Development Indicators for Mountain Regions
By H Kreutzmann, MRD, Vol 21 No 2, pp 132–139.
Prof Dr Kreutzmann argues convincingly that we need to apply widely accepted development indicators to mountain regions. He believes this approach will show the way for new directions in interdisciplinary comparative mountain research.
While I obviously support comparative perspectives and interdisciplinarity, I have serious misgivings about building either research or sustainable development around “indicators” as defined by international agencies, especially the World Bank. Such indicators tell us more about agency bureaucrats who define, measure, and make their living from distantly designed development policies and programs than about the lives and conditions of mountain people. An indicator-driven R&D agenda pulls us fully back into the externally defined “lowland, flatland thinking” that mountain people and grassroots practitioners have been trying to overcome for years.
Development indicators are riddled with problems other than their poor quality or highly aggregated nature. Quality of life indicators, for example, are essentially criteria that are externally imposed on local circumstances with 4 strong biases: (1) urban/technocratic, (2) economic/production, (3) middle class/Euro-American, and (4) unidimensional /aggregated/short term. They reflect the social values of postindustrial nations that use foreign aid as a globalizing policy tool. As someone, for example, who witnessed Kathmandu 40 years ago when its “indicators” would have been low, and modern, polluted, and crowded Kathmandu today when its “indicators” are high, I can only marvel at why we give any credence to these presumably objective measures. A Gender Development Index (GDI) that shows that Bhotiya women are more deprived and excluded from access to basic resources than lowland Hindu or Muslim women is nothing short of silly. But, in fact, this is what the culture-free GDI shows for Nepal.
I have no argument with Kreutzmann's thesis that we need better data about mountainous areas vis-à-vis lowlands or the larger nation state. However, instead of building mountain-specific interdisciplinary comparative research around decontextualized indicators, why not design and create knowledge banks that reflect the realities and complexity of mountain communities?
As it stands today, mountain researchers continue to pile up isolated case studies, surveys, and statistics that are accessible to a select few. Such information is typically published in foreign languages or archived away and soon forgotten. It is urgent that “knowledge erosion” of mountain research be stopped through concerted institutional and individual efforts to build mountain-rich knowledge banks that include not only relevant indicators but also qualitative information on cultural context. Advances in computer software and interactive information technologies allow for a more accessible and permanently expanding knowledge base. An interinstitutional project at ICIMOD called “Mountain Agricultural Systems and Societies Files” (MASSIF) is demonstrating how such an in situ informational system would work. By starting from the uniqueness of mountain conditions—instead of forcing mountain realities into externally defined categories—we can move toward a true interdisciplinary science of mountains.