Constructivist cartography

The development blogosphere recently lit up with news of South Sudan's plan to rebuild some of its urban centers in the shape of various animals.

The plan elicited no shortage of guffaws, as is appropriate. But in the interest of maintaining AidWatch's contrarian reputation, this post argues that we should be careful about focusing our ridicule on the Sudanese. Criticism should to be leveled at the appropriate target: cartography! constructivism.

Cartography actually suffers from the same schizophrenia that besets economics. At its best, it provides striking depictions of and keen insights into the bottom-up forces shaping social reality. (Even the burgeoning subdiscipline of cartozoology--obviously salient to the Sudanese plan--usually focuses on this important descriptive work.)

But, like economics, cartography has also been employed as a tool of central planners. The Sudanese are not alone in having put to paper visions of grandeur that seem goofy upon reflection. At least one such cartographical monument to the hubris of constructivist planning actually exists: Evita City in Argentina.

The point is this: we can and should mock the absurdity of the Sudanese scheme. But it should be mocked for its faith in central planning. Reinforced stereotypes of incompetent African rulers are at their most harmful when they serve as an excuse for wealthy governments and international agencies to throw their weight around, for that merely replaces domestic planners with foreign planners. These maps are a fine example of the absurdity of constructivism and the demeaning character of collectivism; it would be shame for them to contribute to more of the same.

Besides, I'm less worried about actual cartographical collectivism than the figurative kind.