Thursday, July 10, 2008

Numbers and narrative

Here's a little snippet from a Cambodian newspaper about a local agricultural development project going on in my province:

"Mr. Lang Seng Houn showed figures that among 192 villages from five provinces, 14,300 families benefited from the project. the number of farmers who cooperated is 7,300, the living standard of 500 families changed greatly; 5,900 families experienced an average change, and 800 families got poorer. The number of women who have changed their attitudes and abandoned their old habits is 3,500, and the number of youth under the same category is 900. And 1,500 of the poorest families who sold their labor to have some income have changed their living standard and have become independent farmers; the livelihood of farmers in general is better. Generally, they can earn 80% more from the increase of the agricultural production and from the reduction of other expenses. They have stepped up the basis for this to retain the continuity of their production teams, and 718 teams have saved money - they have 6,000 families as members so that they are able to link their products to markets. Each family earns from Riel 1.4 million to Riel 2.6 million [approx. US$340 to US$635 per farming season] from their agricultural products; those are 427 families in Kompong Chhnang, Svay Rieng, and Kompong Cham. Their income is from paddy rice, from the breeding of chickens and pigs, and from the planting of vegetables and other crops."

I'm not against counting, measuring, or quantifying, but there's something about just numbers in the context of development (or in any social science, really) that's always made me suspicious, that inevitable makes me hunger after details, images, narrative. Two things bother me -- first, how easily numbers can be manipulated and subsequently distort the truth, and then, the way that numbers seem so inadequate to describe some experiences. I guess at its essence, translating the human experience into 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9, must reduce things at some level.

When I read this paragraph, I want to believe these families are happier, more stable and secure. An increase in family income of almost $300 seems unconditionally good. But still, it doesn't seem real unless I can also believe in the picture of fat pigs rolling around in the new pig sties; of the family of 8 who used to run out of rice by June and now has excess to sell; and the younger children who now go to school because their parents can survive without the money for their labor.

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