Rural, northern Thailand looks a lot like rural, central Uganda. The vegetation in both places is lush and tropical but, thanks to an ongoing drought in each, also dry and dusty. A perpetual haze drifts around each place, which, while hard to explain given the lack of industry, seems fitting for the hot climate. Looking at the window of the bus coming into Nan, there were moments where I did a double take, thinking I was back in Masaka: the landscapes were just too alike.
The similarities, though, end with the natural environment. For one thing, in Thailand I was looking at the window of a modern, air-conditioned bus, driving on a paved road, as opposed to a surplus mutatu from China bouncing on a rutted dirt track. Like Uganda, Thailand has its fair share of shanties—precarious-looking constructions of scrap wood and corrugated metal—but here, the shanties have multiple rooms and satellite dishes. Thais get most of their food from the same kind of sprawling street markets you can find in Kampala, but they have the option of modern supermarkets selling Western goods at Western prices (anything imported to Uganda comes with an absurd mark-up). In Uganda, there are clinics run by NGOs; here, it’s hospitals run by the government. Jackie’s school building might be a little worn, but the students have desks—not benches—and a cement floor, rather than dirt.
These comparisons are, of course, arbitrary. Arbitrary except that Thailand and Uganda are both a part of what we variously label the “underdeveloped” or “Third” world, the Eastern “periphery” to the Western “center” of the global economy. Nonetheless, anyone looking at basic economic or social statistics could rapidly come to the same conclusion to which my observations point: Uganda and Thailand are very different places. Indeed, a quick visit to the CIA World Factbook could confirm that, in 1062 when Uganda became independent, it was on par with Thailand in GDP, literacy, and infant mortality. A half-century later, Thailand is light-years ahead on practically any measure.
As I write these observations, I realize that they are astonishingly obvious. And yet, among students of development, there is a strong sense that any sign of progress is necessarily a lie, that we cannot make real comparisons between the standard of living between countries, and that development never actually happens. But if we define development as “people getting more of the shit they want,” it is incredibly clear that development does happen and people are happier for it. Crude as that measure is, I think you can come to the same result from a more sophisticated thought experiment: imagine you were going to be born into a society, but didn’t know what your ‘status’ in that society would be (whether you would be rich or poor, male or female, etc.) Which country would you choose to be born into? I think even the most radical post-modernist academic would not have a hard time plumping for Thailand.
“Ladder theory”—the notion that all countries follow a set series of stages of development—is intellectually dead (as opposed to the ladder theory of relationships, which is 100% accurate). Rural Thailand is neither a glimpse at Uganda’s future nor the West’s past. Still, the image of a country somewhere between destitution and decadence was, in a strange way, heartening and refreshing. To me, it suggests that the world is not just capitalists and their victims, colonizers and colonized, rich and poor. There are, indeed, shades of grey in development—countries that are an intermediate rung between undeveloped and developed—and their existence reminds us that there is, actually, a reason why we’re doing this.
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Jukebox: Gallows – Queensbury Rules