čtvrtek 21. července 2011

A Reply to Tomáš Profant

hmmmm..... development, or "post-development" as I see we're calling it these days, isn't so much in my bailiwick, though I'm not entirely sure I agree with *any* of the following four premises:

First, the planet runs towards its ecological limits and the reproduction of the industrial (or imperial) mode of living is impossible.

What does this exactly mean? Implicit are a whole bunch of discredited Malthusian assumptions about what constitutes natural resources (was oil a natural resource 200 years ago? What about silicon for PC chips? What will the next great invention need? We don't know -- it might run on methane from cow farts and eliminate the need for solar power!), the assumption that we have reached limits on agricultural yields, the idea that we are not already moving away from an industrial, imperial (!) economy solely by greater efficiencies in production, and even the assumption that there is a relationship between "ecological limits" and the "imperialist" way, particularly if imperial (i.e. Western) countries cease to have children.

Secondly, with the end of the Cold War, ‘development’ lost its political impetus. As we may see today the East-West confrontation has disappeared, but ‘development’ lost nothing of its attraction.

What I think the author means here is that "development" as "bribing Third-World countries to be on the side of either the West or the East" is over; on this, I generally concur, though I think we could make an argument for China's version of development assistance creating new contours in the relationship between the developed and the developing world (and where China itself sits on the development spectrum). In other words, development aid lost its political impetus (for the West), but certainly not for the ones who want to develop. If anything, the countries that want to "develop" simply want to "be more like the West." Ultimately, only a very few nations have chosen to continue to "develop" the way the losers of the Cold War did. Plenty of nations and cultures want a life for their children of less hardship, less hunger, more opportunities. That the West seems to have found a key to solving some of those problems is rather attractive.

I feel like I must be mistaken about my interpretation, because while certain aspects of development aid have certainly been reduced, other aspects, such as malaria prevention, have continued to rise even after the Cold War. Indeed, one of the supposed "Peace Dividends" was that the West could finally get around to spending all that money that we had planned to spend on guns 'n' rockets and instead could spend it on clean water wells and environmentally and culturally sensitive toilets. It seems to me that the end of the Cold War actually increased the discourse on "development" insofar as foreign policy people in the West looked for a new raison d'etre. Furthermore, if we look at US policy at least, there is huge pressure to link development aid to advances in the recipient country's transparency and democratization. Looking at it from the perspective of developed nations also seems to reinforce this idea; as Profant himself points out, "It is the South today that is the staunchest defender of development." So I'm not sure the "political impetus" went away, and it seems that China's rise will add a new dimension to this.

Thirdly, the ever growing gap between the rich and poor defined in terms of monetary income makes the concept seem less persuasive. One look at the Millennium Development Goals shows how ‘development’ switched from modernization to poverty reduction. The neoliberal economic panacea ruling the world at least since the beginning of the 1980s remains nonetheless.

The first part of the third point is is a frustrating and never-ending complaint from development people. There are a couple technical problems with this, and a philosophical problem as well. First off, there is a widening between the extremely poor from various nations, when we consider them as a composite of individuals, and everybody else. While there may be inequality between nations of the North (such as Chile, Australia, and New Zealand) and nations of the South, there is also far greater inequality within the populations of the individual nations of the South. But this is due to the burgeoning, staggering growth of what hopefully will become a "middle class" in places like China, Brazil, and India. This is a huge success -- development has made a LOT of people live longer, healthier lives. True, not all of them. In other words, we are starting to see nations whose entire populations were mired in poverty start to build up enough wealth and infrastructure to actually, well, get rich. Great for them! And great for their nations! Those are the people who will provide jobs and investment down the road. But making the perfect the enemy of the good has often been a far greater hindrance to long-term development; a perfectly "equal" development pattern looks an awful lot like Five-Year Plans.
Another technical problem is that of the role of technology. While it is definitely true that a digital divide exists as well, innovations at the local level, such as innovative applications for cell phones in places where there were never any land lines in the first place, have enabled developing nations to skip what was previously assumed to be a necessary step in the communications infrastructure -- the laying of phone lines. Does this represent an "inequality" vis-a-vis the West, or is it more akin to comparing it to people who continue to collect cassette tapes or vinyl LPs? Obviously, however, this all assumes that people want longer and healthier lives, which is the topic of the fourth point.

As for the sinister relationship between "modernization" transforming into "poverty reduction," I'm not absolutely convinced that the terminology means anything different in practice, but let's consider that it does. It seems to me that "modernization" (presumably of infrastructure, with advancing technology for production inputs and labor specialization, and modern values such as religious tolerance, etc.) is a far more sweeping idea of development than "poverty reduction." If anything, "poverty reduction" seems to be more open to alternative forms of development than modernization.

Next, the problem with the last part of this point is that liberal economic panaceae have been around since the revocation of the Corn Laws. The reason they are panaceae is that they seem to work time and time again. Our author is wrong to date them so recently.

Finally, there is the philosophical problem of emphasizing relative poverty over absolute poverty. This borders on the absurd, when you think about some African village getting a television for the first time. For the first time, they are seeing wealth -- fabulous, unbelievable wealth -- beamed into their village from expensive satellites launched by rich nations, and they see soccer games and beautiful stadiums and alluring women from the telenovelas wearing exotic clothes.... and they forget that they finally have a television and their hearts immediately fill with envy. In that case, it's better to take the TV away and keep them ignorant of their absolute poverty, right? Should we wait to produce any product until we are certain everyone can have it? And what technology should we reject as "inauthentic" or destructive of our culture? Karaoke? Döner?

Fourthly, the single ‘development’ track indeed seems to be obsolete in the postmodern age of cultural relativism.

On this last topic, I am in total agreement with Profant (and Sachs) in that it is a critical topic for development both in its practical and philosophical senses, and in, thus in some ways I actually tend to agree. The single track of development does seem to be obsolete, especially if we consider the Zapatistas agents of progress. But why, if we are good cultural relativists, should we worry merely about the adjective "single?" Why should we bother with development at all? If we are doing what we want as a culture (however defined), why should we care about helping those other cultures "develop" one way or another? Wouldn't it be true that no matter what we do (or what they do themselves!), something organic will be destroyed? And if that's the case, what's wrong with being an imperialist in the first place?
This is an odious progression of questioning, which the authors definitely try to grapple with. But it raises an important point. Any interaction between, and indeed within, cultures is to a certain extent voluntary. It's true that the decision for funding some project for a clean well or something is often made far away from the well. But what obligation does the recipient culture have to accept the new well? After all, their culture survived without it before.

Conversely, why should we bother to try to develop within our our cultures? And what should we bother to conserve? It's clear that many of these cultures are influencing the West as well, through immigration, trade, and even media -- the stunning success of Al-Jazeera is evidence of this. So I think there is the possibility that we live in an age of cultural relativism, but I'm not so convinced the rest of the world is as relativistic about their cultures as we are about ours.

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