Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Paradoxes of Development Part 1

If I'm asked to think of how life should be, I think of my time in La Antigua, Guatemala. In a valley with a climate of eternal spring, in a town of cobblestone streets with flowers growing from rooftops, I and scores of other backpackers happily wiled away our days studying or teaching in language schools. We drank mojitos and played dominoes with the beautiful daughters of the local oligarchy; relaxed in splendid baroque courtyards full of hanging plants in large ceramic pots; ate delicious late breakfasts of fresh beans and eggs, seasoned with green chili and served by indulgent mestizo matrons.

In the streets, local women in colourful, elaborately woven ponchos sold crafts or plump bocadillos of chicken and avocado. People were friendly and smiled a lot. On Sundays, people gathered to gossip and flirt in the plaza, as the hazy outline of Volcan de Agua hovered over the 17th-century arches. To this day it brings me pleasant memories.

But did not the whole reality of this idyll rest -- from the 16th century to the modern day -- on hierarchy, exploitation and oppression?

Beyond the pretty plazas of Antigua was a polluted capital of slums and rampant crime, a rural hinterland of peasants struggling to subsist on patches of land, rich landlords exporting cash crops on the back of exploited rural labourers. The whole country was still traumatized by a vicious, twenty-year civil war that had seen death squads rampaging through indigenous villages.

Gazing dreamily over the volcanoes from our sunny courtyards as we drank the damn fine coffee, we were inheriting the role of the Spanish colonial elite. Look into almost any critical history of Latin America, and this lot come out the villains. Whether as the first wave of a long line of outsiders tapping the continent's 'open veins'; a corrupt and decadent culture who bequeathed fatalism, supersitition and lethargy to their mestizo descendants; or simply inflexible defenders of privilege who failed to ever achieve political reform, the Spanish tend to get the blame.

And yet...has anyone devised an urban layout more harmonious, an architecture more suited for living; a religion richer in ritual, metaphor and existential comfort, a more seductive blend of music and food and romance?

Compared to Guatemala, New Zealand is an oasis of peace, equitable wealth distribution, transparent government and progressive politics. Despite a few economic hiccups in the past forty years, we're still in the world's twenty 'most developed' countries. We've always been at the forefront: land reform, the vote for women, social welfare programmes, rejection of the nuclear umbrella, civil rights for gay people. We're thirty years into an imperfect but world-leading process to compensate indigenous tribes for historical abuses.

Life should be good, right?

Instead, people are grumpy and bitter that they aren't even better off. The political issues that most excite people are tax cuts are retaining the legal right to hit their kids. There's precious little respect for the life of the intellect. The popular press has nearly scraped right though the bottom of the barrel. Our cities have nothing that is visionary and very little that is even attractive. The slums of third world cities are hardly more depressing, and certainly more colourful, than the surburban monotony of Papakura, Tawa, or Bishopdale. Social interaction is timid and superficial. We go out to bars where we can't hear, and drink until we can't speak. When we win at our favourite sport we feel only relief; when we lose we're plunged into wordless despair. An undercurrent of violence simmers uncomfortably beneath the surface of our society.

Do the most pleasant ways of organising life need to be the province of a privileged elite? Does opportunity to contemplate the volcanoes over a coffee rely on an underclass of peasants slaving in the fields? Does it take antidemocratic tyranny to make the imaginative leap beyond acquiring the next consumer good?

Does equity and progress produce only people envious of each other's imagined advantages, squabbling over their rightful share? Does successful political compromise and the rule of law just produce a nation of NIMBYs? Does beauty, charm and passion require hierarchy, oppression and supersitition? Does development equal banality?

Or could it be that it's all even more complicated than we thought; that there are good things hidden in the middle of the worst systems? That our greatest satisfactions might be our greatest illusions? That we haven't even really started to figure it out?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Sustainability of Development

The semester passes quickly. In a couple of weeks, this subsection of my development studies course is all over, and next Friday I have to hand in the 'journal' which is made up by the last umpteen posts on this blog.

I've jumped about thematically, and have spent an inordinate amount of time on a couple of peripheral topics. I'll try and wrap it up in some kind of coherent way.

Within much of the standard development theory, a range of competing theories -- from both liberal/modernisationist and Marxist/dependency perspectives -- assume similar processes and results for development: urbanisation, industrialisation, economic growth and increased material consumption.

In the last couple of weeks we've been looking at critiques of those assumptions from the indigenous, rural, feminist, environmentalist, and postmodernist angles.

I'm just going to look briefly at one of those: the environmental perspective. This is often presented as the true full-frontal challenge to the 'development' paradigm. It worms its way into most debates, whether they be in the letters to the editor, blog comments section, and questions to visiting speakers (the Joe Stiglitz talk was no exception).

Let for a moment me take on the character of the environmentalist interlocutor.

All these arguments you're having, you the capitalists and you the socialists, they all assume that what we want is growth. As if there are unlimited resources and we can just keep on growing. We let me tell you, we live on a single planet with finite resources, and we just can't keep on growing forever...

Taken at face value, there's a lot there to nod sagely and agree with. We do indeed live on a physical world with finite resources. (We haven't figured out how to live anywhere else yet, and even if we could create some controlled environment on Mars, I know where I'd rather be). In just a couple of hundred years of industrial development, we've managed to make some significant alterations to fragile membrane of rocks and gases on which we live. About thirty years ago, we'd begun to punch a hole in the ozone layer. Now climate change is the dominant issue. Who knows what irreversible changes will eventually be seen in the world's oceans?

Preserving the environment and even rolling back some of the damage is an essential part of development. GDP per capita is an inadequate measure of human wellbeing, and no technological miracle in the near future will make it reasonable for replicas of Los Angeles to cover the planet.

Yet, I do have some problems with the attitudes that are lurking in this environmentalist objection. Firstly, there's a strong streak of pessimism about human potential and the ability to creatively overcome difficulties. Collective action to address the ozone problem was an example of what canbe achieved when needed. Climate change presents a far greater challenge, but we can only keep trying. Also, if the negative consequences of our actions are often unpredictable, so are the positive twists of fate: who in the 1950s and 1960s would have predicted the internet, or even the Green Revolution.

More importantly, I find the 'no more growth' to frequently be in bad faith. All too often, it is delivered by the 'we live a sustainable lifestyle with our olives and organic chickens in Martinborough, our solar heating panels and our Toyota Prius' set. If such people reluctantly acknowledge their inability to 'wean' themselves off all modern conveniences, they rarely accept that their position as privileged members of an interdependent capitalist society (computer programmer, consultant, boutique food producer) is the result of a centuries-long chain of specialisation, high energy use, and resource exploitation.

As I said in the 'why do I care' post, the freedoms they [I] have, and the ability to worry so much about future generations, are a direct result of the material prosperity which we have inherited from the resource-using technological development of the past. Making a choice to live a certain kind of life with the cushion of money in the bank and modern services at hand is entirely different from condemning people in developing countries to stick to their donkey-powered wells.

Of course the very same processes that built Sheffield and Los Angeles can't be repeated in exactly the same way all around the world. And the rest of the world has probably learnt enough not to want that (ok, China's current development pathway notwithstanding). But assertingthat 'sustainable development is impossible' is a unilateral declaration that progress has ended. This violates the Kantian or Rawlsian principle of integrity (if you didn't know your place within it, what kind of world would you wish for).

Witin the debates are about how the lives of the world's billions of poor can be improved, putting forward the 'no more growth' environmentalist objection is a little like saying 'I don't care'.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Venezuela: Yes, There's More

In two recent posts I covered the debate about social and economic policies in Venezuela, partly to emphasize how in considering development issues it's important to understand the facts and all their nuances before lanching into ideological debates.

I linked to an article from Francisco Rodriguez, former economist to the Venezuelan national assembly, who made the intriguing argument that the Hugo Chavez government had not actually made a very high priority of addressing poverty (something generally assumed by both boosters and critics of Chavez).

I then discovered a piece by US analyst Mark Weisbrot, who critiqued Rodriguez' use of data and suggested that in fact the evidence generally pointed to increased social spending and steady progress for the Venzuelan poor.

My second post was sympathetic to Weisbrot's contention that the picture changed after a fuller review of the data. However, I then received a communication from Francisco Rodriguez himself, who pointed out that I had obviously not seen his rebuttal to Weisbrot. He noted that because Foreign Policy does not allow the use of footnotes, it hadn't been possible to make clear all the data sources he had used, which in fact drew from the work he has been doing for at least ten years.

Rodriguez says that the arguments of Weisbrot "[rely] on erroneous reading of the evidence or use of severely biased indicators that do not accurately reflect the evolution of the Venezuelan economy or the well-being of the poor".

Let's review the substance of the rebuttal to Weisbrot, under the categories I used in the previous two posts.

Spending Priorities

Rodriguez questions the relevance of Weisbot's point that the absolute level of social spending has increased during the Chavez administration. Given that Venezuela has had a huge windfall thanks to oil boom, he points out, all categories of spending are going to increase. Therefore, " if we are interested in evaluating a government’s priorities... we want to study how it has allocated it among different possible objectives". And he returns to his original point that the relative portion allocated to Venezuelan health, education, and housing is the same as it was in the 1990s.

The only big increase in government social spending is on social security, which Rodriguez argues is regressive because people in the informal economy don't have access to pensions (an important point, and akin to my convoluted argument about Peruvian labour laws in this post -- i.e. for them to be important, first you've got to have a job).

Weisbrot had also pointed to what he quoted as $13 billion social spending by the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA. Rodriguez publishes the detailsof the PDVSA budget, showing that of this spending only about a quarter is on health, education and housing (the 'misiones'). The rest of the 'social spending' includes debt refinancing, infrastructure projects, and defense projects.

My question would be: although not as large as claimed, the social programmes funded by PDVSA are new initiatives, and therefore should they not bolster the total proportion of public spending counted as 'social'?


In the two previous posts I described how Weibsrot and Rodriguez disagreed about whether inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, had gone up or down during the Chavez administration. Weisbrot had been unsure about which sources Rodriguez had used for his inequality measures and suggested that they might have been cherry picked. He cited data from the Venezuelan National Statistics Insitute to suggest that inequality has actually dropped since Chavez came to power.

In his rebuttal, Rodriguez points out that the series cited by Weisbrot excludes people whose reported income is zero (presumably the poorest of the poor). Furthermore, he provides time-series graphs using data derived directly from the Venezuelan Household Surveys. Using different methods (and including people with zero income), these all show that income inequality has dropped from a peak in 2002, but is only now back to the level it was in 1995. Latest data suggests inequality is still on a downward track, but that still excludes the zero-income groups, so the jury is out.

Poverty reduction

Weisbrot had interpreted Rodriguez as saying that many developing countries achieved a two point reduction in poverty for every point of GDP growth -- meaning Venezuela would have had to eliminate poverty entirely by 2007. Rodriguez makes clear that he was talking about the 'income elasticity of poverty reduction', a technical calculation, which, despite digging tentatively into some background reading, I can't entirely understand. Suffice to say that according to Rodriguez, given its level of economic growth, Venezuela should have seen poverty reduced to between 18--22.5 percent, rather than the 27 percent that has been achieved.

In correspondence, Francisco Rodriguez agreed that Peru was a far worse performer again (having seen poverty reduce very slowly from 54 to 43 percent in a period when its economy grew by around 40 percent) but that Chile, Mexico and Brazil are the examples commonly cited as having combined economic growth with good social progress. I'd note that each of these countries is subject to its own debate -- there are some discussions of Chile here and here.


Rodriguez had written a paper with co-author Daniel Ortega (presumably not the Nicaraguan Sandinista leader) which cast grave doubt on whether the Chavez government's Mision Robinson literacy programme had taught 1.5 million Venezuelans to read and write. Using information from the Venezuealan Household Surveys, Rodriguez and Ortega pointed out that there were still more than a million illiterate Venezuelans in 2005, barely less than the 1.1 million before the start of the Mision Robinson programme.

Weisbrot complained that Rodriguez had used a question from the Household Survey not designed to measure literacy, and also took issue with some of the methodology in the analysis. But Rodriguez argues in his rebuttal that if we assume the Household Survey data to be accurate, there is no possible interpretation consistent with the claim that Mision Robinson enrolled and educated 1.5 million people. At most, around 40,000 people (a small fraction of the number claimed) could have been taught to read and write since 2003.

Health Indicators

Weisbrot suggested that individual indicators which Rodriguez reported as worsening (low birth-weight babies, ) could be due to measurement errors, since overall the indicators show improvement. Rodriguez counters by arguing that under a government with a strong focus on poverty we should expect to see across-the-board improvements. Instead, infant mortality has declined at the same rate as during the 90s, while some things might have got worse. He concludes by agreeing with Weisbrot that "official Venezuelan statistics are far from...ideal", pitching this as further evidence of a haphazard approach by the government to implementing and evaluating its social programmes..


Phew. There endeth the debate (for now at least). Why have I spent so much time on this, and how indeed do I justify including it in what is supposed to be my development studies journal (ends next week)?

I guess because in looking at development issues there are several different questions to ask. There's the question of what development is, which is a favourite in the humanities section of the academic setting and which I've flirted with in a couple of recent posts. There's the question of how this can be achieved, which is the issue that a lot of the practical and political debate focuses on. Then there's the third question, worth asking before we jump to the second or even the first: do we know what's actually going on?

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Stone the Mayor's House, That'll Help

While I'm doing my development studies course, issues I've wondered about before seem to become clearer. Confused and contradictory situtations that baffled me when travelling in Latin America start to slot into narratives of economic structure and class struggle; social indicators and policy choices.

But every now and again I'm reminded that, beyond the classroom and books, the real world is as incoherent as ever.

When I lived in Peru, I became sceptical about the routine of marches, strikes and roadblocks that occurred on an almost weekly basis. These often seemed to be futile, as protesters demanded things which were beyond the government's control, or which wouldn't have made any difference to their problems (such as the resignation of president Alejandro Toledo). The sight of a street blocked by a heap of rocks drew an exasperated sigh, as all it seemed to achieve was to prevent ordinary people from making it to work or school.

At worst, such disturbances were childish and destructive, such as when supporters of Antauro Humala tore up the paving stones in Arequipa's beautiful plaza de armas during the 'Andahuaylazo' in January 2006 (a 'rebellion' in the Andean town of Andahuaylas that achieved only the death of three provincial policeman).

Back in New Zealand, immersed in written history and politics, I castigate myself for becoming so blinkered and bourgeois. Latin American history has seen such unrelenting domination of political and economic power by small elites, and such exclusion of indigenous people and the rural poor, that oppositional politics seems an obvious response, perhaps the only way that marginalised groups have made any gains.

Then I read this article from La Republica, and it takes me back . In the frigid and chaotic Andean city of Juliaca, a group of concerned citizens decided to protest against the price rise of basic goods. Hundreds of people blocked streets with stones, and impeded the transit of the the few bicycles and taxis. Later, a few of them went down to the residence of the regional president and threw stones through his window. Then they did the same at the house of Juliaca's mayor, whom they accused of 'being in league with [Peruvian president] Alan Garcia'

The unavoidable question for me is: why? In the abstract, we can talk about poverty, frustration and exclusion. But how throwing stones through someone's window is ever going to help anything, let alone make food prices go down, is unclear. Sure, the national government continues to appear distant and uncaring, but not even they can do much about the international price of foodstuffs. As for being in league with the president, there are indeed constitutional requirements that regional authorities do not act directly in contradiction of national policies. But these authorities were democratically elected by the people of the region. Privileged local elites, maybe, though the mayor of Juliaca, David MamanĂ­ Paricahua, is (I deduce from his name) of indigenous background

This routine is repeated so often, it's almost as if the blocking streets and throwing stones were themselves the real purpose, and the political cause just an excuse. Maybe it's reactionary, but sometimes you can't help thinking that development problems have their roots in some social and cultural malaise that renders debates about economic structure and social policy largely irrelevant. How to get beyond such a malaise, is something I confess to having little idea about.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Bringing It All Back Home

Despite, or perhaps because of this currently being my 'development studies diary', I should lay off the theoretical discussion and stats for a bit and bring it back to a bit more of a personal level.

This occurred to me in the light of an entertaining and provoking visiting lecture from Jeph Matthias, himself a former Development Studies student at Victoria. I came in a bit late, so didn't catch whether he was a biologist-turned doctor-turned development worker, or had made some other combination of those career movements. In any case, his current role is working in a remote town on the Nepal-Tibet frontier.

Jeph had some philosophical thoughts on development and a couple of nice metaphors about what it means and where we're going. He felt that human development has reached a stage where we are going to see qualitative change: "as boiling water changes state into steam, so we have to decide whether were going to be part of the remaining water bubbling away in the pot, or part of the new state" (ok, so it didn't sound nearly as zealous the way he said it -- Jeph followed all his comments with "maybe").

His another analogy was with a hive of bees -- there have always been insects that fly around by themselves, but at some stage bees decided to dedicate themselves to restricted roles within the greater whole of the hive (again, less totalitarian-sounding the way he described it). It wasn't clear if the bee metaphor best described the way global society would have to reorganize itself as the reality of resource shortages hit, or how highly interdependent late capitalism is organised now.

However, what most caught my attention was a little excerpt he gave us from his 'development studies diary', which he'd written about climbing in the Kaikouras and shooting goats -- making the point about the feral urges continuing to be what drives us, even as we move to supposedly more civilized states. Maybe my diary ought to be a little bit less dry and boring, I wondered.

Jeph showed a photo of his brother-in-law in a yak herder's tent high in the Himalayas and asked us how the two people were different. Discussion concluded that the yak herder had a great array of skills which equipped him to survive in that environment. Jeph's brother-in-law didn't have those abilities, but had use of lots of things (his MacPac gear; a GPS system) that he couldn't possibly have made himself, taking advantage of the massive interdependence of western civilisation (the hive?).

It reminded me of what I said in my first 'why do I care' post. As I said there, even in the not especially remote rural areas of Latin America, people were far more capable of handling the environment with the few tools they had available than I or most other backpackers. Yet we had privileged lives, with more freedom than they could dream of.

There's something disturbing about that -- about the helplessness of the westerner, as well as his privilege. Ever since labour specialisation really got going during the industrial revolution, people have drifted away from the state of being practical and self-sufficient enough to take care of ourselves. Although we live long and comfortable lives, there's an undercurrent of discomfort and angst about having lost -- or never acquired -- the capacity to exercise those practical skills

Reflecting on Jeph shooting his goat, a student in the class mentioned some studies of comparative happiness which found that across a wide range of cultures, the access to the sex, food, water, and shelter. Is development, indeed all human endeavour, just an extension of our biological drives?

I don't mean to really answer that, although I will mention in passing my scepticism towards the pat explanations offered by evolutionary psychology.

Better to talk about my own experiences. There might be children reading this blog, so I won't discuss the first of those biological drives. But it's true that it's hard to find an experience close to as profound as the quenching an intense thirst. Among my vivid memories is working all day in 36-degree heat on a carnival lot in New York and finally getting a chance to slot my $1 into the Coke machine (or was it Pepsi?) and feel the simultaneous explosions of cold, bubbles and sugar in my parched throat.

That same carnival tour (maybe the hardest I've ever worked) holds memories of other intense experiences related to fulfilling basic needs. A mammoth cheesburger of Alberta beef after setting up all day on the carnival lot in Edmonton. A precious few hours drifting into sleep, on a Greyhound bus following a long straight road through the Canadian night. Sleep in particular takes on the character of a sexual or religious experience when you're very short of it.

Yet there are different things that I remember most keenly; that have made life something to be thankful for. Natural landscapes: the first time crossing Burke's Pass into the tussocky vastness of the McKenzie country; the first awe-inspiring view of the Andes coming into land in Santiago; soft summer evening light over the lush islands of the Whangarei heads; the view from El Morro in Arica towards the distant snowy peaks of Coropuna and Solimana rising out of the blue haze

Cities as well: the first impressions of Paris, with the huge gold domes of Hotel des Invalides rising over the Seine. London's irresistible melancholy, the air heavy with two thousand years of history.

Or some combination of the two: can anyone have dreamed a more beautiful setting than La Antigua, Guatemala, with its ruined baroque churches overflowing with bougainvillea, its green volcanoes turning transluscent in the sunset, and its late wet-season night time flashes of lightning in the hills? A more timeless feeling than looking out from the orange-tree and fish-pond courtyards of La Alhambra in Grenada, Spain, to the Sierra Nevada and the Andalusian plain?

Those make nice pictures, but there are still other things that matter more. Achievements: for me, not the routine expected things like getting a degree or a job as a policy analyst, but occasional successes that somehow belong more in the real world -- a blog post or article appreciated by strangers; a tour to the Colca Canyon sold to a group of sceptical tourists; even something as insignificant as a goal that helps the team win the division 3 lunchtime indoor football match.

And of course, time spent with family and friends, shared experiences, especially if they're combined with some of the other life-enhancing things (food, wine, scenery, success, sport).

Finally, reminding myself of all these things, I hit upon the most and uniquely human experience of all: nostalgia.

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