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Development as Tragedy: The Asian Development Bank and Indigenous People in Cambodia


Peter J. Hammer


Wayne State University Law School

April 1, 2009

LIVING ON THE MARGINS: MINORITIES AND BORDERLINES IN CAMBODIA AND SOUTHEAST ASIA, Peter J. Hammer, ed., Center for Khmer Studies, 2009
Wayne State University Law School Research Paper No. 09-06

Abstract:     
History is rife with conflicts between indigenous peoples and outsider groups. These confrontations have a timeless and often tragic quality. They are revealing because they juxtapose sometimes radically different manifestations of the human condition, and highlight tensions between divergent and often contradictory worldviews. While past conflicts played out under the rubric of colonialism or Manifest Destiny, today's confrontations are undertaken in the name of economic development. One such drama is underway in the Northeast Provinces of Cambodia, with substantial funding from the Asian Development Bank (ADB). But contemporary development stories are different from older stories of colonization. Development agencies are exporting aid and technical assistance, with the dual objectives of market building and state building. Increasingly, these initiatives have social as well as economic components. Modern development comes complete with roads, schools and health clinics, along with pledges to reduce poverty. This is not all. Indigenous communities are now invited to participate in the process of their own development. Where such participation is not possible, development agencies will expend additional resources to build the indigenous capacity to do so.

This paper focuses on "development" as embodied in the policies and practices of international agencies like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. It examines economic development as its own distinct set of beliefs and attempts to frame and justify a narrative of "development as tragedy." Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia face other obvious threats, such as land grabbing, deforestation and environmental degradation. These threats reflect the more naked avarice of economic markets and a predatory state. As such, these threats are more consistent with a narrative of "development as exploitation." The narratives of exploitation and tragedy are complementary and not competitive. Each teaches different lessons. A tragedy in the Aristotelian sense is a drama that invokes deep feelings of fear and pity in the audience. The sense of tragedy is driven by the protagonist's adherence to a mistaken set of briefs that inevitably condemns his conduct to have disastrous consequences, foreseeable to the audience but often not the actor.

This article critically evaluates certain ADB Reports on indigenous peoples to learn not so much what the Reports teach about native tribes, but what they reveal about the worldview and mistaken beliefs of the ADB and modern industrial societies. These documents are used as artifacts. Theories about economic development act like mirrors, revealing important insights into the belief systems of modern societies. A careful analysis of the Reports illustrates how the problems of indigenous peoples are often mere projections of the ADB's own beliefs, beliefs that are themselves largely driven by the Bank's underlying economic models. Framing the problem as a conflict between disparate worldviews further reveals the limitations of participation as a policy tool.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 27

Keywords: Development, Indigenous Peoples, Cambodia, Worldviews

JEL Classification: A13, O10, O19, Z10

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Date posted: April 2, 2009 ; Last revised: May 20, 2009

Suggested Citation

Hammer, Peter J., Development as Tragedy: The Asian Development Bank and Indigenous People in Cambodia (April 1, 2009). LIVING ON THE MARGINS: MINORITIES AND BORDERLINES IN CAMBODIA AND SOUTHEAST ASIA, Peter J. Hammer, ed., Center for Khmer Studies, 2009; Wayne State University Law School Research Paper No. 09-06. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1371595

Contact Information

Peter Joseph Hammer (Contact Author)
Wayne State University Law School ( email )
471 Palmer
Detroit, MI 48202
United States
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