New Internationalist

1970s: the decade that limped

January 1980

The optimism of the early 70s has given way to widespread gloom about world development as, one after the other, technological breakthroughs which promised to solve the problems of poverty, hunger and ill-health have failed to do so. Peter Adamson argues that such failures are the result of fumbling with the wrong key in the development lock and that success in the 80s will depend on a humbler and wiser approach.

The optimism of the early 70s has given way to widespread gloom about world development as, one after the other, technological breakthroughs which promised to solve the problems of poverty, hunger and ill-health have failed to do so. Peter Adamson argues that such failures are the result of fumbling with the wrong key in the development lock and that success in the 80s will depend on a humbler and wiser approach.

The popularity of crossword puzzles has something to do with the problems of world development. A crossword is a paradigm of a certain kind of problem. It can be solved. There is only one solution. And when you have arrived at that solution you know that it is the right one. The individual answers interlock and confirm each other, and the whole adds up to a solution which is self-evidently correct, complete, selfcontained, unimpeachable and momentarily triumphant. And there is nowhere else to go.

The problem of how to make a relationship work or how best to bring up your children is a different kind of problem. There is no one answer. There may be many possible and partial solutions from which the best must be chosen. And when you think you have an answer it cannot be easily checked and may change with time and circumstance. Its component parts need not interlock and may even contradict. And the whole adds up to something which is messy, incomplete and elusive.

These two types of problem have been called by different names. But at the risk of inventing more jargon let us call them ‘reducible’ and ‘irreducible’. The ‘reducible’ problem, the crossword puzzle, can in the end be solved. In theory it can be boiled down to a = b.

No matter how complicated the equation may be in practice, it is ultimately reducible to a formula which can be written down and passed on intact to solve the same problem for somebody else in a different place or time. I can be told that the square on the hypotenuse will equal the sum of the squares on the other two sides and it will work as well for me as for the person who told me. But I cannot be told, in the same way, how to make a relationship work or how to appreciate Michelangelo. The solution to this kind of problem will never be ‘reduced’ to a formula.

The distinction between these two kinds of problem may go some way towards explaining why it is that a world which has made such impressive strides in its ability to solve its problems has so manifestly failed to do so: to explain, for example, why there is still a food problem when we have discovered how to grow three or four times as much food from the same acre of land; or why there is still a population problem when we have discovered cheap, safe and effective methods of contraception; or why more than half the world is still suffering from ill-health when almost all of the major diseases have been ‘conquered’; or why there is still so much poverty when our capacity for the conversion of our environment into material wealth has never been greater.

Recent advances in human capacity have been confined almost entirely to increasing our capacity to solve ,reducible’ problems. By contrast, our capacity to cope with ‘irreducible’ problems has barely grown and may even have shrunk. Imagine, for example, a Plato or a Buddha transported, without notice, into the twentieth century. It is safe to say that they would be lost in a fourth-grade science class let alone a discussion of particle physics. But it is equally safe to say that they would not be out of their depth in a discussion of, say, how to balance personal and social freedoms or what constitutes a just relationship between two people. Or take all the sophisticated computerised world economic models published in recent years by organisations like the Club of Rome. Perhaps their most significant feature is that they feel the need to head each chapter with a quotation from Aristotle or J. S. Mill or Mahatma Gandhi. It is almost an unconscious confession of the fact that we have grown in knowledge but not in wisdom, that one leg has grown long whilst the other has remained stunted. And the result is a pronounced limp and a more than occasional stumble.

Good News and Bad News

The main lesson of this last decade is that it has shown the limitations of ,reducible’ solutions when applied to ‘irreducible’ problems.

How did it happen for example, that the new high-yielding ‘miracle seeds’ which promised ‘to banish the age old spectre of famine from the pages of human history’ made so big an impact on yields per acre and so little impact on the incidence and severity of malnutrition?

In practice, an agricultural extension worker brings the good news about the new seeds from the laboratory to the fields. First, he probably makes an appointment with the relatively prosperous farmer, say with 200 acres of land. The farmer is used to dealing with government officials, understands their language, and can read the literature they leave behind. Most important of all, he has 200 acres and can afford to risk 20 of them on the experimental seeds. He can also afford the irrigation, fertiliser, and pesticides without which the new varieties are unproductive. The result is a bumper crop - perhaps three times his previous yield. The next year, he puts all 200 acres under the new seeds.

When the agricultural extension worker calls on the small farmer down the road, subsisting on perhaps one acre of land, his reception may be different. Unused to dealing with city officials, unable to read the literature, unable to afford the inputs, the small farmer may well feel that ‘this is not for him’. Most important of all, he has only one acre of land and cannot take a risk on the new seeds because if anything goes wrong he and his family will go hungry. He politely listens, accepts the pamphlets, and carries on, with his wife and children, trying to maintain their precarious hold on the basic necessities of life.

Large grows Larger

Next year, his richer neighbour’s higher yields have depressed the market price slightly and so the poor farmer has not earned enough cash from the sale of his small surplus crop to pay for the necessities he must buy. And perhaps he has gone into debt with a local money lender. Meanwhile, the larger farmer is looking round to invest his new profits in more land and in machinery which more land will justify. He sees his neighbour struggling along in debt on his one acre and makes him an offer for his land, throwing in the chance of seasonal employment. A bargain is struck between unequals. And the net result is that the large farmer grows larger and the small farmer joins the ranks of the landless labourers amongst whom poverty and hunger is at its worst. And all this may eventually turn up in regional and national statistics which show increased food production per head and hence ‘development’.

This small dramatisation, although obviously telescoped, is nonetheless not unrecognizable in countries like Mexico, birthplace of the Green Revolution, where the average farm size has increased from 400 to over 2000 acres and the proportion of landless labourers has risen from 57% to 75%.

In this case, tackling the ‘reducible’ problem of increasing crop yields whilst ignoring the ‘irreducible’ problem of inequalities in land holding actually exacerbated the problem of hunger which it sought to alleviate. Indeed it is almost an unwritten law of the development effort in the 1970s that the injection of technical improvements into unequal situations tends to increase the inequality and so work against the interests of the poorest.

In Africa, where the unequal relationship between men and women is manifested in the far longer hours worked by women, the tractor has been introduced to enable larger acreages to be ploughed in less time. This has further shortened the working day of the men who do the ploughing and lengthened the working hours of the women who do the weeding.

A similar analysis of the inadequacy of ‘reducible’ solutions when applied to ‘irreducible’ problems could be made of contraceptive pills and population growth, of medicines and health (see pages 14 and 15) and of other development problems which seemed, ten years ago, to be chiefly problems of technique.

No formula

What these brief examples argue for is that man cannot live by the reducible alone. It is not that the pill, the miracle seed, and the medical breakthrough are in themselves failures. They are brilliant solutions to the ‘reducible’ part of the problem. But when treated as solutions to the problem as a whole they are, to borrow an image from Zen, like the sound of one hand clapping.

In each of the major problem areas to which we have failed to find satisfactory answers in the 70s and which face us still in the 80s, the ‘reducible’ approaches are nearing the limits of their potential. To move forward, and to make what has been achieved in the realm of technique more truly useful, we shall have to turn and wrestle again with the ‘irreducible’ problems which humanity has always had to struggle with but from which the drastic increases in our capacity to solve ‘reducible’ problems has given us a temporary respite.

By definition, there can be no formula for the solution of ‘irreducible’ problems. They are, in short, the business of living. And if there were an equivalent of E = Mc2 to deal with them life would be as unchallenging as the Garden of Eden.

In this sense, the main lesson of the last decade and main challenge of the next is that development is quintessentially an ‘irreducible’ problem. Hard as it may be to accept, there is no formula. But it is perhaps possible to go as far as to say that the core of the problem lies not in our capacity to manipulate external circumstances but in our ability to create and be involved in just and sustainable relationships.

Creative Ideas

If that is indeed where the problem of development lies, then however messy and inconclusive the struggle may be, it at least signposts a new direction.

First of all, it implies that development is essentially a decentralised process. For one of the definitions of the ‘irreducible’ problem, whether it be making a relationship work or achieving social justice in a community, is that it is not susceptible to the imposition of centralised solutions worked out in one place by a few and applied in all places to the many. Such a technique may work for the application of ‘reducible’ solutions such as new seeds, but the solution of ‘irreducible’ problems depends on a diversity of approaches and experiments, on accumulated wisdoms and creative ideas in context.

Secondly, it implies that just relattionships between countries, and between communities and individuals within countries, are the fundamental precondition for development.

In this way also, the ‘irreducible’ approach demands decentralisatior. and allows of genuine participation. For if the problem of development is ultimately a problem about relationships then it need not be the preserve of experts, the conventionally educated and conventionally intelligent, who are not noticeably better at forming and sustaining just and loving human relationships than are the poor and the illiterate. In the area of human relationships, in the heart of the matter, there are no experts to alienate.

For all these reasons, no amount of ‘technological fix’ can resolve the problems of poverty and development. And progress in the 80s will depend not on ‘more of the same’, on the continued throwing of ‘reducible’ solutions at ‘irreducible’ problems, but on changes in the economic, social and political relationships which are and will remain the rockbed of the development problem.

Man on the Moon

There are some signs in both industrialised and developing countries that the honeymoon with technology is over and that fundamental questions will resume their pre-eminent place. There are also signposts in the opposite direction. One concerned and committed movement in the United States is now campaigning around the idea that ‘we decided to put a man on the moon and we did it - now let’s decide to get rid of malnutrition on the earth and we’ll do that too’.

Art of Development

However well-meaning such a sentiment may be, it is dangerous. Ending hunger and putting a man on the moon are extreme examples of ‘reducible’ and ‘irreducible’ problems and as such they require fundamentally different approaches.

The one demands an attitude of aggression and arrogance, of the will to compete and dominate, and depends upon the centralisation of effort and the input of more money, more scientists, and more technology. The other demands an approach of humility and respect, of co-operation and the sacrifice of cherished vested interests, and it depends upon participation and wisdom. Development, in short, is an art as well as a science. That is its real challenge. And from that perspective the walk on the moon was a very big step for a man but a very small step for mankind.

This special report appeared in the action issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.

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