Review: International Development, by Corinna R. Unger

1Final publication: Diplomatica 2 no. 1 (May 2020):  180-82.

International Development: A Postwar History, written by Corinna R. Unger (Bloomsbury, 2018). 232 xi pp.

Review by David Webster

“In historiographical terms, development is a particularly rich field,” Corinna Unger writes in the conclusion to her book on International Development, published in Bloomsbury’s New Approaches to International History series (p. 156). Reading the book, it’s hard to imagine there’s much in that historiography that Unger has failed to read, digest and include in her extensive footnotes. The book is a model for the type. Grounded in a deep familiarity with the secondary literature and offering clear linking insights, Unger has produced an excellent overview of the history of development, with a strong focus on the bulky midsection of the twentieth century, from the 1930s to the 1970s.

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The African-Asian Conference Bulletin as historical source

AACB 9.1 coverOriginal publication by Canadian Network for Humanitarian History.

The Asian-African Conference Bulletin, published daily during the African-Asian conference at Bandung in April 1955, 65 years ago, is a significant and unused source in international history. In its pages, as much as in the conference hall around it, was born the idea of Asian-African solidarity and non-alignment. The Bulletin and other sources from the conference are now digitized as an e-dossier.

The creation of an idea of a “Third World” was one of the major themes of the 20th century. That “world” was born in Bandung, Indonesia, 65 years ago. Yet too few 20th century historians spend much time talking about the Asian-African conference and the world it gave birth to. The study is left to important networks outside the Western (and West-centric) historical mainstream, such as the Afro-Asian Networks project and the Bandung Spirit group, though there’s been an admirable revival in recent years with multiple perspectives on Bandung’s legacy – a literature too extensive to list here.

The conference was enormously important. It came at a time when the superpowers and their followers – Canada at the fore – were trying to divide the world into two sides. The Soviet Union’s chief ideologue, Andrew Zhdanov, spoke of “two camps.” So did the enormously influential US evangelist Billy Graham, using the same words. You were either with us, or against us. Or so thought the leaders of both camps.

AACB 9.7 AliSo when Indonesia, for instance, was seeking its independence from Dutch attempts to recolonize the former Netherlands East Indies, the issue turned on alignment. The United States supported Indonesian independence after President Sukarno crushed a communist uprising. Canada aimed to avoid US conflict with the Netherlands as NATO was being formed. The independent Indonesia that emerged and joined the United Nations in 1950 was supposed to be pro-Western despite the socialist leanings of its leadership. (The first prime minister, Sutan Sjahrir, spoke of living in “the sphere of Anglo-Saxon capitalism and imperialism, as I discuss in my book Fire and the Full Moon.) Canada’s Security Council representative even managed to do an end-run over a Soviet veto against the new Republic.

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Landscapes of Development in Timor

(Revised final publication on NiCHE Canada)

In the late 1970s, Remexio sub-district in Timor-Leste lay at the heart of a devastating famine. Today, Seed Change Canada works with the Timorese NGO Raebia in a village in Remexio to promote agricultural self-reliance, biodiversity and ecological sustainability.

The landscape of Timor-Leste varies from breathtaking mountaintop and rain-blasted hillside to flat cropland and sandy beach. It is in turns green and dry, shifting colours with the season. Its people move in the sunbaked tropical space of Dili, the main city, in villages, through forest.

Remexio 2

Yet the diverse landscape is overshadowed, when people talk about the development of what is perhaps Asia’s poorest country, by outsiders’ images, not by the land itself. What Timorese call “Rai Doben,” the beloved land, becomes a blank canvass on which foreigners dream their fantasies of what Timor is.

Never was this truer than during the devastating Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste (East Timor) that lasted from 1975-99, when foreigners piled on to explain how it was bleak, unable to support much life – still less any real prosperity. Timor became, in these fevered imaginings. a semi-wasteland.

crosses

Roadside cemetry, Remexio sub-district, Timor-Leste, July 2019 (David Webster)

“What branches grow out of this stony rubbish?” asked the poet T.S. Eliot. If Timor was barren, it could never be viable, never be independent. Its “dead trees” could give no shelter, its “dry stone[s] no sound of water.” Counter-images were offered, green shoots on a bleak canvass, but could not break through. As Timorese poet Abe Barreto Soares writes, even after everything is crushed, broken, made dusty, still “new buds [may] appear, flourishing the flat land.”

Shortliffe

Images of the landscape rendered any thought of Timorese independence, in the minds of policymakers, hopeless. Thus many policymakers sided with the Indonesian army during two and a half decades of occupation – in spite of massive and systematic human rights violations and a near-genocide.

In 1978, Canadian ambassador Glen Shortliffe visited the country (I tell this story in more detail in my new book Challenge the Strong Wind: Canada and East Timor 1975-99.) Shortliffe saw famine and a huge need for development, perhaps through such Canadian NGOs as “Unitarian Services of Canada.” He blamed the landscape for the “major humanitarian problem” of famine and displacement:

East Timor is one of the most desolate areas I have seen in Southeast Asia…. The soil is dry, sandy and infertile. The mountains are rugged, some of them are over 2,000 meters high and, from what we saw, seem incapable of retaining moisture without artificial assistance…. From the air, East Timor appeared scored during the present dry season with great scars up to a mile or more wide which constitute the rivers during the rains…. In the mountains, rather than jungle or even green foliage, there is a kind of uniform brown bush. Whilst maize and rice can be grown in some areas, productivity is low and absence of moisture is a constant problem. In all, it is a foreboding, dry, desolate area. Allowing for the major difference in overall climate, it reminded me of some of the more remote parts of the Canadian Shield during the fall or spring, in terms of the ruggedness of the terrain.

Informed by this sort of account, Canada remained a fairly reliable Indonesian supporter until 1998, when General Suharto’s regime collapsed after more than three decades in power and pressure grew for a solution to the “East Timor problem.” In a subsequent referendum, the vote was massively for independence. Pro-Indonesia militia groups, acting as proxies for the Indonesian army, stepped up their violence. It took major international pressure to ensure that violence ended and the referendum results were respected.

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Oxfam Canada and relief to East Timor, 1975-76

1.2.1Originally published by the Canadian Network on Humanitarian History, 13 April 2017.

When does the humanitarian impulse to provide aid and relief contribute to activism to promote human rights? When does it prompt avoidance of activism in favour of quietly enduring access to places and people in need?

This is one of the questions I am trying to answer in current research on relations between Canada and East Timor. Under Indonesian military occupation from 1975 to 1999, Canadian aid agencies tended to shy away from criticizing Indonesian actions in order to make sure they could deliver aid supplies. Humanitarian impulses dictated a quiet stance on human rights from a range of Canadian NGOs.  But there was an early exception, in the work of Oxfam Canada.

The small half-island country of East Timor was invaded by the army of Indonesia, the regional giant of Southeast Asia, at the end of 1975. Under Indonesian military occupation, more than 100,000 people died in what some observers called “tantamount to genocide.” Canada was among the many Western governments that backed Indonesian rule as “an accomplished and irreversible fact.” It wasn’t, of course: East Timorese fought on with guerrilla resistance, clandestine non-violent organizing, and diplomatic struggles, until they won the right to hold a referendum in 1999. After the vote went overwhelmingly for independence, an interim United Nations administration took over the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste formally regained its independence in 2002.

When are the beginnings of Canadian support for East Timor? Finding an answer to this sort of question requires interrogating both government and non-government archival sources. It’s only in 1983 that protest letters start to appear in the Timor file of Canada’s Department of External Affairs (after several name changes, External is now part of Global Affairs Canada). But it turns out that relying on the government records comes up with the wrong answer.

In fact, Canadian efforts to send humanitarian aid to East Timor began in 1975 before the Indonesian invasion, continued afterwards, and included efforts to lobby the Canadian government. These were not successful efforts – and there is no trace in the External Affairs documentary record – but they laid the groundwork for subsequent Canadian support for East Timor amongst humanitarian networks.

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