What is Development – II

Part II – Process

It is important to reinforce our mutual commitment to achieving the goals of development, every now and again. However, it is more important to discuss and debate the process that must be followed to achieve these goals. It is difficult to establish if policies or programs have been successful, or to determine the degree of their success. Therefore, it is difficult to settle on what the best approaches are to bring about desired changes.

Jeffrey Sachs, in his book ‘The End of Poverty’, argues that if we mobilize the funds we need and direct them towards solving the problem of poverty, we should be able to do so, in our generation. There have, however, been several critiques of Sachs’ work. Dambisa Moyo, for example, argues in her book, ‘Dead Aid’, that foreign aid, rather than solving the problem of poverty, has exacerbated it. Aid, she says, has been “an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world.” Moyo criticizes what she perceives as the patronizing nature of the West, which allows for the belief that problems of the developing world can be “solved” with western intervention through foreign aid. Several academics (like William Easterly,  in ‘The White Man’s Burden’) have also pointed to the lack of evidence for the claim that foreign aid brings about positive developmental outcomes. It is, therefore, debatable whether or not this method – that of setting concrete goals and directing resources towards them – is effective. Firstly, the goals that have been set may not be acceptable to the populations they have been set for. Secondly, it is difficult to ensure that resources mobilized are used effectively, on such a large scale.

Somewhere beneath the ivory tower in which these debates take place, poverty, war and, environmental destruction remain stark realities. It might be important to engage in these debates, however, it is important that the urgency of these problems is recognized and addressed. How can we make these problems seem less overwhelming, and more solvable?  Esther Duflo and Abhijeet Banerjee, in their book ‘Poor Economics’, suggest that we scale problems down, in order to understand what solutions work in specific contexts. It is easier to answer smaller, more specific, problem-oriented questions than it is to answer questions about the effectiveness of foreign aid.  When considered at a macro-level, the problems we are trying to address seem too large and overwhelming to be solved. If they are broken down into smaller, more approachable problems, we can hope to  cumulatively bring about positive effects. The drawback of this approach is that, several times, we tend to solve problems in isolation and end up aggravating other problems in the process of solving one. The indiscriminate use fossil fuels to further economic growth in emerging economies like India and China are examples of this. We must remember that it is important to consider the larger picture, while solving smaller problems. This, however, is easier said than done.

Another more pressing pressing problem with the methods suggested by Duflo and Banerjee is one that Moyo touches upon in her book. In recognizing what we perceive as “problems” in the developing world, and systematically determining which solutions are more effective, are we disregarding the autonomy of those experiencing the problems? Is it, for example, ethical to treat individuals as subjects of a statistical study or a randomized control trial? For example, how ethical is it to incentivize vaccinations by promising a cash transfer to families that vaccinate their children? In doing this, are we not undermining the autonomy of these communities and, essentially, forcing them to make decisions that we believe will be beneficial to them?

Further, is it ethical to offer solutions to some and deny them to others in an effort to measure if the solutions are effective? If we believe that a solution can work, even if we are not sure if it is likely to work, are we not obligated to offer it to everybody, without discrimination (even if the discrimination is “random”).

Most importantly, what gives us the authority to determine if something is truly a problem that needs to be solved?  Is it ethical to interfere in the lives of indigenous communities and offer them modern medicines or technology, simply because we think it will improve their quality of life, by our standards?

These questions are difficult to answer. Privileged people do not inherently have the right to intervene in the lives of members of underprivileged communities to “make them better”. However, we must also recognize that the privilege we have is the result of a deeply unequal system. Therefore, we do have a responsibility towards those who, purely due to chance and circumstance, face problems that we have the means to solve. It is important, however, to stop and consider, every now and again, if we are imposing our standards on the communities that we are working with and disregarding theirs.

Finally, it is important to include communities in the process of development by working closely with them, providing them with full information, and asking for their opinion. We cannot hope to understand the circumstances that those in poverty, or those in war-torn regions face from atop an ivory tower. We need to climb down, live, and work alongside these communities, in order to help them in best way we can.

***

‘Development’ is a word that we use to address both a product and a process. We are not, completely sure, or in agreement, about what either of these constitute or should constitute. In order to determine the goals of development, we must come together and recognize the ideals we share, and reinforce our commitment to them. This, I believe, is the starting point to establishing more concrete goals, through discussion and dialogue. In order to determine the process that needs to be followed to achieve these goals, I believe it is important to start small, while also keeping in mind the bigger picture. Communities that are being worked with must be considered and consulted while determining the products and processes of development. We must ensure that each individual’s basic needs are taken care of, and that they have the capacity, opportunity, autonomy, and information to make choices about their life. To me, development is progress towards a system that promises this to each and every individual.

 

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