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Development should mean more than survival

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'Sustainable development' leaves the poor vulnerable to natural disasters.


17 January 2005


by Daniel Ben-Ami

The agencies involved in the Tsunami Earthquake Appeal have emphasised that they are concerned with more than emergency relief, and will also work on long-term development in the regions hit by the tsunami. But what they mean by longer term help is not immediately clear.

Brendan Gormley, the chief executive of the Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC), is quoted on the organisation's website as saying: 'This won't be a quick fix, the agencies are in it for the long haul.' (1) A press release reports that in addition to emergency relief, 'monies will also be used for longer term reconstruction and livelihoods programmes to help communities recover from the disaster' (2).

Elsewhere on the website there is some indication of what the organisations involved in the DEC are planning. In India, Oxfam is planning to provide pregnant women with multivitamins, folic acid and iron; train volunteers in hygiene promotion, safe water practices and hand-pump repair; and provide water sanitation equipment in camps in Kalachal and Kanniyakumari. In Indonesia, Save the Children is rolling out child protection work for unaccompanied children. Work by other constituent agencies is also detailed, including Cafod, Care, Christian Aid, Concern, Help the Aged, Merlin, the Red Cross, Tearfund and World Vision (3).

Providing the basics of life - clean drinking water, food and shelter - should clearly be the immediate priority in the wake of a disaster such as the Indian Ocean tsunami. The danger is that survival is confused with development. Ensuring survival makes sense as a short-term measure to cope with the sudden impact of unexpected events. In contrast, development should be about transforming poor countries into modern rich ones. Unfortunately the term 'development' is often used nowadays to simply mean alleviating the most extreme forms of poverty.

Even worse, transforming poor countries into rich ones is often seen as dangerous because of the harm it will allegedly do to future generations. In the view of the advocates of 'sustainable development', making the poor countries rich means damaging the environment, widening inequality, creating more unhappiness and undermining indigenous cultures (4). The consequence of such a negative view of development is to sustain poverty rather than eliminate it. If genuine development is seen as a threat then it makes sense to rule it off the agenda. Yet national governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and multilateral organisations such as the United Nations (UN) all endorse the idea of sustainable development.

Even in relation to disasters such as the tsunami, the dogma of sustainable development makes no sense. For it is incorrect to argue, as prime minister Tony Blair did in a recent press conference, that 'the tragedy of the Tsunami was through the force of nature. The tragedy of Africa is through the failure of man' (5). In fact, both tragedies are the result of a lack of development. If the Indian Ocean region had had an early warning system, combined with the infrastructure to take advantage of it, there should be no doubt that the casualties would have been far lower.

Figures compiled for a UN conference on disaster reduction between 18 and 22 January show that 95 per cent of the people killed in natural disasters since 1994 lived in middle- and low-income countries (6). Over the past two decades, countries classified as at a high level of human development represent 15 per cent of the exposed population but only 1.8 per cent of the deaths. In contrast, countries classified as at low human development - the poorest of the poor - had 11 per cent of the people exposed to natural hazards but 53 per cent of total recorded deaths (7). Rich countries have more resources to protect themselves against 'natural disasters' and are better able to handle them when they do happen.

No doubt governments and NGOs would counter that their first priority should be to get rid of the worst excesses of poverty. This is certainly the approach embodied in the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are supported by governments and NGOs (8). For instance, the first goal is to halve the number of people living on less than one dollar (54p) a day by 2015. But this goal involves some sleight of hand. Although the target was officially declared by the UN in 2000, the base date for the calculations is 1990 - so by 2015 the target is for the number of those living on less than a dollar a day to be half the 1990 figure. And even if the amount available to those who have risen above the threshold is only $1.01 a day, the target will have been met.

It is wrong to assume that extreme poverty can be separated from a country's overall development. The best way to eradicate poverty is to strive to transform undeveloped countries into developed ones. Such a process includes building roads, providing access to running water and proper sewerage, an electricity grid and a telephone network. All these are taken for granted in the developed world. Yet hundreds of millions of people in poorer countries do not have access to these basics of life.

Despite the desperate need for such fundamental amenities, they are often dismissed by many NGOs as 'unsustainable'. For instance, as Ceri Dingle of the educational charity Worldwrite has argued on spiked, NGOs tend to prefer primitive technology such as hand pumps rather than a modern water supply (9). Flushing toilets and power showers are evidently fine for the West but not 'appropriate' for those living in the third world.

In reality, the eradication of poverty is closely linked to overall development. As the World Bank itself has noted: 'Global trends in poverty reduction have been dominated by rapid growth in China and the East Asia and Pacific region.' (10). In other words, poverty has fallen in the areas of rapid economic growth rather than the regions in which governments and NGOs have been most active. No doubt there are problems in rapidly developing countries like China - such as growing social inequality - but these are arguments for taking development even further rather than stalling it. The challenge facing the poorest areas of the world, most notably Africa, is to develop a similar dynamic towards rapid growth as that in East Asia.

Even without the tsunami, 2005 would have seen a lot of talk about development - particularly in Britain where the government is using its presidency of the G8 group of rich countries and the European Union (EU) to push the issue. This week the UN will publish a study by the renowned development economist Jeffrey Sachs. In March, the report of Blair's Commission for Africa is due to be published; in July, Blair will chair a G8 meeting that is expected to focus on poverty reduction; in September the UN General Assembly will review progress towards meeting the MDGs (11). And the Make Poverty History campaign, which includes all but one member of the DEC, will ask people to wear a white band to show their support (12).

These initiatives should be carefully scrutinised, for they are informed by a survivalist notion of development. They separate the eradication of poverty from the broader development process. And with their hostility to large-scale development, they present economic growth - the only realistic way of eradicating poverty - as problematic. The real consequence of 'sustainable development' is to sustain poverty.

Those who truly believe in development should be guided by a simple maxim: Only what is good enough for us in the developed world will do for those in the developing world. We have access to cars, clean water, electricity, the internet, roads and telephones, and so should they. Everyone should enjoy the benefits of living in a modern industrialised economy.

This is the only realistic way to deal with the scourge of 'natural disasters' such as the tsunami, and other problems linked to economic scarcity. Life is about more than mere survival.


Daniel Ben-Ami is the author of Cowardly Capitalism: The Myth of the Global Financial Casino, John Wiley and Sons, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

Read on:

The dismal quackery of eco-economics, by Daniel Ben-Ami

How the world has turned the tsunami rubble into a pulpit, by Mick Hume

(1) Tsunami quake appeal hits £100million, Disasters Emergency Committee, January 2005

(2) Tsunami quake appeal hits £100million, Disasters Emergency Committee, January 2005

(3) Agency update as at 12 January 2005, Disasters Emergency Committee

(4) The dismal quackery of eco-economics, by Daniel Ben-Ami

(5) Prime minister's press conference, 6 January 2005

(6) World Conference on Disaster Reduction (.pdf 894 KB), United Nations, 18-22 January 2005

(7) Reducing Disaster Risk: A Challenge for Development (.pdf 3.87 MB), United Nations, 3 October 2004

(8) The MDGs are officially spelt out at Millennium Development Goals website. The Make Poverty History campaign, endorsed by nearly 100 NGOs and celebrities, explicitly supports these goals in its manifesto although it argues governments are not doing enough to ensure they are achieved - see MAKEPOVERTYHISTORY (.doc 172KB)

(9) On NGOs' preference for small-scale water projects rather than modern systems see Hand pumps are not good enough, by Ceri Dingle

(10) Understanding poverty, on the World Bank website

(11) Chronology mainly from 'Making poverty history', Economist, 18 December 2004

(12) See the MMAKEPOVERTYHISTORY website. The Red Cross is the exception. It should also be noted that Tony Blair has expressed public support for the campaign - see 'A year of huge challenges', Tony Blair, Economist, 1 January 2005

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Last modified 2005-01-19 05:04 AM

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