Posts Tagged ‘development’


The American South as developing country

November 22, 2010

This past Saturday, GOOD put up a nifty infographic (that’s what they do) showing Human Development Index scores by U.S. state. “Does America Have ‘Developing States’?” is the headline, and the brief text asks whether we should think about West Virginia and Tennessee as “developing.”

This is not a new concept; in fact, in a development class I TA’ed for in 2001, the instructor used the question, “Is the American South effectively a developing country?” as an organizing principle for part of the class. (Keep in mind the instructor got his degree from a university in the American South, and all the students were also from the American South.) This isn’t just a glib question. Human Development Index scores are clearly lower in Southern states than elsewhere in the country, particularly the northeast and west. Furthermore, it could well be argued that through the history of the United States, the economic organization of the country has been set up in a kind of extractive developed/developing relationship, with the industrial (and protected) North exploiting labor and cheap primary products from the agricultural (and more free-trade) South.

I haven’t seen the argument taken much further than this, but I don’t have much doubt that it could be. It’s certainly a useful teaching tool and food for thought.

Flying Whale


Rephrasing my critique of Sen

October 27, 2010

My previous post was a bit stream-of-consciousness, and I think I have a more comprehensible version somewhere in my brain. In a nutshell: I think Sen is too individual-oriented. His theory has no room for the fact that individual freedoms do not exist in a vacuum: they often conflict with each other. Given the nature of resource and power inequality in our world, if we were to try to magically give everyone freedom of self-determination, those with more resources and power would quickly infringe of the freedoms of those with less.

Or, to borrow an idea from a classmate, Sen seems to view freedom as a sort of public good, non-rivalrous and non-excludable. But any structural or power analysis would lead to the conclusion that freedom acts more like a private good: consumption of the good does reduce its availability for others. To believe otherwise would indicate either an extraordinarily optimistic view of human nature or a complete blindness to systems and structures.

Why does this matter in practice? Because changing what we measure from income to freedoms (or, to put it into indicator-ese, from GDP to HDI [for example]) isn’t enough. It’s a step in the right direction. But the world of development indicators and development practice needs an additional level of analysis, one that considers unequal power relationships and offers methods for mitigating or minimizing them.

Flying Whale


What’s missing from Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach

October 19, 2010

I first read Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom in undergrad 8 years ago or so. I thought it was brilliant, and I was never presented with any coherent critiques of Sen’s “capabilities approach”: that we should be looking at various kinds of freedom (not just political freedom and civil rights, but also freedom to make an adequate living, freedom to avoid premature death, etc), not just economic measures, as indicators for development. On its own, Development as Freedom is a cogent and well-argued plea for a more inclusive approach to development.

Rereading parts of it now, I can see what the critiques are (and a quick Google search of the literature largely confirmed my suspicions). I still think that Sen’s sophisticated reframing of the means and ends of development to focus on a vast array of human freedoms is incredibly useful. In his book, Sen doesn’t really provide any framework for action, but I do think that his redefinition what it is we should be measuring is a significant step forward. The capabilities approach seems much more holistic and humane than any traditional approach based solely on economic indicators.

That said, the step Sen doesn’t take is as important as the one he does. Sen offers no critique of the systems that have resulted in the unfreedoms he makes such a passionate case for fixing. In emphasizing individual agency and capabilities as the necessary unit of change, he seems to leave out any analysis of the structures that have caused underdevelopment and unfreedom. How are we to give people the freedoms they deserve without looking first at the systems, structures and institutions that perpetuate their unfreedom?

This is not to minimize the magnitude of Sen’s contribution to development thought – but I do think that it is necessary to expand the capabilities approach such that it does not merely look at agency in a vacuum, but also addresses larger macro-level concerns.


The demonization of agricultural subsidies

October 13, 2010

I am currently in a development class in which it has become very fashionable to bash rich-country agricultural subsidies as a major cause of developing-country poverty. While I don’t think this anger is misplaced, I do think there is some unacknowledged complexity here, and that simply getting rid of all rich-country subsidies is a dangerous thing to wish for. Today I spoke up to briefly highlight that I don’t think we should be saying all rich-country subsidies should be completely eliminated. It was not a popular thing to say. I wrote a follow-up to clarify my point and I thought it might be instructive to cross-post it here. So, here goes:

I wanted to clarify what I said about agricultural subsidies today, which was perhaps a bit too controversial to present in a 15-second soundbite at the end of class. I was not in any way trying to defend U.S. ag subsidies as they exist today, nor the U.S. farm lobby, nor the various methods the North has used to keep the global South from implementing their own subsidies or tariffs. We tend to demonize subsidies, but I don’t think the problem is that they are inherently bad, but instead that they’ve been implemented poorly, in ways that are hugely harmful. Even worse, the global North has prevented the global South from using many of these kinds of subsidies. But implemented properly, subsidies can and should be useful policy tools – just like tariffs and industrial policy.

I think the extended argument about just how subsidies should be used (which I was foolishly trying to make in two sentences earlier today) is summed up best in this paper: Rethinking U.S. Agricultural Policy: Changing Course to Secure Farmer Livelihoods Worldwide. The basic problem statement here is that low ag commodity prices are currently benefiting agribusiness but hurting farmers everywhere. U.S. direct-payment subsidies are an attempt to make up for these depressed prices (a misguided and harmful attempt, since they are a reinforcing mechanism that keeps prices artificially low), but the global South either cannot afford such subsidies or are inhibited from implementing them. So low ag prices are trouble for farmers in the North but a matter of life and death for those in the South.

But the solution isn’t to get rid of all ag subsidies in the North – this is a fundamentally free-market approach that will not actually significantly increase prices, because many agricultural commodities don’t respond to market signals in a traditional way. (Farmers don’t quickly respond to a drop in price by producing less; instead, they often produce more to try to make up for lost income.) By this logic, getting rid of subsidies wouldn’t help those in the South, it would seriously hurt those in the North, and it would turn the entire ag sector over to the mercy of free-market forces, which we know don’t work particularly well for either the global South or for farmers anywhere. The paper goes on to outline alternative subsidy programs (not direct payments to farmers) which would manage production and return ag prices to a more reasonable level.

I’d encourage anyone interested in the issue to take a look at that paper, which is pretty unique in that it not only provides a diagnosis of the problem but also gives concrete policy recommendations. It’s been a major force in shaping how progressive activists think about agricultural trade in the neoliberal era.


Paul Collier, fair trade, and useful idiots

October 5, 2010

I just (finally) read Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion, which was… interesting. I liked his analysis of “traps” that the LDCs (to use the WTO’s parlance for Collier’s “bottom billion” countries) face – the natural resource trap, which is Collier’s slightly retooled version of the resource curse, the trap of being landlocked, the trap of falling into a cycle of civil wars or military coups, and the trap of corruption and bad governance in a small country. I even found his hyper-interventionist philosophy pretty good food for thought.

He’s got a paragraph on the problem with the fair-trade commodity movement that I think is pretty great, and clearly written:

The price premium in fair trade products is a form of charitable transfer… the problem with it… is that it encourages recipients to stay doing what they are doing – producing coffee. A key economic problem for the bottom billion is that producers have not diversified out of a narrow range of primary commodities… They get charity as long as they stay producing the crops that have locked them into poverty.

In other words, fair trade commodities are better than non-fair trade commodities, but it’s not a systemic solution. Fair trade is a stopgap, and one that might actually make it more difficult in the long-run to get where we want to go.

So there’s that, which I appreciated. But then, when Collier gets to talking about trade and investment policy, he gets all sad-eyed that the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) fell through, and misty-eyed about the benefits of trade liberalization. He also starts sounding like The Economist circa 2000, writing off anyone who thinks the neoliberal trade model is problematic as simpletons who just don’t understand trade policy. What’s weird is that this seems a bit self-contradictory. Collier readily admits, as we saw above, that diversification of a country’s economy, particularly into manufacturing, is necessary for economic growth. He even admits that the bottom billion countries probably need trade protections from Asia in order to achieve this goal, conceding the point that free trade means that the poorest countries are unable to create viable domestic industries.

Then, he says things like “Today’s useful idiots campaign for trade barriers,” and that anyone opposed to trade liberalization must be a “confused Christian, infiltrating Marxist, or [cynical] corporate marketing executive.” Apparently, in Collier’s world, there are no sentient economists (or activists, or NGOs, or policymakers) that believe infant-industry protection is a reasonable policy tool. Except perhaps when he advocates for it himself?

Flying Whale