Development is…


I never considered this thing called “development” before living in The Gambia, West Africa. I had thought about progress, and vague idealistic ideas of a better society whilst growing up in England, but I had never considered the global implications of progress; of the repercussions of our seemingly continual post enlightenment advancement. I had never thought of development as an idea or a process until I had been taken out of my bubble of privilege and seen the stark economic inequity the global system permits. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, that has come to try to understand development after seeing the poverty that has come to be concentrated in the African continent. Of the ‘bottom billion’ – Paul Collier’s phrase – more than 600 million are Africans and “saving” Africa has become both the goal of idealists, the despair of pessimists, and a lens through which to look at development. With efficacious and ethical trepidations, I realize that I look at this thing called development through the tints of idealism and pessimism.

So is development a paradigm or a process? Is it something you do or something you think? Our struggle to measure development masks the deeper ethical debates over our role in the historical processes which have cemented swathes of humanity in relative poverty. So much of “development” is concern for measuring where we are in a process, which masks whether “development” is even a process in the first place. As Albert Einstein said: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

If the concept of development is a process it implies that there is a path from underdeveloped to developed. The semantics of development is bound by the assumption that some people are underdeveloped and to define development, you need the counter, you need to define underdevelopment. But underdevelopment makes sense only as a means of comparing levels of development. A second and even more indispensable component of modern underdevelopment is that it expresses a particular relationship of exploitation: namely, the exploitation of one country by another. In a way, underdevelopment is a paradox. Many parts of the world that are naturally rich in resources are actually poor and parts that are not so well off in wealth of natural resources enjoy higher standards of living. A procedural conception of development suggests that some countries, by defining them as underdeveloped or undeveloped, are at an earlier stage of development than other countries. The idea that developed countries are somehow ahead of the game, and that undeveloped countries need to “catch up” at best gives developed countries too much credit, and at worst dehumanizes those deemed undeveloped. Excuse my idealism, but we are all playing the same game at the same time; if one of us loses, we all lose.

‘Developed’ countries that attempt to show ‘undeveloped’ countries the path to ‘development’ ignore that deprivations, such as persistence of poverty, unfulfilled elementary needs, violations of freedom, and worsening threats to our environment, are persistent within ‘developed’ countries. Development is undoubtedly influenced by economic opportunities and political liberties, but it also requires the enabling conditions of good health and education. The argument goes that ‘developing’ countries, to have agency over their nation’s wellbeing require the economic opportunity to make choices over their future. The ruling assumption of so much development work is that “What is best for the rich, must be best for the poor?” and that finding out the answers to what is best for the rich is a relatively easy task. This assumption removes a choice for ‘underdeveloped’ nations; a choice to take a different path to a different destination than the ‘developed’ nations have arrived at.

Development is ensconced within a capitalist system whereby more is better. Economists’ models are reliant on this assumption; although they note the caveat of diminishing marginal utility (the more you have, the less each additional item is worth to you). The conventional approach to economic development, to making poor countries rich, is based on the belief that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements – that by enabling people to have more things they will escape the trappings of poverty. ‘More is better’ is the basis of a technocratic illusion. I am reminded of Thoreau’s insightful but patriarchal line “Men have become the tools of their tools” when looking at a development process that seeks to provide people with an escape from poverty through a capitalist system, where more is better only releases more people into the further trap of consumerism. Thoreau also observed, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone”. I realize that I have the opportunity to afford to let things alone; my privilege provides me with that choice. Yet the trappings of a system of ‘more is better’ are too often ignored when attempts are made to show people the path to ‘development’.

My disappointment with the effectiveness of the development industry is caused by the materialist philosophy that underlies it. In the words of E.F Schumacher, “We tend to think of development, not in terms of evolution, but in terms of creation” and the beauty of an evolutionary process is that it need not be consistently linear; there can be divergent destinations. For different and better systems to evolve, economic choice is not enough. Informed choice is necessary and people need to be able to think about the development of their societies laterally, as Edward De Bono puts it, not merely horizontally or vertically. This is why I see education as being the key to any successful development strategy that seeks to solve the problems of poverty and scarce resources through indirect and creative approaches. People need to be able to think outside of the current system if we are to develop a more equitable system whereby a duality of developed and underdeveloped can no longer exist.

William Easterly makes a compelling argument that the whole development aid process is broken. His views are best encapsulated by an old joke about the failed development strategies that have gone in and out of favor over the past half century: A peasant discovers that many of his chickens are dying, so he seeks advice from a priest. The priest recommends that the peasant say prayers for his chickens, but the chickens continue to die. The priest then recommends music for the chicken coop, but the deaths continue unabated. Pondering again, the priest recommends repainting the chicken coop in bright colors. Finally, all the chickens die. “What a shame,” the priest tells the peasant, “I had so many more good ideas.”

Within the analogy consider whether you see ‘development’ as the priest, the ideas he has, or the institutional church? The only thing I have a degree of certainty about is that the peasant exists. I don’t know if his chickens are dying and if they are, what can be done to stop them dying. Criticisms of international assistance that seeks to bring about ‘development’ abound, and accurately cite numerous examples of ways in which international aid has done harm rather than good. Can you condemn the development industry for its failures? It is a moral and logical fallacy to conclude that because the development industry has done harm, the lack of a development industry would do no harm. In reality there is no way to switch off discussions about development or the industry which surrounds it, in the vague hope that a more equitable system will magically appear. While I cannot successfully define development, and disagree with other’s definitions, the concept is in all likelihood here to stay for the foreseeable future and I will need to work within systems that have demarcated the boundaries of good development (although I am aware that, as a graduate student investing a small fortune in studying development, I have a clear conflict of interest in maintaining a development industry).

Many people try to solve the “problems” of development incrementally. The Haitian proverb, made famous by Paul Farmer, that “beyond mountains there are mountains” distills this idea that for development to be enacted, the myriad problems that lie behind underdevelopment need to be tackled. George Marshall once said, “Tame problems have defined causes, objectives and outputs. Wicked problems are incomplete, contradictory and constantly changing”, and it is these ‘wicked problems’, such as poverty, that fuel my interest in the study of development. Development is a lens to look at a complex system, but increasingly development becomes a complex system in and of itself. All the interventions that stem from differing ideas of development result in unintended consequences; time and again, by solving one problem, another problem is created.

Development, for better or worse, is bound up with conceptions of altruism, charity and philanthropy. There are exhortations that discussions of “development” must lead within five minutes to a recommended philanthropic action, but this inhibits clear thinking, and prevents us from ensuring that our principles and understanding are clear before embarking on action. You can spend five minutes considering the ethics of the idea of “development”, but no more than five minutes, because you need to hurry up and do something to help somebody or make ‘progress’. My thinking about development is constrained by coming to the concept from a place where I had intended to “do good”. I was a Peace Corp volunteer, and the Peace Corps prides itself on its lofty mission to promote world peace and friendship. I rarely question the “goodness” of my actions, or of anybody working in development. We reassure each other that our intentions are pure and there is a tribal guarantee from working in the development sector that our moral slates are wiped clean. Perhaps I should spend more time considering Solzhenitsyn who said, “to do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.” To call anybody evil within development, the industry, would elicit howls of incredulity. Banerjee and Duflo argue “That talking about the problems of the world without talking about some accessible solutions is the way to paralysis rather than progress”. Peter Singer concurs, asserting that we must shake off our uncertainty and act now to save as many lives as possible. I fear inertia but I also fear doing evil; I fear overemphasizing short term gains in development over long term systemic changes; I fear a march to progress that paralyzes our humanity. Google recently changed its company motto from “Don’t be evil” to “Do the right thing”. Applying these mottos to development, I don’t want to see a rigid dichotomy and, I hope, it is possible for both mottos to be adhered to.

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” the economist John Maynard Keynes famously said. The ‘facts’ I am aware of constantly change, and my definitions and reactions to ‘development’ flip flop more than Donald Trump, lurching from pragmatic interventionism to idealistic passivity; from belief to doubt, on the reading of another book or article. Flip-flopping is often used pejoratively but I believe it is a failure to flip-flop in the face of contradictory evidence that is more dangerous and irrational. I want to leave myself open to what Thomas Huxley has called “the great tragedy of science, the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact”. The only problem being that I am yet to come up with a beautiful hypothesis. Luckily there is a veritable cornucopia of development ideas out there, waiting to be slain by ugly facts.

When you work or study development, and people casually ask you what you do, the next question is likely to be “So what is development?”. Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher, in reply to similar questions about his profession answers: “My philosophy is that everything is more complicated than you thought.” Development is more complicated than I ever thought, and I hope to further my awareness of the complexity of the ideas and processes that surround it whilst maintaining an uncertainty about the impact of any action I may take in my career.




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