Monday, June 06, 2011

"Development is essentially amoral"

Jonathan Gleenie has posted a very controversial essay for the Guardian's Poverty Matters blog that contains the above statement. Glennie addresses what happens when a country moves up the economic ladder but does so at the expanse of human rights. The county Glennie uses as an example is Colombia, where former president Alvaro Uribe Vélez moved businesses into areas where people had to flee because of the threat of violence.

Imagine a situation in which millions of people are displaced from their land by violence or the threat of violence. The land is taken over by businesses that develop mega plantations to produce bananas, palm oil, or, yes, coca. Jungle is cleared for cattle rearing. Mines are dug to extract copper, gold, emeralds or oil. The manufacturing sector, which creates jobs and strengthens the middle class, fails to advance while resource extraction and export, which employs very few and fills the pockets of the wealthy, is the key plank of development strategy.

Private investment flows in, which some analysts think is vital for development. Exports lead to economic growth, which many commentators seem to think is synonymous with development. Meanwhile, as human rights are ignored in order to quell social conflict, claims are made that the state finally controls its territory. An ex-president begins a world tour to explain how he did it.

So what happens to the displaced rural communities? Some are wiped out, especially the indigenous groups, who slowly become extinct. Others go to towns and cities, where they have no cultural or political identity, and may live in misery or are dependent on others. Ironically, they often have better access to basic healthcare and education, which are more prevalent in urban areas. And their incomes may increase, as they join the labour market rather than depend on the land. Of course, as the cost of living is higher, they are in truth poorer - but the statistics that make up MDG1 look rosy.

Crucially, the children of internally displaced people, like the children of refugees, may do much better than their parents. In a sense, then, development is taking place, because the next generation is better off according to basic development indicators.

The model of development I'm sketching here is, in my view, the one Uribe chose, and which his successor, Juan Manuel Santos, is continuing. It is a caricature, of course, and the reality is far more complicated. For example, the urban security achieved by Uribe has indeed led to increased investment and tourism, which is important. A balanced assessment of his time in office needs to acknowledge some steps forward.

But Colombia is fundamentally an example of how development can be unethical. Millions have been displaced, thousands killed, tribes wiped out, all in the name of development. Development can be carried out with justice, respect and dignity for the poor. Or it can be carried out with violence, displacement and the suppression of human rights. Development indicators can be met with a focus on jobs and equality or, bypassing these, with patriarchal handouts and the delivery of basic services without affecting fundamental power relations.

1 comment:

Trish said...

Great post. Sometimes development doesn't produce the results we want.