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“Progress Can Kill” – on Rethinking Development


AshŽninka children, Yurua River, Peru © David Hill/Survival

‘What kind of development is it when the people lead shorter lives than before?’

Roy Sesana, Bushman, Botswana

 inddonuh20120019originalIt’s time to rethink what “development” and “progress” mean. It’s becoming increasingly clear that development cannot be a one-size-fits all process. Too often, a blueprint is forced upon people even if it is not one that they themselves want. Development must be about more than economic growth, encompassing a full spectrum of human rights. Above all, it must be about freedom and choice.

This is well demonstrated by how “development” for tribal peoples seldom works. Survival International’s campaign, “Progress can Kill” highlights the horrific effects that “progress” can have on tribal peoples. Instead of providing a better life, tribal peoples often find that after the intervention of industrialised societies, their lives become bleaker and shorter. A satirical cartoon called, “There You Go” also lays out the hypocrisies and fallacies of this kind of development. The lessons learned can easily be applied to other sectors of society.

‘I think some non-Indians’ idea of “progress” is crazy!’

Olimpio, Guajajara, Brazil

First, we must unpack what “progress” means. It is generally regarded as developing towards an improved or advanced condition. This concept harkens back to colonial times, in which western societies saw the need to “develop” countries to live like them. This has not gone unnoticed. Escobar, for example, has argued that “development” is a ‘top-down, ethnocentric and technocratic approach, which treated peoples and cultures as abstract concepts, statistical figures to be moved up and down in the charts of “progress”[1]. One has only to look at the first Sustainable Development Goal, which requires by 2030 that there be no more people living on less than $1.25 a day, to see how inextricably linked “progress” is to economic growth.  Although the SDGs offer a more sustainable view of ‘development’ than the Millennium Development Goals, it still seems as if GDP is the ultimate indicator, above the environment and human rights. The industrialised society model is being exported out to the world.

However, not all cultures share these values. Many tribal peoples consider themselves to be wealthy, despite not having any of the comforts generally associated with advancement. When tribal peoples control their own territories, they are healthy and happy. They have a detailed knowledge about animals and plants, which enables them to be self-sufficient. They can use a range of traditional medicines and consume food that is high in protein, vitamins and minerals. The Dongria Kondh in India, for example, grow over 100 crops and harvest 200 wild foods and don’t go hungry, even during times of drought.  In fact, they have themselves stated: “we live like kings”.

Such a scenario would not suggest that they belong to the bottom strata of society and are in need of being lifted out of poverty. Unfortunately, these lifestyles do not fit the paradigm of what a developed people should be. Instead of recognising that “development” must be a multi-vocal concept, tribal peoples are condemned for being content and self-fulfilled. They are crowbarred into the capitalist model and are then regarded as being the most undeveloped of all.

This “development” of tribal peoples occurs in two ways. The first is “for the greater good”. This involves large-scale “development projects” which either intrude on tribal peoples’ land or force them off it. The second one is for tribal peoples’ “own good”. Often they are moved from their land and put into smaller, permanent settlements. The aim is that they then join the mainstream market economy.

Unfortunately, this concept of “progress” is misguided. Forced off their land, and with little say on how they are to live their lives, the results are devastating for tribal peoples.

© Survival International campygbakafw22014376original

‘We were a free people who lived surrounded by abundance. Now we depend on government aid.’

Guarani-Kaiowa leaders, Brazil

Imposed “development” measures have given tribal peoples more impoverished lives than before. Their health and well-being plummet, while rates of depression, addiction and suicide soar.

Life spans, for example, have greatly decreased. For instance, compared to other Australians, Aboriginals’ life expectancy at birth is ten to fifteen years less than other Australians. Tribal peoples have also been exposed to new diseases. Before being evicted from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana, the Bushmen were barely affected by HIV/AIDS. Post eviction, however, infection rates are high. In 2002, over 40% of deaths in one resettlement camp were due to AIDS.

Furthermore, by taking tribal peoples off their land and squeezing them onto small plots, they are no longer able to hunt, fish and grow crops. Food becomes a less reliable resource and many suffer from malnutrition. Conversely, many quickly become obese as they are forced to rely on unhealthy, processed foods. Tribal peoples are ill prepared for this new life. With little opportunity to look after themselves, they become dependent on handouts.

Therefore, industrialised societies have not improved the lives of tribal peoples. Unfortunately, despite the interference, tribal peoples are never fully accepted by capitalist society. Stuck between two worlds – one which marginalises them and the other which they are prevented from returning to – depression is rife. Once proud and happy, many now suffer from addiction. In one shocking example, Bayaka children from Congo are paid with glue to sniff in exchange for emptying latrines. Suicide rates are now tragically high. For example, Brazil’s Guarani tribe – relocated from their land and now living on small plots of land – has a suicide rate 34 times the national average. The youngest to kill herself was only nine years old. The results are certainly bleak but it doesn’t have to be this way.

‘You don’t have to take care of us. We’ll take care of ourselves’

Dongria Kondh, India braz-yano-fw-2008-066_original.jpg

(c) Fiona Watson/Survival International
(c) Fiona Watson/Survival International

For development and progress to work, they must be about “freedoms”. Remembering Amartya Sen’s discussion, development should enhance freedoms through the extension of people’s capabilities to allow people to lead the kind of life they value, rather than maximising the level of income per capita. Repressive development is not development at all.

For tribal peoples, their choice and freedom must manifest itself in a way specific to them. The best way to ensure their wellbeing is to make sure that they are in control of their land. Tribal peoples must control their own development and any changes must be in line with their own values to adapting to a changing world. It is about giving them the choice.

This has happened before and can happen again. For example, after loggers and ranchers were prevented from entering the Awa’s land in the Brazilian Amazon, their health and happiness greatly increased. This was also the case with the Yanomami after their land was demarcated in 1992. Shamans worked alongside medics, both sharing their knowledge and expertise with each other. As a result, the number of Yanomami deaths quickly halved. Unfortunately, their health has once again plummeted. Goldminers have reinvaded the land and spread disease, and adequate health care is no longer delivered. It is therefore incredibly important that tribal peoples’ right to land, and to develop as they choose, are both recognised and then effectively enforced.

It may be that all of this seems obvious to you. Evident as it may be, however, the reality is that tribal peoples continue to suffer because this sort of “development” is being forced on them. This is especially the case in Africa and Asia. Racist, assimilationist views ensure that tribal peoples’ best interests are still ignored. It is critical that those who can see the problems and know the solution join the movement. We need to challenge and educate those working in areas where this still occurs.

We must show that development should not be about ticking boxes to satisfy industrialised societies’ values and concerns. It should be about freedoms and letting people choose their own economic, social and cultural development. Instead of putting in place “development” measures that lead to the death and destruction of tribal peoples, we should start listening to what they actually want.

© Survival International

Survival’s “Progress Can Kill” report can be downloaded here.

[1] A. Escobar, ‘Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World’ Princeton University Press, p.44

The author Sarina Kidd is an international development practitioner with in-country experience in Peru, Paraguay and Zambia. She has expertise in anthropological and social policy research as well as advocating on indigenous rights. She oscillates between novel writing and wishing she lived in a novel. 


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