security protection, permitted the transmission of technology, and maintained a position of asymmetric trade favoring these countries. This, often unrecognized, part of the East Asian miracle was done in order to strengthen these countries against communism.
Unfortunately, while the West supported the East Asian Miracle, the rise of developing countries deeply hurt some Western workers. My region of the United States, the Midwest, was particularly devastated by the rise of East Asia. My town used to be populated by steel mills and auto factories. Since the rise of low cost foreign competition, however, most of these factories have been shut leaving many without jobs. My state’s population is shrinking fast and some commentators have talked about the “dying” Midwest for the past 20 years. The American Midwest has not been the only place hurt because of the rise of East Asia. Northern England and other regions of Europe have seen their manufacturing jobs disappear as well.
Development specialists should remember this when they lambast wealthy countries for protecting intellectual property and for not pursuing more asymmetric trade. In the past, many rich country residents have been hit hard by the West’s efforts to help poor nations. Even though the West as a whole has benefited from the rise of poor countries, the many who have been hurt have become politically active and justifiably so.
In Defense of Free traders
A lot of criticism has been heaped on free traders some of it justified, much of it not. In fact, many criticisms of free trade are really criticisms against protectionists who have either been labeled free traders or have adopted its guise.
There is a historical criticism of free trade that essentially says that European nations forced free trade on their colonies leading to these countries de-industrialization. This is a disputable point. What the Europeans often did was force mercantilism on their colonies. They often made laws prohibiting the production and manufacture of certain products under the guise of “comparative advantage.” However, if the colonizers were really interested in comparative advantage they would not have needed to institute such regulations in the first place. Unfortunately, the colonizers true motive was not free-market at all; it was to protect home country manufacturing interests who did not want to deal with competitors in the colonies. If the colonizers really wanted to uphold the principles of free trade and free markets they would have permitted their colonies to develop their own industries and tradecrafts.
Another criticism that seems to implicate free traders is the criticism against rich country tariffs and subsidies. The fact that free traders continue to get implicated in these policies continues to confound me. In defense of academics, I normally encounter this type of argument in the popular media, not journal articles. I assume I don’t need to explain in any great detail that rich country agricultural subsidies and tariffs against manufactured goods are the antithesis of free trade. The fact that rich countries continue to pursue these policies is not because they are neoliberal, but because they are not neoliberal enough.
In Defense of Democracy
We have had many discussions about one of the central tenet s of liberalism: democracy. We have debated whether it causes or is the cause of development. We talked about how efficient it is and whether it adequately addresses the needs of the very poor. However, I think we have glossed over one of the chief strengths of democracy: its ability to create a marketplace of ideas. In a democracy, new ideas have the ability to come into being, propagate, and put into practice. Just as evolution works to select the best traits to suit a given environment, so does the market place of ideas allow the best ideas to come to the fore. To be sure, this is a slow process full of trial and error, but it does allow societies to adapt effectively to an ever-changing environment. At the beginning of the paper, I talked about the dangers of an ossifying ideology. This danger takes on new heights in an intellectual environment where criticisms and views cannot be freely expressed. I believe the USSR collapsed precisely because there was not a fair exchange of ideas, it was not able to adapt until it was far to late. The following vignette is an example of what can happen when there is no marketplace for ideas:
After the reality of the devastation brought about by the Great Leap Forward came to Chairman Mao’s attention, he issued a very interesting statement. To paraphrase, he said that the great Chinese famine would have never occurred in a democracy because the devastation caused by the agricultural reform would have been brought to attention much earlier. Because there was no free press and tolerance of criticism was low, Chinese bureaucrats were able to keep publishing inflated numbers about rice production even though production had been falling. The Chinese government continued to believe these inflated projections until the truth could no longer be ignored. Unfortunately, 20 million people died before this happened. What is more unfortunate is that Mao did not continue his brief flirtation with democracy.
I want to reiterate that I don’t necessarily believe in all of the counter criticisms that I have just written about. In fact, the more I learn the less certain I am about anything. There have been many occasions when I have discovered that a purported fact is really a hotly debated topic in some obscure academic circle. Yet, we often talk about the world as if we know for certain much of anything in the social sciences.
Even so, I think it is important to take into account the views of the other side as they often have good points to make. I have witnessed far too many people isolate themselves into an ideological bubble where the only way to view the other side is as evil. As a consequence they cut themselves off from viewpoints that really are useful.
If you made it this far, thank you for taking my time to read this essay.
by Linda Westberg
Community tourism has existed for a long time, but it is receiving increasing attention as many travellers attempt to become more ethical and responsible. In development circles, it is often heralded as an attractive alternative economic income generator, which can supplement a community’s traditional activities. However, others are sceptical, viewing it as a potential destructive force which can cause the degeneration of traditional ways of life and the materialisation of culture, or in poorly administered cases, the ‘prostitution’ of culture. Community tourism is a highly complex issue, which can be hugely beneficial, but also quitedamaging, and therefore needs to be planned and administered with care and precision.It is often difficult to separate the good operations, which directly benefit communities, from the bad, which tend to take advantage of the local population. Hopefully, Grassroots Journeys will help you make informed decisions about your travel destinations, which will allow you to positively contribute to a community’s economy, environment and culture, whilst minimising your impact.
Community tourism has fantastic potentials, in that it can allow for income generation, as well as environmental and cultural conservation. However, tourism can also have negative impacts, as objects and ideas brought from the ‘outside’ create conflicts with traditional activities and beliefs. Of course, cultures are not stagnant, and change is natural, but tourism, if administered irresponsibly, can either speed up this process of change, or introduce negative elements into the otherwise natural process.
Remote communities, and those of us who wish to support them, are in a difficult position. While many of us will be inclined to want to ‘protect’ or ‘conserve’ these groups, leaving them ‘pristine’ without influence from the outside world, we really have no right to do so, unless it is what the group specifically wants. Of course, if a group wishes to be left alone, we should do everything we can to respect that. However, my experience is that once the concept of money is introduced, most groups will want to participate in the economy in some way or another. Community tourism is often perceived as a non-intrusive way to engage in the economy while still maintaining their traditional ways of life.
Unfortunately, change and outside influence is inevitable in most parts of the world, including the jungles of the Amazon and Borneo. Unless the world changes its ways drastically, there is little we can do to stop it. What we can do, however, it ensure that these people are prepared and equipped, thereby able to choose how they wish to engage in the economy (which is inevitably going to include them in one way or another) rather than be included in a way others choose, for example through logging or oil or gas exploration. This preparation can ensure that interactions with outside forces is done on their terms, and ensure that it brings benefits to the whole community, rather than just a few individuals.
For this reason, we have chosen to only promote those communities which are already receiving visitors in some capacity. For the visitor, this means that the community is able to offer a more predictable service, and have an understanding of what travellers may want. More importantly, it means that the community is already prepared for the influences of outside visitors, and has already chosen to engage in the formal economy.
Numerous small remote communities which have hardly ever received any visitors have in the past asked us to promote them as a community tourism destination. Each time, we have politely declined. While they are free to engage in whatever activity they choose, and while change and outside influence is likely inevitable, we at Grassroots Journeys do not wish to be personally responsible for these changes.
I wish some areas of the world were immune to change and outside influence, and that some groups, who are honestly some of the happiest people I have ever met, could just be left alone and continue living the way they always have. The pessimist in me sees the destruction of their way of life as inevitable, but I have chosen, through Grassroots Journey’s selection policy, to not personally contribute to that destruction.
Does that mean that I see community tourism as necessarily destructive? Not really. In many instances, I see it as a great opportunity for groups to showcase their natural and cultural heritage, learn from other cultures and gain an income through maintaining their traditions. I see it as the lesser of many potential evils, where if groups are going to be forced into engaging with the outside world and economy, community tourism is better than the alternatives, which often include logging and oil or gas exploration. These latter activities may bring an income in the short term, but irreversibly destroy the land that many traditional groups are inextricably linked to, and therefore destroys not only the environment, but also the culture and way of life of thousands of people. In these scenarios, community tourism is a relatively nonintrusive way to make the money that is now necessary for survival, but without destroying their surroundings and way of life.
Again, if communities are actively engaged in the development and administration of community tourism, they are able to engage in the economy on their own terms, and to the extent that they choose, rather than being taken advantage of by multinational oil companies (or large scale tourism operations, for that matter).
It’s important to remember that the impact (positive or negative) of community tourism depends as much on the visitor, as it does on the community itself. As a ‘community tourist’ you should do your best to minimise your impact by for example respecting local customs, limiting the amount of objects you bring with you, and leaving nothing behind.
My hope is that, through Grassroots Journeys, we can create an international community of informed and ethical travellers who will support the fantastic community tourism initiatives that are featured on this website, contributing to intercultural understanding, economic diversification and environmental and cultural sustainability. If we can remember to be aware of the issues that tourism can create, and remember what a privilege it is to visit some of these places, we can make community tourism a far greater economic, cultural and environmental force that will benefit communities and travellers alike.
Linda is an MPhil student and the director of Grassroots Journeys, wwww.grassrootsjourneys.org.
Note the shout out to development studies…