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The Cargo Cult
Alive and Well in the Scottish Highlands

Graham Boyd,
Caledonia Centre of Social Development
March 2005

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At the end of the Second War World, with the withdrawal of American forces from the islands of the South Pacific, anthropologists began to note an adaptation of the islanders' traditional cult of ancestor worship.

The new form took the shape of building replica models of planes and fake landing strips (including warehouses) as a means of attracting highly sought after American consumer goods such as cigarettes, coca cola and chewing gum.

Such items had been readily available and handed out as gifts by the American forces as a means of keeping the natives content while they got on with the business of ripping-up and polluting their islands as part of the war effort.

Several decades later, and in another part of the world, a similar but different cargo cult has emerged. In the Scottish Highlands the government's enterprise development agencies (first HIDB and now HIE), driven by the cargo cult of inward investment, have evolved a new form of tax-spending ancestor worship.

All across this vast region which is comparable in size to Belgium, but sparsely and remotely peopled, the cargo cultists and their local government associates have engineered a network of modern roads, bridges and ferry terminals at the end of which they have erected enormous industrial sheds in all shapes and colours.

The purpose of these sheddies, bedecked with rent and tax holidays, low interest loans, training subsidies and other treats, is to attract from all corners of the world wealthy 'footloose' corporations and industrialists in the belief that herding folks into sheds to 'bash metal for global profiteers' will create a novel form of sustainable local economic development.

Of course the problem with all this is that it imitates the form, not the substance of what wealth creation is really all about. The 'rational thinking' of economists and planners - I think more like 'wishful thinking'. Let's have another cult. Why not Ghost dancing? Ah, but then that didn't work too well for the Plains Indians. How about trying to develop a strategy which focuses on 'real' local economic development which is:

bulletrooted at the local level;
bulletfocuses on endogenous and collaborative processes;
bulletpromotes variety and plurality of ownership patterns; and
bulletmobilises the financial and other resources of the region in a durable way.

Around 50 years ago these sorts of criteria were being unfolded in a number of other regions of the world just about 10 years before Highland officialdom embraced the cargo cult. And where are these places -

bulletrural China (Village and Township Enterprise movement);
bulletthe Basque region of Spain (Mondragon Cooperative Group - now a globally successful cooperative);
bulletNorthern Italy (SME clusters and associations); and
bulletthe Canadian Provincial Labour Solidarity Funds.

What does the profit and loss account show between these two approaches?

Cargo cult losses: Pulpmill, smelter, fabrication yards, Dounreay, Aviemore, Bresclate, military bases at Benbecula and Moray and (likely to go) call centres;

Locally rooted development surpluses: 300 million rural poor in China lifted out of poverty; the self-financing and self-governing architecture of the Mondragon Cooperatives minimises the need for State intervention and maximises local self-determination in line with the aspirations of the Basque culture; Northern Italy as one of the fasting growing parts of Europe with a highly rooted and sustainable economy based on clustering and supply chain collaboration; and Canadian Labour Solidarity Funds such as that in Quebec with 500,000 local shareholders, a fund of $4.6 million Canadian dollars, 1900 SMEs supported and 100,000 jobs created in the last 15 years.

And what should become of all these colourful sheddies? Let the Land Reform Act's community-right-to-buy get to work on them and convert them into community-run enterprise zones with surpluses accruing to local Common Good Funds.

So now that HIE has a bit of a public consultation process underway about what shape the region's future economic ancestor worship should take lets ensure that it is home grown, locally made, deep-rooted and linked-up. Wouldn't that be a smart, SMART strategy!

Web Reference Links

Village and Township Enterprise

Mondragon Cooperative Group

Labour Solidarity Funds

A Smart, Successful Scotland - Strategic direction to the Enterprise Networks and an enterprise strategy for Scotland


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