Tourism, Terrorism, and Tropical Deserts: Win-Win-Win Development Strategies

I’m a creature drawn to harsh climes (desert, scrubland, impossible mountains). In Jordan, this was neatly satisfied through lots of weekend canyoneering: down the mountains to the Dead Sea, mostly, at nearly the very tip of the Great Rift Valley. A ragtag, homegrown, and exceptionally enthusiastic cohort of literal trailblazers has emerged recently – they’re working, for instance, on a path that spans the entire length of the country.

Woke up to this somewhere along Wadi Hasa.

The Jordanian government seeks out and strongly supports these projects, integrating them into rural economies. And aside from private revenue-based organizations, nearly all them are funded through – you guessed it – aid money. Tourist sites in Jordan are accompanied by billboards covered in alphabet soup. Every ruin, castle, canyon trail, nature reserve, and religious site is bounded by signs touting funding from the American, French, British, Spanish, and Japanese people.

Despite a lack of formal acknowledgement, I firmly believe that this is strategic – and that if it’s not, it should be. Heavy investment in tourist sites all across nominally middle-income, Middle Eastern countries seems squarely aimed at increasing economic dependence on tourism with the ulterior motive of providing significant incentives for state security at the individual level. This makes sense: for countries in the region not blessed with petroleum reserves, economic diversification is critical. So, perhaps not coincidentally, heavy international funding of these low-cost, high-reward projects is common in the resource-poor countries of Morocco, Jordan, and, formerly, Egypt.

A similar pattern is evident in environmental projects, specifically for water – no puzzle in a region covered by vast stretches of desert. While wealthier countries in the region rely heavily on virtual water through imports, lower-income countries are presently bolstered in the throes of the fight against water shortages (made worse by population growth and displacement) through innovative development projects. Fog harvesting in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, desalination in Jordan, and dam construction in Egypt have all received funding through bilateral and multilateral loans. Donor incentive for funding water projects may, similarly, lie in concerns about possible associations between water availability and conflict. (I’m not totally sold on this, but it’s useful in any case and it drives money.)

Whatever the intentions, these sorts of programs environmental and preservation programs are areas where donor and recipient interests are well-aligned and provide a win-win-win model for donors, recipient states, and citizens. Tourism and nature sites frequently lie outside of urban centers, where the state control may falter. Stability-dependent economic development provides bilateral donors with a low-cost alternate means of discouraging terrorism. For state recipients, successful rural projects temper rural discontent and provide examples of contributions to global environmental efforts. For citizen recipients, they provide a noncontroversial and sustainable means of secure livelihood. I’m open to arguments – maybe this is sneaky? – but can’t really think of a downside. It’s an example of very smart soft power and everyone wins.

As goes one of my favorite snippets from Paul Collier in The Bottom Billion, “the U.S. Department of Defense is not going to take advice from that country’s Agency for International Development.” There’s really no getting around it: aid to the Middle East operates under the shadow of conflict and security concerns. Donors are guided heavily by the interests of the U.S. and allies toward development strategies designed to mitigate conflict. But while defense departments may not listen to development agencies, it is possible that well-managed development aid will preempt the need for listening by creatively tempering potential conflict.

I’m adding some photos after the jump, because my wanderlust is creeping up (and because I just managed to resurrect a phone I thought was lost to one of these rivers…).

Olive trees holding up the sky in Umm Qais.
Qasr Kharanah
Qasr Kharanah, out east.
The classic. I actually didn’t go back to Petra this year – I know, I know.
Somewhere in the North.
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Qasr Azraq, temporary home of Lawrence & Friends.
Israel, Lebanon, and Syria in one swoop.
Azraq Wetlands. Seeing grass after not seeing grass for a long time is phenomenal.
Wadi Hasa.
Wadi Hasa moonscape
Wadi Rum.
Making hostel friends be models + Wadi Rum.
Wadi Kerak? Or Wadi Hasa.
Tropical desert sneaks up on you.
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Wadi Hasa, near the tail end of the slot canyon portion.

From the roof of my building. Not nature, just downtown Amman.

Same roof, evening, opposite direction.

I’ll leave you with some Saint-Exupery:

And even when a road hazards its way over the desert, you will see it make a thousand detours to take its pleasure at the oases. Thus, led astray by the divagations of our roads, as by other indulgent fictions, having in the course of our travels skirted so many well-watered lands, so many orchards, so many meadows, we have from the beginning of time embellished the picture of our prison. We have elected to believe that our planet was merciful and fruitful.

I’m always struck by the unfair beauty of the more conflict-prone stretches of the earth. It’s a chicken-or-the-egg problem: landscapes that prompt otherworldly, gasping awe are mostly inhospitable, which occasionally means fighting for resources and eking out a living. Harnessing the awe while hitching it to local livelihoods may well prove one way to stem the tide.

Tourism, Terrorism, and Tropical Deserts: Win-Win-Win Development Strategies

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