Putting the third world first

16th December 1994 at 00:00
World Focus series, Brazil By David Marshall, 0431 07253 1. Kenya. By David Marshall and Geoff Sayer.0 431 07252 3. India. By Amanda Barker, 0 431 07250 7. Bangladesh. By Amanda Barker, 0 431 07251 5, HeinemannOxfam Pounds 7.99 each.

Michael Storm discusses western images of developing countries. The World Focus books are well-equipped to survive in a very competitive field. Considerable thought has gone into their structure and style. Each 32-page book incorporates a 12-page case-study of a specific locality and family, though this is less focused in the only urban case-study, Recife in Brazil. There are about 30 well-selected colour photographs in each book, and a useful glossary.

The emphasis is on change, at the macro or national level (for example, India's emergence as a grain surplus economy) and at the individual scale (the impact of a new primary school on life in a Masai village). The series provides candid portrayals of the various sorts of inequalities which characterise all four countries - inequalities in living standards and land ownership, inequalities between city and countryside, and not least inequalities between men and women. Certain themes emerge strongly in all four books, notably the lure of the city. The countrysides, invariably perceived as colourful and picturesque by the outsider, are commonly regarded as hopelessly deprived by their youthful populations. Similarly, the qualities of the large extended rural family, admired by the Kenya authors, and the "strong community spirit" identified by Amanda Barker in her account of Hatiya Island, Bangladesh can, one suspects, seem claustrophobic to those embedded within such communities.

Sense of place is conveyed by text and punters. As with most "country books", graphical possibilities might have been further explored. A few thematic maps (for example, of rainfall or population density) would have usefully complemented the general-purpose locating map. Monsoon climates, increasing deforestation could be conveyed graphically and would consolidate graphicacy skills for the nine to 13 age range aimed at by the series.

Despite the common format there are interesting variations in tone. Amanda Barker's two books are particularly successful. Her selected communities are strongly delineated. She finds room to explain why large families may persist as a logical response to the exigencies of rural life. There is a judicious balancing of "deficit" perceptions (illiteracy, landlessness etc), with rather less familiar achievements. In India nearly 90 per cent of the population now lives in places with a clean water supply - only 50 per cent had a clean water supply in the 1970s.

The books on Kenya and Brazil are perhaps marginally less successful in coping with the multiple problems of presenting the nature of a "Third World" society in a short book for children. The authors of Kenya, identify strongly with the minority Masai culture. They would like young readers to envy Maasai children who "have lots of space and lots of freedom. They do not have to be warned about talking to strangers, or being careful how they cross the road". For them, work and play are not separate. "We enjoy ourselves when we go together to collect wood or water . . . it's not hard work". Admiration for exotic lifestyles is a common characteristic of "Third World" materials, but David Marshall's Brazil takes a more "pathological" line, with its sequence of economic and environmental incompetence. Both stances - idealising or despairing - can sometimes be problematic for young readers.

Generally, however, the series achieves the objective set out by Amanda Barker who reminds us that "we have many images of a country in our minds, even if we have never actually visited the place". These books will be valuable resources for geographical education in its constant quest to extend and deepen the range of images accessible to pupils.

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