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Holly HighFields of Desire: Poverty and Policy in Laos

NUS Press, 2014

by Nick Cheesman on May 18, 2015

Holly High

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Policymakers around the world design projects in which the demands of citizens for basic services are cast as a problem of poverty. Villagers are expected to prove their worthiness for charitable projects and participate with gratitude in schemes for their gradual improvement. When projects fail, the recipients get blamed for being corrupt, ignorant, or disinterested in their own welfare.

In Fields of Desire: Poverty and Policy in Laos (NUS Press, 2014), Holly High recounts how Laotian villagers participate in road projects they know will fail, attempt to restart irrigation schemes they had only recently thwarted, and engage with a state they distrust not because they lack awareness, but out of culturally embedded desire. Poverty alleviation campaigns aim to enlist people into cooperative projects with appeals to egalitarianism and democratic choice, yet the success of mutual assistance depends on hierarchical relations, the making of extravagant claims, and sometimes, the ritualized delivery of excessive abundance. Little wonder that when budgets are small and official expectations are modest, roads end up going nowhere and irrigation pumps fall idle. Yet, people's seemingly unrealistic aspirations still lead to realistic choices, and practical outcomes.

"If stories of state are to be approached ethnographically, then they must be allowed to catch us," High writes. As an ethnographer, she acts firmly on this imperative, taking reification of the state seriously, and writing against projects that rush to demystify it. As an author, she catches the reader with her sympathetic portrayals of life in rural Laos, weaving keen insights into evocative narratives to deliver a highly informative and engaging account of the politics of poverty in mainland Southeast Asia.


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Think of student activism in Asia and what comes to mind? The democracy movement in China during 1989? Or Burma the year before? The tumultuous student politics of Thailand in the mid 70s? Perhaps the 2014 protests in Hong Kong. For most of us, student politics in Malaysia probably isn’t the first thing we’d think […]

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Over the last decade, debates about political turmoil in Thailand have loomed large in talk shows, chat rooms and public lectures. From the military coup of 2006 that ousted the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, through the tumultuous years after the restoration of civilian government and the latest coup of 2014, events in Thailand have held […]

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Erik BraunThe Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw

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[Cross-posted from New Books in Buddhist Studies] Erik Braun’s recent book, The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw (University of Chicago Press, 2013), examines the spread of Burmese Buddhist meditation practices during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the social, political, and intellectual historical contexts that gave rise to this development.  Braun accomplishes […]

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Jothie RajahAuthoritarian Rule of Law: Legislation, Discourse and Legitimacy in Singapore

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In Authoritarian Rule of Law: Legislation, Discourse and Legitimacy in Singapore (Cambridge University Press, 2012), Jothie Rajah tells a compelling story of the rule of law as discourse and praxis serving illiberal ends. Through a series of case studies on legislation criminalizing vandalism and regulating the print media, legal profession, and religion in Singapore, Rajah raises critical […]

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[Cross-posted from New Books in Islamic Studies] For many Muslim communities particular religious identities were formulated or hardened within colonial realities. These types of cultural encounters were structural for the various Muslim tribes in the southern Philippine islands of Mindanao and Sulu during the turn of the twentieth century. In Making Moros: Imperial Historicism and American Military […]

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Few books on Southeast Asia cover as much geographic, historical and theoretical ground as Dan Slater’s Ordering Power: Contentious Politics and Authoritarian Leviathans in Southeast Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2010). Working across seven case studies, the book argues that existing theories of institutionalization don’t account for regional variation in regime type. Tracing causal processes from […]

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Denise CruzTranspacific Femininities: The Making of the Modern Filipina

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[Cross-posted from New Books in Asian American Studies] Denise Cruz's Transpacific Femininities: The Making of the Modern Filipina (Duke University Press, 2012) traces representations of Filipinas in literature and popular culture during periods of transitional power in the Philippines, from the transition from Spanish to American colonial power, then to Japanese Imperialism, then to independence and the Cold War, and […]

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