High vs. Baird, et al.

Readers who followed this New Mandala debate about resettlement projects in Laos will be interested in a further exchange between Holly High, from the University of Sydney, and a group of scholars who have taken issue with some of her interpretations: Ian G. Baird, Keith Barney, Peter Vandergeest, and Bruce Shoemaker.

After its initial airing on New Mandala in December 2007 this debate continued with High’s December 2008 Critical Asian Studies article, “The Implications of Aspirations: Reconsidering Resettlement in Laos” (40:4, pp. 531–550).  In that piece she suggested:

…that a pathologization of mobility obstructs understandings of Lao resettlement by obscuring the role of aspiration. Repeatedly, Lao settlers have expressed the view that it is not mobility, but poverty, that is problematic in their settlements. Settlers explained that they had been willing to move and to experiment with government policy. Taking advantage of opportunities that arise through personal effort and mobility is a model that fits closely with the pattern of aspirations summarized above. Furthermore, the settlers evidenced a significant aspiration for incorporation into the state, particularly through health, education, and prestigious jobs. These aspirations, I suggest, are key reasons why people in Laos engage in resettlement programs.

Barney, et al. responded in the most recent issue of Critical Asian Studies (41:4 (2009), pp. 605–620):

We find ourselves at odds with High in two key ways. The first is her selective reading of authorswho havewritten critically about highland to lowland resettlement in Laos. Our second objection relates to the quality of the empirical evidence in support of her arguments that people who are being resettled in Laos can support their resettlement because it fitswith their aspirations formodernity. Our differing interpretation starts with the ways that High’s article creates areas of disagreement with critical authors through a selective reading of their work. In particular, she often assumes that these scholars hold binary ways of thinking that fail to capture the “vast territory between voluntariness and coercion, or between new poverty and old poverty.”

Finally, we are concerned about the implications of High’s conclusions. Although we do not think that this was her intention, nevertheless High’s article holds the potential to help justify the views of those who advocate and fund centralized planned internal resettlement in Laos, without the adequate participation of local people. The article could be used to justify policies and practices that are discriminatory against highlanders.

High then countered, as a follow-up to the Barney, et al. intervention, with a long rebuttal of their critical comments.  She finished with:

Baird et al. conclude their reply by expressing their worry that my article has the power to shore up funding and support for “non-participatory” resettlement schemes in Laos. Their concern with my work seems to be that I have forsaken the side of the angels and thus must fall automatically into the enemy camp of forced resettlement: if you are not for us you must be against us. This concern is perfectly consistent with their binary framework, but it misses the point of my article: I wrote of complexity, and I wrote of culturally embedded aspirations, and these are far from an endorsement of the non-participatory scenario they fear. Editing out my knowledge of the importance of aspirations and complexity would be a form of self-censorship, and though it might offer an illusory sense of a brush with angels, self-censorship is not a path to political effectiveness for academic work. One of its dangers is that — through the desire to side with the angels — writers may neglect both the complexity of the causes and consequences of inequality and our own complicity in these.