Thursday, September 23, 2010

Myopic Thinking about Development

In the context of my recent citation of Friedrich Nietzsche on the hazardous matters of "great indebtedness," the news from the United Nations (UN) "poverty summit" has been pretty disconcerting. About the only thing I have concluded is that world leaders (or at least those participating in this gathering) either have absolutely no idea what to do with Muhammad Yunus or have decided to dismiss him as some sort of statistical outlier for his rejection of all prevailing market-driven models of "economic development." Furthermore, when I use the collective "world leaders," I fear that I have to include our own President in that group, although I found one sentence in the Al Jazeera report of his speech that made a bit more sense than the rest of the palaver:

Let's move beyond the old, narrow debate over how much money we're spending and let's instead focus on results – whether we're actually making improvements in people's lives.

There is a willing spirit behind this sentence, but I doubt that the flesh is giving it the consideration it deserves. One must begin by recognizing that the concept of "making improvements" is both subjective and social; and the usual trap of economic development is the assumption that the recipient agrees with the donor about what constitutes improvement. Ultimately, improvement is in the hands of those who seek it and in their efforts to achieve it. Yunus' Grameen model seems to be based on the premise that individuals can develop their own plans for bettering themselves, and all that is necessary is getting such a plan implemented.

To repeat from my riff on Nietzsche, there is no logical equivalence between the elimination of poverty and economic development. Indeed, to the contrary, we should think metaphorically of development as a building that needs to be erected on a foundation strong enough to support the resulting structure. That foundation amounts to a viable resource of capital, which is precisely what is lacking in conditions of poverty. The heart of the Grameen model is that small-scale loans provide the "concrete" (to continue the metaphor) with which such a foundation may be laid; to shift metaphors in midstream, those loans serve to prime the pump from which capital will flow.

The fundamental flaw behind the UN summit is that "prospering" countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and China, can say to impoverished countries, "We're successful! Be like us!" In light of prevailing questions about whether or not such countries are now recovering from the current economic crisis, why should impoverished countries respond to such an injunction by saying anything other than, "Say what?" What individual suffering poverty would take seriously any of the words spilled at this summit in the face of considering the deeds of institutions like the Grameen Bank?

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