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Development's brighter side

Development (Aid)

There are many ways to measure success, and by many measurements the achievements of the recent past have been enormous. To quote one institution in particular where there is no shortage of slide rules: ‘The developing countries have grown impressively over the last 25 years; income per person has increased by almost three per cent a year, with the annual growth rate accelerating from about two per cent in the 1950s to 3.4 per cent in the 1960s . . . Economic growth in the developing countries has exceeded original expectations, and their physical capacity for further development has been further strengthened.’

But even the World Bank has to admit that: ‘Growth rates have generally been lower in the Low Income countries of Africa and Asia,’ the Bank tells us, adding in a throw-away manner, that this is where the majority of the world’s poor live. ‘In countries accounting for half the population of the developing world, income per person has risen by less than two per cent a year . . . About 800 million people still live in absolute poverty, with incomes too low to ensure adequate nutrition, and without access to essential public services. Many of these people have experienced no improvement in their living standards; and in countries where economic growth has been slow, the living standards of the poor may even have deteriorated. The numbers in poverty alone are a stark measure of how much remains to be done.’

True. But what does the Bank propose that the poor should do? It proposes that they should grow, grow out of their poverty, grow into development. Yet if growth really is the answer it is going to have to take place at a phenomenal rate, even on the Bank’s own evidence, to solve problems like unemployment and underemployment in the Third World: ‘Though world population growth is believed to have peaked in the early 1970s, the earlier rapid growth will add more than 500 million people to the labour force in developing countries between 1975 and the end of this century.’

That burgeoning labour force will be parallelled by a growth of the youthful population and a growth in the numbers of elderly dependents too. Clearly, not even the most optimistic financial fortune teller could honestly predict an economic expansion in the Third World that will even match, much less overtake these other trends.

This is why the World Bank does make the occasional nod in the direction of the need for ‘fundamental social change’. But an occasional nod is not good enough; the old remedies simply will not do. While the world economic system remains rigidly structured between the have’s and the have not’s, those with money and wealth and property and those without any of those things, then growth alone can never be enough.

On the contrary, growth without social change, can only be a cosmetic exercise: grease paint on a withered frightened face. It has to be admitted, equally, however that social change without growth may be no better a remedy. ‘Radical’ governments brought to power on the crest of a wave of egalitarian enthusiasm often find that all they have to re-distribute is poverty. When that happens the forces of reaction quickly find a rallying point.

So where is development’s brighter side? Certainly it is not to be found by means of a slide rule. It is a quality rather than a quantity; an alchemy of commonsense and innovative foresight that changes people’s lives for the better. Wherever we have taken control of our own destiny with our own hands there is a little spark of light. Wherever we have been sceptical of the planners and planned for ourselves, the brightness shows. Wherever we have stopped trying to grow into shoes that will always be too big for us and instead fashioned a sturdy pair of walking boots of our own we have changed the world.

This issue of the New Internationalist focusses on such attempts by ordinary people, by the poor and the not so poor, to change the structure of the world around them. It offers no prescriptions, no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ paths to the millenium. Indeed, if there is a lesson in it at all it is that there is no millenium. But equally, there is no such thing as a status quo that people cannot change when it ceases to serve their interests, as events in Iran and Nicaragua have shown.

Ironically, change is the only constant. As never before, 800 million people today have nothing to lose but their chains and a world to win.

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