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Economic Development and Western Vision of World

Economic Development is a Double Edged Sword FINCA TATIN, Guatemala- “If the people there don’t get an education, nothing is going to change,” a European tourist at the Finca Tatin spoke after visiting a nearby indigenous village in the jungle. Immediately prior to making this statement this tourists was talking about how nice, happy, and [...]

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Economic Development is a Double Edged Sword

FINCA TATIN, Guatemala- “If the people there don’t get an education, nothing is going to change,” a European tourist at the Finca Tatin spoke after visiting a nearby indigenous village in the jungle. Immediately prior to making this statement this tourists was talking about how nice, happy, and friendly everyone in the village was to her, how they took her into their homes, how they showed her a little of life in the jungles of eastern Guatemala.

The tourist looked at their dirt floors and leaf roof homes and called them poor, she said they needed to change.

I felt something sticking in my craw:

Why do things need to change?

I suppose it is an intrinsic rite in many cultures to teach themselves that everybody in the world would be better off living like them. Perhaps this is a mechanism that has evolved to keep communities a little more intact: who would go elsewhere when you are already living on the apex of common sense and well being? What culture would not want to teach that they have perfected living, that all others live somewhat worse than they do.

In Western culture this ideology has grown out of control: from birth we are taught that we are the fortunate “Haves” and the rest of the world are the poor “Have Nots.” We are indoctrinated that we live better than anyone else in the world and that it is our job to help others change their ways of life to be more like us. Many of us feel guilt, as we truly believe our socialization:

We have more than others, we drew the lucky straw in the game of life, we should do our part to disseminate our privilege with those less fortunate to have been outside of our culture, our rich, possession laden country.

Why else do Westerners seem to feel as if their way of life provides the sustenance that ALL humans should have while other ways are inferior, not respected in their sustainability? Why do these people pump so much money into NGOs and other initiatives that implicitly seek to wipe other ways of life off the planet in the name of lower infant mortality rates, higher Western style education, less local knowledge being transmitted, and higher incomes?

The Westerners have Things, charts, and graphs to prove our superiority, we take our stats for granted and set out to culturally colonize the world.

But who could tell a smiling, well fed, friendly person with a big family, with plenty of leisure time, who is living in a tropical paradise that they need to change the way they live, that what they have is not enough?

There seems to be a skewed value scale in the thinking of many Western cultures, we automatically equate well being with our own standard measure: money and the Things that money buys.

People without money are poor and need to be help. There is no question about it, this is our mission: to make the world as money laden as ourselves, to get the heathen natives to see the world in terms of dollars and cents, to make jungle hunters small business men — to reel in the other half of the world into our economic scheme.

Alone one night, flicking around for a late night movie, I was assaulted by images. The usual thing, you know: starving babies, injustice, apathy and greed.

“. . . 250,000 children die each week from easily preventable diseases . . .” the presenter informed me.

Not wanting to witness such misery I reached for the ON/ OFF button, but was stopped, “. . . $2.5 billion per year, the amount spent on cigarette advertising in America, would prevent most child deaths in the developing world . . .”, the presenter went on, “. . . the quarter of the planet’s population which lives in the north consumes three-quarters of the planet’s resources . . .”, on and on she went. I could not switch off.

The head of Oxfarm came on, “. . . What is living? What is life,” he asked, speaking slowly. “Living is discovering your intellect and using it . . .” he was forceful and angry, “. . . for hundreds of millions of children there is no possibility of living in the true sense . . .” More pictures of deformed, miserable, homeless children.

My cheeks were wet with tears. I felt embarrassed to be a European; ashamed that I was healthy, that I was capable of anything and doing nothing. I cried for the children starved of opportunity and I cried for my life, full of opportunity yet unfulfilling. -from Discovery Road by Tim Garratt and Andy Brown.

A tourist left the book that I nicked the above passage from at the Finca Tatin. I found this passage to show clearly the typical Western perception of the world — starving children — as well as our own value system of what makes a worthwhile life — “discovering your intellect and using it.” These duel visions seem to characterize the feeling of responsibility that many Westerners feel for the poor and the meek of the planet. When we place the value system of the West — upward mobility, monetary gain, progress — over our notion of the “developing world” we find major discrepancies: they do not run flush, we feel compelled to act. We seek to make the rest of the world as wealthy and listless, as agitated and unfulfilled as ourselves.

But we do not question the visions of starving children, we do not ask if they are representative of the whole of a very large swath of humanity or are the images of the worst off minority, we seldom question if what we want as Westerners is really wanted by the rest of the world. We automatically assume that it is, we assume that our culture is better, that we live in the best place in the world and should make other places like our home.

This is what we are taught:

Eat all of your peas, there are starving children in China.

I once believed this to be true without thinking about it. I thought that the world was full of poor unfortunates, oppressed people, and starving children. I felt guilty that I grew up in comfort, and I set out in the world to change Things.

What I found was a world far happier, just as well fed, and more full of life than in the country I left behind. I found myself enjoying the presence of the people who were suppose to be suffering in developing countries so much that I did not want to go home. I continued traveling in these poor lands of starving people for 11 years. I was surprised at what I have not found:

Where are all of these poor unfortunates who live worse than me? Where are the people I am suppose to feel guilty for?

I had a difficult time finding them. I traveled the world and I found that the poorer the GDP figures said a certain place and people were the friendlier they treated me. I found scowls in Western Europe, I found smiling people welcoming me into their homes in the jungles of Peru. My perspective on the world began to shift.

The moneyed cultures of the world are not necessarily happier, the people of the USA, Canada, Europe, Japan do not live better than the bulk of the tropical world. My culture is not superior, I have a lot to learn from the people of the village, the people of the jungle, and the people in the mountains. I am not the teacher, my culture prepared me for a life of economic comfort not a life of happiness. I am the student.

On the one hand I do not refute claims of poverty, the photos of kids eating mud cakes, the grizzled corpses in India’s gutters — refuting statistics is like walking on razor blades, it is a stupid think to do — but I also know that the sample groups which broadcast world poverty to the West do not represent the whole of the tropical world. On the other hand, most of the world is alright, well fed, healthy. Interest groups use the numbers of the minority and show this as a general view of the world, and these numbers are taken in a cultural vacuum and are seldom refuted:

In the USA everybody knows that the rest of the world is starving and poor, our media and the NGOs show us this everyday, who could argue?

Of course these jungle people living in huts with dirt floors want all the Things that we have!

“When I first moved out here,” began a long term Texan expat in the Rio Dulce, “I thought that my neighbors were barbarians. But now I know that they are living better than me, they know how to live in the jungle, while I need to go to town every day for supplies. Who cares if they don‘t shower everyday, they are living the good life out here.”

There is a prevailing myth around the world that life is better in the USA, Canada, Europe, that our grass grows greener there. The beacon of the Western world only has meaning when contrasted with the rest of the world who are suppose to be miserable, poor, and meek. So the West works to change the rest of the world, to prop itself up on the myth that the rest of the world needs their help.

It is not my impression that the poor of the world need 19 year old hippies picking beats for them. Seriously, I believe they don’t. They do not need people telling them that they are poor and could live better if they sent their kids to get formal education on the Western model, that where there is more money there is a better life, that the life of a urban slum dwelling waiter is better than that of an indigenous fisherman in the jungle or a farmer in the mountains.

But the village people of the world seem to want change, they seem to want the NGOs, the education to bridge the gap in between where they are and the global economic market. Rapidly, the people on the outside sectors of globalization are being reeled in — in the name of opportunity.

But some don’t. Two villages in the Rio Dulce jungle have recently cut off relations with the NGO. They are tired of their young people leaving the village. They don’t want to change — they want to continue to exist.

It is my impression that people should travel the world to experience other ways of living, to learn from people who have different value sets, who know things that they don’t. But so many tourists visit the villages around the Finca Tatin, and in the same breathe they say how the people there are so happy and friendly while stating how they need to change, how they need education, how they are so poor, how there is no opportunity for them in the village, and, essentially, that the people would be better off in cinder block high rises, groveling week to week for a paycheck at some company — as they do in Canada.

This is what development means for much of the world. In the mentality of the West, upward mobility is akin to holiness, it is an inherent right that all individuals need to have to live well. This is a part of the foundation of our mentality, we have no inherent recourse in our socialization to accept ways of life in which the children live as their parents as being beneficial.

I asked a friend in a small village in Guatemala what she wanted to do when she gets old. She answered simply, “I don’t want to work anymore.” We laughed.

I asked her again a week later, thinking that she was just joking with me, and she told me the same. Her brother wants to be a fisherman like their dad. They seemed proud of their existence, they do not seem to want to go anywhere, do anything more than what they do. The idea of upward mobility, of shooting for higher status seemed to be missing from this scenario.


After traveling for an extended amount of time, it is my impression that rural people all over the world don’t only migrate into the city because they haveto but because they want a shot at making money, buying cell phones, an automobile, a shot at climbing the rungs of the “developed” world.

But ghettos, long working hours, exploitation, unemployment, lack of sanitation is often what I see on the other side of the rainbow. Though there still seems to be a closely held notion that working in an urban factory, restaurant, business is better than fishing for $5 a day or farming and living in a village.

Maybe it is.

But there is a substance to life that cannot be measured in dollars and cents, in life expectancy charts, by infant mortality reports, by GDP calculations, or even in unemployment rates — there is a substance of life that goes beyond all quantitative calculations. I see vastly more smiles and life substance in the jungles of Guatemala than any USA suburb, any city of Europe, or in any factory town in the third world. Development, modernization, industry — whatever you want to call it — wipes the smiles off people’s faces fast.

These smiles are replaced with money, replaced with Things, replaced with status.

Maybe this is a good trade after all.

Maybe life does need to change for the villagers in the jungles of Guatemala on the banks of the Rio Dulce. Happiness, time, free will is not worth much in the new global perspective on life.

Economic development is a double edged sword

Guatemala Travelogue Entries | Guatemala Travel Guide | Guatemala Photos


Filed under: Central America, Culture and Society, Economics, Geography, Guatemala, Intercultural Conflict

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3682 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii

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  • Caitlin August 5, 2010, 7:33 am

    Mmmm… I’m gonna let this one slide until we have a chance to argue in person one day. Ha ha ha.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com August 5, 2010, 7:46 pm

      Yes, this one had your name on it haha. Just wait until I publish something like, “International volunteers are modern Colonists,” before you sink your teeth into my hide. I will sneak it inbetween some thing benign like stick bugs and spiny worms to try to throw you off the scent haha.

      It would be good to meet in Mexico! Looking for a place in between here and Cuba to sit for a month to do some much needed site maintaince. Maybe Mexico City?

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      • Caitlin August 6, 2010, 10:53 pm

        Heh, well lucky for you I’m not in the mood for arguing, as I’ve distanced myself both physically and mentally from the world of international development.
        I think you’d find that we don’t actually disagree on too many points. I think the main one we disagree on is the fundamental question of whether “developing countries” need to be developed. While I certainly agree to that people overestimate how much people need to be “developed,” (I remember looking around Panama City once and thinking to myself: huh. How is this a ‘developing country’?) I think there are many countries in the world that simply are poor and where change is needed. However, I think the idea of a western person coming in and imposing the change from the outside is not the answer (hence my distancing from international development.)

        Anyhow, come to Mexico City! If you give me some advance warning I can try to scope out some places for you guys.

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        • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com August 7, 2010, 2:03 pm

          This is a difficult thing to argue any position on. World development is a vast topic, there are so many different variables that any attempt to generalize it into a containable conversation would be to speak overt falsities. Though it is fun to try. My position is very basic: developed, and especially the “half developed” populations seem in no way happier than people in the countryside and jungles fishing, farming, and hunting.

          I am not against development at all — what should I care about how someone else wants to live? — I have just had the chance to live amongst people on all sides of the coin, and this is the basic opinion that I currently take out.

          I don’t have anything against international volunteers or foreign developers either — they are some of my favorite people in the world to meet and I have learned a lot from them. It is my impression that their basic goal is very similar to the “do-gooder” of colonialism who sought to save the natives by giving them civilization, law, “development,” but I have nothing against them. I just like it when they say that they volunteer or work abroad because they want to travel, learn, and experience other ways of life. It bothers me when people prop themselves up by trying to help people — I can think of no more degrading thing that a person can do:

          I traveled across the world to give you water because you are obviously incapable of doing it yourself.

          But sometimes — oftentimes — this is a true statement, and the “culture” of poverty — and not the lack of money or resources per se — is often to blame.

          I especially like talking with Peace Corps volunteers who have been in for over a year. They seem to have a very real life impression of development and the people wanting or trying to be developed.

          If you take 500 Jews and put them on an island with next to nothing and within a generation they will be millionaires — it happened, it was called Sosua — all while the local people who lived next to them will stay poor forever.

          “Poverty” is part of culture, I feel strongly that to eradicate poverty you need to eradicate culture — or at least some essential elements of it.

          Is this bad? No, I don’t think so. But there are other immeasurable variables that represent happiness and well being. Does the Latino immigrant in the USA who works 80 hours a week to send money home to his family so they can buy large screen TVs, new furniture sets, and make down payments on new pickup trucks living better or worse than the fisherman who smiles as he goes about his work, who loves his home, his family, and has an abundance of the essentials in life without much money?

          I have no idea. The immigrant must feel as if he is living better — or at least doing something better — as there are other immeasurable variables such as the feeling of status, family position, and pride in providing that add onto a person’s physical life that must make it seem better than living just for subsistence alone. But the subsistence farmer, fishermen, and people of the jungle live well too. They have other immeasurable variables that seem to make life seem good and happy.

          I see far more smiles on the faces of the village people of Latin America than I do on USA Latino immigrants, but, in the end, I suppose the lifestyles balance themselves somehow.

          My position is just that there seems to be a global surge to export one concept of living well — money — and this seems to be stripping away many of the other elements of happiness that I have witnessed in many of the “poor” cultures of the world.

          In the end, I take a non-commital position. It is difficult to measure well being — wealth is not a good indicator — and I am just enjoying the show. Now is probably one of the most interesting times in recent history to be traveling.

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      • Bob L August 8, 2010, 10:36 pm

        Make it someplace where the warm water diving is good during the winter and maybe I will wander down there too. 8^)

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        • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com August 16, 2010, 8:29 pm

          How about Ethiopia?

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          • Bob L August 18, 2010, 7:45 am

            You know, i had to look at a map…… But no SCUBA that I can find there. Maybe over in Somalia, or Djibouti but not Ethiopia.

            Bob L

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            • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com August 18, 2010, 9:51 am

              Ethiopia is looking like our next jump. No SCUBA, but there should be us.

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  • Bob L August 5, 2010, 8:44 am

    “If you’re in trouble or hurt or need — go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help — the only ones.”
    –Ma Joad, p.394, Grapes of Wrath

    Yep, I agree with you. I kinda have to as you brought out both sides of the coin, and maybe the edges to, and said either way could be better. But it is not, in my opinion, just a difference between teh 3rd’ish world and the “developed” world. I was at two recent parties. At one, the people had a fair amount of money. They worked for it, brought themselves up from a fairly low end, living in a BIG-ASSED house rather than their old trailer. But they seemed consumed with their things. They were happy enough, but I got the feeling that they would be VERY unhappy if they had to go back to the trailer park.

    The other party had people who had not made it, and were not really trying. Their work ranged from stocking shelves at Walmart to construction workers and electritians. Some had money, some decidedly did not. These people were far happier than the ones who “made it”. They did not talk about jobs, or things. They talked about life. They talked about each other. There were far more smiles.

    Now, I have been around rich people that werer truly happy, and poor people that were miserable, but it seems to me that having a good family life, and productive work is the real secret to happiness.

    Caitlin – Please don’t wait until you wee Wade in person. I think a discussion between you two would be awesome. I have great respect for the opinions and writing skill of both of you. Exchanging similar ideas is not as useful of a learning tool as the exchange of different ideas. It is especially useful if the two in the discussion listen to each other, as I beleive you two would.

    But, lets not start this out as an arguement….. 8^)

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com August 5, 2010, 7:54 pm

      Poverty is often more of a mentality than just a social circumstance. You can’t eradicate poverty with money or handouts, as it is often an approach to living, an aspect of culture. I, too, would prefer to be around people who value the time of their lives over money or things — all too often wealth is just a collar around people’s necks, it is something to worry about holding on to, something to worry about loosing. Rich people, even middle class people, tend to be worried people. I would not wish wealth on anyone.

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    • Caitlin August 5, 2010, 11:43 pm

      Hee hee hee.

      You said “wee Wade in person.”

      That sounds gross.

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      • Caitlin August 6, 2010, 10:58 pm

        Heh, I sure was drunk when I wrote that.

        Bet you don’t have as much respect for my opinions and writing skills now, Bob!

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        • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com August 7, 2010, 2:32 pm

          No worries, Bob does not seem to be immune to commenting drunk either.

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  • Bob L August 8, 2010, 10:31 pm

    Caitlin, as Wade says, I definitely could use a breathalyzer on my keyboard. I wonder if they make one that tests for Caffeine content….

    I never judge a persons writing skills by their comment quality. Comments are often written with a bit more emotion, and a bit less editing than posts. That is what makes them most interesting.

    Wade, One of the things I really appreciate about your writing is that you are opinionated, but don’t push your opinions on anyone, and most importantly, realize that your opinions are your opinions of the moment, and that they can, and probably will, change as time goes on.

    Of course, as you get older, you will become more opinionated, you will push them on others and the opinions will stop changing. Happened to me……. 8^) Hee Hee Hee……

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