02 January 2013

Jared Diamond On Harm from Well-Intentioned Policies

An interesting section from an interview of Jared Diamond regarding his new book, The World Until Yesterday: What we can Learn from Traditional Societies?. Dr. Claire Panosian Dunavan, former American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) President, chats with Diamond about what he learned from research in New Guinea.

Many will know Diamond for his 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Society In the book, he argues that environmental differences can explain varying rates of development between regions of the world, a thesis that was not without its critics.

The latest offering from Diamond is bound to meet similar praise and criticism experienced by his previous work. The book discription that appears on Amazon says,
The World Until Yesterday provides a mesmerizing firsthand picture of the human past as it had been for millions of years—a past that has mostly vanished—and considers what the differences between that past and our present mean for our lives today.

This is Jared Diamond’s most personal book to date, as he draws extensively from his decades of field work in the Pacific islands, as well as evidence from Inuit, Amazonian Indians, Kalahari San people, and others. Diamond doesn’t romanticize traditional societies—after all, we are shocked by some of their practices—but he finds that their solutions to universal human problems such as child rearing, elder care, dispute resolution, risk, and physical fitness have much to teach us.
This section of the conversation relates directly to development and public policy. Diamond discusses the ways that well-intentioned policies or interventions can cause more harm than good.
DUNAVAN: “Do you feel a desire to help or any moral imperative when you meet traditional people and see vast disparities in their quality of life [as compared to ours]?”

DIAMOND: “No, because I would consider such a moral imperative on anyone’s part a bad idea. Because well-intentioned policies so often backfire, I would consider it a mistake not just on my part but on anyone’s part to try to change a society.”

“I don’t know what changes are going to work out well. I’ve just seen so many changes in New Guinea that have backfired. Here’s an example. What could be more obvious than providing education? The Australian colonial administration put a lot of effort into education. It’ not that one shouldn’t educate New Guineans; of course you should educate New Guineans. But the approach of the Australians consisted of requiring all young New Guineans to have a few years of primary school—a noble, worthy ideal, but it backfired.”

“The tragedy … was a double tragedy. The first tragedy was that a few years of primary school do you little good: they don’t let you get a job. But a few years of primary school do take you out of the gardens when traditional New Guineans are learning to become farmers--and learning to become a farmer really is difficult. New Guinea friends of mine who went to school told me that when they came back to their villages, they didn’t know what sweet potato to plant on what slope. The tragedy was that a few years of universal education were not enough to provide jobs but it was enough to undermine their ability to operate in New Guinea society.”

DUNAVAN: “Let’s look 50 years hence. Obviously languages are disappearing; the world will no longer exist in such a way that people can remain isolated. What will it be like for traditional societies?”

DIAMOND: “There’s a huge spectrum of possible outcomes. One possible outcome: if we in the first world mess up our own society, mess up the whole world … and you ask yourself who is going to be left after 50 years, well all of us here who don’t know how to make stone tools, don’t know what to gather, all of us here are going to starve to death. The places in the world where people will survive are the places where—within living memory—people have been living in the forest and making their own gardens.”

“So, in one scenario, 50 years from now, New Guinea and parts of the Amazon will be the best functioning places in the world because the rest of us will be dead or incompetent.”

“Other scenarios? New Guinea is developing. There’s a big natural gas project of which Exxon Mobil is in charge, so a lot of money is flowing in. In Papua New Guinea as in other countries where lots of money is [now] flowing in, the social mechanisms for making use of money are not in place and the money is not paid to individuals but to village leaders. But village leaders do not have 3000 years of experience of state government that says that village leaders are supposed to represent their people, so a lot of money gets wasted … It’s therefore possible that in Papua New Guinea as in many other parts of the world, the hope people feel now will not materialize.”

DUNAVAN: “Do you see remnants of stateless societies in so-called modern settings?”

DIAMOND: “Yes, they are all around us in rural areas of the United States. In Montana, for example, if neighbors have a dispute, they don’t hire lawyers; they deal with disputes by tribal mechanisms. Here’s another example. When I went to England in the 1950s, much of village life was essentially tribal. Everyone knew everybody. Everything was in public view. Many people spent their lives within one or two miles of where they were born. That’s why the title ‘World Until Yesterday.’ Much of yesterday is still with us.”