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Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark

Something is rotten in the state of "development" discourse

By Ha-Joon Chang | February 15, 2009

CREDIT: Rhys Davenport (CC).

INTRODUCTION

The definition of "development" has always been a contentious issue. Income level is of course one of the most widely accepted single measure of development, but most people would agree that development is something more than providing higher material standards of living.

The most well known in this respect is the UNDP's human development index (HDI) and its variations, which try to incorporate non-income dimensions of human welfare, such as education, health, and gender equality. HDI and similar measures of development (e.g., the physical quality of life index—a 1970s predecessor of HDI) are saying that our lives are not simply fulfilled by having more material goods but need self-realization and dignity. The humanistic dimension of development emphasized by these indicators is absolutely essential in making us remember that material progress is only the means and not the end of development.

However, there is another dimension that used to be central to the definition of development in the early days of development economics but has become increasingly forgotten. It is the production side of development.

Before the rise of neoliberalism since the late 1970s, there was a general consensus that development is largely about the transformation of the productive structure (and the capabilities that support it) and the resulting transformation of social structure—urbanization, dissolution of the traditional family, changes in gender relationships, rise of labour movement, the advent of the welfare state, and so on. This was mainly (although not exclusively) to be achieved through industrialization. Even though they radically disagreed on how exactly this was to be done, most commentators—ranging from Walt Rostow on the right and the Dependency Theorists on the left—shared the view that development is something centered around a process of transformation in the productive sphere.

The current concept of development lacks a vision for transformation in the productive structure of society.

Most of us still hold such view of development at the instinctive level. For example, most people would not classify some oil-rich countries … as developed. In refusing to classify these countries as developed, we are implicitly saying that achieving high income through resource bonanza is not development—the high income should be somehow earned. At the other extreme, following the Second World War, the German income level fell to that of Peru or Mexico, but few people would argue that Germany at that time should have been reclassified as a developing country, because we know that Germany still had the necessary technologies and organizational capabilities to regain its prewar level of living standards quickly.

These examples show that we are implicitly saying that in order to qualify as developed an economy's high income should be based on superior knowledge, embodied in technologies and institutions, rather than simple command over resources.

However, during the last quarter of a century, at the more formal level, development has come to mean something quite different from what it used to mean. As I shall show below, development has come to mean poverty reduction, provision of basic needs, individual betterment, sustenance of existing productive structure—that is, anything but development in the traditional sense. In other words, it has turned into Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark!

In this paper, I analyze the use of the term "development" in some of today's key development discourses—the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations, the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) of the WTO (World Trade Organization), and the discourse on microfinance. I will argue that these discourses have a view of development that lacks a vision of transformation in productive structure (and the development of social and technological capabilities that are both the causes and the consequences of such transformation). They are, consequently, unable to promote development, and can even be anti-developmental.

At most, today's mainstream view of development is that of an ersatz development, which relies upon uncoordinated individual initiatives. I will conclude the paper by arguing that a discourse on "new developmentalism" should be constructed by reviving the "productionist" concern of the old development economics, while paying greater attention to the issues of human development, politics, technological development, institutions, and the environment than was the case in the old days.

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Read More: Aid, Debt, Democracy, Development, Economy, Environment, Poverty, Technology, Trade, Global

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