Development: For whom and why?

Over the last two weeks, I have had a few interesting discussions on ‘development,’ both in the context of local community development and international development. One can see conflation of security discourses, humanitarian and related concerns in each of these debates.  The dominant narrative about ‘development,’ in the context of Asia and Africa seems to also stem from the need to ‘contain’ problems arising from lack of development. People are violent, anti-government etc. because they are poor, the theory goes. Only if we give them ‘goods,’ or wealth will they behave better, seems to be the governing logic. But is this true? Is poverty and lack of development really causing the ‘chaos’ that we see around us. Or is it ignorance, lack of dialogue or wrong geo-strategic decisions, by the powers that are involved – including the local actors?

While it is easy to brand someone we don’t agree with as ‘anti-national’ or ‘against our interest,’  I suggest that we must pay particular attention to the power dynamics involved on who gets to legitimize what sort of ‘development,’ a country needs and how it will be carried out. In the absence of this awareness, we may be led into arguments that are faulty at best.

Photo courtesy :
Photo courtesy :

A recent example of ‘anti-development’ rhetoric being used as a platform to shut down a civil society organization is the case of Green Peace in India. While the specifics of the case can be found here and here, the point at stake is the vision of what sort of ‘development,’ does the government of India want. While it is the right of every Indian to know and question the policies being formulated, it is a deeply anti-democratic measure to shut down a reputed NGO just because the government disagrees with its position. By this account, most (if not all) media outlets in India should be shut down, as they regularly print articles that are critical of the government. In fact, it is the job of civil society and media to hold elected officials accountable. This very crux of a pluralist democracy – which India is – by all means. Democratic pluralism demands that dissenting views be heard, incorporated in the planning processes. To want the goods of globalization and not want the criticism that comes from it, both from local and global organizations is not exactly an ‘open’ way to do business.

The context of international development also brings up questions of how ‘development’ is defined. Who are we ‘developing’ and why? What is at stake? Who gains and who loses and also, fundamentally; development at what cost?  These are some questions that need to be asked, suggests Bent Flyvbjerg (2001) speaking of the role of social scientists, in uncovering and understanding human action in a social context.

A recent conversation I was part of, involved an expert, who spoke of ‘fixing Africa,’ with his technical expertise. While to a trained social scientist / development expert, this may sound like the worst nightmare come true; in his mind, this idea of ‘fixing Africa’ was as natural as having one’s breakfast – you just do it because you can – there was absolutely no consciousness of the power dynamics involved, with the ‘American’ expert and the ‘poor, African,’ at the receiving end. The politics of what I just have pointed out notwithstanding, there are real power differentials here that need to be acknowledged. This often means that the ‘best solution,’ for the African context may end up not being what they actually need, but perhaps what the American or European (or Chinese) may think they need.  This is one big problem in the discourse of development. The one with the dollars often get to decide how the discourse of development is shaped.

Similar critiques of development have come from other scholars. Arturo Escobar (1995) places the discussion of development in his book Encountering Development, this in the context of the ‘Truman doctrine’ of the late 1940s and early 50s.  The ‘discovery’ of poverty and ‘lack’ of material goods in Africa and Asia was made then, which completely ignored the way that the natives understood community, frugality, he further points out. He argues that it is with the massive onslaught of marketization that led to the pauperization of people and eventual creation of massive levels of poverty.

This idea of ‘developing’ the world by infusing capital, industrializing the poorer countries and measuring their progress by the standards became the standard operating procedure, he argues. This ‘Orientalism, Africanism and Developmentalism,’ continues, unabated and relies mainly on the standards, metrics and systems devised as part of the discourse of creating a representation of the ‘underdeveloped’. At stake are issues of representation, autonomy of those who are at the receiving end of this development. (Escobar, 1995; Mitchell, 1988). While the critique of development that Escobar offers is valid in the context of the discourses of development, what it ignores are the local, indigenous formulations of how this development impacts the receivers of ‘aid.’

Flyvbjerg (1998) argues in his book Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice that we must pay special attention to power dynamics in the ‘rational’ planning processes. What passes for ‘scientific’ and ‘expert’ knowledge can often be deeply dogmatic and convoluted, that reinforces certain ideological ideas. This aspect of focusing on power dynamics, relations of how the parties being ‘developed’ and those doing the ‘development,’ need to be kept in mind simply because without this awareness; we cannot have a mature and critical look at ‘who gains and who loses.’  Intended development projects may end up causing more harm, than actual benefit.

So, are International NGOs working against India’s interest when they try to stop a mining project, or do all Western ‘experts,’ have Africa’s best interest , when they plan projects in Africa? I don’t think the answer to this is straight-forward. While donor relations normally dictate what gets done in a target country, I suggest, following scholars such as Escobar and others, which we need to radically re-think development. Asking some basic questions such as the ones outlined above may be a good start.

Critical questioning and thinking are the bedrocks of any democratic order, and I would argue that media, civil society organizations and active citizenry should be the ones ensuring that this function takes place, on a regular basis. In the absence of this, we would end up with massive levels of propaganda posing as actual knowledge, with media becoming the mouth-piece of those in power – both politically and other wise- and a plutocracy that serves only those in power.

Singapore, Dubai and the limits of Freedom?

ON March 23rd, the founder of modern day Singapore – Lee Kuan Yew died – and with him, an era of change and reform in Singapore passed. While the man is remembered for ‘building’ Singapore, he is also known as the man who brought into sharp focus the idea of ‘tradition’ and ‘Asian values’. The discourse of Liberal Democracy got its strongest challenge from him, in South East Asia. Even his arch enemies acknowledge that he did well, both for himself and for his country. By imposing order, discipline and a level of authoritarianism; he brought the country prosperity and recognition. But the question really, in my mind is, what does LKY represent. Does he represent the possibilities of a repressive regime, or the

limits of democracy?LKY

Most people who live in democracies take them for granted. I grew up in the world’s largest democracy, India, and not until I moved to live in Dubai, UAE in 2008 did I begin to appreciate the value of what it is to live in one. For the first few months, all I could see was the dazzle and glitter of Dubai. Remember, it was 2008, Dubai at its best. The real estate market was still booming – though there were signs of slowdown in the U.S.- this had not hit the Middle East market yet. Life was good. People talked about buying apartments, moving to new jobs, taking vacations in Bali. In casual conversations with taxi drivers, they would tell me things like ‘The King cares about the country. What if he rules forever? The corrupt politicians back home (India, Pakistan or Bangladesh) care about their own good and not the country’. This was repeated time and again.

While media and intellectuals in the West talk about the greatness of liberal democracies, they also often do not mention that in most countries, including the U.S. – considered the oldest democracy in the world – it is still an experiment of sorts. In many cases, it works, but there are also egregious cases of violations of the very spirit of democracy. Consider the idea that powerful groups of people or institutions controlling all the decisions being made in a country, as in the case of interest groups lobbying for their interests and the notion of ‘common good’ being relegated to the backburners. What sort of a democracy would that be? We see this exact phenomenon occurring in the U.S. and other advanced democracies. While in the developing and emerging democracies, corruption is an issue; the same problem manifests itself when we speak of interest groups and oligarchies. Concentration of power, nepotism and lack of transparency are endemic issues that every society has to deal with. Just having a form of government that promises it is not sufficient. Anyone who has worked in or with a bureaucracy closely will testify to this phenomenon.

Do Singapore and Dubai offer a high standard of living? Yes, for many of those who choose live there. If you are educated, middle-class and of a certain disposition. But if one is not so educated, is a laborer or a low-income earner, then Dubai and the Gulf can be living hell. The visa sponsorship system, combined with the potential to abuse power is rather high in such societies that place ethnic loyalty over other norms. These societies are in that sense ‘illiberal democracies’ as Fareed Zakaria called them. There are local elections to the Federal National Council in the UAE, but who gets to run and who decides that is extremely restricted. Zakaria argues that countries that have elections, yet have a lot of restrictions, that go against the spirit of democracy are not helpful in maintaining ‘order’, as eventually they give rise to dissent and chaos. They offer us the illusion of freedom, but in a restricted way. Saying the wrong thing, acting in the wrong way and expressing oneself in a certain way or going against the ruling elite can cause one to lose one’s job or even worse. This is the price one pays for the comfort of living in these societies.

This brings us back to the point: Do societies such as Singapore and Dubai (which is modelled after Singapore, as a city-state) offer ‘freedom’?. Is choice defined in terms of economic liberty and freedom; in terms of being able to live lavishly and in comfort. What about those who cannot afford this? Or is a society about the greater common good – if one even believes in such a thing- these are questions that one has to grapple with, when analyzing the role of society and form of government, that one seeks to build.

Religious Freedom laws in the U.S. : Freedoms used to justify discrimination?

I taught my students about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a law that is being used to pass similar laws in various states in the U.S. The most controversial case involves  a similar law in Indiana. The contours of the case point to the idea that private businesses can discriminate against LGBT couples. But the ramifications of the case extend to other groups, point out civil rights activists. I spoke to my students about the origins of the freedom of religion provision, starting with the first amendment. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These words have been interpreted variously and are being fought over. The meanings and interpretation of these words are being debated, both by the socially conservative and the

liberals.rel free

While cases such as the Hobby Lobby are egregious examples of what can occur when large corporations work to deny healthcare to their employees, there are smaller instances of abuses of rights – in terms of daily indignities or insults that LGBT folk may have to put up with. And this brings us to the spirit of why these laws can actually hurt the minorities – not just LGBT, but potentially Blacks, Muslims, Jews and anyone who doesn’t look like a person who could fit in, and with whom the business doesn’t want to ‘do business’. The Atlantic has a powerful piece on this story that is developing, as we speak. The author of this piece points out two main issues with this law in Indiana. He says “First, the Indiana law explicitly allows any for-profit business to assert a right to “the free exercise of religion.” The federal RFRA doesn’t contain such language, and neither does any of the state RFRAs except South Carolina’s; in fact, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, explicitly exclude for-profit businesses from the protection of their RFRAs.” This clearly seems to be a case of interest groups lobbying to introduce provisions in laws that are intended to create an impact / make some noise, in particular, since many states are legalizing gay marriage.

So, is ‘Freedom’ an American virtue? If one would look closely at how the founding farmers came to the conclusion that there must be no established religion, one would conclude that freedom was constructed as an ideal that had to be held. While it is framed as an absolute ‘American virtue’, it is part and parcel of the American exceptional narrative – not bad or evil in itself – but it can certainly have certain implications, if taken to extremes. As my colleague pointed out to me, after the class, the very people who are fighting for the freedom of religious rights in Indiana are the ones who are creating a scare about Shariah law – and telling Muslims they cannot use their laws in American courts – if this is not hypocrisy, then I don’t know what is.

While teaching my students about freedom of religion in America today, I realized that i’ve (accidentally) become an Americanist. It is surprising that I can teach a few courses on American politics/ administration, but not a single one on South Asia/ India. Not sure if I should be proud of that! While I may have become an accidental Americanist, I do appreciate the insights I am gaining, both in teaching ideas to my students, and in delving into issues that are shaping contemporary America. The biggest challenge in analyzing many of the issues of contempory America stem from not parsing out the intended consequences and the narrative around issues. The narrative of freedom is used to create un-freedoms for some. This is a factor of American public life that is often lost sight of. Only by being vigilant and responsive to challenges such as these can we all ensure that the spirit of the American constitution remains alive.