Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dilemmas of Development: A Normative Critique

It can be safely said that throughout history, development has been, and is amply so in the present, an urgent topic to warrant discussion. There are two senses in which this is true: a relative sense, and an absolute one. Relatively speaking, could one ever lose sight of ideals, having accepted a condition as developed to the utmost and satisfactory? However, speaking in absolute terms, and arguably a more urgent one, it seems as if development is just that bare minimum that one needs to survive, to be able to manage one's right to life without there being any dangers to it. The purpose of this essay is not to hail one sense over the other in some balance of correctness. The purpose rather, is to look at the praxis of development as it exists today, and to link it up with the broader questions to which this praxis was supposed to be the answer. More importantly, the purpose of this essay is to uncover certain contradictions that arise out of a discord between the ideals we have before us and our attempts to realize them. These discords, and there are plenty of them, form the heart of what we may refer to as 'the dilemmas of development'. An attempt to define 'development' at this stage is purposely avoided, because that has been a contentious issue, and rightly so, because the real consequences of many programmes that have been claimed developmental have turned out wrong. It is undesirable to repeat in theory at least the mistakes that were made in practice. We shall firstly try to attempt to analyze the idea of 'want', then link it up with activities that seek to satisfy it. Thirdly, we shall analyze the role played by agencies like the state, economic institutions, and the general masses in this process of human satisfaction. Lastly, we shall come at our conclusions as they come through these issues taken up.

An alien who has a certain experience of social life would perhaps note the following on a trip to our society – most human species are busy procuring things like money, food, clothes, water, housing; most are trying to keep away from the sun and the rain, and also from other kinds of species that are hostile to humans. As an inference, the alien could infer that there is a condition of indispensability between these things that are physical in nature, and serve certain purposes, and their possession for the humans, and the lack of which leads to hardships and even a stop to human activity (i.e., disease and death). This condition could be called a 'want'. John Kenneth Galbraith summarizes this eloquently when he writes: “Economic circumstance has a dominant influence on social attitudes in the poor society because for those who are poor, nothing is so important as their poverty and nothing is so necessary as its mitigation.”1 Suppose we asked ourselves (and this trend in contemplation, a very important pastime for our forefathers, is somewhat at a decline): what is good life? What should be the purpose of human organizations? What is worth achieving for and as a group? The observation that material wants are so ubiquitous, and that their being left unfulfilled leads to adverse effects should lead us to believe that perhaps life ought to be materially sufficient in order to be good, that the aims of collective organization should be to enable each person to be materially supplied. This first requisite to a good life we shall denote as the 'materialist' argument.

This might perhaps lead us to believe, then, that steps that try to ensure that a people are materially provided for are pro-development. There is opposition to this idea, even though it has an element of truth to it. The anti-thesis can be broadly divided into two factions: one speaks in terms of inadequacy of material goods in spiritual gratification, while another speaks of the impotency of material possessions in the face of bondage. Perhaps some broad connections lie between these two approaches, but they display many mutually exclusive tendencies, and hence are not necessarily reconcilable. The spiritual gratification approach is demonstrated quite subtly by the following extract:

Maitreyi wonders if it could be the case that if 'the whole earth, full of wealth' we to belong to just her, she could achieve immortality through it. 'No', responds Yajnavalkya, 'like the life of rich people will be your life. But there is no hope of immortality by wealth.' Maitreyi remarks : 'What should I do with that by which I do not become immortal?' . . . If we are concerned with the freedom to live long and live well, our focus has to be directly on life and death, and not just upon wealth and economic opulence.”2

However, this approach is not without its own shortcomings: firstly, one can see that this talks in the relative sense of material possession that we earlier outlined, and hence is irrelevant to answer if there is any exemption for human beings from certain basic level of material furnishing. Secondly, the case for an absolute spiritually fulfilling life is, though extant, very dubious and narrow.3 Thirdly, most of such arguments are made at dinner tables, so it is very difficult whether they are to be judged as requisites or necessary privileges. And lastly, this approach cannot identify with any definiteness and justification what it is that is good for spiritual gratification (in this case, immortality). One faces similar problems when faced with the question what to do with wealth. If one notices closely, events like the Commonwealth Games are often passed off as celebration of the human spirit, of civilization and internationally commended as a mark of prosperity and development. However, in truth they are spheres of mass sensual consumption, based upon the toil of tens of thousands exploited labourers, displacement of the deprived, and elite centers of propaganda.

We could, though, bridge this argument to our development argument using the second non-material approach that we have outlined, that which seeks to make freedom a necessary human condition, while portraying bondage as a necessary violation of this human requisite. Suppose we assumed provisionally that all one needed was to be materially secure, we would then proceed towards steps that make this possible. I will point out to two such steps – the first, the forced sterilization that was carried out by Indira Gandhi's regime, and the second, the land-grabs in Raigad in Maharashtra and along the Narmada basin in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. The rationale behind the first development measure was that if we could slow down the population growth, we would be more successful in being able to provide for them – impeccable logic for sufficiency. However, that policy of the government, along with the others that came along with it during that notorious era of emergency, is almost unanimously condemned. It is quite obvious by popular reaction that something was amiss in that entirely materialist argument, and that it pertained to not taking into account the will of the people. The second example we look at is slightly more complex, because in appearance, it denies the conclusions of the first example, and says that material benefit is all that is required. Both the land-grabs are vehemently opposed by those who inhabit those regions, in spite of promises of pecuniary compensation. However, even more vehement were the protests that, in Gujarat, arose from the middle classes which believed in the materialist argument, and were willing to sacrifice the attachments of project affected people. The govt. went ahead in all callousness. In Raigad, a referendum settled the matter as far as public opinion is concerned over the decision for the land: an overwhelming majority were against it. The attempts to procure the land, however, have still not abated.

If we formulate our conclusions of the above example in the following way, we wouldn't be too far from the truth: in example one, the materialist example failed because the bondage of the measures put off the multitude that was the target of the measures. As far as the land-grabs are concerned, we can be sure that those who opposed them were those to whom the land belonged. Those who favored the land-grabs (and hence the argument) had no stakes as far as possession and attachment with land is concerned. If the govt. and elite concerns shifts over the possessions of this middle class, it is seen that even they give up the materialist argument with ease. The case of the demonstrations by retailers in Mumbai is telling in this regard, when they were threatened by the construction of sky-walks across the city, and petitioned to be remunerated.4

All along, we have implicitly assumed that any development programme would involve facilitation of the “correct measures” by a higher body, invoking an idea of altruism. Again, we must provisionally assume this is true; the next step would be to find examples. The most relevant examples today are the Structural Adjustment Programmes5 that a huge majority of third-world nations have had to accept under the aegis of financial aid from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. They borrow their political philosophy from the Washington Consensus6, among other sources. However, these programmes, supposedly for national development, have led to immense infamy and fallen into disrepute with business and people of the third-world. However, not all of them. These policies favor those who can afford them, the affluent (especially of the first-world, who have practically formulated them), and leads to shut-downs for the local small and marginal producers who cannot implement the imported trend of large-scale manufacture and cannot acquire the capital to compete the bigger players. More importantly, it makes labour laws so loose that work conditions are put to the extreme, among other issues like hire-and-fire, loose environmental laws, brutal acquisition laws, etc. Like Dorothy M Pickles, we could ask how is it that in a democracy in which a majority is the labour force, labour laws are so loose.7 The only answer we can get is that the development isn't really meant for the masses (as an ideal democracy would entail), but is complete in the benefit it intends for the minority which has wrested power to compete from higher ground against the majority. With this is dropped any facade of altruism that we had assumed earlier to be the hallmark of development action by the govt. The welfare state, in other words, isn't much about welfare.

There is another aspect of development that pertains to altruism: it is often posited by 'libertarians' or 'meritocrats' that the govt. must not play the role of a friend, philosopher and guide, i.e., must give up its role as a welfare state, and must leave the issues of development to people themselves, as if in a free-market economy. The proponents of this model are the same people who backed the Washington Consensus.8 One would also find them in the wealthier sections of third-world society, ranging from journalists to businessmen to intellectuals. A second manifestation of this idea of state altruism is seen often in news or in newspapers, wherein politicos do not miss a single opportunity to hail themselves as heroes and champions of the people after having implemented some programme that connects to the people's nerve (like glorious proclamations of 'justice achieved' after Ajmal Kasab's death sentence was awarded) or that seeks to benefit the deprived in some way or another (like the advertising of MNREGA during 2009 General Elections as a symbol of one's efficacy). The argument runs thus: the people must elect us because we have been able to do something substantial for them. Both the above examples assume a certain altruism on part of the govt. In the former, it is believed that the people are passive recipients while the govt. is an active body which encourages people's passivity by sponsoring their wants. In the second argument, it is taken for granted that a govt. that executes alleviating plans must be hailed and thanked with votes. Both these approaches fail to capture the essence of modern democracy, or at least the ideal that was set by founding fathers in the constitution, that it is a duty of the govt. to fend for its people. Furthermore, this ideal is not set on some emotional appeal to charity, but on at least two rational grounds: the govt. enjoys the resources that the nation as a whole generates through hard-work (taxes, from which come the salaries of the public servants), and also enjoys a mandate through universal suffrage, an expression of a collective will. Therefore, it is wrong to assume that the people are just passive recipients of govt. favor. Similarly, it is just as wrong to assume that development is merely an incentive that a valiant govt. gives to its people. A people are free to judge their govt. irrespective of this or that policy that the govt. has implemented. Often enough, there are more faults in govt. functioning than achievements, which goes to show the necessity of such advertising on the part of the govt. Development, basically, is a fundamental right of the people.

Essentially, all dilemmas that we see regarding development become clear when we compare that which is passed off as 'development' with broader concerns over what is a good life, and how can life be fulfilling. Once we have seen a sufficient number of examples, we come to the conclusion that development must have a sound material basis, though must also be accompanied by the freedom to choose this material basis and other spiritual aspects of one's life as one may find appropriate. However, what one often sees masqueraded as development rarely meets this ideal. The first dilemma that our world today faces is that we blindly accept a material plenitude for development; this idea is at work every time when we hear the govt. or the media bragging about double digit GDP rates, which are, basically, very crude economic terms, and do not explain the looming disparity in spite of those rocketing rates. Or, at the other end of this dilemma, we might find sections of society leaving no stones unturned to express spiritual dissatisfaction as the scourge of mankind; this is mostly true about those sects that seek to liberate men through religion, rhetoric or consumerism (which is, laughably, disguised materialism). Another dilemma of development for people, and this is a continuation of the first dilemma, lies in the fact that they have no voice in the processes they are subject to. The fourth dilemma of development that I have identified is that the process doesn't really deserve to be called development, and it would be more appropriate to call it a fine-tuned mechanism to preserve interests by an elite through forcibly roping in the sweat and consent of others. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the political class has exploited the desperation of the needy, and made development a matter of altruism, rather than its ideal nature as a right that belongs inalienably to people in a democracy. The guidelines for development are set pretty fairly; its dilemmas are chiefly a consequence of obvious deviations. The real problem, perhaps, is to question the status quo that maintains these deviations, in words, and more importantly, in actions.

1Galbraith, “Economics and the quality of life” (1964), taken from Economics, Peace and Laughter, Houghton Miffen Company, USA

2Amartya Sen's reproduction of a verse from the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, The Argumentative Indian, 2005, Penguin, London

3Knut Hamsun's Hunger (Canongate, UK, 1890) gives a plausible, but harrowing account of such a condition

4The High Court of Bombay rejected their demands to be given booths inside the sky-walks. The sky-walk projects have been achieved, in spite of the losses faced by retailers in the city.

5For an exposition on adverse effects of SAPs, look at the following link: http://www.globalissues.org/article/3/structural-adjustment-a-major-cause-of-poverty (accessed on Dec 1rd, 2010)

6For the Washington Consensus, look at Commanding Heights: The Battle for World Economy by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw (1998), Touchstone Books, New York

7As an analogy to what D M Pickles says about the British condition, wherein the majority lived in a country in which they had no land as property, and yet this trend remained unchallenged. Introduction to Politics, Meuthen & Co., 1964, London

8This is an obvious sham, given that USA, and now imitated by others including India, is the most financially regulated economies in the world, with the govt. playing the Keynesian role of balancing an out of balance market!


  1. very true when u say that development is the duty of the govt, not an altrusitic achievement to boast off!