Friday, May 03, 2013

A thought about development

Decades ago I completed my PhD classwork and left to do a thesis on the application of quantitative methods to health planning. The thesis work was accomplished in South America while I was a member of a WHO health planning research project.

My thesis plan had to be approved by the faculty and I met with a faculty committee who questioned me about the morality of my proposed work. I told them that I felt the application of knowledge and planning to help reduce disease, disability and death was moral per se, and that it was so regarded both in my own culture and in that in which I would be working. I still believe that.

I have come more to appreciate the questioning of the faculty, which I only dimly recognized then. Many people have made decisions on development that we must assume they believed to be moral, but which seem doubtful in the extreme today. I recall my early experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer when I got involved in a project which was supposed to obtain housing loans from the USA for people who had lost their homes in an earthquake; the loans never came through, but we wasted a lot of time and some money for the people we thought we were helping. Another PCV got a community to build a mountain of mud bricks to be used in building their homes; when their financing didn't come through the bricks were left to weather into a hill of mud.

The field of international development is littered with similar and worse examples of well meaning "foreign experts" who caused damage. I recall the British administrators in Sri Lanka who forced the locals to abandon their system to manage irrigation, resulting in a social disaster, or the Javanese who forced the Balinese to abandon their system for allocation of irrigation water resulting in insect problems that devastated rice yields. There are many, many more examples.

Even Hitler would seem to have believed that the Nazi program of war and mass executions was good for Germany. Some in the United States in the 19th century seemed to have actually believed that the institution of slavery was actually good for the slaves, others that the removal of the Indians from the lands that their ancestors had long occupied to the west was good for those forced on the "Trail of Tears". More recently President Johnson seems to have felt that sending troops and weapons to aid the South Vietnamese government was good for the people of Vietnam; President Bush seems to have believed that invading Iraq would bring democracy to its people.

Perhaps the lesson is that some modesty is needed for those who propose to promote "development". People smarter than I have made very bad decisions in the past.

I suppose one key issue is how to balance physical welfare with moral growth. Pope Francis is a man who took an oath of poverty and who has taken the name of St. Francis, a man of great spiritual relevance. His selection to lead the Roman Catholic Church would seem to be an affirmation of the priority of the spiritual in our time. On the other hand, the United Nations have emphasized the reduction of the worst aspects of poverty in the Millennium Development Goals, and are likely to continue that emphasis on physical welfare in a renewal of goals in 2015.

I suspect that nations will have problems attaining their physical welfare objectives without the emergence of leaders of great moral authority. Those leaders themselves may have feet of clay. George Washington was a slave owner and owner of large tracts of land taken from native Americans, but he devoted years to leading a ragtag army to liberate his land, and more to establishing the presidency of the nation. 

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