The Failure Of Development – OpEd


In the closing years of the 1940s, when World War II had ended and its winners were reorganizing human life on planet earth, many feared nuclear war.  The delegates who met at San Francisco and founded the United Nations intended to organize lasting peace.  Many feared the spread of Communism.  Others feared the defeat of Communism and the definitive victory of capitalism.  Except for a few outliers, like Mahatma Gandhi and his economist colleague J.C. Kumarappa, nobody feared the greatest danger of all: development.

Although “peace” and “security” were ideals named in the negotiations that led to the founding of the United Nations, “development” was not.

However, conceived as the solution, not as the problem, “development” named an ideal that could keep the United Nations united. It solved the problem of keeping the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe on board.  It could be agreed by all, East and West. North and South, that there was more than one way to “develop.”  “Development” was an outcome of capitalist accumulation.   But central planning, along with investment and accumulation by the state, could count as “development” too.

The UN General Assembly held its first meeting in London on 10 January 1946.  By the time the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with its strong emphasis on social rights including the right to employment, in Paris on 10 December 1948, “development” was already “the new name for peace.”

“Development” became the name for bringing the “underdeveloped” (later “developing”) majority of the human beings on planet earth into the promised land where the “developed” minority had already arrived.  The “reconstruction” of Europe would lead seamlessly to the “development” of Africa, Asia and Latin America.   The “world bank,” had already been named as the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

“Humanity” for most of history was not recognized as a united collective entity.  After World War II, by common accord and express agreement, humanity was finally legally designated, in documents signed by representatives of all national governments, as a species with a common purpose.  Its purpose was “development.”

Back in those days few were aware of what today, on the second day of 2023, has become painfully apparent to all thinking people.  Human life and all life might be destroyed or nearly destroyed by an all-out nuclear war. Today, specifically, Russia, apparently with no better option, might and might not, use tactical nuclear weapons.  The use of tactical nuclear weapons might and might not lead to the use of strategic nuclear weapons.  An all-out nuclear might never happen. Development, in contrast, has happened.  It is still happening.  Development has created what is known as the Great Acceleration –the take-off after World War II of measures of economic development going up and up in lock step with measures of ecological catastrophe also going up and up.   Development has already destroyed many species.  It is on track to destroy the human species.

Although the word “development” had a history before it was pressed into service to name humanity´s common purpose after World War II, I have been using the term evoking its post World War II meaning.  I will now offer an interpretation of what that crucial latter day meaning has been and is.

If you consult recognized experts in development associated with the Center for International Development at the Harvard Kennedy School, such as Dani Rodrik, Ricardo Hausmann and Andres Velasco, you will learn two basic facts that they have emphasized in print in a jointly written text:

  1. Whatever else development may also be, it is economic growth.
  2. To get economic growth to happen, it is necessary to get investors “excited” about investing.

The Bolivian economist Gabriel Loza makes a similar point:  A theory of development is a theory of investment.

We are learning the meaning of a word by studying how it is related to what the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure called its “neighbouring” words.   We are learning about “development” relating it to its neighbours “growth” and “investment.”

Another neighbour is “productivity.” “Productivity” explains why development gained a reputation as a noble humanitarian cause.   Development did not earn its reputation as another name for peace; nor did it earn its endorsement by the Vatican, and by staunch Scandinavian social democrats like Gunnar Myrdal, Trygve Lie, and Dag Hammarskjold because it was another name for profitable investments.

Development wore another hat and had another description.  It was the name of the social compact ending the class struggle. The first world´s “developed” economies showed the path to the “underdeveloped” third world because –back then—development made it possible to fund human social rights.   Post-war social peace was pioneered when the working class soldiers who had fought Hitler — the men Franklin Roosevelt called “the four freedoms boys” (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear) = — came home after defeating the Nazis. They did not come home to a continuation of the depression of the 1930s.  They came home to nearly full employment, the welfare state, the GI Bill providing free tertiary education for veterans, and collective bargaining.

The key to social peace in the first world was believed to be high productivity.  The poverty of the third world was believed to be caused, at bottom, by low productivity.

“Development” was, and still is, a name for raising productivity.  Getting investors excited about investing was and still is believed to be a practical means to the social end of shared prosperity.   Sometimes it is believed to be the only practical means.

As 2023 begins, hard on the heels of the traumas of 2022 and 2021, the peaceful twenty first century envisioned in the imaginations of the founders of the United Nations has morphed into a fairy tale that did not come true.

In the first world productivity has gone up and up while social peace has gone down and down.  Industry has moved to the third world –so much so that the third world middle and upper class consumers who are in the market for expensive products now outnumber and outspend the first world consumers.  The third world includes some of the most unequal societies including South Africa (Gini coefficient 63) Colombia and Saudi Arabia (54) Brazil (48.9) India (47) and China (46.6) –making Brazil, India and China almost as unequal as the USA (Gini coefficient 49).

While “development” might have been “the new name for peace,” as history has played out in a world where, as Jürgen Habermas wrote, the market is the primary social reality and government is only a secondary social reality, and where, as Alan Greenspan remarked in more picturesque terms. “It hardly matters who is elected president. Markets run the world,” “development” has proven to be in practice mainly economic growth producing the Great Acceleration.

As 2023 begins, as polar icecaps are melting, as fires and wars are belching huge quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere triggering chains of causes that lead to more fires and more wars, and as desperate economic migrants are risking their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean to escape Africa and to enter Europe, the devil is demanding his pound of flesh.

I would suggest an agenda for survival with three imperatives that are difficult to achieve simultaneously:

  1. Welcome the billions of people now oppressed, or completely rejected, by the labour market into the human family, organizing dignified livelihoods for all – giving priority to funding work to achieve Job One, namely restoring natural equilibria (for example planting trees).
  2. Reconsider the “success” of the middle and upper classes who are destroying the planet enjoying irresponsible lifestyles, violating Kumarappa´s maxim: consume no more in a year than nature can replace in a year. This is both a high tech and a low tech challenge.  The high tech part (for example the energy transition and circular economies) requires capital and intelligence.  The low tech part (for example bicycles and soy burgers) requires a culture shift.
  3. Bring down the birth rate to less than the death rate, reducing the number of human beings on the planet.

One name for the general orientation of efforts to make a difference for good, given this sort of analysis of what humanity is up against, is “unbounded organizing.”  To begin conversations, or rather to continue in the West conversations beginning with Socrates, in China conversations beginning earlier, in India still earlier, and elsewhere on dates I do not know, “good” can be defined as “meeting human needs in harmony with nature.”  Or, in Carol Gilligan´s words, “attending to and responding to needs.”

“Unbounded organizing” (UO) refers to innumerable initiatives undertaken by people in all walks of life, in all sectors of the economy, without ruling out of the conversation a priori any approach or any school of thought.  The UO idea grew out of organizing experiences in Latin America and Africa. It is similar to Amartya Sen´s idea of “public action.”

It is no small matter that UO is among the contemporary schools of thought and practice devoted to working together to meet human needs in harmony with nature.  Thomas Piketty (for France) C.B. McPherson (for the UK) Howard Zinn and more recently Katharina Pistor (for the USA) and others have shown that any such intention was far from the minds of the 18th century framers who designed the public institutions that became the models for virtually all modern republics.  It is, sadly, not surprising that institutions that were not designed with the objective of meeting the needs of human beings, nor with the objective of living in harmony with nature, in fact –as history so far has turned out—do not do so.

Shocked by the horrors World War II, shocked by the holocaust, shocked by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, threatened by future horrors because of the beginning of the Cold War, there was hope that humanity finally learn to work together for peace. The future would be different from the past.

The United Nations, the Bretton Woods Institutions, and the International Declaration of Human Rights promised freedom from want and freedom from fear.    From the mid twentieth century forward the practice of honouring human dignity would keep the broken promises of the 18thcentury liberté, égalité fraternité.  In what remained of the twentieth dignity would become physical; human dignity would mean good jobs, health care, and pensions.   The new name for peace would be “development.”

I have suggested that the rock that sank development, as an iceberg sank the Titanic, was investment.  It turned out that there was little the UN could do, little governments could do, and little democracy could do to achieve development.

Everything depended on getting private investors excited about investment.  Their excitement depended on ROI, return on investment. Everything depended on economic growth, and economic growth — purchased paying the price of social injustice– spells ecological disaster.  The consolation, if there is one, is that if the Stalinists had won the Cold War and taken over the whole world, life would have been even worse than it is now.

But I think there is another consolation too: It is the growing influence of ethics of care, ethics of solidarity, ethics of dignity, ethics of responsibility, virtue ethics and ethics pursuing a truly worthwhile purpose in life.  UO is an example.  It is as if deep in their DNA and hormones, human beings had a singing moral compass that sang:  if economics fails, if politics fails, if the rule of law fails, try ethics.

Prof. Howard Richards is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is a philosopher of social science and Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, USA. He was educated at Redlands High School in California, Yale, Stanford, University of California at Santa Barbara, University of Toronto, Harvard and Oxford. He currently teaches in the University of Cape Town`s EMBA programme. His books include: The Evaluation of Cultural Action, a study of an application of Paulo Freire´s pedagogical philosophy in rural Chile (London Macmillan 1985); Letters from Quebec; Understanding the Global Economy; The Dilemmas of Social Democracies; Gandhi and the Future of Economics; Rethinking Thinking; Unbounded Organizing in Community; and The Nurturing of Time Future. His new book, written with the assistance of Gavin Andersson, Economic Theory and Community Development: Why Putting Community First Is Essential for Survival, is now available from the publisher, Dignity Press, and from Amazon and other major booksellers, as a print book and as an eBook.[email protected]

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS)

Prof. Howard Richards

Prof. Howard Richards is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is a philosopher of social science and Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, USA. He was educated at Redlands High School in California, Yale, Stanford, University of California at Santa Barbara, University of Toronto, Harvard and Oxford. He currently teaches in the University of Cape Town`s EMBA programme. His books include: The Evaluation of Cultural Action, a study of an application of Paulo Freire´s pedagogical philosophy in rural Chile (London Macmillan 1985); Letters from Quebec; Understanding the Global Economy; The Dilemmas of Social Democracies; Gandhi and the Future of Economics; Rethinking Thinking; Unbounded Organizing in Community; and The Nurturing of Time Future. His new book, written with the assistance of Gavin Andersson, Economic Theory and Community Development: Why Putting Community First Is Essential for Survival, is now available from the publisher, Dignity Press, and from Amazon and other major booksellers, as a print book and as an eBook. [email protected]

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