Monday, July 13, 2015

It's alway redux

From the NY Times:

"China Fences In Its Nomads, and an Ancient Life Withers" (article)

These programs are reminiscent of the criminal acts where the United States government forced Native Americans off their ancestral lands onto reservations, often with false promises and broken treaties, most likely at the point of a gun.

I will be explicit, because certain readers from certain countries don't get it and assume that past crimes commited by my country somehow exonerates careless people who commit similar crimes a century and a half later. So I apologize if this cultural reference is glaringly obvious to students of American history, or basically any student of how we have treated indigenous communities, but hey, some societies haven't had to face up to this issue yet, so let's be clear: just because the Americans did this in the 1800s does not make it right. It was wrong then, and what the Chinese government is doing to rural nomads now is likewise extremely problematic.

Resettlement through force, coercion, or deception is wrong. Fully-informed consent is key. "Fully-informed" means that people understand the long-term impacts on their lives, livelihoods and communities, and "consent" means they have the choice to say yes or no, free from the threat of violence or other state-enforced repercussions.

In addition to pirating "ecological science" to back up what is in actuality a program of social control with the false veneer of "development", there are other substantial problems.

The Chinese government doesn't have a good record on resettlement, whether it's urban or rural. At this time, every program in this mould should be treated with the skepticism it deserves.

The speed of resettlement is not a virtue. Take it slow so people can adjust and so you can fix the f-ck ups that inevitably happen with large-scale transformation of human societies. What you're trying to do in a single-generation is uproot an entire way of living that has developed over centuries. On balance, which mode do you think has the weight of evidence on its side?

The fact that sub-standard housing and evaporating benefits await these people speaks to the lack of commitment to actual social outcomes. Resettling people is not a short-term task to be completed, and the people forgotten. If you care about "development" you must recognize that it is a long-term process and you should actually monitor communities to ensure their success.

Meanwhile, save the "development" rhetoric. You do not get to decide on behalf of others what "development" looks like. It is extremely paternalistic, and the fact that participation is virtually nil means that priorities are decided without the communities who are most impacted and have the most stake in the outcome. This is development that happens "to" people. It is not engendered from within the community, quisling collaborators notwithstanding. It is a shockingly imperial mindset.

Overall, this type of program smacks of judgement about "lesser" races and dismissiveness about others' lifestyle choices. Who are you to judge if they are fundamentally "developed" or not? Whether the needs of communities and individuals has been met? Talk to them if you care about them; otherwise admit that their human welfare is not the primary purpose of this venture.

It also shows a profound lack of creativity -- "let's shove them into buildings" -- instead of deploying the range of possible technologies that can keep people who wish to be there on their lands, living different lifestyles, with access to modern medicine and education, while giving them the agency and wherewithal to keep unique traditions and practices still alive.

Ignorance is not an excuse. To ignore history, ignore domestic academics, ignore outside voices, and to pointedly ignore the very people who you claim to be "helping" requires immense mental acrobatics to maintain such a solipsistic silo. Couldn't some of that energy put into deflecting criticism, skimming off funds, and suppressing dissent be put into listening?