Waylaid Dialectic

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.

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.

Click here to read more

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.