Waylaid Dialectic

May 25, 2015

Should aid practitioners really worry about economic inequality?

The slides and references associated with a talk I’m scheduled to give about this subject can be downloaded here. Note if you download the slides prior to 5 June, they may change if I tinker with them.

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February 25, 2014

Development is unquestionably good, but it also needs good questions

Over two weeks in 1996 I travelled between extremes of the public transport spectrum. At one end were the buses of Sumbawa in Indonesia – grumpy, diesel-spitting creatures that lurched their way around potholes taking hours to get anywhere. At the other end was the London Underground. Trains were frequent, quick and – despite everyone’s complaints – mostly on time.

Compared to the bus riders of Sumbawa, all but the poorest travellers on the London Underground were also wildly wealthy. And yet they appeared miserable. Commuting in silence. Pale, staring at their shoes. The Sumbawan bus travellers, on the other hand, were full of cheer. The buses rang with talk and laughter.

For a time this contrast led me to question the merits of development. If London was wealthy but glum and Sumbawa poor but happy then — I thought — perhaps we should abandon development and live like Sumbawanese? Such thinking was common currency on the backpackers’ trail. And something similar is also, I discovered when I did a Development Studies degree in 2003, common currency amongst an influential group of intellectuals, the so-called ‘post-development’ thinkers. The first book I was assigned to read for class was The Development Dictionary a post-development tract edited by German academic Wolfgang Sachs, in which a range of well-credentialed researchers excoriated the development enterprise, taking the doubts of backpackers and fortifying them with critical theory…read the rest  of this post on Devpolicy.

September 21, 2013

Some Numbers on Asylum Seekers

Filed under: Development Philosophy,Migration — terence @ 9:13 am

From an interesting essay by Julian Burnside:

The fact is that boat people do not break any law by coming here the way they do. Over the past 15 years, 90% of them have ultimately been assessed as refugees entitled to our protection. Their arrival rate over the last 12 months has been much higher than the historic average, but even now it represents only four weeks’ ordinary population growth. While an estimated 25,000 boat people arrived in Australia in the 12 months to June 30, 2013, we received 168,685 new permanent migrants and over six million visitors came to our shores in the year ended December 2012. Boat people do not present a demographic problem for Australia.

Spooked by tabloid scare-mongering, both major parties have chosen deterrent policies: treat them harshly, push them off to small, impoverished Pacific neighbours. The low point of this is the recent Coalition promise to bring in the military to deal with the “emergency”.

The spectacular cost of these measures passes without complaint because it is seen as a kind of protection. While it is difficult to separate out the various components of the cost, indefinite detention costs, on average, around A$160,000 per person per year as of 2011-12. The actual cost varies: metropolitan detention is cheapest. It gets more and more expensive as the place of detention is more remote. On current estimates, we will spend about $4 billion each year brutalising people who have committed no offence and have done nothing worse that ask for protection [emphasis mine].

By way of comparison total Australian ODA in 2012 was just over $5.2 billion AUD.

May 29, 2013

If pro-lifers were really pro-life…

Filed under: Development Philosophy — terence @ 7:33 pm

…wouldn’t they be ardently in favour of promoting birth control?

March 26, 2012

Sympathy for the Kristof

Filed under: Development Philosophy,Human Rights — terence @ 11:40 am
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There is a lot about Counterpunch that makes me want to puke, so I guess I should have stopped when I saw where the link “Laura Augustin decries Kristof’s poverty crusade” on Chris Blattman’s website went. But, whatever my feelings about Counterpunch more generally, I am open to the idea that Nicholas Kristof needs decrying. So out of curiosity as much as anything else I went and had a look.

And, to be fair, the article – which isn’t about poverty but rather takes Kristof to task about his work on prostitution in developing countries – makes some pretty good points. Particularly about the unintended consequences (what does happen to the young women after their brothels are raided?) and the pomp that Kristof’s adds to the unpleasant circumstances he reports on. Yet at the same time the article possesses an awfulness of its own.

“[S]o many Americans are blind when it comes to what they call humanitarianism, blissfully conscience-free about interfering in other countries’ affairs in order to impose their own way of life and moral standards. The Rescue Industry that has grown up in the past decade around US policy on human trafficking shows how imperialism can work in softer, more palatable ways than military intervention. Relying on a belief in social evolution, development and modernization as objective truths, contemporary rescuers, like John Stuart Mill 150 years ago, consider themselves free, self-governing individuals born in the most civilized lands and therefore entitled to rule people in more backward ones. (Mill required benevolence, but imperialists always claim to have the interests of the conquered at heart.) Here begins colonialism, the day-to-day imposition of value systems from outside, the permanent maintenance of the upper hand. Here is where the Rescue Industry finds its niche; here is where Kristof ingenuously refers to “changing culture”, smugly certain that his own is superior.”

First, it is just plain stupid to equate what Kristof is doing to imperialism or colonialism. The reason why colonialism and imperialism are bad is because they involve large scale exploitation and harm of people in colonised countries by more other powerful nations. Harm that is facilitated through the dehumanisation of the colonised in the minds of the colonisers. What Kristof is doing may be counter-productive, and he may be self-aggrandising, but it is nevertheless adding faces and stories to the suffering of the people involved. Possibly the images evoked are condescending. Probably the stories told simplify the complexities of the developing world. But the intended end effect is about evoking concern and compassion for other human beings. The whole process may be smarmy and simplistic but it is the exact opposite of that used by imperial powers and colonisers who actively portray the victims of their actions as sub-human, dangerous and of no moral weight. Or who, if they can get away with it, try to stop us from actually being aware of their victims at all.

Second, the passage is underpinned with a cheap and nasty cultural relativism – “interfering in other countries’ affairs in order to impose their own way of life and moral standards”; “Kristof ingenuously refers to “changing culture”, smugly certain that his own is superior”. I’ve explained elsewhere what I think is philosophically wrong with cultural relativism so now I’ll limit myself to one simple point. While Augustin’s arguments sound quite nice portrayed as they are (yeah! what gives those nasty wight men the right to say their beliefs are any better than anyone else’s!) it’s worth spelling out specifically what she’s arguing, which is this:

Nicholas Kristof believes that young women should be allowed a choice as to whether they have to work in the sex industry. People who own brothels in developing countries and who frequent them believe that the young women involved exist only to pleasure them and to provide a source of profit. Nicholas Kristof can not and should not claim that his moral beliefs are in any way superior to those of the people running and frequenting the brothels. He is smug to do so.

Philosophy may be tricky stuff and human rights can be mustered to serve the wrong ends. But you can not seriously tell me that a moral world view that posits women should be allowed to choose their fates is not superior to one that sees them as goods for the trading.

Finally, in this article at least Augustin is guilty of one of the crimes she lays at the feet of Kristoff: presuming to speak for the young women involved, and loudly proclaiming to be their champion. No actual evidence is provided that the women who Kristof claims to have helped actually would have rather that he didn’t. Not a single quote. Find me some of the women who he has dealt with, and get them to say they’d rather he didn’t and I’ll happily sign a petition to get Kristof confined to New York for the rest of his life. But for the meantime spare me the nonsense about moral equivalence and imperialism.

Kristof may be all sorts of things but he is trying to help. And – in the absence of actual evidence to the contrary – my guess is that the people on the other end of that help, as problematic as it may be, actually tend to appreciate it.

December 3, 2011

Amartya Sen on the Weather Coast

Filed under: Development Philosophy — terence @ 5:32 am
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So far my PhD field research has taken me to two constituencies outside of Honiara. The partially urban Auki/Langalanga and the much more remote South Guadalcanal. As you may have noticed I don’t actually write about my PhD here – actually I blog to hide from the damn thing. So nothing about voting and clientelism today. Rather three quick reflections on life in two low GDP parts of the Pacific.

1. Once you leave Honiara you really do leave most of the government of this country behind you. And yet its absence doesn’t mean entering the world of ungoverned spaces. Take away the state and you don’t get anarchy – you get small groups of people governing themselves with whatever tools of governance they have at hand. And end result, while not wholly undemocratic, isn’t utopia. It’s true that inequalities of power are less but abuses of power still exist. Similarly, it’s true that all manner of problems can be tackled at the community level, and all sorts of things achieved. But there were also all manner of problems within communities that couldn’t be addressed and all sorts of things that looked like they needed fixing through government on a larger scale.

People in the villages weren’t hiding from the state either (in a James Scott type of way). In general if you asked they wanted more government in their lives, not less. Although it was a particular type of government – the government that delivers services. People usually weren’t hankering for the arrival of state coercion.

2. The lottery of life. Go anywhere on earth and of course you will meet a few plonkers, but our travels also brought us into contact with lots of intelligent, hardworking people. I’m stating the obvious, but it was really rammed home to me out there how little justice there is in the outcomes we see in this world: who gets to grow up in affluence and who does not. Who gets to ask the research questions and who gets to answer them. Who gets to be a post-graduate student and who gets to be intelligent but uneducated. I found it humbling and sad to time and time again meet people who were smart and hardworking and yet who will have in their lives only a tiny portion of the opportunities afforded to me.

3. On the subject of opportunity… I’ve always kind of liked Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach to poverty and yet, at the same time, not really been convinced by it. His conceptualisation of freedom is clearly superior to that clung to by libertarians but I don’t think is idea of development as freedom offers an improvement on the traditional utilitarian idea of development as happiness (or welfare). In his book ‘Development as Freedom’ Sen offers most the textbook critiques of utilitarianism but it’s not clear to me that his own approach is in any way inherently better at providing answers to the dilemmas present in the sorts of thought experiments that make utilitarians squirm (such as “kill one person to save six”). And at the end of the day I don’t think Sen has any convincing answers for the central utilitarian retort of “would you still support enhancing substantive freedoms if it could be shown that doing this would make people less happy rather than more?”

Having said all that, in Langalanga and on the Weather Coast (South Guadalcanal) particularly when speaking to young people it was hard to escape the fact that, often, more than anything else, what they lacked, and yearned for, in their lives, was opportunities. And how the most meaningful improvements that could be made to their worlds would be those that enhanced their capability set (in the Sen sense of the term) and which grew their substantive freedoms.

As a practical yardstick for development Sen’s approach makes more and more sense to me.

November 7, 2011

Development: what’s the point?

Filed under: Development Philosophy — terence @ 6:59 am

Still recycling old posts while in the field – this one from very early in this blog’s history…

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 principle 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 is a much, much more difficult question to answer…

August 6, 2011

When you can do nothing, what can you do?

Filed under: Aid,Development Philosophy,Poverty,Social Justice — terence @ 10:48 am

Reflecting on well-intended but poorly informed attempts to solve world poverty J. at Tales from the Hood writes:

We are messing around with people’s lives, here. Just because you won’t be slapped with a malpractice suit if you get it wrong (although I do actually believe that day is coming) doesn’t mean it’s okay to “just do something” in order to feel good. Very often, and especially if you don’t know what you’re doing, the very best thing to do is…

Nothing.

This is not a phrase that I expect to use more than twice over the next century but: J. is wrong.

If you’ve been moved by the plight of people suffering in Humanitarian disasters, or if the scale and scope of global poverty strikes you as profoundly wrong, and if you want to help, do not do nothing. Doing nothing is not ‘very often…the best thing to do’. Do something. It is almost always possible to help.

Of course, doing something isn’t the same as doing absolutely anything, or doing the first thing that comes into your mind. What follows are some rules of thumb (the best I can offer, at least) for doing something and for maximising the chance that what you do does more good than harm.

1. First and foremost: do not assume that the only reason that global poverty hasn’t been solved is simply because you personally haven’t had time to think about it yet. Decades work of work and effort have gone into understanding the problems of global development. And it turns out they are complex. Unlike the woman whose blog J. links to in his post, your first fact finding mission should not be to India or Africa: it should be to the library.

2. Then, accept you are on a learning journey (welcome aboard). Be humble (here’s looking at you Mr Starr). And keep trying to learn.

3. Also, accept the fact that the best contribution you can make in many circumstances will often be unsexy, imperfect, and inconvenient: i.e. a cash donation to a large, credible international NGO (i.e. Save the Children, Oxfam, UNICEF (who probably function as an NGO where you live), World Vision, etc). None of these organisations is perfect: they are human endeavours after all. But they are generally pretty good. Sometimes they will make mistakes, and sometimes you will read about their mistakes in the paper, but they will almost certainly be making fewer mistakes than you will if you try and set up your own NGO.

Giving money isn’t much fun either, but money is almost always the most useful thing you can give. It is much better than stuff you have in your garage but no longer want (the seminal post on this being one of J.’s). And usually much more cost efficient than you going to help personally (although this isn’t always the case in the case of particular specialist skill sets, and see point 5 below).

4. Small is ok. Something is better than nothing. Buying a cup of Fair Trade coffee is not going to save the world. But on the other hand buying it is still likely to help someone — going to make a small contribution to the life of a poor farmer, somewhere. Small things are worth doing. Similarly, when confronted by the magnitude and complexity of the problems of the world, it can be very tempting to despair but, once again, something is better than nothing. Don’t do nohing just because you can’t do everything.

And,

5. Be aware that much of the most important work you can do to help tackle global poverty won’t be about them it will be about us. The foreign policy related decisions made by our (rich country governments) can have dramatic impacts on the lives of poor people in developing countries. For example, climate change: if we don’t limit our CO2 emissions it is very likely that the world’s poorest people will suffer. For example, the global weapons trade: we sell the guns, they suffer the consequences. For example, migration: letting people into wealthy countries is one of the easiest ways of helping them escape poverty; letting refugees into wealthy countries is one of the best ways of helping them escape strife (here’s looking at you Australia!). And so on…

In tackling problems in all of these areas you have one huge comparative advantage: you vote in the countries where the decisions are made. Only one vote and only one voice amongst many, true. And domestic political economy can mean that the polluters, and arms dealers, and business lobbies have a much greater voice than you. But, nevertheless, there’s still more chance that your senator or MP is going to listen to you than to someone on a small atoll in the Pacific somewhere whose sole source of fresh water is being contaminated by rising sea-levels.

Do something, but take care in what you do.

March 4, 2011

Yet another example of planners FAILING!!!

Reviewing James C Scott Paul Seabright writes:

In the Languedoc there is a vineyard that teaches us an important lesson about textbook learning and its application to the world. In the early Seventies it was bought by a wealthy couple, who consulted professors Emile Peynaud and Henri Enjalbert, the world’s leading academic oenologist and oenological geologist respectively. Between them these men convinced the couple that their new vineyard had a theoretically ideal microclimate for wine-making. When planted with theoretically ideal vines whose fruits would be processed in the optimal way according to the up-to-date science of oenology, this vineyard had the potential to produce wine to match the great first growths of Bordeaux. The received wisdom that great wine was the product of an inscrutable (and untransferable) tradition was quite mistaken, the professors said: it could be done with hard work and a fanatical attention to detail. The couple, who had no experience of wine-making but much faith in professorial expertise, took a deep breath and went ahead.

If life were reliably like novels, their experiment would have been a disaster. In fact Aimé and Véronique Guibert have met with a success so unsullied that it would make a stupefying novel (it has already been the subject of a comatogenic work of non-fiction). The first vintage they declared (in 1978) was described by Gault Millau as ‘Château Lafite du Languedoc’; others have been praised to the heights by the likes of Hugh Johnson and Robert Parker. The wine is now on the list at the Tour d’Argent and the 1986 vintage retails at the vineyard for £65 a bottle. The sole shadow on the lives of these millionaires is cast by the odd hailstorm.

The first quarter of the review is available for free on the LRB website. You’ll have to pay or be a subscriber to read the rest – it’s well worth it though.

I’ve always thought the intellectual convergence around a distaste for planning that exists between Libertarians (Easterly, Hayek), Conservatives (Burke, Oakeshott) and parts of the po-mo(?) left was intriguing. In part it’s a product of ideology and a dislike of the state, or progress, or both. But in part it’s cohesion around an important truth: collective action is difficult, the world is complex, and information’s very hard to aggregate. From this comes an important insight: some things really can’t be achieved through planning, or through centrally coordinated collective endeavour.

And yet, each of these thinkers – in their own specific way – extends this insight far beyond it’s useful range. Because it turns out that states and planners can do quite a lot, despite the complexity. There are many things planners should never attempt. But there are also other activities out there that can be planned quite well. And there are other activities still which usually end up poorly planned but occur in areas where poorly-planned produces better outcomes than market forces or doing nothing. If you live in a city in a developed country you’ll get to observe all of these on your daily commute.

The basic insight of the anti-planners is an important one: don’t over reach. But, to my thinking at least, the most interesting and important questions in development have a lot to do with planned collective action – when it works, why it works, and how it can work better.

February 2, 2011

Development as Happiness

Filed under: Development Philosophy — terence @ 7:42 am
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A couple of days ago as part of the conference which has confiscated every moment of my spare time over the last two I’m helping organise, I gave a talk on a panel focused on the question ‘what is development?’

While some of the other panelists talked about current trends in development, or how development should be achieved I took a slightly different tack and, rather than talk about means, tried to explain what I think we should be aiming for as ends in development work.

During question time the chair of the session made a comment that I think was directed at me; a comment to the effect that it’s easy (and essentially pointless) to talk about the ends of development because all the tricky questions are in the doing. I disagree. It’s true that the hard stuff is in the doing , but if you don’t have a coherent end goal, you don’t have an ultimate yardstick of success. Nor to you have a means of adjudicating the trade offs that inevitably come in development work. Or, in other words, I think it’s worth thinking at least a little bit about the ultimate ends of development. If you do so you’ll do better development work, in the end.

The short talk that I gave is below.   It’s pitched at a pretty basic level. Believe me, I’m well enough versed in most of the more tricky philosophical challenges that can be leveled at Utilitarianism. If your interested in my take on some of them, go to my old old blog (link in side bar) and search on that word.

If you live or work in the Pacific, I bet you’ve heard the word ‘development’ many times. Be it in the names of the international organisations that work there (the Australian Agency for International Development; New Zealand’s Aid and Development Agency; the United Nations Development Programme; the Asian Development Bank) or in the promises made by politicians (“we’re going to improve the development statistics of our country”; “this province is underdeveloped”; “this project has helped development”) But has anyone ever told you exactly what they mean when they use the term? Ever spoken to you about what development is about? Or what it’s meant to do for people?

In my talk today I’m going to offer a suggestion – my own perspective on what development ought to be about. That word ‘ought’ is an important one. I don’t plan to talk about how development programmes are or about how the world works today. Instead, I’m going to talk about what I think we ought to be aiming for in development work. Our end goal. Our yardstick of success.

My beliefs about what development ought to be are informed by philosophy. Specifically, the philosophy of Utilitarianism. Now, I know what you’re thinking, philosophy? already? on a Monday? before lunch? But the good news is that, while it may be informed by philosophy, the message I want to convey is a simple one: all I’m going to try and convince you today is that the purpose of development should be to make people happy.

I believe development should be about making people happier and about reducing the opposite of happiness: suffering.

To be clear here, when I talk about happiness, I’m talking about something more than the momentary sensation we feel when someone tells a joke. Or the short-lived happiness of someone who’s just drunk 12 beers. What I mean is an overall state of being over a prolonged period of time. How people feel on average, over many days. More happy or less happy.

Even then I’m guessing that happiness might seem to you like a strange goal for development. Too ethereal. Too trivial. Somehow, or in some way, not serious enough. But before you reach that conclusion I want to ask you a question: think about someone that you love. Would you approve of a development project if you knew it was going to cause them to suffer or to be more unhappy for the rest of their lives? Or, to put it another, way is there any reason why you wouldn’t support a project that solved a problem that was making them unhappy, or a project that was guaranteed to make them happier for the rest of their lives?

My guess is that most, if not all of you, want your loved ones to be happy. I know I do. And if this seems right for people you care about, then why not for nations as a whole? Why not for humanity as a whole?

It’s simple I think.

Although the question that follows on from my basic belief is a bit more complicated. And this is that: if happiness is our goal for development, what can we do in practice to promote it? What practical things can people change about their community, their country or the World to make it a happier place?

My answers to this question come from two sources: common sense and the science of happiness.

First, common sense gives us some pretty good pointers about what makes people unhappy, and from this we can develop some good ideas about what we can do to help people live happy lives.

Conflict and violence makes people unhappy – for obvious reasons. Be it wars between nations, or battles between ethnic groups, or domestic violence against women, conflict causes suffering and prevents happiness. So it’s obvious, I think, that development should be in part about preventing conflict where at all possible. Sometimes, it’s not possible of course; there are some wars, like World War 2, which had to be fought but that’s not the case with most conflict. And promoting development should be about preventing it.

Similarly, being tortured, or having to watch one’s family tortured, or being imprisoned without trial is likely to make people unhappy. So development ought to be concerned with promoting core human rights. I think common sense tells us that much.

Moving beyond commonsense, in recent years a lot of work has been undertaken by psychologists and social scientists to determine what makes people happy and what stops them from being happy. This research has spawned a vast literature, including at least one journal devoted solely to the topic. It has also spawned a range of debates, and in some cases heated arguments between researchers (in other words, researching happiness has made some people at least decidedly unhappy). But the research has also unearthed what appear to be some fairly clear facts.

The first of these is that — on average — money, contrary to the old saying, really does make people happy. People with more money tend to be happier than people with less. And countries with more money tend to be happier than countries with less. Importantly though, this relationship is far stronger at lower levels of income or GDP than it is at higher levels. Or to put it another way, money helps most when it’s moving people and countries out of poverty. Beyond that, it still has an impact, but this impact get’s proportionately less.

Another finding that comes across strongly in the research is that health has a major and important role in determining happiness. Being healthier makes you happier research finds. And as someone who has spent much of the past few years struggling with my own health, that makes a lot of sense to me.

Third, research suggests that the nature of people’s family ties play an important role in whether they are happy or not. (Quite possibly we didn’t need research to tell us this?)

I could go on listing factors but time is running out. So I want to conclude by summarising what everything I have just said might mean for development in practice.

In practice, development as happiness means reducing or avoiding conflict where we can, and respecting human rights. It means fostering economic development but at the same time making sure that the fruits of economic development reach those who need them the most: the poor. And it means promoting human development – especially making sure that people have good access to health care.

It also means helping strengthen family and community ties where we can, and being careful not to damage them if at all possible when promoting other changes.

And finally, it means taking care of the environment. Because if we damage it beyond repair. And if our planet collapses around us, then the World isn’t going to be a happy place.

There are lots of difficult questions to do with development. How do we improve governance? How do we tackle poverty? How do we reduce conflict?

But the good news is that the most fundamental question of them all – what is development meant to be about? – is, in my opinion, an easy one to answer. Development should be about happiness.

Thank you.

November 28, 2010

Post Development, Post Caring About it?

Filed under: Aid,Development Philosophy — terence @ 5:19 pm
Tags: , ,

“The main strength of the book is that it reasserts the importance of economic growth for improving people’s lives and pulling households out of poverty. Proponents of anti- or post-development would do well to read part 1.”

~ Stuart Corbridge from his review [gated] of William Easterly’s Elusive Quest for Growth.

“If for no other reason, it is worth commending post-development for the kick up the backside it delivers to the cosy and complacent worlds of the Washington Consensus.”

~ Stuart Corbridge from his review [gated] of books by Rist, Esteva and Prakash,  Ranema and Bawtree, and Cooper and Packard.

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August 6, 2010

Links – nerd war!

Friday links and we start with a nerd war – at Duncan Green’s blog Martin Ravallion and Sabina Alkire debate the merits of the new multi-dimensional poverty index. The digested debate: Ravallion’s key point is that the index, like the Human Development and Human Poverty Index before it, is conceptually flawed because it tries to ‘manually’ aggregate different features of poverty into a single number and, in doing so, hinges on value-judgments about how to weight respective elements of human development. Alkire’s key points: World Bank poverty measures miss much of what matters in life – state provision of public goods and services for example. And, when disaggregated, her index provides key information about the constituent components of poverty, potentially allowing targeted programmes. They’re both right. And lucky for us it’s not an either/or – we can draw on both measures of poverty. Which I will in the future – the MPI is a good new initiative.

Sticking with nerd-wars (by the way, I’m not using nerd pejoratively here – I’m one of them) enjoy this – an excellent debate between a Utilitarian and a proponent of Natural Law philosophy (hint you can download an MP3 podcast of the talk from the MP3 button under the TV ‘screen’). I can see the appeal of Natural Law – particularly in the belief that various aspects of human flourishing (love, friendship, health) should be valued for what they are, rather than for what they contribute to aggregate happiness or welfare (the Utilitarian position); but if you really accept that these things are incommensurate (as the Natural Law proponent does), and if you really believe their value is not instrumental to something else, how do you mediate in situations where trade-offs need to be made. I remain a Utilitarian (albeit a conflicted one).

Which may explain why, when I do let my hair down, I tend to dance like this guy (h/t Duncan Green). But hey, as the video shows, that doesn’t mean us nerd-dancers can’t be leaders. Although apparently it all hinges on the first follower…

On to aid, the Economist and ODI both have interesting features on Brazil’s nascent aid programme. As with all donors, there’s an element of international diplomacy which at least part motivates their giving, so any Brazilians out there might want to read Laura Freschi’s excellent post at Aidwatch summing up recent studies on whether giving aid helps win hearts and minds in aid recipient countries. It’s worth noting that the studies Freschi reports on are mostly special cases (US aid to Pakistan for example, and aid in Afghanistan – in both cases positive impacts may well be offset by negative perceptions of military actions, I think).

Meanwhile, on the home front George Monbiot riles against the lunacy of those who oppose speed cameras. Hear, hear.

And finally, Paul Krugman offers a handy explanation of the perils of deflation.

May 24, 2010

It ain’t easy being Green

Filed under: Development Philosophy,Random Musings — terence @ 10:09 am
Tags: ,

Meanwhile, over at TVHE, Matt is so moved by the temerity of the (NZ) Green party and their attempt to address the distributional issues of Pigouvian taxes that he utters the following cri de coeur:

We need a Green party that actually concentrates on environmental issues.  This is my main problem with the Green party – they just use it for marketing instead of actually looking at the efficient allocation of our scarce capital stock.  This saddens me.

Issues of property rights, free rider problems, externalities, and a general willingness to discuss policy regarding these issues should be the focus of a Green party – it shouldn’t be Greenwash to sell a socialist agenda.

While it’s rousing to see such passion from a man of reason, it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for the Greens here. When they advance environmental policy, the Right decry them as Enviro-Nazi’s who would happily put the welfare of polar bears before people. On the other hand, when the Greens show any attention to social policy their are decried as pinkos in disguise.

Heaven forfend that there might actually be a coherent policy behind their thinking. One which values the environment because of  its role in contributing to human welfare. And one which advances social policy for the same reason.

Over to Kermit:

April 18, 2010

Development: what’s the point?

Filed under: Development Philosophy — terence @ 9:12 am
Tags: ,

[This is hoist from an old old blog I had – it still does a pretty good job of explaining what I think development is, or ought to be.]

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.

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