Zero Sum Development


It’s a weird paradox of academia that sometimes you are too busy studying something to actually spend any time learning about it.  One of the joys of having a six week break from my Development Studies program has been that I’ve had a little time to actually think about development. The result is this bit of inchoate and incoherent theorizing that has been stewing in my brain for the past half-year.  This is long, but since I don’t feel like writing a proper term paper (or maybe it’s dissertation?), this is not nearly long enough to full tease out or justify my ideas.  Read at your peril – on reflection, it’s really drivel.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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While I was in Barcelona, I finally got around to reading Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky, which was easily one of the biggest popular books on development published in the last year (admittedly, a low bar).  Kristof’s columns in the New York Time get bashed a lot for over-simplifying complex issues, but I found the book to be surprisingly nuanced and even-handed.  That said, the main theme of Half the Sky can be summed up pretty succinctly: women are good.  Kristoff and WuDunn’s central message is that the key to defeating global poverty lies in empowering women, particularly through micro-finance and education.

Here’s the thing, though: to those of us in the academic development studies community, women are so five years ago.  Empowering women was an exciting idea in the ‘90s, but since then, the academy’s enthusiasm for development centered on women has ebbed.  It has already been shown that micro-lending creates huge inequalities within low-income communities, that high repayment rates are often only sustained through recourse to traditional (and usurious) village lenders, and that micro-finance, for whatever reason, doesn’t seem to work nearly as well in Africa as in South Asia.  (Even the New York Times jumped on the microfinance-critique bandwagon a week or two ago).

As for education… well, here’s an anecdote: when a speaker came to our department and claimed that increasing levels of education were going to drastically reduce global poverty, my micro-economics professor hung his head off his desk and started muttering to himself, “This is all wrong.  It’s all wrong.”  I can speak from my own experience in Uganda to say that our traditional metrics of providing education—putting more children’s butts in chairs for more years—does not translate into success in places were economic opportunity is non-existent.  There were no shortage of masters degrees in Uganda, and yet still people with masters degrees were desperate to be paid $5 a day to read surveys.

One of the biggest critiques of the popular development community’s newfound enthusiasm for women, though, is also the most obvious: empowering women often means disempowering men.  Many of the abuses documented in Half the Sky—forced marriages, domestic violence, prostitution, female infanticide—involve males exercising control over female bodies and female lives.  It’s practically inevitable, then, that rectifying these abuses requires taking away privileges that men, on some level, have previously enjoyed.  And while in developing countries these fathers, brothers, and sons might be patriarchs with respect to women, they are often otherwise politically, socially, and economically marginalized, so it seems counterproductive to make things worse for them.

The goal of development, in its most simplified and idealized form, has always been to make everyone better off.  Women-centric development strategies fail in this respect, because these strategies often have clear winners and losers.  They are, in short, zero sum, a label that might as well be the kiss of death in the development world.

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I was struck a few months ago by a column written by Paul Krugman, in which he bluntly stated that China’s monstrous economic growth has been inextricably bound up with rising unemployment in the U.S.  His argument was persuasive, but disconcerting: China—perhaps the greatest success story of poverty reduction in modern history—has done well by creating poverty in specific sectors of the U.S., particularly inner cities and manufacturing centers like Detroit.  And it got me wondering—can there be such a thing as positive-sum development?

Thirty years ago, “development” was defined as “economic growth.”  Since the possibilities for economic growth seemed limitless, so too did the possibilities for development.  As long as development is equivalent to GDP, then it seems like we needn’t rob Peter to develop Paul—ecological constraints aside, there is seemingly limitless potential for technological advancement and greater productivity.  By all account, even most people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to more material crap than the average American did a century ago.  All in all, a growth-centered definition of development is an optimistic one.

At some point in time, though, we realized that development was not, in fact, captured by GDP.  Instead, as economists like Amartya Sen points out, “development” entails a broad array of individual capabilities and freedoms: access to knowledge, freedom of cultural expression, control over one’s workplace, a voice in government affairs, etc.  To get rid of jargon, development is, in actuality, power over ones own life.

As soon as we adopt this definition of development, though, it seems to me inevitable that we have to accept that development is inevitably going to be zero sum.  If a woman in the developing world is given access to family planning and gets to decide when (or if) to have kids, then by definition someone else—often a father or husband—isn’t.  The same applies for almost any dimension or scale.  Peasants and workers can only have control over their economic situation when employers, elites, and western consumers give up cheap labor and the right to dictate working conditions.  And third world countries are only truly sovereign when international financial institutions give up their prerogative to dictate their economic policy or Western countries stop treating them like military playgrounds.  What I’ve realized in the last six months is that helping people is really, really hard, because development is—by definition—simply not a game that everyone can win.

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I suppose these ideas could come off as incredibly pessimistic (or maybe just banal and obvious?), but I don’t quite see it that way.  People can be simultaneously empowered and disempowered in various spheres of their life.  The third-world men who are the villains in Kristof’s narratives, for example, many very well deserve to lose much of their power over their household.  At the same time, though, we should acknowledge that at the root of their violence towards women is their profound economic and political disenfranchisement, which deserves redress in its own right.

This, of course, is all very abstract, and says nothing about how development actually happens. I do think, though, that there is something valuable about accepting that development inevitably has both winners and losers.  Rather than perpetually wringing our hands, we should accept this, figure out who we want to help and harm, and move on.  And before we talk about all the privileges we’re going to grant those desperate, needy people in the Third World, we should first look inward and think about the privileges we are willing to give up to make it happen.


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