When we study social sciences, we study power and how it operates in society and throughout history. It can be challenging to discover that the way we see the world, and act in it, is conditioned. Education, the media, the judicial system, the political system, and even the family are all apparatuses of social control through which power is exercised and these institutions structure what anthropologist Tania Li refers to as our “field of actions.” They also push us to think in certain ways and inform our desires about how to live. Yet this power dynamic is not visible to us: these institutions shape who we are without us realizing.
Over the past week, we, the students of Lang in Cambodia 2014, have had another stark realization. The field of international development, as benevolent as it may seem, is also an apparatus through which power is exercised. Development, which emerged as a framework for intervention after World War II when former colonial nation states, such as France and England, started to lose control over their colonies, was crafted as a new global strategy through which the relationship between the “first world” and the “third world” could be mediated. The rationale for this control was reformulated as a well-intentioned aim of developed countries to bring progress and industrialization to “developing” countries—the same countries they had been exploiting for decades prior. For economic and political reasons, the imperial powers were interested in maintaining their presence and influence in what they came to refer to as “backward” nations.
According to Colombian scholar Arturo Escobar, two main processes ensure that the power dynamics of development remain concealed and unchallenged. The first one is the professionalization of knowledge. Nowadays, the only people that can formally create knowledge about development are those who have undergone the extensive training to position them as “expert.” Here in Cambodia, most of these “experts” are foreigners trained in Western academic institutions with limited knowledge of this country’s history. The second is the institutionalization of development. Across the world, a whole network of institutions was established for the spread of the technical knowledge created by the experts, the design of policies, and the execution of programs. From where I stand, this process reduces the complexity of the economic, social, and political factors that have created the “problem” (whether it be poverty, illiteracy, or the absence of democracy) and situates this “problem” within a simplistic dynamic of cause and effect. For example, poverty in Cambodia is often talked about as a result of insufficient resources and, in turn, solutions to eradicate it have everything to do with foreign aid and donations. This construction of poverty negates other causes such us the environmental degradation that hinders the ability of people to live off the land and forces them to move to the cities, and the trade agreements signed with Western countries that force factory workers to live off a few dollars a day.
Learning the ways in which “international development” can be a vehicle of social and economic control is deeply troubling. Yet, through our field experiences here we have also discovered organizations that are challenging this dominant approach. At one of our site visits this week, we were exposed to an academic institution that offers scholarships to Khmer students and provides a space for Cambodian artists to exhibit their work thereby challenging the way knowledge about the country is created. Instead of being created by foreign “professionals,” stories, art, and research about Cambodia can now be created by Khmer people.
Examining development through various theoretical frames has been extremely useful. As students of this program, we are now capable of analyzing the work of the different organizations we encounter. We are able to ask questions about how problems are identified, the kinds of solutions that are designed, and why aspects of the organization may be assembled in the ways that they are. These valuable analytic skills will stay with us—or at least with me—long after we depart from this magnificent country, of that I am sure.