Reply To: 26.5.2014 Ancient Futures

Author Replies # Posted on May 27, 2014 at 14:33

I was given a lot of relevant, important but also tough questions by Kristina. I have chosen to reflect on the question whether it is possible to avoid falling into the trap of doing the same mistakes or worsening the situation by counter-development projects, perpetrated by the developmental projects from the 1970s onwards. If this is possible, how should we do it? Obviously, I am not nearly knowledgeable and competent enough when it comes to this (and a lot of other things hah), but I will try to give it my best.
First, we have to analyze what went wrong with the first development projects in Ladakh and how the counter-development movement initiated by Helena Norberg-Hodge aimed to ameliorate the consequences. According to Helena, much of the negative consequences of the projects, stem from the fact that the picture presented of the westernized life, was very one-sided and the Ladakhi people were not acquainted with the downsides of industrialized, individualistic western lifestyle. This led to the fact that Ladakhi people were very eager to embrace the westernized lifestyle and tended to feel ashamed of their own culture. I will not go into details what happened, since we’ve all read the text. I believe it is much more interesting to think about how the counter-development project differs from the first projects in practice; and as yet we do not have sufficient information. But I remember one thing that caught my attention while reading Helena’s book, where she actually tries to justify why the headquarters of her initiative is located in the city, thus going directly against what she aims to do: i.e. decentralize the economy and stop the influx of people moving to urban centres that leads to imbalance and impoverishment of both urban and rural areas. I found it quite funny, this justification and it proves that we cannot sit on two chairs, so to say. Even if her initiative is aiming to be locally attuned, open to participation and needs and wishes of the locals, it is still deeply entrenched in the same discourse and economic reality as the first projects. First, we have to reflect on our position in developmental projects: where do we as academics, activists, whatever, come from? What determines our perspective on what development and human and environmental welfare is? I believe it is wrong to take the comfortable position of the cultural relativist, who will simply claim that we should not meddle, since it is imposing our views and patronizing the ones we aim to cooperate with in the name of good life. It would be irresponsible, since their lives were changed dramatically by the transition to a thoroughly globalized, capitalist economy that was perpetrated by Western elites (academics, economists, engineers and all other self-righteous people). Another thing that bothers me is the no less arrogant, patronizing position of projecting the image of the primeval, ideal people who are one with nature on, this case, the Ladakhi people; as if they have lost some kind of an innocence, due to contact with the decadent ones. It is a typical trope in Western imaginarium; the Eden, the corruption, the atonement for your involvement in this fall. This results in actually obstructing the wishes of locals and forcing them to stay the way we perceive traditional and environmentally sustainable lifestyle to be. Oh, do wear that hemp tunic and woolen breeches and use yak skins for isolation, it is good for you, you know; meanwhile I’ll snuggle into my wind and rain resistant jacket, since I’m already beyond redemption. Also, such an attitude reeks of glorification of social constructs, such as kin, community, family; as if these institutions have not arisen out of certain socio-economic conditions. The hypocrisy and patronizing attitude in developmental projects are inevitable; whatever we do, it is social engineering. Vaccination, food-preserving technology, electricity, literacy; those are but a few things that we cannot deny are important for human welfare and we should not abandon to enable them in the name of ”tradition”, ”culture”, ”religion” etc. In the end, I am a child of the Enlightenment. We should not be too cynical about our position and what can be done and embrace the responsibility; not by salvaging ourselves with buying organic, leading a self-righteous ethical life, but to recognize the structural problems and aim for structural solutions.