Playing Cassandra

I’m feeling distinctly pessimistic today. As I’ve written in the past, the notion that “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice” may be a necessary belief to remain motivated in generations-long battles for justice, but as an “is” statement (as opposed to an “ought” statement), it is naive at best in light of the cyclical nature of civilizations. All civilizations in the history of humankind have, sooner or later, declined and fallen into a “dark age”.

And with that cheery introduction, I’ll give you the following:
1)Rachel Maddow analyzing the effects of money on US politics. Basically, Republicans and corporations now have enough money at their disposal to win even extremely unlikely electoral races. And the Democrats’ plan to survive and counter this? winning, then amending the constitution. except that, as just noted, they can’t really win anymore. So basically, unless the Repubicans actually manage to self-destruct, the US government is now wholly theirs, on all levels, for years to come.

2)A graph and summary about oil prices since the economic crisis. oil prices are currently falling because of assorted political clusterfucks, but for the last year, despite fluctuations, they are as high as they were at the beginning of 2008. and anything “good” happening economically will instantly reverse the current downward trend. so, it seems our choices right now are economic collapse somewhere important and the continuation of the Era Of Cheap Oil, or economic stabilization/recovery and the official end of oil below $100/bbl. Peak Oil, anyone?

3)In Europe, xenophobia always lurks just under the surface, threatening to erupt. The EU and its predecessor were created to end a history of conflict that includes the Hundred Year War, the 30 Year War, and that started both world wars. And they were doing a decent job of it, considering, before the global economic meltdown. But because the meltdown happened before the EU figured out how to manage itself in crisis situations, it is now in a political as well as an economic crisis. With predictable results: Fascists are getting elected wherever sufficient distrust of the other EU members has managed to break to the surface

4)And last but not least, speaking of the long arc of history: here’s a paper in Nature (I haz pdf) about possible “critical transitions” in the global ecosystem in the next century or so. I’ve kind of written about these transitions before. They’re basically what happens to an ecosystem when it stops being resilient enough to withstand a particular environmental pressure: it undergoes a drastic change until it can regain (relative, temporary) equilibrium as an entirely different ecosystem, one that usually doesn’t sustain the same species and communities as before. And this paper basically discusses the possibility that our biosphere is about to undergo a critical transition as a result of human-caused pressures on the system. Some choice quotes:

Here we summarize evidence that such planetary-scale critical transitions have occurred previously in the biosphere, albeit rarely, and that humans are now forcing another such transition, with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.

This Modelling suggests that for 30% of Earth, the speed at which plant species will have to migrate to keep pace with projected climate change is greater than their dispersal rate when Earth last shifted from a glacial to an interglacial climate, and that dispersal will be thwarted by highly fragmented landscapes.Climates found at present on 10–48% of the planet are projected to disappear within a century, and climates that contemporary organisms have never experienced are likely to cover 12–39% of Earth48. The mean global temperature by 2070 (or possibly a few decades earlier) will be higher than it has been since the human species evolved.

Although the ultimate effects of changing biodiversity and species compositions are still unknown, if critical thresholds of diminishing returns in ecosystem services were reached over large areas and at the same time global demands increased (as will happen if the population increases by
2,000,000,000 within about three decades), widespread social unrest, economic instability and loss of human life could result.

Climate Conference in Durban, AKA We’re Fucked

So the Climate Conference in Durban ended, and it could only be described as an Epic Fail. The Sociopathy of politicians from powerful countries is becoming more and more obvious, when you look at how many people do want something done, and have spoken loudly and clearly as to WHY something needs to be done. Here’s a small sample:

Abigain Borah from the Youth Climate Delegation

Anjali Appadurai also from the Youth Climate Delegation

Karl Hood Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States

Claudia Salerno from Venezuela

And here’s a wrapup of that clusterfuck: U.S. Delay on Climate Pact Spurs Backlash From the EU to Barbados

To sum it all up: we’re fucked unless every US politician over 30 drops dead tomorrow or China and the US get wiped off the surface of the planet in the near future

Or shorter still: we’re definitely fucked.

Link dump

there’s a few issues on my mind that don’t need a lot to have said about them (or, you know, render one completely speechless), so I’ll just collect them all here:

1)douchebag: now an insult also applicable to racists: Hey Did You Know Your Vagina’s Personality Is Based On Your Race?

2)something that’s quite old by now, but that I haven’t gotten around to respond: Walton linked to an article about a boy in London fighting the ban on cornrows in his school. The ban was being defended because it bans things associated with gang-culture. Someone else commented that it was “unprofessional”. That reminded me of how political black people’s hair is: how much racism there is in associating traditionally black hairstyles with criminality, and how much shaming there is (usually of women) for their natural hair, to the point where many of them end up damaging it to make it look like white people’s hair. Anyway, here’s a good article from the guardian about it: Cornrows? Non-traditional? What rubbish

3)News Corp trying to shut up critics, in a way that vaguely reminds me of something a certain someone recently did… News Corp’s Times Of London Cartoon Shows Starving Children Bemoaning Phone-Hacking Scandal Coverage

4)Limbaugh claims that current heatwave is a Liberal Conspiracy: Limbaugh: The Killer 116° Heat Index Is ‘Manufactured By The Government’

5)Sustainable development that’s actually sustainable: Permaculture in Cambodia (30 min documentary)

EDIT: one more, for good measure: Fox News: Are There Really Poor Americans?, from The Young Turks

Homework blogging, episode two

This is my semester-long project on social inequalities in Laos, minus the poster-presentation (if anyone wants me to, I can post the poster in a separate entry). It’s epically long for a blog-post, with an epically long resource-section for a blog-post, but fuck it. I’m a child of the net-generation, and therefore if it’s not on the internet, it wasn’t worth writing in the first place :-p

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Economic Development and Inequality in Laos

Laos is an extremely poor country which has for most of its history been (and still is) a peripheral country both economically and politically, and has therefore not seen much development in terms of education, health, infrastructure, and economic well-being. And while the country has been experiencing impressive economic growth and development over the last 20 years, it has done so in ways that have increased inequalities within the country along gender lines and especially strongly along ethnic lines. The reasons for this growing inequality are a complex interplay between Laos’ status as a peripheral nation within the Modern World System with its resulting dependence on foreign aid and foreign markets, and its internal stratification system which privileges lowland, ethnically Lao (and closely related) populations over ethnic minorities living higher up in the hills and mountains of the country, and which privileges men over women.

Introduction to relevant concepts

The Modern World System(Kerbo, 2009, pp. 467-478), a concept that extends the class system internationally, acts upon countries like Laos by means of political, military, and economic influence directed at it from various Core Nations. For Laos, these influences begin with its colonial history, and continue with its use as a source of cheap natural resources and a business location for businesses that have encountered resistance and critique elsewhere, be it Thai logging companies(Rigg & Jerndall, 1999, pp. 151-152), or Scandinavian dam-construction companies(Usher, 1999, pp. 136-139), and includes the US government(Baird & Shoemaker, 2007, pp. 870-871) as well as a host of aid agencies and economic groups all of which have their own idea of how to shape Laos.
The ethnic aspect of this internal stratification system is based on racialization, meaning the process by which previously not existing racial categories and attributes are assigned to all members of a newly defined racial group. In Laos, the issue is the racialization of lowland vs. upland/highland populations into “civilized lowlanders” vs. “primitive hill tribes”, as well as an increasing conflation of Laotian national identity with Lao ethnic identity, via governmental, educational and other institutions(Ireson & Ireson, 1991, pp. 925- 926).
Similarly, the gender aspect of this internal stratification system is based on gender construction, i.e. the social creation of the male/female dichotomy which assigns specific, dichotomous definitions of what it means to be male or female. In Laos, these constructions of gender are traditional, patriarchal constructions based for one in agricultural life, which often makes women’s work and women’s needs invisible, and also in Theraveda Buddhism, which places the male above the female because it considers women closer to the material world(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, p. 15).
Lastly, the concept of intersectionality allows us to look at how different inequalities have been affecting each other. Intersectionality is a term for interactions of different kinds of social disadvantages and discrimination working together in a matrix of oppression to mutually reinforce each other. In Laos, the main intersections happen at the level of poverty, ethnicity, and gender.

Laos – An Overview

Laos, officially called the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, which shares borders with China and Burma(Myanmar) to the North, Vietnam to the East, Cambodia to the South, and Thailand to the West. It has an area of ca. 91428 square miles, only 4% of which is arable land, with the rest being mostly thick mountain forests. The total population is approximately 6368000 people, with one third of the population living in urban areas. Its economy is still largely agrarian, with 80% of the labor force employed in agriculture, the remaining 20% working in services and industry. The official language is Lao, but French, English, and various ethnic languages are also spoken(CIA, 2011). There are 47 currently recognized ethnicities within the country, with the ethnic Lao the largest of these groups. These ethnic groups are variably grouped either by geographic association into Lowland Lao (Lao Loum), Upland Lao (Lao Theung), and Highland Lao (Lao Soung) (Cao, 2009, pp.183-184), or by ethno-linguistic groups roughly into Lao-Tai, Mon-Khmer, and Tibeto-Burman/Miao-Yao(UNICEF, 1992, Table 1.3).
The history of Laos as a distinct political entity begins in 1535, with the founding of the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang after the conquest of Luang Phrabang (in the North of modern Laos) and Vientiane two years prior. It was a predominantly Buddhist, multi-ethnic kingdom similar to its neighbors, but unlike its neighbors it was isolated from the outside world for most of its existence. It lasted until 1571, after which it repeatedly fell under the control of its various neighbors, and by 1782 was absorbed by Siam(Evans, 2002, pp. 9-25), to eventually become a tributary state with overlapping suzerainty (meaning they paid tribute to more than one overlord), a sort of buffer-zone between Siam and Vietnam(Evans, 2002, p. 40).
At the end of the 19th century, colonizing European powers played an icreasingly dominant role in Southeast Asia. France laid claim on part of the former kingdom of Lan Xang as a tributary to Vietnam, which was under French control. It took control over the area in 1893, at first directly incorporating the South as a colony into “French Indochina”, while in the North the Kingdom of Luang Phrabang was indirectly incorporated as a protectorate. This arrangement was changed in 1899, when Laos finally became a single colony. Laos remained a French colony until 1945, but the French did not show much interest in Laos, which was unprofitable. It was loosely administered, mostly by imported French and Vietnamese bureaucrats, and the French established little in the way of public education for Laotians. There was also virtually no industry, very little land used for commercial crops, and little trade with the rest of French Indochina because of bad road infrastructure, thus providing little revenue for development in the country. In fact, opium grown by ethnic minorities in northern Laos was the only profitable income to the colony’s budget(Evans, 2002, pp. 41-50), and is to this day grown in the area, sparking occasional attempts by the government to eradicate it, usually with no other effect than economic and social damage to the tribes inhabiting the areas(Baird & Shoemaker, 2007, pp. 870-871).
In September 1945, Laos declared independence from France. This did not last, and even though in 1946 Laos became a constitutional monarchy within the French Union, from the late 40′s to the mid 70′s the country was in a state of civil war between the US-supported Royal Lao Government and the communist Pathet Lao. Throughout that time, the royalists controlled the part mostly inhabited by ethnic Lao, while the communists controlled areas mostly inhabited by ethnic minorities(Pholsena, 2006, p. 2). During this time, especially early on, plenty of foreign aid flowed into Laos from the USA. However, the money went primarily to maintaining a military, and the rest fueled an unsustainable boom for the Laotian urban elite, with none going towards development of the country. This created great resentment towards the USA (Evans, 2002, pp. 101-103). The divisions escalated as Laos became a “secret” battleground in the Vietnamese-American war. The RLG depended more and more on military support by the USA, while the PL depended on support from North Vietnam. By 1963 any pretense of neutrality in the conflict had disappeared(Evans, 2002, pp. 146-147).
After the end of the Vietnamese-American War in 1972, several years of negotiation and attempted coups followed, resulting eventually in the collapse of US military support as well as a military victory of the Pathet Lao(Evans, 2002, pp. 166-172). Since then, Laos has been a single-party communist state. Despite economic reforms begun in 1986 (decentralizing the economy and courting foreign investment and trade), and a new constitution written in 1991, the main political structure remains communist: while members of the National Assembly are elected, the candidates are selected by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. All other parties are forbidden, and no official pressure groups exist. The current president of Laos is Lt. Gen. Choummali Saignason, elected by the National Assembly in June 2006. The current Prime Minister is Thongsing Thammavong, nominated by the president and elected by National Assembly last December(CIA, 2011).

Modern Challenges

Today, Laos is one 49 countries on the United Nations’ “Least Developed Countries” list created in 1971 to designate countries seen as most disadvantaged in their development because of, among other things, low per capita income and low human capital, i.e. a lack of an educated, skilled workforce(Gore & Kozul-Wright, 2011). Despite having had a high economic growth rate averaging 6% since (except during the Asian economic crisis in the late 90′s, and now again during the Global Economic Crisis after 2008), Laos is still a very poor and underdeveloped country, with an economy dependent on export of natural resources such as timber and electricity(CIA, 2011), as is typical for peripheral nations.
The biggest challenges facing Laos today are the inequalities along ethnic and gender lines. For one, there’s a pressing question how to eliminate ethnic inequalities and integrate the multitude of ethnic groups into one Laotian society without further disrupting or destroying the cultures and communities of these various groups in misguided attempts at acculturation and development. And two, there’s the question of inequality between men and women, which has always been great in Laotian society and which has already improved in some areas, especially education, but at the same time has caused new problems, such as the so-called “feminization of agriculture”(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno Black, 2004, p. 106) or the undermining of traditional inheritance rules which often favored the youngest daughter by new land-registration and distribution regulations which will often list the “head of household”, who is almost always considered to be a man, as the owner of a property(Viravong, 1999, pp. 155-161).
Both these challenges are made even more difficult by Laos’ position as a peripheral country dependent on foreign resources and foreign markets for its development. As such, Laos is constrained in its development by the demands of such foreign organizations, as well as the types of economic and developmental help offered by them. Nor can minorities wield any influence on what projects are undertaken in Laos, because they are severely underrepresented in government(Ireson & Ireson, 1991, p. 925) and language and educational barriers make it difficult for these minorities to communicate with the outside to make their plight heard by the constituencies and regulatory organizations to whom all those international organizations may be responsible.

Ethnic Inequality

The opening of the markets in the late 1980′s has brought many businesses as well as NGO’s and aid organizations to Laos. The development resulting from this inflow, while theoretically meant to lift the whole country out of poverty and improve the lives of men and women alike, has in reality concentrated most development in cities and surrounding areas, typically inhabited by ethnic Lao and other closely related populations. On the other hand, most supposed rural development, especially in mountainous areas, has more often than not resulted in cultural and economic disruptions.
Despite the previously mentioned high economic growth rate over the last two decades, the rate of poverty reduction has been only 1% per year, and economic inequality has been on the rise. In 2002, 36% of the population was still living below the poverty line, with the capital of Vientiane having the lowest rate at 12.2% and the highlands having the highest with 52.5%. The mountainous areas inhabited by the Lao Theung and Lao Soung, who make up 80% of Laos’ poor despite only making up 1/3 of its population, have continued suffering from underdeveloped infrastructure and poor access to services such as healthcare and education. For example, the travel distance to the nearest health center increased for the poor from 6.64 miles in 1993 to 7.27 miles in 2003. During the same time frame, the travel distance to the nearest health center decreased from 4.6 miles to 4.04 miles for the non-poor(Dowling & Yap, 2009, pp. 439-447).
Part of the reason for these growing inequalities is the remoteness of some of the areas in question. However, some of it is due to political and historical reasons that put the ethnic minorities on a different political side than the ethnic Lao majority(Cao, 2009, p. 184; Pholsena, 2006, p. 2). These divisions, among other things, have contributed greatly to the racialization process of the non-Lao ethnicities, which are still often denigrated as traitors and forbidden from migrating freely to different parts of the country(Baird, 2010). The population of Laos has undergone multiple rounds of racialization, starting with the French attempt to differentiate the population on their side of the Mekong from populations on the Siamese side, and ending with the constant redefinition and reclassification of Laotian populations, first into the three geographical categories of Lao Loum, Lao Theung, and Lao Seung (which were meant to foster unity among the ethnic groups as all being part of a Lao population, as well as give the dominant cultural group a majority at 68% of the population), and then into ethno-linguistic categories, and lastly into separate ethnic groups (which for the first time showed that Laos in fact does not have a true ethnic majority, as ethnic Lao make up around 49% of the population, which is a plurality). More specifically, racialization of non-Lao populations has been occurring as part of the process of trying to create a national Laotian culture. Laos as a country is a very modern creation, and not at all congruent with what most people would consider “natural” nations, i.e. a geographical region with one dominant culture or ethnicity, which is also the place where most of the people of that culture or ethnicity reside. Half of Laos’ population does not belong to the largest ethnic group (ethnic Lao), while at the same time, most of what could be considered ethnic Lao live outside the borders of Laos, in Thailand. Because of this, Laos seems to be fighting of doubts about its legitimacy as a country, and is therefore seeking to find a national identity to use as a weapon against such doubts(Evans, 1999). That, combined with the predominance of ethnic Lao in powerful and visible positions in major institutions, has led to a conflation of a national, Laotian identity with the identity of ethnic Lao. Conversely, the cultures of the non-Lao populations have been defined as primitive, environmentally damaging, and possibly outright un- or anti-Laotian. The customs, language, and lifestyle of the ethnic Lao are seen as the standard to which ethnic minorities must adapt to become more “civilized”, and more “Laotian” for the sake of cultural integration as part of “nation building”(Baird & Shoemaker, 2007, p. 872). So, despite the fact that the constitution of modern Laos specifically refers to Laos as a multi-ethnic country and society, defining Laotians by nationality rather than ethnicity; and despite the fact that it specifies the different ethnic groups’ right to protect and maintain their own cultural heritage, while at the same time promising to improve the socioeconomic conditions of the minority groups(Pholsena, 2006, pp. 5-6), very little attention is paid to any rights to self-determination of ethnic minorities, and their lives are often disrupted in the name of progress, which has been defined as adopting ethnic Lao language, lowland rice paddy cultivation, and living in sedentary villages(Ireson & Ireson, 1991, p. 926). The worst example of such disruption is internal resettlement.
Some reasons for resettlement are internal to Laotian politics. In the 1970′s and early 1980′s, such internal reasons would include resettlement for security reasons. Populations potentially allied with anti-communists would be removed from borderlands. Today, security is rarely considered a reason for resettlement. More often, the cause are either attempts at cultural integration of ethnic minorities into a lifestyle more closely resembling ethnic Lao lifestyles, or attempts at bringing infrastructure to rural populations cost-effectively, by concentrating the populations around roads, hospitals, etc., instead of attempting to bring those resources to small, widely scattered settlements(Baird & Shoemaker, 2007, pp. 871-872). Sometimes, such resettlements are entirely the consequence of foreign influence: dam construction prompted by foreign companies no longer able to do business in their home-markets(Usher, 1999), attempts at eradicating swidden-agriculture partially prompted by foreign logging interests(Ireson & Ireson, 1991, pp. 929-930; Rigg & Jerndall, 1999, pp. 149-154), or attempts at eradicating the farming of opium poppies prompted by the US “War on Drugs”(Baird & Shoemaker, 2007, pp. 870-871). Support among the foreign organizations working in Laos for such resettlement practices is mixed. Some forms of resettlement were outright actively encouraged by foreign organizations, especially in the case of opium eradication. In other cases, the resettlement was either “tolerated” as fact (because criticizing the government actions would have been seen as “too political” for an aid organization), or the organizations had no understanding of the situation and were ignorant of resettlement practices. Commonly, international agencies frown upon what they perceive as “involuntary” resettlement and claim not to support it, while either tolerating or outright supporting “voluntary” resettlement. However, the reality of the situation is rarely this clear-cut, as most of the “voluntary” resettlement is initiated by the government rather than the village, with threats and empty promises being used to manipulate people into moving “voluntarily”(Baird & Shoemaker, 2007, pp. 878-882). In other situations, while no official resettlement is taking place, people are forced to move by changing environmental conditions. Such was, for example, the case after the construction of the Theun-Hinboun dam. There project was hailed as a non-disruptive small-scale project, and indeed no villages were going to be inundated by its construction, and so no plans for resettlement were made. However, the dam caused declines in local fish-catches ranging from 30%-90%, as well as inundation of garden plots, loss of access to drinking water in the dry season, and various transportation difficulties. As a result of these and similar problems, many people felt it necessary to abandon their homes and relocate elsewhere, without adequate financial compensation (since no resettlement-money was set aside for the project)(Shoemaker, 1998, pp. 6-11).
Resettlement or relocation of this sort has strongly negative effects on the affected ethnic minorities. According to Evrard & Goudineau(2004, pp. 948-952), villages that resettle straight from the mountains to the lowland areas can lose up to 30% of its population due to malaria and other diseases in the first year after resettlement. It also often causes economic disruption, when lifestock also succumbs to diseases or when promised rice-fields don’t materialize. As a result of such negative effects, some people migrate back to their original settlements. They either settle permanently and in defiance of government orders in their old villages, or, more commonly, they officially settle in the new location but live in their old village, and migrate to the new site during the rainy season and when official visitors are expected. In any case, the disruption of people’s lives contributes to, and in some cases even creates, the poverty in which members of these ethnic minorities find themselves.

Gender Inequality

Laos is largely a patriarchal society, though at least in the case of the Lao Loum less so than neighboring countries and cultures. Gender construction is primarily based on traditional, religious definitions of masculinity and femininity and their social rank in regard to each other, communist claims to striving for gender equality notwithstanding. A large part of the gender construction and gender stratification in Laos comes from a mix of Buddhist and spiritual religious traditions. Ethnic Lao religious background is one of a mix of strongly patriarchal Theraveda Buddhism which devalues women and considers them more attached to the material world than men, and animism in which women play active roles as spirit mediums. While this gave women a certain status in their villages, it also cut them off from formal education, since until 1975, such education was mostly provided to boys by Buddhist monks, while girls learned skills from their mothers. After 1975, the traditional balance begun to shift due to war and communist politics, but the results were mixed. On the one hand, the importance of secular education as a tool for national integration helped send more boys as well as girls to school. On the other hand however, the ban on the sale of contraceptives as well as other encouragements to larger family sizes put women in greater danger, since healthcare in Laos has been very rudimentary and hardly improved upon under communist rule, creating one of the highest maternal death rates in the world at 653 deaths per 100 000 births, and contributing to general deterioration of women’s health. It also put an extraordinary, additional burden on mothers as well as oldest daughters, since child care of all kind is still considered to be almost exclusively women’s work, and siblings are expected to take over a large portion of the mother’s child-caring duties(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, pp. 15-17, 80-83). Since the economic liberalization of Laos, the structures have changed once again, leading to what is called the “feminization of agriculture”: for one, better road access, as well as increased work opportunities outside of agriculture, have increasingly been drawing more men than women away from rural areas, leaving increasingly many women with the sole responsibility for farming; two, the introduction of farming machinery such as small tractors and irrigation pumps has eased the field-labor of men, while doing nothing to ease traditionally female tasks such as transplanting seedlings or weeding (Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, pp. 76-81, 105-106). Another consequence of liberalization is the rush to privatization of land, and registration thereof as private ownership. While the laws regarding land registration are generally phrased in gender-neutral terms and even acknowledge traditionally matrilocal inheritance, registration itself is often made in the name of the “head of household”, who is generally considered to be a man. This practice actively undermines traditional ethnic Lao inheritance patterns, which usually left household land to the youngest daughter. This combination of traditionally matrilinear inheritance patterns and new patriarchal registration patterns create situations in which wifes lose their houses to their husbands, who retain their wife’s heritage after a divorce and may even acquire even more land by repeated remarriage. Some women do manage to get property registered in their own name, but these are often better educated women in urban areas, thus reinforcing inequality between the poorer rural areas and the more wealthy urban areas(Viravong, 1999, pp. 157-161).
Unlike in the case of ethnic inequality however, the communists actually acted on their claimed commitment to equality at least to the degree of creating the Lao Women’s Union to represent the needs of women and work for their equality. So, unlike in the case of ethnic minorities, women do have a means of having their issues heard by both the government and the international community. The LWU was founded as the Lao Patriotic Women’s Association in 1955, primarily as a tool of the Pathet Lao to organize women in the fight against Royalists. However, the LWU was also meant to promote equality between the sexes, and it has been doing so with a certain degree of success: it was partially responsible for gaining women the right to vote in 1958(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, pp. 18-19) , and after the economic reforms in the late 1980′s, has promoted various programs meant to improve women’s lives in the same way that mens lives were being improved. One such example is the Luang Phrabang Women’s Development Project that run from 1988 to 1993, which reduced water-carrying time for women by creating running water systems, and eliminated the need for rice hulling by creating rice mills; helped with basic necessities such as mosquito nets, or building materials for child-care centers; and providing training and resources for more marketable production-practices which increased the women’s incomes(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, pp. 154-167).
Still, traditional patriarchal culture and sexism in government as well as international and foreign organizations, most of which are predominantly staffed and led by men, mean that gender inequality iremains a great problem despite recent improvements in some areas and attempts by the LWU to stop the erosion of already existing rights of women in others(Viravong, 1999, p. 162).

At the intersection of gender and ethnicity

Intersectionality is another important aspect of social stratification in Laos. For ethnic women in Laos, the previously described ethnic and gender inequalities intersect to create an even heavier burden, and a second layer of stratification in which ethnic Lao women are more privileged (both traditionally and through modern development practices which favor the Lao Loum over other populations) than minority women, and minority men are more privileged (both through traditional patriarchal social structure, and through modern developments that improve labor conditions and work opportunities primarily for men rather than women) than minority women.
Education is an excellent example of the how the intersection between gender and ethnicity plays out in Laos: by 1989, the enrollment rate at the primary level was 66% for all of Laos, with the highest rate in Vientiane Prefecture at 95%, and the lowest in Sekong (a highland province primarily inhabited by Lao Theung) at only 6%. 80% of students enrolled in primary schools were Lao Loum, 16% were Lao Theung, and only 4% were Lao Soung, even though these groups make 68%, 22%, and 10% of the population, respectively. The ethnic inequality expressed itself even stronger in terms of gender, since girls made only 26% of the Lao Soung students, but 40% of the Lao Theung and 46% of the Lao Loum students(UNICEF, 1992, pp. 83-88).
By 2005, literacy and overall enrollment in education had vastly improved from the late 1980′s, but inequalities remained: while the net enrollment rate in primary education for Lao-Tai populations was around 76%, Ethnic minorities still enrolled at less than 50%. Similarly, the literacy rate for adults (age 15+)in 2005 was 82.5% for men but only 63.2% for women, and 85% for Lao-Tai but only 61% for non-Lao-Tai populations(Phetsiriseng, 2009, pp. 271-272). In terms of higher education, the inequalities become even more glaring. In 1995, Laos combined its 3 existing universities into a unified system now called National University of Laos (NUOL). Then, two smaller, “regional” universities were established: Champasak University (CU) in 2002, and Souphanouvong University (SU) in 2003. 93% of the students at NUOL are Lao Loum, while students at the much smaller and newer CU and SU are predominantly Lao Theung and Lao Soung. In total, as of 2005, 92.8% of all public university students were Lao Loum, 2.5% were Lao Theung, and 4.7% were Lao Soung. And again, we see the intersectionality of gender and ethnicity play out: while 34.2% of those Lao Loum students were women, only 20.5% of Lao Theung and 14% of Lao Seung students were. Or, to put it differently, 96.4% of all female students were Lao Loum, 1.5% were Lao Theung, and 2.1% were Lao Seung(Ogawa, 2009, pp. 288-295). This shows that ethnic inequality in higher education is even higher among women than among men, a clear example of intersectionality at work.
These stark differences in terms of educational achievement have multiple reasons. For one, primary education is funded similar to the way it is done in the U.S, with local taxes. Theoretically, areas that have a surplus are supposed to pass this surplus on to areas that are experiencing a shortage, but in reality this does not happen. The result is that even though teachers are supposed to get bonuses for working in poor, rural areas, the shortfalls in tax income often mean that teachers don’t get any pay at all for extended periods(Phetsiriseng, 2009, pp. 276-278). As a consequence, fewer teachers are willing to teach in those areas, and those that do are less well educated. Another reason for the inequality are language barriers. Most teachers are ethnic Lao, and teach in Lao. Most ethnic minorities however speak their own languages, and are not fluent in Lao(Ireson & Ireson, 1991, pp. 927-929). At the level of higher education, the simple lack of universities in minority areas has been the main contributing factor to inequality.
For women, the inequalities can be explained to a large degree by the above described “feminization of agriculture”, as well as traditional gender-roles which consider formal education less important for girls than for boys, and which see more need for a girl to stay at home and help(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, p. 17). The latter also help explain the greater ethnic disparity for women than for men: ethnic minorities in Laos have stronger patriarchal cultures, and as such these gender-roles are more strictly enforced and followed among minority populations than among the ethnic Lao populations(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, pp. 81, 167). Also, distances to schools are greater and many schools for ethnic minorities are organized as boarding schools(Ireson & Ireson, 1991, p. 928), thus creating larger absences, which once again are less accepted for girls than for boys.

Conclusion

While Laos has always been a nation with ethnic and gender inequalities in terms of status and political power, economic inequality was less prominent simply because Laos was universally underdeveloped and poor, with very little diversification in terms of labor (a consequence of being a peripheral nation). Recent reforms however have exacerbated economic inequalities because development coming from the outside had to go through government channels, and thus was directed into areas beneficial to those who already held the political power in Laos: men of ethnic Lao or closely related ethnic backgrounds. Thus, many policies that would not be acceptable in countries with a vocal populace were introduced into Laos for the economic benefit of the local elites (as well as the incoming organizations and businesses, who had to worry less about local resistance) to the detriment of ethnic minorities who had no power to prevent the projects, nor any organizations to speak for them and address their issues. Similarly, new regulations were shaped and used by men, who had greater access to the public sphere, to gain advantages to the detriment of women’s traditional but inofficial rights. New technologies also helped increase inequality in terms of the amount of labor performed by men and women in agriculture. However, women did have the Lao Women’s Union to work with them and speak for them, and so many negative effects could be tempered and some of the international money diverted to support infrastructure that improves women’s lives as well.

References

Baird, I. G. (2010). The Hmong come to southern Laos: Local responses and the creation of racialized boundaries. Hmong Studies Journal, 11, 1-38

Baird, I. G., & Shoemaker, B. (2007). Unsettling Experiences: Internal Resettlement and International Aid Agencies in Laos. Development and Change, 38 (5), 867-888

Central Intelligence Agency. (2011). The world factbook. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/la.html

Cao, H. (2009). Ethnic minorities and regional development in Asia: Reality and challenges. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press

Dowling, J. M., & Yap, C. F. (2009). Chronic poverty in Asia: Causes, consequences, and policies. Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific

Evans, G. (2002). A short history of Laos: The land in between. Crows Nest, NSW: Alan & Unwin

Evans, G. (1999). Introduction: What is Lao culture and society? In G. Evans (Ed.), Laos culture and society (pp.1-34). Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books

Evrard, O., & Goudineau, Y. (2004). Planned resettlement, unexpected migrations and cultural trauma in Laos. Development and Change, 35 (5), 937–962

Gore, C., & Kozul-Wright , Z. (2011). An overview of UNCTAD’s least developed countries report 2010: Towards a new international development architecture for LDCs. European Journal of Development Research Vol. 23 (1), pp. 3–11

Ireson, C & Ireson, D. (1991). Ethnicity and development in Laos. Asian Survey Vol. 31(10), pp. 920-937

Ireson-Doolittle, C. & Moreno-Black, G. (2004). The Lao: gender, power, and livelihood. Boulder, CO: Westview Press

Kerbo, H.R. (2009). Social stratification and inequality. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill

Ogawa, K. (2009). Higher education in Lao PDR. In Y. Hirosato & Y. Kitamura (Eds.), The political economy of educational reforms and capacity development in Southeast Asia (pp. 283-300). [S.I]: Springer

Pholsena, V. (2006). Post-war Laos: The politics of culture, history, and identity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press

Phetsiriseng, I. (2009) Education reform context and process in Lao PDR: Focusing on basic education. In Y. Hirosato & Y. Kitamura (Eds.), The political economy of educational reforms and capacity development in Southeast Asia (pp. 265-278). [S.I]: Springer

Rigg, J & Jerndall, R. (1999). Plenty in the context of scarcity. In M.J.G. Parnwell & R. L. Bryant (Eds.), Environmental change in South-East Asia (pp.145-162). New York, NY: Routledge

Shoemaker, B. (1998, April 1). Trouble on the Theun-Hinboun. Retrieved from: http://www.internationalrivers.org/southeast-asia/laos/theun-hinboun/trouble-theun-hinboun

Usher, A.D.(1999). The race for power in Laos. In M.J.G. Parnwell & R. L. Bryant (Eds.), Environmental change in South-East Asia (pp.123-144). New York, NY: Routledge

Viravong, M.(1999). Reforming property rights in Laos. In I. Tinker & G. Summerfield (Eds.), Women’s rights to house and land: China, Laos, Vietnam (pp. 153-162). Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc.

UNICEF. (1992). Children and women in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Vientiane: UNICEF

School-related short thoughts

1)It’s “Catholic Week” at NDSU. I’m tempted to find and print out a copy of that 1997 “protect the pedofiles” letter and hand it to the first Catholic who bugs me about their religion.

2)NDSU has, without asking me, added me to their International Student mailing list, so now I get such highly superfluous information as tips for how to dress in ND winter so as not to freeze. WTF? Do they add everyone to that list who was born abroad, without asking and without any consideration for how long they’ve been in the country/in the State?

3)My sociology classes have started discussing Marxian theory and Feminist theory. Makes for a nice antidote to the economics class :-p

4) My notebook, which I bought from the NDSU bookstore, has “soy-based ink”. Methinks soy is becoming the green equivalent of corn. and on that note: funny picture

My Economics Textbook (part one)…

…or “now I know why this country is infested with libertarians”.

My textbook for my Microeconomics class arrived the other day, and I’ve been leafing through it, reading bits and pieces of it. I have no opinion about the various models presented in there, not being an economist (d’uh), but some of the phrases in it, some of the opinions, and some of the “real-life examples” for economic principles etc. are disturbingly bad. If this is what most college-educated Americans know of economics (and it’s very possible, since the textbook claims to be the most commonly used one), I’m no longer surprised so many of them are libertarians.

Some of it may well be a problem with it being a beginner’s class, and thus full of stuff that’s so simplified, it’s almost wrong. It happens. However, when half the explanations seem to include an invisible “assume a spherical cow population of cheap, expendable, emotionless robots”, the simplifications actually end up being potentially dangerously wrong.

Can’t get even past the preface explaining the changes since the last edition, before we get to this awesome paragraph (emphasis mine):

This chapter addresses the question of whether the world is becoming overpopulated and rapidly running out of resources. It covers topics such as declining fertility rates, the optimal rate of resource extraction, resource substitution, resource resource sustainability, oil prices, and alternative energy sources. An understanding of the basic economic principles of natural resource economics will be critical to future voters and leaders. This micro treatment of natural resource and energy topics is particularly timely since many students are regularly exposed to alarmist views on these subjects

ooooh, “alarmists”, what a wonderful start. Ok then, let’s go to Chapter 15: Natural Resource and Energy Economics. First, we get a fairly decent (as far as I can tell) assessment of demographic development, with the minor smearing-by-omission of Malthus, whose assessment of the dangers of populations was quite right for a world in which two things didn’t exist: female emancipation and reliable birth control. The book only says that he was wrong. Also, a strange paragraph about how women had to have many children just so at least two could survive to adulthood, and that “parents – initially unaware that such a revolutionary change in death rates has taken place – for a while kept having six or more children”. Something tells me that wasn’t nearly as planned and premeditated as it sounds. Like I said, “assume robots”…

Then we go to resource usage: all these doomsayers were wrong because in fact the supply of resources has been increasing. True enough, so far, since we haven’t run out of anything significant yet. And what will happen when we do run out? Well, population growth will stop and reverse, and resource use has also leveled off (Forgetting to mention that many have leveled off waaaaay above sustainable levels while some don’t HAVE sustainable levels at all, and that some have leveled off ONLY on a per-capita basis was a pure accident, right?), and therefore we can conclude that future technology will prevent demand for resources exhausting their overall supply (wut? that would require the ability to increase efficiency to the point where you can create something out of nothing, or replacing it with an equivalent. just what is equivalent to iron? oil (for fuel AND plastics AND medicine)? potable water?!). Oh, and “even if we were to run out of oil, alternatives would quickly become available”. IF we run out of oil? Also, I’d like to know their definition of “quickly”. New stuff only comes quickly to those with money, and these new resources wouldn’t be cheap, merely relatively cheaper than the now extremely expensive oil. Oh, and we’re not going to run out of energy because of “clean coal” and fuel made from turkey guts. Really. And lastly, overexploitation is caused by “incomplete property rights” (because no one ever over-extracts their own resources and companies ALWAYS carefully plan years and even decades ahead instead of worrying primarily about increasing next quarter profits. Just ask the Enron Guys). This is exemplified by the tiresome example of successful vs. unsuccessful wildlife preservation: State-run programs always have massive problems with poachers. Programs that have the local population as “owners” of the wildlife, i.e. in control of the tourism (they run it, they profit from it, etc.) give the population more incentive to protect the animals and not kill them. This is phrased as a “public property vs private property” thing, when in all the programs I’m familiar with the “property” is communal, at the village-level. If it were in fact private, I suspect it would just cause the same situation as with Medieval European”private hunting reserves”: the owner has incentive to protect the forest and the wildlife, but everyone else doesn’t.

At the end of the chapter, there’s a little essay called “Is Economic Growth Bad for the Environment?”. They argue that it isn’t, because rich countries have higher EPI scores. They even have a nice chart that indeed shows a very strong correlation between EPI scores and GDP per person. Which of course tells us fuck-all about economic growth, and conveniently ignores the fact that most extraction and manufacturing, the source of most resource use and pollution, has been outsourced out of these rich countries into the poor countries. And a certain economist whom I won’t name even suggested exporting waste. Plus, even scoring the highest on EPI doesn’t mean it’s enough, if “highest” still means using too many resources, spewing too much CO2 into the atmosphere, degrading arable land, unsustainable use of water, etc.

To round off the “economics and environment” issue, in another chapter, they have this to say about Climate Change:

Economists also stress that the market mechanism, through its system of prices and profits and losses, will make appropriate adjustments based on new climatic realities. Air-conditioner sales may rise; snow shovel sales may fall. Some agricultural lands probably will be deserted; others farther north will be cultivated. The maple syrup industry in New England may shift to Canada. Nevertheless, the transition costs – the costs associated with making economic adjustments – of global warming will undoubtedly be very high unless some actions are taken to reduce greenouse gases. But industrial economies are built on carbon-based energy sources, so the costs of reducing such gases are also quite high. The relevant question from the economic perspective becomes: Will it be less costly for society to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions or simply to try to mitigate their effects?

First off, what lands further north? The soil-less Canadian Shield? The permafrost currently sinking into the ocean? And this would of course happen at the cost of the forests that are currently covering these areas, but without new forests sprouting up in the abandoned deserts (see Iraq and Egypt for what happens when agricultural lands stop being agricultural).

And secondly, “cheap, expendable, emotionless robots” again. I know this is an economics textbook, not an ethics textbook, but you can’t tell me that there’s even a question about which solution would be better: entire countries are scheduled to become uninhabitable, and I’m having a hard time believing such massive disruptions to settlement patterns(nevermind massive death for a moment; apparently human life, especially brown human life, is cheap) could be cheaper than CO2 emission reduction.

This concludes the environmental part of the rant. Since the post is already pretty long, I’ll stop here, and write the rest tomorrow (I really really will, promise. It’s already partially written anyway).

Hooray for slobs

I’ve finally found the perfect excuse reason for being a lazy slob. It’s environmentally friendly (and cheap)! This is why (warning: not for germophobes!)

  • I clean the apartment twice a year, which means I’m using almost no cleaning supplies

  • I rarely do laundry, so that saves both on soap and on electricity
  • dishes only get done occasionally between uses
  • I don’t ever iron anything, so less energy again
  • I wear clothes even when severely damaged, i.e. i need to buy fewer of them and therefore don’t contribute to the energy and resource usage required to make them
  • I have never actually washed my car, so no soaps, no water and energy wastage
  • between the boyfriend and me, we’ve probably used one bar of soap in the last year
  • a bunch of other things, which on second thought are maybe a bit TMI :-p

unfortunately, I bet being a nightowl completely ruins all of that, since it results in eating food from the gas station and having the lights on all night. :-p