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Hard Times on Kairiru Island: Poverty, Development, and Morality in a Papua New Guinea Village.

This is a sensitive and ethnographically detailed account of the disenchantment with the present and the uncertainty of the future concerning 'development' in Papua New Guinea communities with their incorporation into, and articulation with, the nation state and the global economy. By and large, anthropology has tended to avoid 'development' issues in Melanesia, in part because of the complexity of locating the role of a changing culture in the wider historical frame of a dominant political economy and extraneous value/meaning systems. The ethnographic focus is Krugar Village, Kairiru Island which lies just off the coast of Wewak, the capital of the East Sepik Province. To his credit, Smith attempts to deal with the complexity of 'development' through prioritising the human agency of the Krugar villagers without losing sight of the structural conditions which produce their political and economic marginalisation. The central issue is how people comprehend their lot and the systemic forces which produce and reproduce it by interweaving the social and the material. The villagers' desire for true development - the 'good way' - is bound up in the notion that prosperity is not only the means for good sociality, but that good sociality is also a prerequisite for proper development. Or, more in line with the contemporary situation the Krugar villagers find themselves in, the lack of development is a reflection of the moral dilemmas of the community. As such, Smith's argument is essentially of the continuity-in-change/change-through-continuity ilk. While detailing the general features of the main historical trends of the region, the economic especially, Smith largely focuses on the influence of Roman Catholicism. This not only mapped new ideas onto the supernatural - itself a crucial predisposition orientating this moral economy of local 'development' - but helped generate the key domains in which this finds articulation. On the one hand the mission message reinforces the importance of reciprocity, with European goods and money now fundamental to how this may be realised. On the other, the new economic practices of business and the absenteeism of younger villagers engaged in wage labour and perhaps commitment to an urban rather than rural future generate new tensions though these essentially build on the prior difficulties that realising legitimate reciprocity has always engendered. The account is compelling and attempts to remain faithful to the 'villagers' point of view', utilising their accounts and idiomatic references as much as possible. While this approach is to be commended, it also has limitations as the focus remains firmly towards the most immediate: the mission, work, wealth and what should be done with it. The less obvious element in the village setting, notably the state, is not given the attention it warrants, though here Smith's work is typical of so much written on Papua New Guinea where the state is secondary to, or perhaps a promoter of, development and central to why it has not been achieved (e.g. the ongoing problems of violence and crime). The colonial legacies are under-explored, with the colonial encounter somewhat blandly detailed as little more than background. The post-colonial state, which in any number of ways may infiltrate and help define the local conditions in which people live their lives is largely peripheral. Indeed, despite its proximity, the role of the 'frontier town', Smith's description of Wewak, does not appear to be taken up as an issue to the degree it may deserve. Given the immense general interest in gender and development, perhaps more attention could have been devoted to this as well, all the more so given Smith's concern to not only consider the active way local people have incorporated extraneous ideas, practices, and material things, but to document resistance to them where appropriate. These points concerning any possible shortcomings of Smith's work merely serve to underscore the difficulty of treating 'development' in its complexity, something that only a rich and detailed ethnography may ever hope to achieve, and to this end Smith's book is a valuable exercise in how anthropology may adequately endeavour to comprehend the lives and histories of contemporary Melanesians.

MICHAEL NIHILL University of Sydney
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Nihill, Michael
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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