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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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