Welcome to JP Melville's review, experience, and statement on foreign aid and the international development industry. A conservative faith in family. A love affair riding the riotous tensions between money, personal freedom, the majestic travesty of our specie's ecological footprint, and economic politics. Selected writing of both prose and poetry, anecdotal travel log to rhetorical essay, dating back from the 1980's to the present. Enjoy!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Money Talks

 Hypocracy and Contradiction in Good Intentions

Bangkok.  Of all places on the planet.  Once a swamp.  Then the Venice of the Orient.  Now macrocephalic conurbation.  Who would have thought?  A great big city ten times bigger than any other city in the same country.  Of course, Bangkok was not always like that.  Once upon a time, some eighty percent of folks lived quietly on the margins, growing food, doing the peasant thing.  The city of canals home to royalty, courtiers, and a meditating class.  Times have changed.  With machines, industry, and easy communication, humans have migrated en mass to the big city.  Bangkok is now steaming full with plenty more coming.  They quit their villages.  Even sneak in from over national boundaries.  Come in the back of a pickup truck.  Find a few baht to ride a bus.  Walk.  A steady influx of bipeds from every imaginable far flung corner possible. About one in every six people in Thailand lives here.  Or ten million people, if you like.  The figure grows with each season of regional poverty in the vast countryside and the magnetic pull of urban living.
What is the attraction?  Well, in the steamy bed of iniquity, air conditioners are popular.  The machines hum away in the remotest corners of the tiniest streets, fossil fuel consumption de rigueur.  Food is popular.  Purveyors of digestibles hawk from city sidewalks, serving everything from deep fried bananas to toast to barbecued chicken.  Fast food gastronomists discover heaven, maybe rice with vegetables and eggs whipped up quick, outpacing the American fast food record in a twinkling.  Small motorcycles are popular.  Adrenaline rushes for those who care to dare the paved arterial vortexes of hurtling steel boxes on wheels.  And visiting Bangkok is also popular, a kind of itinerant population.  Tourists, as everyone knows, flock to Bangkok.  They are good for certain kinds of businesses, not excluding a hopping sex trade, though the gross part of this nocturnal activity remains driven by domestic demand.
Yes, the popular things of Bangkok.  All contributing to an unwitting evolution, such that Thailand’s cultural heritage is in the throes of dramatic change.  Foreigners, especially white foreigners, carry with them the mythology of equivalencies between material wealth and happiness, inspiring transitions in socio-economic behaviour of exogenous rather than indigenous origin.  Air conditioners alter metabolisms, they define where, how, and in what human beings are willing to reside.  Motorcycles, all vehicles, affect communication, time, expenditures, oh so many relationships in complex ways.  New foods and fast foods change tastes, cooking styles, mobility, health, perceptions on time, and more.
However, for all the change in an urbanizing and industrializing culture, not much concern need be expressed by golden-days sentimentalists.  There is no need to decry lost traditions and the homogenization of world cultures.  After all, commerce has yet failed to melt colonial rich Europe into one pot.  New nations boil up persistently in the United Nations stew, peoples loudly proclaiming their nationhoods.  Some even say that democracies, the poster gals of conventional political wisdom, are our differences given free voice, a coming of age in an accelerating global economy.  Who is to judge their trajectories?
 Odd, though, it seems, this crass choice of industrial culture.  Machines and consumption and a life valued by wages are all the rage in Singapore, Brazil, Turkey, China of course.  Why the apparent sell out on a way of life as aesthetically simple (not simplistic) as Thailand’s may once have been?
Bangkok is quite ugly.  Extraordinary wealth does not improve that.  Advertising only tells us that we are beautiful.  To undo the damage to ourselves, we see a convoluted plethora of programs and projects to serve the poverty stricken slum dwellers, to assist the maimed, to study the beggars, to train the working but grossly underpaid, to educate the prostitutes, to encourage the up and coming who will always be coming but never be up.  But it is not these people who are ugly.
What is ugly is the noise and flashing lights, the fumes of diesel, the relentless onslaught of ever-never changing consumer goods, the gargantuan billboards and interminable signage.  The rank air stifled by the fumes of diesel.  The plastic, the stink of rotting sewage in the thick, grey, effectively dead canals.  They bubble.  They exude a fetid, stagnant, sour stench.  Not a grave’s depth below street level.  Something rotten in the Siam state?  The not so hidden side to the glories of industrialization.
There is also an ugliness not actually present in Bangkok, but which taints even the most generous of smiles.  Deforestation, officially banned for commerce, continues.  Most logging activity has been effectively transferred to and accelerated in Burma, Laos, and Cambodia.  More insidious than chainsaws and skidders and tractor trailers hauling monstrous logs is the romance of food.  Every evening a soft, rich smoke hangs over Thailand's countryside, resting in the valleys of the North and settling over the rice paddies of the Northeast.  In every village and in every home people are preparing meals by wood fire, with charcoal where this is affordable.  Farmers also light smoky fires for their cattle and buffalo to keep insects away for the night.  These activities have occurred since anyone can remember.  Nor are many people interested in change - the food is delicious and dusk is beautiful.  Even where there is interest to change (or necessity), the prohibitive cost of alternative fuels may make change impossible.  Persistent poverty contributes to the sad decline of forests in Thailand, albeit a romantic decline.  Likewise in any poor nation around the world.
And to keep those mouths in Bangkok smiling, people in the countryside must keep producing food.  A growing population and the effort to maintain low food prices means that agricultural production must continually increase.  Traditionally, this has been achieved by expanding land holdings.  The subsequent conversion of marginal land to agricultural production, land which is not suitable for perennial production of annual crops, has resulted in general environmental degradation.  The removal of forest cover has increased temperature extremes by three or four degrees in the Northeast.  Soil erosion is no less than extremely serious in the North, Northeast, and the South.  Nominal increases in production (per unit of land) and pest infestation are widespread agricultural problems.  Synthetic chemicals have gained importance and these are transferred in foodstuffs, animals, and waterways almost anywhere one can imagine.  Traditional subsistence food production has been altered to production for sale and this alteration is encouraged.  Dependence on cash income has increased but purchasing power for most people has not.
All this is Bangkok.
Yet, there is another side to Bangkok.  A sort of why are people doing what they do side.  Why are the young women dancing in bars and working as prostitutes or sweeping streets?  Why do young men work endlessly building new office towers or condominiums or sweep floors in hotels or drive tuk-tuks (little three wheeled taxis)?  Where does everyone's earnings go?  Nobody knows for sure.  Probably, most of it goes into hand and out of hand for survival.  A lot of it also goes back up-country.
Check out the post office in any up-country provincial town.  Older people, men and women, fathers and mothers sit around cashing in money orders.  Money orders sent from Bangkok.  Not everyone sends money and not everyone receives money.  But, to the extent that money is convertible into material resources, this transfer of money represents an unconventional flow of resources.  A flow which lands directly into the hands of rural people.
For all the international development organizations and all their wealth, none makes a direct transfer of money into poor, rural people’s hands.  They provide ideas and technology.  Certain ideas and certain technologies, which having originated from these institutions, belong to the cultural background from which they come.  Such ideas are neither a transfer of power, nor are they intended to solve the ugliness of what we find in Bangkok.
Take a classic economic view.  If people, likewise institutions, value the products or labour of rural people, or even the ecological imperative that agricultural cultures imply, high prices would willingly be paid to anything village and land sourced.  But high prices are not paid.  Not for rice.  Not for construction crews or prostitutes.  Not for any commodity.  High prices are paid in Bangkok for the value added products of industrial production and commerce.  And to the salaries of development experts who promote the flow of resources into urban economies.
For all our ideas of environmental awareness, over population, or the value of traditional cultures few know better than the poor that money talks.

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