Simply... The Politics Of Development

Development (Aid)

new internationalist
issue 200 - October 1989

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Illustration: Jim Needle


ONE The socialist vision
When the NI first appeared in 1973 the poor in the Third World faced hunger and disease on a massive scale. Only socialism seemed to offer any solution - with land reform and free health services high on the agenda. The poor had been exploited by colonialism and they continued to be exploited by capitalism. Socialism was the way to put an end to all this; only state planning could organize the massive redistribution of wealth required.


TWO The new Third World
Newly independent Third World countries had taken a broadly socialist line. India which had achieved independence in 1947, launched its series of Five Year Plans in 1955. The Chinese Revolution of 1949 was communist-led. President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania set out in his 1967 Arusha Declaration a blueprint for African socialism. And those countries still fighting for freedom - like Vietnam, Southern Rhodesia and Portugal's African colonies,Mozambique and Angola - were also Marxist inspired.


THREE The aid lobby
Sympathizers in the West who wanted to help the Third World - the 'aid lobby' - followed much the same line. They might have called themselves Marxists, socialists, liberals or even conservatives. But they tended to adopt a quasi-Marxist vocabulary to describe the problems - 'imperialism', 'exploitation', 'class-conflict'. Something had to be done quickly. Almost everyone argued for aid in the form of cash or food. But change of a more permanent kind was also required. Hence the idea, popularized in the late 1950s, of 'development' - a vague notion that indicated some kind of positive change or progress that could be made almost regardless of a country's political system.


FOUR Trade wars
Third World leaders used the United Nations to argue for development funds and protest about the injustices of international trade. They were supported by Marxist economists, whose 'dependency' theories argued that Third World economies had been reduced to mere 'peripheries' of Western capitalism. Poor countries were suppliers of raw materials like coffee or cocoa (for which they were badly paid) and had to buy manufactured goods (for which they were charged a lot). This implied two solutions. First that Third World countries might achieve greater independence by trading amongst themselves - one group of South American countries set up the 'Andean Pact'. Second that as sellers of raw materials to the West they should get together to charge higher prices. OPEC with its oil-price hikes had started to show the way. 'Trade not aid' was the new slogan.


FIVE Idea power and ecology
Most of the inspiring ideas of the 1970s derived from Marxism. It fused with Christianity to form 'liberation theology' as radical priests in the shanty towns of Latin America realized that religion and politics were inextricably linked. Meanwhile Brazilian educator Paulo Freire was showing how the process of learning should be one of political empowerment. But there were other new ideas - on the environment, for example. There was widespread concern about the exhaustion of the earth's resources - the NI devoted a theme issue to this in 1976 (Trash and Grab - the looting of a small planet). And Schumacher's Small is Beautiful argued that sophisticated Western equipment was destructive in poor countries. They needed an 'intermediate' technology


SIX New economic order
The first half of the 1970s was a ferment of fresh development ideas - the equivalent of the late 1960s in the West. Indeed it was easier to be a radical about the Third World where injustice and repression seem much more clear-cut. Many of these new ideas were aired at a series of UN conferences throughout the 1970s - on Food, Environment, Population. The boldest result was a call in 1974 for a New International Economic Order that would set the world aright - producing healthy flows of aid and more equitable trade.


SEVEN Disillusion sets in
But there was to be no completely new order. Many of the ideas (like those on the environment) did become part of conventional development wisdom. But many others, particularly on trade, died. Mutual trade pacts collapsed because the political and economic interests of different countries collided. And the elite in the Third World were quite happy for the West to exploit their countries so long as their own wallets expanded. Aid was increasingly discredited. It was either diverted by corruption or financed projects like dam-building which destroyed the livelihoods of the poorest to benefit the rich. The aid lobby (the NI included) started to argue that only socialist countries should be aided - since new resources poured into an unjust society will inevitably flow towards the powerful.


EIGHT Socialism faltering
But socialism too came into question. Eastern Europe had always been an embarrassing precedent. Now socialism had also taken some disturbing twists and turns in the Third World, ranging from authoritarian isolationism in Burma to military dictatorship in Ethiopia. Cuba was still well-regarded for its social-welfare programmes and China had had remarkable success in meeting basic needs. But there were increasing doubts about political freedom in both countries. And Tanzania, even under the inspired leadership of Nyerere, had made little progress towards a truly egalitarian society. Marxists, it seemed, could explain why people were poor.But they were less convincing when it came to solutions. The Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 was a symbolic turning point. It had the moral drive of socialism but accept. The contribution of personal enterprise.


NINE The personal is political
In the West too, new ideas began to cut across a purely class-based socialism. Feminism showed how most political parties had treated women as invisible. Socialism had little to say about human relationships based on gender, race or sexual orientation. And socialist countries had been as exploitative of the earth as capitalists. Feminists now argued that the 'personal is political' - that our lifestyles and our personal attitudes and relationships have ramifications for the whole of society. From the early 1980s the NI started to write on themes like 'lifestyles' or 'sex'.


TEN Capitalism in trouble
State socialism had been found wanting. But the capitalist countries of the Third World had done little better. Many were in economic trouble by the early 1 980s. Governments kept people under control by repressive methods - often by military dictatorship. This 'stability' attracted Western banks. But a good credit rating proved a mixed blessing. Countries like Brazil and the Philippines which had accepted the largesse of friendly international banks finished up deep in debt. Now they came under the dismal influence of the International Monetary Fund, which insisted they cut down spending on social welfare and adopt monetarist 'adjustment' policies. The debtor nations have agreed not because IMF policies work (they have been uniformly disastrous) but because the IMF, under US influence, holds the purse strings.


ELEVEN From left to right
The late 1980s now see the political tables turned. The once-dogmatic Left has been reassessing socialism while the Right has stuck more rigidly to its ideology. This trend is however by no means universal. Perestroika might be the flavour of the month in Moscow but it is still anathema in Havana. Vietnam is struggling to liberalize but democracy has suffered defeats in China and in Burma. Mercifully, however, most of the heaviest right-wing dictatorships have crumbled. If Pinochet bows out in Chile, as planned, the last dictatorship in South America will be gone.


TWELVE Alternatives for the 1990s
What does the progressive politician argue for in the 1990s? The same basic needs have to be met - and technically there is no reason why they could not be. The simplest health techniques work well: it is clear that millions of children with diarrhoea can be kept alive with oral rehydration salts. And even at times of famine the world is quite capable of feeding everyone - a fact of which young people became increasingly aware during the Live Aid period. The problem as always is to find forms of political organization that will allow those needs to be met. Socialism, Marxism and capitalism - all in various states of disarray - are being drawn into new and hopefully fruitful combinations with the politics of lifestyle and the environment. But from China's students through Namibia's guerillas to Chile's socialists, people have shown that such changes have to be fought for and sometimes died for.

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New Internationalist issue 200 magazine cover This article is from the October 1989 issue of New Internationalist.
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