Sunday, April 25, 2010

Issue blogging again

[Update to last post]. No longer in the blog free job, I now have a new blog on things international development here:

Sunday, July 13, 2008


I'm changing jobs and the new one would appear to preclude political blogging. So, for the time being, this blog is going to have a breather.

I've got a new blog set up on Wordpress to talk travel, arthritis, hearts and random stuff. It is:

(note the word MY in there, an annoying concession to the fact that someone already thought of Wandering Thoughts).

Thanks to everyone who has read this blog and commented from time to time. Sorry to Matt who I owe a couple of posts.

For what it's worth, below are some of my favourite posts...

Development as Explained By 2 Cows in a Field
Turtles Can Fly - review
Why Treasury’s Got it Wrong on Tax Cuts
What’s the Matter with Libertarianism?
Raging Against Modernity
Trying to Muddle Through: Living (and Learning) with Disease
A Simple (but resilient) Definition of Power
An Ideological and Intellectual Wallace Line
My very own*, very succinct, definition of social capital
My very own, very succinct...
Gore's Law
Freedom of Speach and its Discontents

And, primarily because I still suffer from an addiction to Excel, here's some blog stats graphed (click on the graph to see it more clearly).

Friday, July 11, 2008

Development: what's the point?

Over the space of a couple of weeks in 1996 I travelled between two extremes of the public transport spectrum. At one end were the busses of rural Sumbawa – grumpy, diesel-spitting creatures that lurched their way around potholes taking interminable amounts of time to get anywhere, let alone their destination. As a means of transport they were inclusive though. Want to take your surfboard? no problem. Want to travel with freshly caught fish? fine. Want to move your goat – trussed up and still trying to kick? just pay your fare. And if the bus ever got full, you were invited to sit on the roof.

At the other end of the spectrum was the London Underground. Trains were frequent and – despite everyone’s complaints – mostly on time. You could only travel with surfboards off peak and, though I never tested the hypothesis, I suspect goats and fish were prohibited outright. Yet the tube got you where you wanted and it got you there quick. It was safe, efficient and no one ever asked you to ride on the roof. Compared to the bus riders of Sumbawa, all but the poorest travellers on the London Underground were wildly wealthy too. And healthy: no Malaria, nor cholera, nor typhoid; life expectancies in the mid 70s. Almost all of them were literate and many could expect to travel overseas. They got to elect their leaders (something denied to Indonesians during the Suharto years) and their human rights were reasonably well safeguarded.

And yet they were miserable. Or, at least, they appeared that way. Silent, pale, staring at their shoes. The Sumbawan bus travellers, on the other hand, were full of cheer. The bus rang loud with talk and laughter, and delays which would have driven Londoners to apoplexy were cheerfully dismissed.

For a long time contrast between these two scenes led me to question the very merits of development itself. If London was wealthy but glum and Sumbawa poor but happy, then maybe we should abandon development and all aim to live like the Sumbawanese. Over the years I engaged in plenty of this anti-development thinking. It’s common currency on the backpack trail and surprisingly prevalent amongst some sectors of the development community too.

It is also mistaken. My own error was to compare two snapshots of life that were both subtly different but also not representative. At least part of the boisterousness of the Sumbawan busses came from the fact that most everyone knew each other. On the Underground people are silent because they are among strangers. Of course, if Sumbawanese and Londoners lived their lives as they travelled (amongst companions in the case of the former; isolated and alone in the case of the later), this would be a real issue. And it is certainly easier to end up lonely in a large city than a small village, but London is hardly atomised – you only have to go into any bar, or restaurant, or football stadium to see people interacting amongst friends.

And, of course, a bus ride is not someone’s life. What I didn’t see on those buses were the dirt floors of people’s houses, or the absence of running water. Nor did I feel the anguish of loosing a child to Malaria, or the pangs of hunger at the end of the dry season, or the anxiety of living with only the barest social safety net. I didn’t feel the frustration of being unable to afford basic medicines or of having to deal with corrupt officials. On the other hand, much of what London has to offer – comfort, food, the NHS – I have had all my life. So I took it for granted.

None of this is to say, of course, that London is all good, or that village life in Sumbawa has no merits. All I’m saying is that the modern misery / happy poverty dichotomy, and its variants – views held by a considerable number of people – are wrong.

In other words, there is such a thing as Development, and it matters. Countries can be better or worse places to live and, taken as a whole, for the majority of their people, the best places to live aren’t those with per capita incomes of a few hundred dollars per year.

To say something exists and that it matters is not, of course, the same as saying that it is straight forwards or even that it can be easily defined. One has only to look at the many very real problems of London to realise that development can’t possibly be a nice linear journey from rural Sumbawa to the South-East of England.

So what is development? Let’s start with its purpose.

As a Utilitarian I believe that the purpose of politics – and, it follows, development – should be to increase happiness/wellbeing in a manner that is, ultimately, sustainable. Utilitarianism is far from a perfect political philosophy so I’m open to being dissuaded from it, but the very first question I would want answered from anyone trying to do this is, would your alternative end-goal for development really be worth holding if it made people’s lives more rather than less miserable? Personally, I can’t think of any principal I would want societies to cling to if it could be shown that it consistently, across time, made life less happy. You can argue that your alternative purpose won’t suffer this problem; that it won’t make people worse off. But by doing this you are tacitly admitting that your purpose is a second order one. That it is worthy for it what it might do for people’s wellbeing rather than for any intrinsic value of its own.

At a practical level, because suffering is so my easier to define and identify than wellbeing or happiness, it makes sense to me that the purpose of development (as practiced) should be to increase wellbeing by focusing on the reduction of suffering.

So if we know what we want from development, can we also paint a rough picture of its essential ingredients? Those things that with distinguish more developed countries and communities from less? Simon very wisely argues for some flexibility – good development will look different in different places. I think, though, that – despite the importance of context – we can lay down some universal ground rules.

The first being the protection of human rights. It might seem strange that a utilitarian would put human rights up front. After all, didn’t the founding utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham, refer to the French revolutionaries’ talk of inalienable rights as ‘nonsense on stilts?’ (Surely, one of the best phrased insults in the history of political philosophy). Bentham’s critique though, at least as I understand it, of rights for rights sake – rights because they are given to us by god, or by virtue of us being human beings – and, even if wellbeing is your central concern, then rights remain important. Not because of some intrinsic worth of their own but simply because history has shown us time and time again that when they are grossly violated suffering ensues. Think Rwanda, or the Holocaust, or the Gulag. It follows then that countries that protect and promote their citizen’s rights will be less likely to experience suffering.

Suffering also clusters around extreme poverty. So the second essential ingredient of development is the reduction of extreme poverty, followed by the reduction in poverty in general. There’s not space here in this blog post to explain Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach to poverty but I do want to emphasise that the reduction of poverty is not the same as merely increasing one’s wealth. Wealth is an important component, but it needs to be set amongst others, including increasing the meaningful choices that people have in their lives. We want to reduce poverty of opportunity as well as material poverty

The third essential ingredient for development will be the protection of the environment. Despite all the advances of technology we humans remain dependent on the world we live in – and if we destroy it suffering will follow. In saying this, I’m not arguing for extreme sustainability that prohibits any environmental destruction but rather that we don’t damage the environment in a way that either significantly harms us now or which bequeaths a mess to future generations. (As a tangential point, where it is in any way avoidable, I’m also against irreversible environmental damage such as species extinction).

Finally, development needs to provide space all those other, less-quantifiable things that matter to human beings – social interaction, opportunities to have fun, a sense of meaning in one’s life.

It all sounds so simple on paper doesn’t it? But that sad fact is that for the vast majority of people living on our planet at present, development remains a long way off. Even so-called developed countries have problems sufficient to suggest that the very term ‘developed country’ has arrived prematurely. All of which begs the question, why are we still so far away from living in a developed world? That, time permitting, is the subject of another post.

Paul Krugman

If you're interested (and I won't blame you if you're not) I have a review of Paul Krugman's Conscience of a Liberal up at the Scoop Review of Books.