THE END OR THE HALT OF POVERTY?

Have you ever thought about the development of societies? Why is it that you have so many freedoms, and other people, namely in other countries, have so few. Why is it that you can become a doctor or an engineer or a teacher and work in basically any country you would like? Why is it that no matter what sickness you were born with or catch later on, you will be granted (almost) free health care? I would like to propose here a vision of development that is perhaps a little different from what we normally want to portray as international development workers; perhaps a shift in paradigm for most of us. It has come from many hours of thinking on long bus rides.

Here we go:

The first element of this new paradigm is separating symptoms from causes of development. I would argue that the fact that you have (the perception of) so many freedoms or opportunities is in fact a symptom of development. You yourself, are not developed, you just benefit from the fact that Canada as a society is developed. On the other hand, let’s take a poor Ghanaian farmer and call her Dorothy, she is not under developed but rather was born in a developing society. The point of this first argument is that in order to give individuals the symptoms of development, those (perceptions of) opportunities, it is really the societies that we need to develop, and not so much the individuals of that society. Human development or Societal development? Already, I hear some resistance in the audience. Please keep an open mind and continue reading.

The second element of this paradigm shift come from the study of what makes a society more or less developed. I would argue that the answer to this is productivity. It is the fact that Canadians on average are a whole lot more productive than Ghanaians on average, and that simple fact allows us Canadians these individual (perceptions of) opportunities that define the symptoms of development. There are different ways to measure the “average productivity” or “median productivity” of Canadians and one could get entangled in the details of saying that Saudi-Arabia as a society has a high productivity because of oil, but a low development. For the sake of this argumentation, I will keep comparing “typical” more and less developed countries and will leave the specific economic terminology out. I hope that doesn’t offend anyone. The idea is to look at the overall “production pie” of a country and see first if is the pie is big enough to cover everyone’s basic subsistence needs and second if the production of this pie is well distributed amongst the people of that country. These two processes actually happen simultaneously in most societies, although at first, there will and should be a stronger push on productivity increase above the subsistence level and then a the push on redistribution will become stronger. So when we reached productivity above subsistence, it was the choice of our developed society to provide (almost) free education and health care, something that we could only afford because of our high productivity. It seems that the chicken comes before the egg! So the point here is to emphasize that countries that have a productive middle class, one that produces above subsistence, are the only ones that will have sustainable access to these (perceptions of) opportunities.

The third element of this paradigm shift, now that we have identified what defines development, is looking at the benefits of development, those (perceptions of) opportunities we’ve been dreaming about since the beginning. I found it interesting to observe that most of our freedoms today are mostly aimed at sustaining and increasing the productivity of our society, and most of the our banned freedoms go in the opposite direction. Health, education and peace & order are all elements that increase the productivity of a society. If fact, our society took one very fundamental freedom away from the individuals: you need to be productive enough. It is simply because if everyone took that freedom, our developed society would collapse. In fact, if someone decided to do nothing, they would lose most of their freedom because living of welfare when you are diagnosed as “able to work” doesn’t yield very many opportunities. What I found even more interesting is that our society doesn’t even really allow to cultivate to subsistence let’s say 5-10 acres of land because our society would consider that such low productivity that we would be considered below the poverty line and on welfare. Please notice this is the activity 80% of Ghanaians depend on and we lost the freedom to do it! Finally, it is good to be reminded that our societies directly rewards high productivity with high opportunity: the more you make money, the more you have choices. It makes sense if productivity is what fuels our development… can we explain the collapse of communism in any other way?

The fourth element of the paradigm shift is looking at productivity itself. I am no economist (sister, help me here), but the idea of increased productivity yields in most heads the idea of over consumption, depletion of resources and unsustainability. I would argue against that, partly. To be productive as I have intended it since the beginning of this paper is simply to do an activity that adds value to the eyes of someone who is ready to pay for it. Heck, if someone is ready to pay good money for tree planting, then planting trees becomes a productive activity. The only problem today is that most people are ready to pay more for paper then for a forest… but that is something that we, as free individuals of a developed society, have the power to change. I would argue that the productive system is sustainable, but that a few rules need to change. This paradigm shift will need to reach the politics arena soon. Anyone interested in running?

The fifth and last element of this essay is to look at the one question in every development worker’s head: what are the causes of increased productivity. The answer is simple: investment. New money for tools, technology, education, new organizational systems, that will yield an increase in productivity and a return on the investment. It is what our societies developed with, and what China and India are developing with right now. It is what is not happening in Africa. It’s been said many times, if we are getting anywhere with the MDGs, it is not where aid is pouring, but where investments are made in billions. Where is or where would you put your spare money, in Canada or Africa? Answering this question by saying “I trust Canada a lot more then Africa for my money” is saying exactly what Africa lacks in the most: trust. “Une politique de la confiance” disait Min. Pettigrew.

So why do we keep doing international development work? I’ve just advocated the fact that aid doesn’t yield development, only investments do. Well the fact is still that if I leave my computer and take a bush taxi for 5 minutes outside of this regional capital in Northern Ghana, I will see people who are not eating enough, children in coffins and mothers that work in the fields with a baby on their back and intense malaria fever. This is happening right now and although our help may just feel as an unsustainable band-“aid” sometimes, it is saving lives today.

So with this paper, I call on people to think about our society and what opportunities we have and don’t have and why it is that way. I also call on us to think about what we are doing in Africa and how we are potentially missing a big piece of the equation and making people more dependant on our band-“aid” and in fact decreasing the already little trust level in Africa, hence scaring away investors that could uplift the productivity of the continent.

Maybe this thinking will have you agree with me; maybe it won’t, or maybe you will discard the thought because something good on TV just popped up, or because you need to be so productive! I am interested to hear from those who think it through and become convinced otherwise. (louisd@ewb.ca)

I remain an optimistic development worker,

-Louis

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terryman

Louis Dorval is a mechanical engineering graduate from McGill University. He is presently Director of West African Programs with Engineers Without Borders-Canada, a non-governmental organization whose mission is to promote human development through access to technology.

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