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.

1 comment:

Ortiz said...

Slots won’t wreck Maryland's wilderness
The Baltimore Examiner Newspaper

Sometimes paving a tiny part of paradise is not a bad idea. Especially when the paradise in question is a perpetual 3,000-acre black hole like Rocky Gap State Park in western Maryland.

The park is one of the five potential sites for slots if the referendum to allow them passes in November. The Sierra Club opposes the referendum because “This park is a wonderful natural resource for all Marylanders and should not be developed into a casino location under any circumstances.”

First, from financial statements, very few Marylanders currently enjoy the park, a project of the Maryland Economic Development Corporation. It’s most recent audit shows that the project was more than $31 million in the hole in 2007, up from a deficit of $22 million in 2005. Slots hold the potential to bring many new visitors to the area, increasing hikers through the quasiwilderness -- and appreciation of the state’s natural surroundings. A few extra parking lots would not cause “massive increases in rainwater runoff” nor disrupt wildlife habitats. Besides, the site already holds an underused conference center, amphitheater and hotel rooms, so the overall new building footprint will be much smaller than building from scratch.

You’d think this type of development would appeal to those concerned about ripping up pristine wilderness since it would use space already constructed in an existing mixed recreation area.

Second, at what price environmentalism? Should no development be allowed because it could potentially intrude on a few plant or animal species? In its June newsletter, the Sierra Club provides no specifics as to how the park’s wilderness would be damaged nor which species hurt. It would behoove the organization to provide case studies from other states for its members, the public and state legislators before making apocalyptic claims. At a time of rising unemployment and falling tax revenue, the state needs every penny of extra revenue it can find. In this economic environment, opposing slots because they could potentially hurt the environment is not a good enough argument to stop them.

Third, the Sierra Club’s wish may come true without any lobbying on its part. Even if the referendum passes, there is no guarantee financing will be available to build slots facilities. Credit for the gaming industry is drying up just like it has for other commercial markets, including the housing industry. And because Maryland does not allow casino gambling, its less of a draw for developers designing destination resorts.

We do not live in an environmental vacuum. Instead of opposing slots outright, the Sierra Club would make itself more useful by working with developers to promote green construction and analyzing how to best turn visitors into stewards of the wilderness. Opposing slots -- at best a fringe issue to its core mission -- only makes the group seem as if it has nothing better to do than protest for protest’s sake.