Development—but at What Cost?
An exchange on Jay Mandle's "The Problem with Thinking Locally" (BR, Summer 1998).
December 1, 1998
Dec 1, 1998
8 Min read time
An exchange on Jay Mandle's "The Problem with Thinking Locally" (BR, Summer 1998).
The critique of development is an arena of intense political and intellectual conflict. But its principal field of battle lies outside such conventional institutions as universities, trade unions, and parties, and its dissenting voices are at the grassroots. Jay Mandle's review of the Sierra Club's The Case Against the Global Economy shows little understanding of this grounded politics. Mandle takes one of the most fascinating political debates in recent years and abstracts it into a stark polarity of ideas: for him, the fundamentalism of the local is pitted against the fundamentalisms of World Bank/development economics, the Talibans of the traditional against objective but caring science. But the real world is messier. There is more dialogue, more openness and hospitality to the other, than we can discern from Mandle's review or the volume he criticizes.
Certainly, too many of the book's authors grossly oversimplify, as if a return to original village life is feasible and democratically acceptable. Take Satish Kumar's essay on Gandhi, a piece lacking all sense of the everyday complexity of the man. Gandhi was no romantic: here was a man who talked of village life and operated from the city; who claimed that railways spread communalism and the plague and rode them with happy frequency to fight the empire; who had his appendix removed and refused to take penicillin. Gandhi was not a local thinker. His swadeshi was not a theory of locality but of creativity, hospitality--a distinctive kind of cosmopolitanism. One can't talk of Gandhi's notion of swadeshi without his idea of oceanic circles. For him the locality was not an insulated entity but the first and innermost part of a spiral.
Moreover, Gandhi's celebration of the local did not obviate the need for self-critique. He was very hard on the villagers, criticizing everything from their use of toilets to their passivity. And he was deeply committed to hard data, initiating surveys of villages like those done by the economist J. C. Kumarappa. Viewed in this perspective, Kumar's essay is sentimental and naive: he neglects Gandhi's political verve and moral range, reducing him to a set of simplistic sociological statements, and he treats swadesi economics without examining its misuse by the ruling BJP regime, which has dissociated protectionism, creativity, and justice--issues that Gandhi combined so imaginatively.
The dream of alternative paths to development was not just about a different way of life for the Third World. It was also an attempt to rescue the West, to articulate its own possibilities. Jay Mandle's monolithic monoculturalism misses this. He acknowledges that the environment presents a challenge to conventional strategies of development. But that's it. He reveals no awareness of the historical costs of Western development, no sense of the epidemic of violence the nation-state has produced. Mandle does not see the problematic nature of the Enlightenment or relate it to the project called "development." In his view, economic development is an antiseptic activity, guaranteeing wealth and well-being through science and technology.
Thus he writes that "the same science and engineering that cause the problem in the first place would be employed to alleviate the second." But is problem-solving through science adequate? Mandle supports public policy to punish violators of environmental regulations, yet in this he is as insular as Satish Kumar. Consider for a moment the recent forest fires in Indonesia. The Indonesian army, blaming shifting cultivation for the environmental disaster, has taken drastic action against the swidden farmers without clear proof that such cultivation is ecologically destructive. But who will punish the Japanese firms who own many of the timber factories? Who will convince them of the need for ecology? Mandle, who thinks that development is just a big fight between unthinking tradition and reflective reason, ignores this power dimension altogether.
Development projects have always been justified in name of science--think of urban planning, family planning, and forest clearing. But what does Mandle say to the millions of refugees created by large dams? Does he see the benign face of development when villagers are forcibly removed in police trucks and pushed out? Where do these millions of tribals and marginals fit in Mandle's project? The Guyaki in Paraguay? The tribals of the Brazilian north east? The tribals of India's Narmada Dam? Or are we now to believe, General Motors-style, that what is good for the middle class is good for the country? How many tribals can we afford to eliminate or museumize in the name of development? This calculus of ecocide and displacement finds no place in Mandle's Human Development Index (HDI), which is restricted to improvements in nutrition and mortality and education.
United Nations indices like the HDI, are undeniably important: it is better to pay attention to nutrition and literacy than just to per capita income. Yet can we not add to them indicators of well-being that--as authors like Martin Kohr, Helena Norberg-Hodge, and Jerry Mander point out--also capture incompatible, incommensurable values? The folklore wisdom of this world might need translation, but if World Bank indicators have ever needed a partner in dialogue--a Thou for an I--it is now. The chance is there. Can we devise indicators that include eco-sensitivity, democracy, cultural plurality? Macaulayite education based on memorizing a few alien textbooks can indeed be a process of deskilling or deculturation, as Norberg-Hodge notes, if it leads to the loss of a repertoire of traditional, still-relevant skills. And maybe such skills are not built into current indicators. The loss of traditional water systems, the availability of alternative medical systems, the knowledges of cultures who know how to die, etc.--indices of mortality are crucial, but the ways of dying are also important, and not merely for historians of subaltern cultures. Somewhere one has to capture them. Otherwise we will have groups talking two different languages. On the one side, the numeracy of statistics, on the other parables; on one side demography and on the other philosophical critiques and cosmological objections.
There is a difference between asking are people happy? and are they well fed? Health and happiness have different definitions, however correlated they might be. The danger and violence of conventional indicators is that they may falsely universalize one conception of happiness.
We are all realists now. We know that many in the Third World, both marginals and elites, want the goods of the "developed" world. Yet the growing cost of this, the lack of access to it, will be a source of violence. The battle between tradition and modernity is accelerating and combining the worst of each. Neither the pristine essays in The Case Against the Global Economy nor Jay Mandle's review of it take account of this growing threat of violence.
I am reminded of an encounter I had once, a rare visit to an arid place, the Harvard Institute of International Development. I presented a paper on alternative experiments in energy. A commentator asked me, "Why do you use the word epistemology? The World Bank president can't understand it." "Maybe that is why," I answered. We need to understand why so many grassroots, alternative, Third World critiques are at a philosophical level, how they challenge the fundamental categories of thought, what relation they see between concepts and ways of life.
Development is a bloody term. I think we need a body count of its victims. But more important still, I think we need to trace the roots of violence in the concepts we employ so facilely. Such concepts, when institutionalized, can be death warrants. It is this that eludes Jay Mandle completely.
Jay Mandle replies
Shiv Visvanathan writes that "we are all realists now. We know that many in the Third World, both marginals and elites, want the goods of the 'developed' world. Yet the growing cost of this, the lack of access to it, will be a source of violence." I could not agree more. What would seem to follow is that in the name of reducing violence, access to development should be increased and its cost reduced. That indeed is my position. It seems not to be Visvanathan's.
Even under the best of circumstances development involves major disruptions in life patterns. Visvanathan is right. New dams do cause refugees, and increased agricultural productivity causes villagers to relocate. That is, in addition to increased human well-being, development produces innocent victims, a victimization which represents a moral imperative demanding corrective action. Most certainly, I do not believe the view Visvanathan attributes to me, without citation, that "economic development is an antiseptic activity, guaranteeing wealth and well-being through science and technology." Indeed, it is precisely because development and the benefits associated with it are costly that I believe that the integration of the world economy should be subject to democratic control. Without a democratic politics, the burdens of the development process will fall disproportionately on the disenfranchised.
The burden of my review of the Sierra Club collection was that by rejecting economic modernization, its authors consigned themselves to political irrelevance. In an age when globalization promises a rise in standards of living worldwide, those who reject that process cannot be expected to be of much help in efforts to make it more equitable. My review did not, as Visvanathan inaccurately reports, ignore the "power dimension altogether." Indeed, what I wrote was that "what saving the environment needs, in short, is a politics which seeks to use the engine of growth both to end world poverty and to protect the environment . . . it will take a struggle to be convincing that in this case the market is an agent of destruction, not progress."
Economic development results in improved material well-being. It allows more goods and services to be produced and be made available to populations generally. But it does no more than that. It does not ensure a fair distribution of those goods and services, nor is the process of economic advance determinant with regard to the composition of that increased output. Those are decisions fundamentally decided by the distribution of power in a society.
The fact is that development is desired almost universally. What is wrong with it to date is that its spread is too slow and it is not inclusive enough. Too few people benefit sufficiently quickly. The problems associated with development do not reside in some unspecified "problematic nature of the Enlightenment," as Visvanathan would have it. Rather what is needed is a solution to the political problem of ensuring that the benefits of development--which scientific method, rooted in Enlightenment thinking, spawned--are more widely experienced than is currently the case.
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December 01, 1998
8 Min read time