Work took me to Vientiane, Laos, recently (the last week of February 2016). In mid 2013, I had written a first impression piece on Muscat. This time, I thought of writing one with a power critique informing the first time visitor.
The external oppression – context
The local news was abuzz with renewed US business-related activity (Obama is coming in September) as Laos takes over the chairmanship of ASEAN this year. Although a communist country since 1975, Laos has no qualms in opening itself up to the wondrous creed of the neoliberal. A Thai consultant remarked that about 15 years ago, all he could see on the streets of Vientiane were the tuk-tuks, but now you see cars and motorbikes all over the place. Increasing Chinese foreign investment is making Vietnam, a long time Laotian benefactor, edgy. Hence the surge in US pivot-al interest. There is even talk of the US taking some responsibility in cleaning up the unexploded bombs – two million tons dropped during the secret war of 1964-73, the most heavily bombed per capita nation ever. How power revels in the forgetfulness of the powerless!
The embedded oppressor – subtext
I work with government departments (statistics and IT) in mostly African and Middle Eastern states. Strengthening the public sector – where providing service to people is part of the mandate by definition – is the only redemption for a consultant who sensibilities have been blighted; otherwise the larger aims of the agencies we work for either dovetail with the neoliberal program, or at the very least never challenged.
A salient fact, not highlighted enough, is that despite the high capability of local staff (esp. here in Laos where at the IT department of the ministry I learned a few new things from the staff), the dependence on the external, international consultant subordinates and even mutes the local voice. When I ask about their requirements, the response is something along the lines of, “what do you think?”
The international consultant is thus a modern iteration of the white saviour, and this realization, that our work is part of the oppressive fabric, is an uncomfortable one.
Government folk tend to be much more open to outsiders than given credit for. This is true wherever I have been, and Laos is no exception. On top of that, you get the much publicized mildness – however much of a tourist cliché – of the East Asian. This bit of humanity is consolation in face of the thin redemptive possibilities and uncomfortable truths that hound the work of a development consultant.
The subaltern is credible – text
The subaltern is credible
with salt in its teeth
with humor in the tummy of
its riverside birth its
calm solubility and harmless
want is weak is water is
standing with the whalemouth
reeking of the hull and
counterpoint will it will?
The token pic
I took this one on the first day as I was walking by the Mekong river taking in the novelty. The kids clicked here betray none of the famed docility. The tropes of the past stand once again to be revised.