Friday, 6 November 2009

The Honey Trap

(Notes from the Papuan Highlands, from about a year ago)

Imagine that globalisation had turned out differently. It had been not European cultures that somehow got spread and dominated the world, in fact created the ‘world’, but it would have come from the other end of the massive Eurasian continent. Imagine that Augustus, Kepler, Darwin, John von Neumann were actually Papuan highlanders, from New Guinea. Imagine that Papuan armies colonised much of the Globe, then turned them into subordinated states. Then left them, and coerced all into a global economic project.

Then imagine that some Papuan guys would have realised that there were tiny little parts of the world that are still left ‘untouched’. Say, a place called Oxford. Imagine then that they would set up a global institution that would aim to help the ‘poor’. A concept very much defined in their global, that is, Papuan culture and framework. Then imagine that this global help-the-poor organisation was to decide to elevate the people of Oxford from utter poverty. “You know, there 80% of the people are under the poverty line.” Thus a bunch of Papuan gals and guys would descend on the unsuspecting population of our land. What would we think?

In other words: who the hell are we even to attempt to provide a ‘strategic vision’ for the people of Papua?

The Western goodies, like metal axe, machetes, mobile phones, new crops, as well as the occasional electricity and satellite antenna connected television sets are as much a draw here as anywhere else. But, they are real honey traps. They come with the bible, with pressure to get ‘civilised’, dress up, as well as alcohol, drugs, and HIV.

And it is all internalised. “You know, our people here are very poor. They are still running around naked.” (Which in itself ignores the fact, that people here have never actually been naked, just had different, and often much smaller clothing items. But they can be beautiful and very sophisticated. These words are of course for our consumption only. What a dismal line of Westerners must have come before us!)

Five decades of being told off for their own heritage, as rich as any other in the world, and unique in every sense of the word, have led to a desperate attempt to assimilate. We have seen gold painted, enormous glass coffee tables with Roman motifs on them: huge pieces of inadequate furniture that had to be flown into the Highlands as there are no roads leading in. Wasting precious resources and flight space. We are fed melons, watermelons, rice, and chicken. Hardly indigenous food here. While not once have we been given sweet potatoes, the Highland staple. (On one occasion, our lunch, in the very middle of the Highlands was flown-in especially from the coast, in fast food like packets!) Most of the new buildings try to imitate western styles or other, wealthier parts of Indonesia. There is hardly any architectural reference among the housing of the well-to-do to the local heritage.

In other words, our cultural intrusion is screwing up a 45,000 year old society; or more precisely, a system of small societies. (There really are 253 languages for some 2.5 million people.) An now we will bring more roads, and ports, and airports, and a lot of hydro plants, and electrical grid, and water supply.

Which takes me back to a previous point. Who the hell are we to do this?

What is the justification for us to think about the “place of the Papuan society in the global economy”? Our intellectual toolbox is very much the product of the European cultures. Economics, is a western society-management engineering discipline, that is coming from, with its assumptions, questions-to-be-answered, and methodology, from West European socio-economic systems. Our values that we project onto the ‘objectives’ of economic development are themselves of European origin, even if in that case the net goes a little bit wider.

Opposed to that, the de facto European-in-origin global culture split from what is now Papuan Highlander, maybe around 40-50 millennia ago. There was no intermingling whatsoever until 1956.

I probably should have stayed at home, and let others do the destruction. In my value system, you don’t screw up others’ cultures. Unless you haven an excuse.

So I made up one: global impact community.


  1. i think you need to actually come up with a suggestion. i think what is needed here is a new economical system. in this late capitalism, the question is not why, but who and how, as you know better than i do. it is just about time that an economist comes up with a new model that does not simply differ in ways of profit distribution, like capitalism and socialism, but will reexamine (overhaul, to use this beautiful term of recession coverage) what counts as a profit. because as far as i can see, the question is, which one is more important, the culture or the resources. which one will the world need from papua. as of existing economical models, the answer in any case is resources. so come up with a suggestion what an economical system would look like in which such values as cultures, languages, the social fabric of a community can pull more weight than gas, gold and copper mines.

  2. Papua is a perfect example, for it encapsulated many of the global problems that we will have to sort out at one point. (Notice the use of the 'humanity we'...) If you had a "new economic system" that you suggest here, it would surely need to be able to answer both sets of questions: those of the West Papuan Highlands, and those on the global scale.

    Intriguing that you suggest that the new framework should be around the concept of 'profit'. The trouble is that the term really is more of a description than a prescription. And, as a descriptive term, it does work well; at least in the 'western' or 'westernised' framework. But it seems that what you are asking for is a prescriptive set of thoughts.

    It would not be impossible to come up with these, as long as (a) we had a good model, a descriptive one, about how the world works; and (2) we knew what the values are along which we want to prescribe actions for ourselves. These two building blocks seem to be lacking.

    However, as you were probably one of those few who read some of the posts on this blog in the past, the frustration is entirely understandable. Most of the writings are bashing the world for either not having the descriptive model around, or acting as if there was an overarching set of human values available on which prescriptions could be formed. A perfectly fair point.

    Thinking is the next step then?