The Western way isn't always the best way

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The Western way isn’t always the best way

by Amit Singh


People say indigenous groups in Guatemala are 'backward' because they are against 'development' eg.mines. (David Amsler under a Creative Commons Licence)

Development is now a fashionable word. We don’t have the ‘first’ and ‘third’ world now. We have the ‘developed’ and the ‘underdeveloped’ world. Usually, people think the developed is Western countries, and the underdeveloped world is the countries that used to be colonies in the Global South in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

We usually think of development with Western ideas, and think about money. We don’t think about the local culture and cultural differences. Development is now something that Western countries and NGOs can force on other countries. And often, the local communities and their standard of living become worse.

The media shows developing countries in a negative way and sometimes, NGOs do the same. They show them as backward, inferior and as countries the West needs to 'rescue'. It seems like the West needs to pull the developing world into modern life, and make them develop away from ‘tribal’ culture. Poor countries should develop into Western states with fast roads and big cities. And it is the Western government that gives the NGOs their plans, and the big transnational businesses that give them the money.

White consultants educated in the West go round the world and teach communities how to develop. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank lent money to many African countries in the Cold-War time. But this just created different problems and sometimes helped create political violence. The World Bank still helps to make poor people poorer in the ‘underdeveloped’ world.

Sometimes it is difficult to see who is helped by development, but one thing is clear: it is a huge industry. Of course, many people who work with development are hardworking people trying to make the world more just and equal. But development often helps the rich one per cent not the poor. NGOs have often helped to privatize things like healthcare, roads or education, which were public before.

The idea that everyone should become Western and have Western goods, medicine, education and world capitalist markets means that people think the local education system, for example, is too old and no use anymore. People begin to think that traditional medicine is not useful anymore because it is not like ‘modern’ Western medicine. But traditional medicine has often been very successful for a long time.

I went to Guatemala recently and I met some indigenous leaders from Mayan communities. We talked about development. The Mayan communities often fight against mining, because it has a very big effect on their lives. But foreign diplomats say they are against development and should be more modern. The Mayan communities I met have spiritual links to their land that money cannot buy. They do not see the world like Western capitalists, where development (eg. mines and hydroelectricity) is so important. The communities know they are part of the environment, not better than the environment. It is almost impossible to be sustainable in the West as our culture is all about buying and consuming.

When the Western diplomats say indigenous communities are against development and should be more modern, this shows the racism in their idea of development. Mines and other 'development' have many negative effects on the area and the local community. They help make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

People often say how good the 'development' in India is. But the very big increase in GDP there does not tell the true story: there is a lot more inequality and social unrest in a country that is paying the capitalist West. The rich are getting richer, but the others are not.

If we push development, we are pushing our own ideas on the rest of the world, without finding out what they need. Development is becoming a dangerous word. It is becoming something like colonialism. People who work in development must be careful not to push their own ideas on other people, and must understand that the Western way isn’t always the right way.

Amit Singh studied at the London School of Economics. She works on the World Views of Nature Project. She studies how local ideas should be more important when we create international policy.

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