Friday, December 9, 2016

Trojan Horse Aid

I recently read a book called Trojan Horse Aid, in which an anthropologist and longtime worker in the field of economic development (Susan Walsh) describes how local cultural traits that promote the resilience of people's livelihoods can be undermined by processes of donor-led economic development.  The book has elements of travelogue, as the author weaves in her original participant-observer notes where needed to illustrate a point.  (Though it is nothing like another book I've been reading recently called 8 feet in the Andes about an Irishwoman and her daughter hiking Pizarro's trail in the 1980s, which despite being set in the same general geographic region and also a good read in its own way, is more focused on humorous outsider observations, occasional bits of condescending colonialism yearning for the good old days before agrarian reform, and a morbid fascination with making sweeping cultural generalizations about the taciturn, stoic Indians vs. the wily, aggressive mestizos.)

Trojan Horse Aid is a carefully done, epistemologically honest, self-aware anthropological analysis of outside development aid in a remote area of the southern Andes with very strong indigenous culture and customs.  The book's thesis is essentially that, while modern agricultural practices and increased integration into national and global markets may increase income (and thus wellbeing) in the short term in such communities, these modern processes also inherently discredit and undercut local, indigenous practices for managing the landscape and local society.  Given the fragile, ever-changing conditions of the local Andean ecosystem, the modern practices ultimately fail, such that their economic benefits disappear, but now the pre-existing system has been weakened or forgotten, leaving the population less resilient than before, less able to respond to the ecological and socioeconomic conditions of their surroundings.

A subsidiary theme that I found fascinating was the idea of problem-based development vs. asset-based development.  The former approach is one that I and most other development experts tend to use.  We look at what is wrong in a community, or a country, or even in a global system, and then try to figure out how to fix it.  (Walsh also describes this approach as "dipstick development"; more on this later).  In the best of cases this assessment occurs hand-in-hand with the people themselves that are directly affected by the problem, and who will be most affected by the solution.  But ultimately it is centered on lacks, and can easily lead to our focusing so much on what's missing or deficient in a community that we fail to see its strengths and assets, or what's worse, to believe that it has no positive qualities whatsoever to draw on in its own development.  Conversely, an asset-based development model would look first and foremost at a community's strengths, at what it does well already, in order to guide future development processes while avoiding damage to the very strengths you want to build on.  On a technical level, you probably should use a bit of both approaches, building on already-present strengths while seeking to overcome existing problems.  But given the dynamics of history, power, and cultural framing that are inevitably part of any development project that brings together outside "experts" with a local "needy" community, I agree with the author that we would all do well to actively affirm a community's strengths as a way of reshaping the prevailing narrative of lack- or problem-based development, which ultimately makes communities less empowered to take on and own their own processes of development.

By the way, this dynamic of outside experts promoting inappropriate models that both undermine resilience and disempower local communities can come from the Left just as much as from the Right; Walsh details both radical Marxist and progressive groups and assistentialist Christian fundamentalists who in varying degrees employ the same flawed approaches to development in her Andean region of study.

Lastly, and perhaps most shockingly to those of us who highly value the written word, Walsh's analysis calls into question much of the orthodoxy regarding literacy.  She argues very coherently that what keeps indigenous Bolivians and many others the world over in poverty, is not their ability or inability to read, but rather the power dynamics that keep them from exercising political power or accessing productive resources.  People suffer not from illiteracy, but from "poverty, scarcity, and hegemony".  Their illiteracy is more a symptom of their poverty, not a cause of it.  Furthermore, the people Walsh profiles are in fact profoundly literate when it comes to reading landscapes and ecosystems, a skill lacking in most of the rest of us (the lack of which will very possibly lead to our ultimate demise as a species), but currently a skill disparaged and unvalued because it is held by a group that isn't valued by the status quo.

I guess I have to agree with Walsh's argument that book literacy is not necessarily the panacea many of us hold it to be.  If so, we need to temper our almost religious regard of literacy as a universal, unambiguous boon.  She criticizes what she describes as the "dipstick model" of literacy, similar to the dipstick model of development, which posits that people are poor and wretched because of some lacking factor that, if properly measured (as by a dipstick), can be filled and thus resolve their problems.  (A quick aside--Walsh cites one of my heroes and the namesake of my youngest son, Paulo Freire, as a major critic of the dipstick model of education and literacy, but points out that Freire was often uncritical of his own reverence for literacy as a tool for liberation and empowerment).  Walsh rightly argues that the dipstick conception of literacy or any other purported cause of poverty implicitly justifies class stratification and inequality as simply the natural result of sorting processes, whereby those deficient in the valued factor are left behind.  The patent incoherence of such thinking is made manifest by a few simple examples.  In societies like the US or Colombia with widespread literacy, there still exist yawning socioeconomic divides that will not be resolved by all the reading and writing in the world.  Conversely, even the elite in cultures like that of Homer's Greece were largely illiterate, but that didn't stop them from enjoying the fruits of power, nor from edifying sophisticated, developed societies.

If this sounds a bit extreme to my readers, let me make a similar and perhaps less controversial analogy.  The fact that many indigenous Andeans don't speak Spanish is often cited as a proximate cause for their poverty.  Not speaking the dominant language sets them back as far as job opportunities, education, and even just being accepted as "normal" or "desireable" by mestizos in social or professional settings.  But this is only a proximate, superficial description of the situation.  We know that there are billions of people in the world that don't speak Spanish, and many of them are doing just fine economically and politically.  So the issue isn't that the Aymara language is somehow innately causative of poverty (this sounds absurd when I say it this way, since it seems so obvious, but it's important to clearly make the point).  No, the root cause of Aymara-speakers' poverty is that Bolivian society is organized in a million ways to favor Spanish-speakers and to disadvantage indigenous people.  Given this state of affairs, learning Spanish will not change the lot of most indigenous Bolivians.  The only thing that will do that is a profound political change whereby indigenous people are given an equal say in how society is run and how resources are distributed.  In the same way then, literacy or the lack thereof is not the determining factor in social arrangements that perpetuate inequality, political disempowerment, and economic poverty.  

Okay, so far so good.  But here is Walsh's really revolutionary claim about literacy:  maybe learning to read can actually harm a community in some ways.  In the same way that modern farming techniques and synthetic inputs can undermine the community's long-term resilience by replacing deep-rooted dynamics and ways of thought with alien practices unsuited to the local context, Walsh argues that the linear, explicit, verbal thinking required for literacy may in fact undermine the nonverbal, multi-pronged, nonlinear thought patterns that underlie successful management of complex ecosystems.  Many of the landscape management practices employed by the Aymara are best learned by doing, and can't easily be codified (as they would have to be to go in a book).  They are the fruit of years of observations in differing conditions, in dry years and wet years, cold seasons and hot ones and seasons that should be cold but one year were hot, years of planting one crop or another or leaving a field fallow for differing spans of time.  There are constant, non-statistical experiments being carried out, often driven by a gut feeling that something new might work.  The lessons come from many iterations of recurring cycles that always differ slightly from one time to the next, a process of improvisation underlain by a massive body of accumulated knowledge.  Walsh describes this way of thinking and learning as connectionism, and a series of "sequential adjustments to unpredictable conditions".  Not only can none of this be captured in a book, but Walsh argues that the very Cartesian, strict if-then rules and generalizations taught through literacy and Western education in general may destroy the capacity to learn in this other, connectionist way.

This can't be discounted as an overly romantic rendering of Andean thought and practice by an anti-modernist.  Scientists are just barely beginning to understand the utterly complex phenomena going on all at once in ecosystems like the Andean highlands, and often must acknowledge that the Popper-style scientific method of controlling variables and falsifying hypotheses just doesn't transfer easily to such contexts.  Indeed, many are the ecosystems whose complexity is being inexorably destroyed while scientists struggle to understand just one piece of them, in a race to study what is rapidly disappearing.  Similarly, often the best-preserved natural landscapes are those managed not as science-based conservation areas or parks, but rather those under indigenous land management regimes based on what can often seem like superstition and quasi-magical principles.  Biodiversity, that flourishing, overwhelming, as-yet-uncategorized proliferation of pulsing life, seems to be healthiest when managed by peoples not employing a strict Western rationality.  If we lose these lifeways, these ways of thinking and acting and managing complexity in the natural environment, then the entire human race will have lost an important part of its heritage (both cultural and ecological), indeed perhaps the very key to our continued survival on the planet.

Walsh's book comes with no easy solutions.  In fact, the end chapters with ostensible proposals seemed quite weak to me.  Walsh recommends what she describes as "inside-out" development and a focus on dignity, namely in that outside aid experts and technicians should enter local communities with more humility, in an attitude of equals working out solutions together with the community.  This is sound development, and I agree with it, but it's not very groundbreaking.  I can't blame Walsh though for not having an easy solution to the dilemmas and problems she observes.  The topics she discusses are difficult, and have no easy solutions.  While it's clearly no good to promote unsustainable ways of doing things that bring high productivity in the short term at the expense of long-term survival, neither is the status quo of survival- or subsistence-based peasant systems that sustainably provide people with just enough to live but not enough to prosper.

Walsh hints at a possible way out of this impasse, such that Andean peasants are neither forced into an outside mold of modernity that ultimately undercuts their resilience, nor maintained in a state of resilient, romantic millennarian poverty.  In the end it's about power.  If the Aymara communities in Trojan Horse Aid were granted the same voice and right to self-determination as everyone else in Bolivia, they would be able to preserve the positive aspects of their traditional way of life, while also evolving, researching new ways of doing things, and incorporating select foreign ideas that can improve their well-being, all in accord with their priorities and world view.  In other words,  you'd be better off empowering people to be able to dictate the terms of their development, as opposed to "capacitating" them to fit into the prevailing, hostile system.

One last key insight of Walsh is that we need to begin to conceive of peasant farmers (with their non-linear approach) as landscape managers and not just producers of agricultural goods.  This is an idea that has been discussed even in high-level agricultural policy in the US and Europe, but Walsh frames it in a particularly effective, convincing way

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