2nd February 2001 at 00:00
COUNTRY PROFILES SERIES: Brazil. By Jan Rocha. Cambodia. By Ian Brown. Ghana. By Rachel Naylor. Oxfam pound;6.95 each.

Oxfam's Country Profiles series now numbers 20 titles, forming a lively, up-to-date library of country surveys. As might be expected, the focus is on the poor, who form the majority of each state's population.

A strength of the series is the use of locally-based writers. Jan Rocha has lived in Brazil for 30 years, and Ian Brown was involved in the campaign dealing with the aftermath of millions of land-mines in wartime Cambodia. The commitment of local and expatriate workers from non-governmental organisations guarantees forceful writing.

The books are written from the perspectives of those living on the lower levels of these societies. They are enhanced by case-studies showing lives of quiet desperation, as well as those of resilience and initiative. Such portraits can be dreary - a mass of data; a potted history; a few agency photos. The Oxfam books have none of thes attributes. History is deployed to explain the contemporary.

In Cambodia, NGO workers have to contend with a mistrust of collective effort, a result of the Khmer Rouge period.

Brazil's two decades of military rule have left it with a tendency to self-censor stories in the press.

The books also dismantle myths. Rocha's account of Brazil's black underclass induces scepticism about the country's famed racial tolerance.

External negative forces are not overlooked either, and include discussion on whether the US backed the Brazilian coup of 1964 and Western support for the Khmer Rouge in exile during the early Eighties.

At pound;6.95 each, these 88-page, well-illustrated books are good value, although the modest price has restricted illustrations to black and white.

These books are not primarily written with the classroom in mind - although they would enrich A-level libraries. They would make ideal background reading for the concerned traveller.

Michael Storm

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