Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Why Do I Care?

One of the assignments in the Master of Development Studies programme is to keep a 'journal' of our own 'ideas on development theories and issues' You can imagine that I hardly greeted this task with too much trepidation, given that my amateur musings on trade, energy, poverty reduction, labour rights, economic growth, government policy etc have themselves formed a kind of intermittent journal over the last couple of years.

Indeed, it will be an excellent excuse to follow through with a number of ideas for posts that I had shelved or never started, as priorities such as work, other projects, and generally having a life have intruded.

The suggested starting point for our 'journals' is to bring it all back to our raison d'etre for being interested in development.

So here is my two cents' worth.

Those of us in the handful of 'first world' countries roughly defined by OECD membership are among the few materially luckiest people to have ever lived. About two hundred years ago, things started changing for our forebears in Northern Europe. Whether through the dynamism of the new industrial economies, rapacious exploitation of raw materials from recently 'discovered' colonies, or the unprecedentedly cheap energy delivered by fossil fuels, economic growth started to accelerate. This allowed the production and adoption of a range of new technologies that have literally transformed the world.

We've ended up with longer, healthier, more comfortable lives, and individual freedoms unthinkable even a couple of of generations ago.

Greater material wealth hardly brings utopia. There is some evidence that the contribution of wealth to happiness tops out at between $15,000--20,000 USD per capita. Humans seem to have an in-built status anxiety that means relative wealth differences create stress even when everyone is better off.

Nevertheless, you'd have to be quite perverse to wish yourself into a different place and time. Apart from a very, very few people who really want to live in mud huts, most people who completely reject the 'system' in which they were born and grew up, do so in bad faith. From a personal perspective, having the freedom to travel, and being able to afford effective laser eye surgery, are two things I remain eternally grateful for.

In my view, working out how the rest of the world can have the same opportunities is at least a very interesting puzzle. Ensuring that they do, has at least some moral weight.

There are other, more pragmatic reasons for supporting global development. Increasing prosperity is what writer Robert Wright calls a 'non-zero sum game'. People are just as naturally greedy and conniving when they're rich as when they're poor -- but when there are more riches to go around, there's less of an imperative to grab someone else's share. Greater prosperity gives people more time and space to learn to tame their more venal impulses. If we care about reducing the number of people getting shot or blown up, supporting sustainable material wellbeing is a necessary -- though probably not sufficient -- condition.

It also appears that there may be a tipping point of prosperity when societies begin to see the natural environment as something precious that needs to be cared for, rather than an adversary to be exploited. Again, material prosperity allows us to care about more than where the next meal is coming from.

That's the potted summary of my overall philosophy. My detailed views, and my obsessions and prejudices, mostly derive from my personal experiences living and travelling in Latin America.

Before I ever made it to the continent, I thought I knew something about its history and politics. It's hardly a surprise that my instintctive sympathies were firmly left-wing. I'd been inspired by seeing a film sympathetic to the Sandinista revolutionaries in Nicaragua, and stirred by stories of CIA conspiracies to undermine democratic progress at the behest of neocolonial corporations like United Fruit. On the other hand, reluctant readings of excerpts from the Economist had partially eroded any faith in romantically socialist alternatives.

I was aware that a common way of engaging in these countries -- and a good way to get to stay around -- was working in some kind of aid or development project. But the more I travelled, the more I wondered how I could offer 'assistance' to anyone. For a clumsy gringo with a bright backpack and not even much money, it seemed far more likely to be the other way around. The young guys manouvering dilapidated chicken buses around impossible mountain bends; the women handweaving elaborate and colourful textiles; the peasant farmers raising corn and chickens on difficult patches of land: all were far more capable than I of meeting life's practical challenges.

It's true that their were deep inequalities and horrible injustices on view. But I found that many of my preconceptions were undermined or turned on their head. Some of the charming, educated people that I met and were treated kindly by could probably be characterised as part of the 'oligarchy'. On the other hand, I felt it difficult to engage with the working people and campesinos, except occasionally after a bottle of aguardiente. The villains of some of my reading, the 'oppressive' police and military, were staffed by guys from the same working class, mestizo background as the workers and farmers. And I had to acknowledge that as a vulnerable lone traveller, it was sometimes a comfort to see them around.

I also began to see ways in which people's problems were in part due to simple things that they themselves could change.

Most people were eager to see tourism -- yet couldn't see that the tendency to harass, rip off and otherwise squeeze out every last penny from visitors was the quickest way to ensure they didn't stay around and spend more money. Worse was the tendency to behave the same way towards each other.

I was also surprised by the prevalence of nationalism. While it seems clear to an outsider that the ordinary people of Latin American countries have far more in common with each other than with their local elites, it was depressingly common to see people with unexamined hostility towards a neighbouring nation based on the territorial squabbles of a hundred years ago. Attitudes about race and ethnicity could charitably be described as unreconstructed.

After more time spent in Peru in particular, and study of its history, politics and culture, I started to better understand the underlying reasons for these things -- but continued to believe they could be different.

If I've ended up with any strong belief about development, it would be a kind of militant pragmatism. To take advantage of the potential of the modern economy, there are probably some sine qua nons relating to containing inflation and keeping a relatively stable currency. Beyond that, what works for a particular country will depend very much on that country's people, culture, history, and even physical geography.

I'm sceptical about the simplistic narratives that blame all Latin America's problems on outside exploitation. But I'm far more irritated by those neoliberals who would remake countries in the image of their textbook, based on highly ideologised theories, without any appreciation of the realities of individual societies, or even of their own countries' histories.

One thing I believe firmly is that the countries of Latin America -- and by extension other 'developing ' countries -- ought to be able to work out their own priorities and the mix of policies that will best meet the needs of their citizens.

At the same time, I would call into question any notion of some kind of Hegelian pathway to a 'state of development' that more or less resembles how we live. For all the difficulties of Latin America, there are many aspects of life there that are preferable to New Zealand.

Latin America retains many traditions, languages, skills and cultural memories that have been steamrolled over in many industrialised societies. People have much warmer and more regular contact with their families and neighbours, and those who have visited western countries are often horrified at the neglect sometimes suffered by elderly parents. Children may in my view be over-indulged, but Latin Americans would be rather shocked that what has most stirred New Zealanders to political action in the last couple of years has been defending the right to hit their kids.

Life is intense, exciting, passionate. Romance exists -- though gender politics are often fraught. Music and dancing are part of everyday life. Middle class people like my friends Hugo and Lizbeth have lives that are a little less comfortable and more chaotic than New Zealand suburbanites, but enjoy less commuting and better parties They get to eat a homecooked meal around the kitchen table at lunchtime.

It may sound like a pious cliche, but for me international development is about an exchange of experiences and perspectives, ideally for mutual benefit.

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Terence said...

If I've ended up with any strong belief about development, it would be a kind of militant pragmatism.

Sounds very sensible to me.

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