Paradise lost: Cargo Cults and Austerity

Imagine that you are a New Guinea man and you’ve lived all your life in what is virtually the stone-age. You’ve never seen metal or any of the other strange things that Europeans have. Then one day you meet a strange white-faced man, who has the most incredible things; he has jeeps, he has petrol lamps, he has glasses, he has simple things like pens but that show no obvious sign of handcraft.

Then they [white faced people] dress up in similar uniforms and march up and down in a senseless, useless way, they certainly aren’t doing any good.

Then it dawns on you…this is their secret…the white man is doing this as a sort of ritual designed to make the Gods/Ancestors send the goods to them (the ‘cargo’).

So you put up a great mast out of bamboo and sit at the bottom of it, and put fences around it, and you clear great areas in the forest like white men do for their airstrips and you dress your people up in uniforms….

And at the same time -in many of these cargo cults- you believe there is going to be one particular being…a sort of Messiah, who, when the Apocalypse comes; the day of judgment comes, he will bring all this ‘cargo’ to you, in either a great white ship or an airplane.

Now this would be strange enough if it happened only once, but in New Guinea alone, it’s happened over 30 times, and as far as we can see many of these ‘uprisings’ are unconnected, one with the other.

In the Pacific it’s happened in many different places: in Fiji and a thousand miles eastwards in Tahiti. It also happened in the Gilbert and Elis Island, in the Solomon’s…in the New Hebrides and on the Island of Tanna where a cargo cult is going on at this very moment (1960).

Tanna is a place where Missionaries have been for over 100 years. Up to 30 years ago most of the natives attended the Presbyterian church; now (1960) near all the natives of Tanna believe in this strange man, John Frum, who when he returns will bring with him all the cargo.”

David Attenborough, The People of Paradise, 2. Cargo Cult (1960)

This is how David Attenborough explained the well-known phenomenon of Cargo Cults in his documentary series recounting his expedition to the South West Pacific, first aired by BBC in 1960. The documentary in question was recorded on the Melanesian Island of Tanna in the New Hebrides. Tanna is among the remotest islands in the world. Prior to World War II its inhabitants had few encounters with the outside world. That all changed with the arrival of Japanese and American soldiers who set up their military bases on the island. They arrived en masse in ships and planes brimming with cargos of medicine, clothes, food and equipment to sustain the troops across the Pacific. They also arrived with their military customs, their uniforms, radios and a myriad of other behaviours and regalia previously unseen by the inhabitants of Tanna.

How do people in these situations (in particular the Tanna natives) make sense of such incursions into their daily lives? Well, in the absence of any industrialised, technological points of reference, they use the points of reference that are available to them. In this instance a significant proportion of the inhabitants concluded (quite logically) that since the soldiers weren’t actually doing anything productive (no craft of any kind was being employed, nothing of any kind was being productive; yet stuff keep falling from the sky) to bring the cargo to them, they must have been engaged in acts of ritual magic that caused them to be favoured by the Gods.

On Tanna the American soldiers regularly shared items of cargo with the local inhabitants. Then war ended in Europe with Germany on May 8th, 1945. Japan surrendered to the U.S. on September 2nd, 1945, and while the rest of the world celebrated, the inhabitants of Tanna were bereft. The soldiers systematically left and with them took the ‘cargo’.

Not surprisingly when the soldiers left, in an effort to invoke similar favour from the Gods many of Tanna’s inhabitants took to imitating their ‘rituals’.

The term ‘cargo cult’ as a means for describing these imitations is a pejorative one though, insofar as it impugns the motives and intelligence of the island inhabitants; with little critical comment made about the behaviours of those powerful nations who landed on the island and then abruptly left, having forever altered its ecosystems.

The behaviours on Tanna are in fact completely understandable and I would say predicable. What they teach us is how non-industrialised communities respond to outsiders, and also the inherent dangers of outsiders carelessly sharing their cargo in an effort to be ‘helpful’.

Cargo cults and Austerity

When you listen closely to some of the narratives that have grown up around low-income communities in the face of austerity, they are not all that dissimilar to some of the underlying judgments that Westerners make about cargo cults. Indeed increasingly I hear people misappropriating the Asset Based Community Development perspective to shore up such patrician and bigoted sentiments against poor people. Some of the sentiments include:

  1. They have developed an unhealthy dependence on outside aid, they need to learn to stand on their own two feet and stop looking for hand-outs;
  2. They are fundamentally oriented toward materialism and have lost connection to the wholesome traditions and values that have helped people get out of poverty or at least live a sustainable life for generations;
  3. Their lack of sophistication and education has caused them to misread the situation, and to place unrealistic and unsustainable expectations on the benevolence of outsiders, and now they are passing this dependency culture onto their children;
  4. They are being guided by local leaders who are abusing the situation for their own selfish ends: knowing the cargo will never come but still using their charismatic leadership styles to convince their followers otherwise;
  5. They are feckless: while they wait for the cargo they could at least engage in more productive activity, but they do not, proving that in fact they are fundamentally lazy.

In short, it is all their fault.

The Oxford English dictionary defines Cult as follows:

A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members: a network of Satan-worshipping cults

I wonder if given similar circumstances we’re not all susceptible to becoming members of a cargo cult. At a stretch you could even get some mileage out of arguing that consumer society is a mass cargo cult of a sort. Watch people in shopping centres, or on public transport, their behaviours are not all that dissimilar to the natives of Tanna imitating the US Army march, or the level of adoration given over to pop stars, movie star and the like. We too have our own John Frum (the mythical figure that the Tanna people have worshipped for decades). Performing meaningless ritualistic acts in the hope that someday your bounty/cargo will land is not a bad description of the function of a client in a consumer society.

Scarcity vs. Abundance

Returning again to the specific example of Tanna. Another view I’d like to proffer here is that these so-called primitive societies prior to the arrival of the ‘cargo’ can be viewed as affluent insofar as it can be anthropologically proven that they were competent in the art of organising abundance (Baudrillard, Sahlins) and making the invisible, visible. While the American soldiers and those who commanded them can be viewed as organisers of scarcity, and making the visible, invisible.

The Tanna people at one level can be said to have suffered from absolute poverty in that they had few if any personal possessions prior to the arrival of the American soldiers. They did not work in the industrial sense of the term, made no economic calculations and did not amass a store of goods of any note or import.

But, what inoculated them against the consequences of such scarcity, which would see them face untold hardships in the industrialist, productionist, money-based world, was that they were not of that world. Instead they organised their world as a village-based gift economy, where ‘time’ was not commodified, and waste made no sense. They shared what they had with other members of their community, and consumed what they had immediately or at least before it ‘spoiled’. They fundamentally trusted in the abundance of natural resources. (Graeber, 2011)

Western cultures, in contrast, are racked with anxiety at the prospects of insufficiencies that may befall them, if their personal capacities fall short. (see the concept of Affluenza had been popularised by Oliver James)

In so-called advanced societies, how many paychecks away from destitution are any of us? The answer, as well as to what extent the state in question provides social protection, is in large part contingent on the extent to which our families, social networks and communities are willing and able to provide a buffer (social capital). In hunter-gatherer societies that community buffer was the norm, the baseline from which everything else was made possible. Indeed if you look closely at how many poor communities organised themselves 30 or 40 years before Sir David Attenborough shot the People of Paradise series (1960) similar characteristics where plain to be seen, albeit given the context not as apparent as in hunter-gather societies. Indeed the Spirit of ‘45 was predicated on ensuring all democratic states took care to add support to that baseline, not replace it. (Beveridge Report)

When the soldiers arrived on Tanna, they simply could not see that abundance, which included:

  • the skills and capacities of the inhabitants
  • the power of local associations like the burial societies
  • the resources of the faith communities who had been there prior to their arrival
  • the ecological and economic resources of local places
  • the capacity to exchange their assets as gifts
  • the stories of their lives and of evolving community which encased and heritage and culture

Instead all they saw was the perceived deficits and the associated needs, and so they sought to address the needs, by sharing items from their ‘cargo’, and they felt good about doing so. Thought of in these terms, the focus shifts away from the native inhabitants, and on to the ‘imperial outsiders’ who arrived with the unstated non-obvious message: ‘we have the cargo, you just have deficits and ignorance, we can help you’. Little did any of these outsiders, or indeed the policy makers and planners who sent them know what the consequences of their well-intended actions would be! In all likelihood nobody gave them a second thought.

The soldiers mapped Tanna based on their values, which were largely grounded in their own anxiety around scarcity of resources, which they in turn projected onto the local people they encountered. It was in my view that very same value base that fuelled both World Wars and that continues to this day to be the root cause of international conflict. Of course they did not commit war crimes on Tanna, not a bullet was fired, no bombs were dropped, no one was water-boarded or tortured in any way. Instead these soldiers undermined the indigenous compass that was used to find, connect and mobilise local assets since the dawn of humankind, with Hershey bars and good intentions.

Looking past the judgements to the common characteristics in groups of people who have become associated with cargo cults, what becomes apparent is that the presence of the American soldiers on Tanna and other islands had profoundly harmful (non-obvious) effects. Eventually in the shadow of these well meaning white-faced outsiders, local people came to see themselves as insufficient, and began to believe that the only way they would be fulfilled is from outside in. They grew ever more suspicious of their indigenous capacities and the more they saw of the external assets of the ‘cargo’, the harder it was for them to see value in the assets within and around them. Eventually their assets became invisible even to them, and their multi-generational capacity to make the invisible, visible, atrophied. In place of a reliance on the abundances within and around them, emerged the belief that things will only get better when someone (the ‘Great One’, the ‘Big Man’,) from outside with special powers comes in to make them better.

There is little advantage in attributing blame, but at the very least we can agree the term ‘cargo cult’, is an inappropriate label, for people who have had their community culture destroyed by outsiders. We can also agree that terms like improvident do not wash either, unless levelled at the incomers. Yet these are the terms so often levelled at members of such colonised communities. Improvident is also a terms that some use to describe those living in poverty in the west.


adjective: improvident

not having or showing foresight; spendthrift or thoughtless. “improvident and undisciplined behaviour”


spendthrift, thriftless, unthrifty, wasteful, prodigal, profligate, extravagant, squandering, uneconomical, free-spending, lavish, immoderate, excessive; More

Cargo cults, disabling Professionals and Austerity

Might there be some useful parallels between the phenomenon crudely referred to ‘Cargo cults’ and the disabling effects of professional helpers? In much the same way-albeit for different reasons-that American and Japanese soldiers set up base on islands in the Pacific, after the WWII professional helpers moved into poor Communities across Europe and the US, they too could not see the assets that existed in abundance in these communities.

As the remaining months of 2014 whizz by, there appears to broad agreement that we are passing through uncharted waters; we are several years into what many bureaucrats are calling ‘Austerity’, and what some in civil society refer to as fiscal retrenchment. Much effort is going in to weaning ‘poor people’ off dependence on the ‘cargo’. Increasingly we hear policy makers and professionals who once handed out funding and set up programmes, like American soldiers handed out Hershey bars on Tanna, insisting that Communities use their own assets. But this should not be confused with Asset Based Community Development. And I fear it all too often is. Instead this falls under the ambit of a more anaemic version of the approach, what some are loosely referring to as Asset Based Approaches (ABA), which is to say an asset-based perspective, but with the radical root that challenges the imperial systems cropped off (Lynne Friedli, ‘“What we’ve tried, hasn’t worked”: the politics of assets based public health’, Critical Public Health, 23:2 (2013), pp.131-145).

It’s a point of great sadness for me that somehow we’ve managed to take a variety of wonderful approaches such as Appreciative Inquiry, ABCD, Open Space Technology, Timebanking etc, and lump them together under a meaningless banner such as Asset Based Approaches. If you mix the colours of the rainbow together carelessly, you end up with brown: this mix is now serving to obscure some important issues of social justice and political issues that speak to the well-being of our democracies. My friend and colleague Revd Al Barrett in his recent blog offers an incisive critique of what is fast becoming the appropriation of ABCD by some who clearly are not in the business of relocating authority and power, but blame.

I say this aloud so that those whom I know to be genuine advocates of citizen-led action but who are not making clear distinctions between terms like asset based community development; asset based approaches and strengths based approaches can take stock. In the current economic and political climate there is great need to be very clear about the fact that those who support an asset-based community development approach stand shoulder to shoulder with those on the margins; that social justice is our shared bedrock, and that place based community building is where we believe greatest effort should be directed. That means we are not seeking systems reform so much as the reseeding of associational life at neighbourhood level, and the decolonisation of civic space. When that becomes clear the specific meanings and differences of such terms and their relationship to each other will also be illuminated. In simple terms we can’t have an asset-based approach without effective community development, and community development can’t be effective if it is not asset-based.

If systems flee low-income communities after decades of cargo-dumping and then hide behind the rhetoric of asset-based approaches, insisting that these communities now have assets where once they had none, they will heap further harm on communities that are already struggling to make ends meet, and completely discredit themselves in the process.

In the West, such ‘outsider’ disturbance is layered on-top of more than 50 years of a deficit approach to helping which is most manifest in the harm done to the six building blocks of community:

  1. Most people have come to define themselves and their neighbours as consumers and clients; not producers and citizens;
  2. Associations (unpaid people in threes or more coming together by consent to define problems, create solutions and take action) shrink in the face of growing credentialed professional classes who are paid to provide services for what once was provided through associational life. Accordingly people come to believe that wisdom is digitally encoded, or in a university, health production is the purview of the medics, care for people with high support needs is the sole domain of social service professionals. That their prosperity is contingent on the whims of mega corporations. And that our safety is in the hands of law enforcement officials.
  3. Institutions established to safeguard the common good have come to look more like businesses, and come to be more concerned with issues of market share, client base and service delivery, than with local democracy and the common good. Clientalism has replaced the ethic of service, and people’s needs have become confused with service categorisations.
  4. Ecologies have fallen outside the influence of indigenous peoples. Monsanto is emblematic of the extent to which the corporate world has come to colonise our lands and our lives.
  5. Our economies are more defined by debt than by gift exchange (Graeber); meaningful discussions about wealth distribution and practical anti-poverty initiatives are pushed aside in order to advance discussions about Service based economies which are contingent on centralising decisions about public goods rather then enabling people to make their own decisions and purchase or create their own services locally. Solutions to the challenges of wealth distribution such as Universal Basic Income are badged as fringe ideas, in an effort to sustain what is now predominantly a service-based economy.
  6. Our cultural heritage comes to reside in a museum or in an annual carnival. It is put in its place alongside the other competing interests of the modern daily life. Hence the stories that bind us have no sense of present or future, they tell instead of a time that has long past.

The people of the South West Pacific are often referred to as the People of Paradise, but for the people of Tanna, the arrival of well meaning outsiders replete with their ‘cargo’ began for them the journey toward Paradise Lost.

We are not as far removed from our neighbours on the Island of Tanna as we might first assume, and the poorer we are, the closer we are to them, because in the final analysis what makes the rich richer, makes the poor poorer, no matter where we are on the planet.

Cormac Russell

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  • I was sitting in a meeting yesterday talking about ABA and the term Consumers and Clients was used to approving nods from around the credentialised tables…terrific blog that gives the big picture of ABCD – really enjoyed reading it. If they try that again I will be invoking the producers and citizens argument…

    August 8, 2014 at 9:08 am
    • Hi Jim, thank you for your comment. Glad it’ll be helpful to you. Have a great weekend Cormac

      August 8, 2014 at 4:09 pm

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