In the documentary Casino Jack, they tell the story of Saipan, a US protectorate where a bunch of clothing companies set up sweatshops so they could keep the ‘Made in USA’ label. Terrible working conditions, long hours, third-world pay, blah blah blah.
According to the documentary, the primary strategy for keeping all of this legal was to fly senators out to the island itself for ‘fact-finding’ missions. The government of Saipan would stage-manage ‘impromptu’ tours of factories and meetings with fake workers’ representatives. When the senators got back to the US and were confronted with NGO reports about the terrible working conditions, their response was ‘that’s not true. I’ve been there and it’s not like that.’
Visiting Saipan didn’t give them any new information. It simply increased their confidence in their own expertise.
Sometimes I feel like this when I travel.
I was in Albania this week, and spent five days basically spectating it. I walked around the capital. I biked to some smaller cities. I bussed across the border to Macedonia. I trained to the Aegean coast.
Fine. I had a blast. But what I always struggle with on these trips is the urge to turn my incredibly limited experience into a generalization.
I walk around Tirana and I see hundreds of bustling cafes, filled with Ray Banned young people. The cars are new-looking. Construction workers are construction-working to fix potholes and repave sidewalks.
All of this means that Albania is not only a middle-income country, but firmly on its way to high-income status and EU membership, right? There’s a Gucci store, for Christ’s sake.
Albania’s per capita GDP is $6,000, one of the lowest in Europe. The unemployment rate is upwards of 15 percent, and the only reliable money coming into the country is from Albanians who have emigrated to Greece and Italy for low-skilled labour.
Aside from that specific splash of water, there’s the broader point that aimlessly walking around a country ‘s capital is a fucking terrible way to determine its level of development. I don’t speak Albanian. I can’t read Albanian newspapers or speak to people who know the country intimately. Basically, I have no ability to gather factual information. Experiencing the ‘feel’ of a foreign country is just another way of saying that you’re filtering your stereotypes through your observations.
This is obvious, of course, but it’s a hard impulse to resist. Just being someplace isn’t a remotely reliable way to gather systematic information about it. But it’s a great way to make you think you know what you’re talking about.