I was visiting my favourite English classes a few days ago and one of the teachers was encouraging his students to ask me questions. One young man asked what I liked about living in Laos. I started answering with a couple of (true) platitudes (the countryside is beautiful, the people are friendly) and then I paused and offered that when I am in Laos I am less stressed because the pace of life is slower. The teacher immediately jumped on this comment and told the class that “this is why Laos is not a developed country – because it does not rush”.
I didn’t know how to respond. My idea of progress would not be to make Laos rush -but I can absolutely understand why he might think differently.
In a different fascinating conversation, with another Lao friend who knows her stuff when it comes to development, I mulled over a similar question. We talked about the attitudes of developed countries to developing countries (excuse the inadequate terminology) and the attitudes of people from developed countries to people from developing countries. She suggested an analogy with parents and their teenage children. The parent used to be a teenager but when they communicate with teenagers they completely forget what that experience was like and they tell them how to behave based on their current knowledge and recent experience. Telling people how to behave rarely works. Much as I might want to, expecting someone to learn something based on my experience is unlikely to be successful – they will be much more likely to learn from their own experience. People have to start where they are. Obvious…but often forgotten.
In the same conversation my friend made a comment that blew me away. We were talking about the challenges of shopping ethically and she said “in Laos we are lucky because we don’t have much choice”. On so many levels I agree – and yet I’d be surprised to hear that most Lao people agree with her. Maybe I am wrong but I suspect that most people would like to have (or think they would like to have?) more choices when they go shopping.
And here lies my conundrum. I definitely do not ever want to say that I know better and yet… I think I know (or at least I believe) that more choice and more rush often make people less happy. I’ve read the research! I worry that once more choice (and/or more rush) is introduced it cannot be taken away (just like the champagne cork can’t be forced back into the bottle). And then I worry that I’m sounding like that patronising (and ultimately ineffective) parent.
It is such an enormous luxury to be here as a researcher because not only do I have time to talk to people about these questions but my focus is to explore and try to understand rather than to change. Of course there are all sorts of ethical and practical questions about that statement but let’s save them for another time!