29 November 2012

A Number Affair

A few weeks ago, CIEE students had a lecture with an Asian Development Bank employee. Our past few months have had a strong emphasis on the human voice of development. We have entered into the lives and homes of people who have been directly affected by development projects in the Northeast of Thailand. But this lecture provided us with a context beyond the human voice it provided us with numbers.
And, man, I really love numbers. Numbers don’t lie. Numbers rarely can be disputed. Numbers are unbiased. Numbers speak the truth. But before we get into the numbers, let me give you some background on the Asian Development Bank.
The Asian Development Bank, or ADB, goal is to ‘fight poverty in Asia and the pacific.’ According to ADB’s website, environmental damage and resource depletion are already impeding the region’s development and reducing the quality of life. Their website claims that the ADB has transformed the region with construction of thousands of schools, bridges, health clinics, and roads, providing opportunities for people to lift themselves out of poverty.
Within Thailand, they have be the key player for many development projects, such as the greater Mekong Sub region Highway Expansion Project, railway sector reform, and several energy projects.
So back to the numbers, the Asian Development Bank employee presented us several numbers. He explained to us that since ADB’s presence in Thailand, the country is now classified as an upper middle-income county, with a gross national income per capita of $4,210 in 2010. He explained how Thailand’s unemployment rate continues to decrease from 1.5% in 2009 to 0.7% in 2011. He continued to compare Thailand’s growth to neighboring nations, and how there has been vast improvement; the middle class country still has a lot of development to go. His numbers made a strong case for development projects across Thailand.
But while he continued on his lecture, spinning off numbers, something happened. I usually have a love affair with numbers, devouring them up, and wanting to search for more numbers, more meaning.  Numbers usually win me over. But as the ADB employee spat out the numbers, I wasn’t won over. Instead of numbers, I saw the homes of people I have lived with. Instead of growth, I saw displaced families. When he talked about a highway project that connects Thailand with other neighboring countries and how it was going to increase trade revenue for Thailand. I didn’t mentally see GDP increasing for Thailand, or the standard of living being raised, I saw all the families who would be kicked out of their homes, forced to relocate because of the new highway. I saw lives being turned upside down instead of numbers moving on up.
My mind was in a conflict. What’s more important? The numbers or the lives? And if this Asian Development Bank employee had seen what we, students, have seen would he be able to talk to confidently about development and all the good it is bringing to Thailand? I wanted to argue with him, I wanted to tell him about all the harm these development projects were doing in Northeast Thailand. But my mouth went dry. There’s no arguing with numbers. What did my stories about villagers have against his numbers? How can the villagers fight against development projects when there is such a clear case for development in Thailand? 

Caroline Dobrez
University of Missouri-Columbia

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