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Fields of Desire

Poverty and Policy in Laos

Holly High

Publication Year: 2014

In this important new book, High argues that poverty reduction policies are formulated and implemented in fields of desire. Drawing on psychoanalytic understandings of desire, she shows that such programs circulate around the question of what is lacking. Far from rational responses to measures of need, then, the politics of poverty are unconscious, culturally expressed, mutually contradictory, and sometimes contrary to self-interest. Based on long-term fieldwork in a Lao village that has been the subject of multiple poverty reduction and development programs, High’s account looks at implementation on the ground. While these efforts were laudable in their aims of reducing poverty, they often failed to achieve their objectives. Local people received them with suspicion and disillusionment. Nevertheless, poverty reduction policies continued to be renewed by planners and even desired locally. High relates this to the force of aspirations among rural Lao, ambivalent understandings of power and the “post-rebellious” moment in contemporary Laos.

Published by: NUS Press Pte Ltd

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii

Lists of Maps and Illustrations

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pp. viii

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pp. ix-xii

I have dedicated this book to all the people who have contributed to, encouraged and facilitated its research and writing. I am confident that those people know who they are. It would be tedious in some cases, a breach of confidentiality in others, and perhaps impossible anyway to list each and every...

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Note on Transcription

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pp. xiii-xiv

Lao words are transcribed here in keeping with the method used by Kerr (1972) with the following modifications: I have omitted diacritics. This was a difficult decision, and in some earlier versions of this text I did follow Kerr’s use of diacritics, but in this final version for publication I have decided to omit them because for the majority of readers they are distracting and not informative. For the small...

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Chapter 1: Introduction Towards a Political Ethnography of Desire

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pp. 1-23

This book is an ethnography of the desire that runs through the politics of poverty and development in Laos. I begin with the observation that among the rural Lao residents with whom I conducted fieldwork, disillusionment and suspicion were the dominant frames of reference for interpreting poverty...

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Chapter 2: Eat with you Power as Nurturing and Devouring

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pp. 24-43

This tale was told to me in Don Khiaw by a man who claimed it was the story of “where people come from”. He often delighted in telling me what he called “nithaan” (folktales) although his stories rarely coincided with any well-known canon of Lao folktales: he had an eye for the obscure, amusing and irreverent. This particular story is not found in other anthropological accounts...

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Chapter 3: The Mobility of the Marginal

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pp. 44-68

In this chapter I describe some of the historical context in which the residents of Don Khiaw found themselves. I take as my example the historical forma- tion of the current “regime of citizenship” (Kipnis 2004) that marks these people as Lao citizens, and limits and shapes their movements accordingly...

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Chapter 4: Poverty becomes you -- Black, White and Gold

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pp. 69-85

In the previous chapters I sketched out the development of some of the contemporary context in which Don Khiaw residents find themselves. When viewed through the lens of family, oral and written histories it is clear that poverty on Don Khiaw is shaped by factors well out of local control. In this...

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Chapter 5: Stories of State

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pp. 86-105

After dinner one night in August 2003, Cit sat on the step to the kitchen and lit a cigarette from the kerosene lamp. “This year, Laos is asking for rice from other countries. The whole country is in drought. Every single person is going to be affected. I’m not sure which donors are being approached: whoever has...

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Chapter 6: Resurrecting the State -- “The will and desire of the people”

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pp. 106-124

When the Village Chief, Siinuk died, there were rumours. There were rumours that he had stolen the money I had donated for the school project, and that the worry had put so much strain on his brain that he died bleeding from the nose. There were rumours, that, to the contrary, he had simply contracted...

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Chapter 7: The Participatory Poverty Reduction Project

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pp. 125-150

The first I heard of what I came to call “the road to nowhere” was when my neighbour, returning from a meeting one day, called out to me through the thin bamboo walls of the house I was renting: “The World Bank is coming tomorrow!” It was 3 May 2003, 11 months into my fieldwork. I was excited...

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Chapter 8: Mutual Aid -- Delirium and the Political Field

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pp. 151-168

Sisanuk’s rather saccharine reference to the massive columns in the temple hall during the village meeting in the previous chapter, and his use of this example to suggest that the people should think of how to “work together” to ease their own poverty, indicates a more pervasive tendency to see village-based...

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Chapter 9: Conclusion -- Fieldnotes from the Postrevolution

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pp. 169-178

The previous chapters were primarily based on fieldwork conducted in 2002–03. I kept a post-box in Pakse during that time, and once a month or so I would travel in to town to pick up the newspapers and mail that were delivered to it. Throughout 2003 a slow drip of violent incidents were...


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pp. 179-192


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pp. 193-203


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pp. 204-213

E-ISBN-13: 9789971697792
Print-ISBN-13: 9789971697709

Page Count: 232
Illustrations: 2 maps, 11 images
Publication Year: 2014

Edition: New