NYT Kristof on the wealthy, the development community–and my additional visceral reactions

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/23/opinion/23kristof.html?WT.mc_id=OP-SM-E-FB-SM-LIN-BBS-092310-NYT-NA&WT.mc_ev=click

I often wonder whether the commitment to the “end of poverty” is more of a ploy to satiate the conscience of the rich and the well-connected for doing development work that actually serves their interest—irrespective of whether such development actually cuts down the rates of poverty in developing nations. Their interest(s) you may ask? Expanding the neoliberal-free trade-corporate-industrial model and the fetish of modern technology as the pill that solves all problems. But it’s precisely not only the physical infrastructure of the system to which so many at the Waldorf-Astoria are tied that is the problem but also it’s the psychic-mental dimensions of this system that represent a sneaky and foreboding cultural imperialism that threatens the diversity of the human experience.

The human experience has personal, communal, ecological/environmental, economic, spiritual/mythological, and the cultural connecting points that fit all of these elements together into a larger tapestry. As for any healthy species that lives (or, in our case, has lived) in a healthy ecosystem; diversity within that species constitutes the foundation by which that species thrives and adapts to the changing environment. The Western development model that the international UN community promotes post-Cartesian scientific rationalism and restructures the logistics of perception (see the work of Paul Virilio) according to industrial mechanization organized around the power of digital computer/information technology. Even where the penetration of the West includes only mobile phones, say in Kenya, to assist pastoralists with communicating the location of safe drinking water for their herds; the fact that these transformations spawn other accidental transformations in their social systems can only be ignored at our peril. Spatial and temporal awareness among peoples that have low levels of literacy and little contact with the daily use of modern languages are shattered in the presence of the most advanced technology. Further attempts, for in this case the Kenyan pastoralists, to integrate these peoples into the broader capitalist economy will invariably break other social-communal links and therefore important sources of meaning for these pastoral communities. The most likely end result after some time of the involvement of the UN, development agencies, prominent Western-led NGOs, the Kenyan government, and international business actors will invariably be the end of the pastoralist lifestyle as the formerly pastoral communities become integrated into the city economies surrounding places like Nairbobi.

During this “development” process; languages, customs, and rituals are lost and something of the human consciousness dies and is extinguished forever. Even if the raw material condition of those impacted by the development program actually improves; the likelihood that indigenous languages (itself a vehicle for a kind of sub-collective consciousness amongst the people who speak and/or write with that language) will be eliminated represents a far greater cost to the treasure and the store of knowledge for humanity as a whole. Westerners themselves culturally and spiritually impoverish themselves even as they expand the potential for the global neoliberal capitalist system to provide new sources of raw materials, markets, and labor for business profits. Diverse ways of being that are not beholden to Western capitalism are eliminated, languages that express a circular and holistic consciousness of time and space succumb to the linearity of the scientific-technological-rationalist constructions of time and space so favorable to Western interests disappear, and the human species evolves slowly into a state of increasing cultural homogeneity at the expense of the diversity and heterogeneity that provides human life with such fecund meaning.

Renowned anthropologist Wade Davis warns greatly about the “cult of development” you see at work at the Waldorf-Astoria and operating in large parts of the impoverished “underdeveloped” world. I do not impugn the motives of most working within the development community, but I merely seek to stand outside of it in order to recognize the shortcomings of this system of thinking. I am asking that people who engage with development policy or are actively involved in the development community simply take a step back and examine some of the underlying assumptions behind the Western scientific worldview and the cultural imperialism therein. Even under the most sensitive of programs designed to meet local needs and employ targeted anti-poverty interventions, the cultural imperialism of the Western model can quietly sneak in undetected. Moreover, I think we need to ask the question about whether the development project organized around these Western ideologies and constructed realities of consciousness can ever really transform human communities into organic entities at harmony with their local and regional ecosystems. After all, the “development” of heavy industry and capitalist exploitation of human labor and natural capital has represented the primary cause of the major ecological problems threatening the future of the humanity—climate change chief amongst these.

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2 Responses to NYT Kristof on the wealthy, the development community–and my additional visceral reactions

  1. C. Makeda H. Moore says:

    Perhaps it is because of my profession, but I’m less worried about the collective cultural treasures of humanity, and more about alleviating individual misery. Would anyone seriously deny the misery of lots of people in the underdeveloped world if they actually had to go live in it as say, a woman with a fistula, for example? Those who crusade against development may be just as self serving as those who are for it. Some people want to go to the museum (preserve the kaleidoscope of human experience for thier viewing pleasure), some want to go shopping (expand markets for thier own purposes)…but I think we need to take a moment and consider what people in these regions want for themselves….

    • Thanks for your comment, and I’m sorry it has taken so long for me to respond. I agree with you that “I think we need to take a moment and consider what people in these regions want for themselves….”; but, I don’t know if the question of further development will remain such a normative concern for long. I think, in the end, that the question will become one of actual hard physical limits and the failure of the faultily-designed system of financialized, exponential industrial growth upon which any significant “development” will occur. I don’t deny that some development can happen–and the rocket stove example to use cleaner-burning home cooking methods comes to minds—but even that project cannot work without input from the people who would buy the rocket stoves.

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