Reflection Five

Prompt:

In this reflection assignment, I would like you to consider the role of expertise in your PE.

In a broad sense, what problem is your PE addressing?  What borders are drawn around this problem?  When considering these borders, think about the site of intervention on your PE, and how identifying that site required drawing borders around a very specific aspect of the broader challenge that your PE is addressing (ie. are borders drawn around the microbe, dirty water in the household, in the individual, the community, women, houses, the individual child, school children, etc.)

Next, consider the “experts”, those who draw borders and define problems: who are the experts?  How did they become experts?  What is the role of calculation–what numbers and metrics are used by these experts and how?

Finally, and most importantly, how does expert knowledge–by drawing borders and selecting metrics for calculation–hide politics, or depoliticize the sorts of problems your PE site attempts to engage?

Response:

In the broadest sense, my PE organization addresses inequality that arose due to a market society, economic growth, and unequal redistribution policies. More specifically, it addresses the symptoms of income stratification in relation to the Muong ethnic minority, who live in rural areas of Hoa Binh Province.

Speaking in a general sense, before, many farmers were able to grow their crops and successfully sell in the local market (within their province). However, when Vietnam became more integrated into the world market and price became determined by market forces, prices fell dramatically.   This means that the market is saturated with goods and farmers cannot sell enough to make a living.

In relation to the Muong, they have problems selling their vegetables outside the local market—in Hanoi or other larger cities (let’s not think about selling internationally). CECAD points to a variety of reasons why they are unable to sell outside their geographical proximity.

They are not selling the “right” products to meet the demand; in other words, there is no demand for their goods. For example, some farmers have chosen to specialize in beekeeping and producing honey, but there does not seem to be enough people that demand large amounts of honey to make decent living off selling just honey.

In addition, consumers are more skeptical about vegetable quality. There are reports of food poisoning from vegetables that are covered in pesticides, so consumers are unlikely to buy produce that is not safe-vegetable certified. Therefore, CECAD has implemented educational campaigns that taught farmers about the dangers of pesticides on health and the environment. This encouraged farmers to reduce the use of pesticides or practice safe vegetable production like organic farming. However, farmers are unable to afford safe-vegetable certification so they don’t have proof of safe practices.

Moreover, farmers do not have a lot of bargaining power when it comes to buying inputs of production: fertilizer, seed, and technology. They incur large transportation costs when they transport their produce to Hanoi, so doing so is infrequent and they cannot establish relationships with their consumers. Climate change in recent years has affected their agricultural practices.

So, CECAD tries to look the problem that it can deal with in many different perspectives, and that’s why they carry out many different activities. CECAD identifies that there are not only an environmental problem, but there are social and economic problems.

In terms of CECAD staff, most are educated and have doctoral degrees in: rural development planning, environmental science/ policy, ecology, and biology. Their methods of evaluation include quantitative and qualitative surveys of the environment and of the people. But, their areas of expertise are geared towards ecology and rural development. This means that even though there are structural, economic, and political problems, they cannot fully address them.

To address the problem of agriculture becoming less and less of a sustainable source of income for the community anymore, CECAD introduced “community-based tourism”. Tourism is a large and growing sector in Vietnam, so it would make sense to establish tourism in the community as well. However, CECAD staff does not know much about tourism, so they partnered with a large international tour agency. The interesting thing about the tour is that it is geared towards Muong culture and customs. The Muong feed tourists the locally grown produce and teach them about Muong traditions. There are all sorts of inequalities here, but the tourism project is not really successful at the moment because it has not grown to be a popular tourism spot. But tourism is not something that CECAD can manage because staff does not know about tourism, hospitality, and management.

Additionally, to address the problem that prices dropped, CECAD formed Community Based Organizations (CBOs). CBOs are groups of villagers that specialize in a specific farming/ agricultural activity of their choosing. There are CBOs for organic farming, beekeeping, animal husbandry, and others. These CBOs act like a cooperative, which combines resources and try to get the best price for the produce. Specialization, according to economic theory, is an efficient method because you can produce a good cheaply and beat out competitors. However, like I mentioned before, there is a sentiment that beekeeping is not a very profitable practice because there is no demand for it.

Therefore, specialization may not be a good solution for trying to sell more goods if no one is going to buy the good anyway. In this way, CECAD’s intervention can support Julie Cliff’s analysis of ‘development of underdevelopment,’ where “development itself produces deep and persistent inequalities” (283). CECAD’s introduction of CBOs allowed villagers to specialize in something that is not profitable.

However, I would not disregard the impact of CBOs entirely because of two reasons: (1), the bigger problem is that farmers cannot get access to the markets in Hanoi, so it is possible that there is higher demand for their products in Hanoi than there is in Hoa Binh, and (2), CBOs have been an important player when it comes to participation.

I think that CECAD recognizes that there are limitations to what it can do. It is important to know about agriculture and rural development when working with a rural community, but there are not just agricultural problems. That is why CECAD also engages in tourism and market access projects. But, I think the most important thing that CECAD recognizes that even though those projects address symptoms, there are things that it cannot address: the role of the government of needed to provide for its people.

There are several government decrees that lead to disadvantages for farmers or other decrees that do not incorporate the Muong population at all. This is socialist country, with values of welfare and equality for all people, but it fails to do that. More and more often, CECAD’s projects focus on community participation to devise a local socioeconomic development plan. Participation is seen as a “way of bringing about a more equitable distribution of power and resources through ‘a long-term process in which community confidence, solidarity, responsibility and autonomy are gradually built up” (285). “Development” occurs by the people, and this is something that Easterly and Kendra advocated for.

But, I will say that are other problems that are recognized, but are not addressed: transportation costs and negotiation power are two important ones. If farmers do not have power to bargain with sellers, they will continue to have to charge higher prices. Additionally, if farmers cannot physically bring their produce to the market, it will never be known whether their produce will actually sell. I understand that they are currently in the process of addressing the certification issue by introducing a new, free certification system, but it is unknown whether it would work.

I think in the space of my PE, there is a delicate balance between experts and the local people because they can benefit from one another. Farmers have been farmers for their entire lives, so experts are needed to teach them about modern technology that improves productivity that they would not have known otherwise. In addition, experts have networks to other resources that could be useful to farmers, who have limited mobility (which is another problem). Yet, the locals provide very valuable information for the construction of development plans. There are “boxes” that are drawn around agriculture and rural development, but I think that there are other factors and politics that CECAD tries to address too—as best as it can with its limitations.

Over and out.

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