"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Arrogance In The Jungle–’Mosquito Coast’ And The Inevitable Failure Of International Development

Paul Theroux’s book Mosquito Coast is the story of an obsessed man who wants to bring his inventions to primitive tribes, exposing them to rationalism and enterprise and by so doing, civilizing them and bringing them quickly into the modern world.

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Allie Fox is an inventor, a genius, an engineer, and an evangelist.  America is going down the tubes, he preaches to anyone who will listen, corrupted by fast food, cheap clothes, appliances out-of-date as soon as they are delivered, rooms full of plastic, disposable toys, and a total dependency on a market economy which seduces, captures, and imprisons otherwise self-sufficient, practical people, leads them to believe they cannot do without a supplier.  As a result Americans have become fat, complaisant, indifferent, and neutered. 

He and his family must leave this cultural nightmare and live simply and independently.  Only the most remote, uncivilized, unexplored place will do.  They will live among primitive tribespeople who have never been corrupted by consumerism and live in a state of nature.

Yet although Allie wants to live among people who survive on very little, and expresses an admiration for them, he believes nothing of the kind.  For him the Miskito Indians , unconscious of anything but the jungle, primitive beings with no vision, no understanding, and no chance for evolution, are as trapped as the Americans he left behind.  Only he can bring them out of their ignorant, prehistoric life.  Whereas the great American capitalist machine was too big to destroy, its influences too extensive, and consumers too mindlessly accepting of its offerings; the Miskito Indians were at Year Zero.  Everything he brought would be an evolutionary step forward; but like the religious missionaries who preceded him, Ally was convinced that what he was bringing was as revolutionary as Jesus Christ.  Fat Boy, Allie’s invention to ‘make ice out of fire’ would be an immediate revelation – like the Word of God – to the Indians.  As soon as they saw Fat Boy produce an unimaginable, unthinkable, magical thing, they would be converted to progress, development, enterprise, and evolution.  He would oversee this development, help the Indians see the benefits of ice; how it can preserve fish, alleviate pain and reduce swelling, cool living spaces, and provide refreshment.  Ice would be the first, most important element of the epiphany. 

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Ally builds Fat Boy, but while he explains its simplicity (ice out of fire), he overlooks its complexity.  Ice cannot be made without ammonia and nitrogen, brought from the outside world.  A mere irritating detail, the thinks.  The concept itself – that the most primitive and common natural element familiar to the Indians – fire – could be harnessed and transformed, would be the point. Ice would not simply be a by-produce of fire but a metaphor for development. The Indians after seeing what engineering, enterprise, and intelligence could do would be on their way to a better life and a better world.

The story ends badly.  Taking a page out of Conrad’s Victory, Theroux introduces evil, slavers and profiteers, who will destroy Allie’s community, evolutionary plan, and even Fat Boy.  Their intent is immediately clear to Ally, and he feels he must kill them, traps them in the works of Fat Boy, and intends to freeze them to death.  The slavers, however try to shoot their way out, puncture the pipes containing the highly flammable nitrogen and ammonia, and Fat Boy and every hut, Indian, and animal in the village are destroyed.

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In his arrogance and mad obsessive evangelism, Allie is contemptuous of the Indians he meets.  They live in the muck, squalor, swamps, and malarial mosquitos without doing anything to improve their lives.  Within months Ally and his family have built a rain-proofed house with clean running water, kitchen, and lavatory.  Although he says that his intent is to show the Indians how it can be done, encourage their own initiative and activity, he is dismissive of them.  They will never be more than ignorant throwbacks to the Pleistocene.  All his efforts – the house, the gardens, and Fat Boy are really monuments to himself.  The more he builds, and the more he keeps the jungle and its pestilence out, the more convinced he becomes of his own powers.  The fact that the Indians may or many not benefit from his genius is irrelevant.  He has built The Hanging Gardens of Babylon in the Honduran jungle.

International Development – the effort of Western governments to raise the poor of the Third World out of poverty and bring them into the modern world of health, wealth, and education – has been an unfortunate but predictable failure.  Foreign aid workers have been no different than Allie Fox, with a missionary zeal, a sense of moral and cultural superiority, and a dismissiveness of the ‘beneficiaries’ they have intended to help.

It is no surprise that many of the early American Peace Corps Volunteers, assigned to rural villages in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, would come to the same conclusions as Allie Fox.  In their eyes, the natives were as ignorant, unwilling to change their ways, and unable to appreciate the enlightenment brought to them from outside.  No matter what the Volunteers did – build chicken coops, pig sties, kitchen gardens, or plant new improved seeds – the natives were reluctant to change at best.  These Volunteers returned home to jobs in the government’s agency for international development; but rather than the culturally-aware, field-tested, seasoned professionals that senior officers hoped they would employ, the returnees were now more convinced than ever that their work would always be missionary rather than economic.  ‘These people’ would never help themselves.

No one ever admitted this deep-seated prejudice.  In fact many development projects were designed precisely to mask it.  ‘Self-reliance’, ‘cooperative planning’, ‘inclusivity’, ‘community needs first’ were totems of development.  These means to progress were more important than the end results themselves.  A culture of patronizing investment grew and was accepted as policy.  Directors of US foreign aid projects deliberately refused to consider the Chinese model of development – a quid pro quo contract where Chinese engineers and imported workers would build African roads, ports, and railways in return for concessional prices and guaranteed delivery of natural resources.  There were no ‘conditionalities’ in these deals, no promises of transparency or reform.

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Yet, despite the fast, universal inroads the Chinese made in Africa; and despite their growing geopolitical influence, it has still been hard to move US foreign aid policy out of moral exceptionalism.   Doing good dies hard.

There is a bit of Allie Fox in every development worker.  It is hard for a young woman from the most developed, advanced, civilized nation faced with the seemingly intractable problems of underdevelopment and still isolated and marginalized socio-economically backward rural communities, to believe wholeheartedly in the possibility of rapid development.   A culture of aid dependency is only natural.  The optimism of the bright young things going to Africa is still fueled by a Christian ethos – the Word of God is enough for miraculous transformation – and by a very American commitment to doing good, even if good is never the result.  Helping others is more often than not a selfish enterprise – not unlike that of Allie Fox.

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It is easy enough for conservative economists to say ‘Pull the plug’, finally and abruptly wean developing countries off what has become an inefficient, futile, and idealistic enterprise.  If African countries want financial assistance, say these economists, let them appeal to the international capital markets.  Within that international system, loans must be repaid, never forgiven.  World Bank soft loans would be things of the past and American-style grants totally forgotten.  The reality is quite different.  The real question is how do you wean Americans off their compulsion for doing good?  As many attempts as there have been made to dismantle foreign assistance no president, Republican or Democrat, has succeeded.  It has a life of its own – a special, anointed life. 

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