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Monday, November 07, 2005

Development and the Myth of Progress (SPECIAL GUEST DISCUSSION)

Since Hegel, Western European writers and leaders have been pushing the idea of progress, putting darkness, savagery, the past, and societies outside of Western civilization on one end of the spectrum, and light, consciousness, technology, the future, and the modern Western world at the other end. Of all the civilizations and cultures that once lay beyond the dominion (and ken) of Western civilization, those located in Africa have been portrayed as the furthest back on the dark end of the continuum. Hegel wrote, “Africa proper, as far as History goes back, has remained-for all purposes of connection with the rest of the World-shut up; it is the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night.” Despite the incredible ignorance and falsity of this embarrassing pronouncement, it still echoes in the minds of people of all colours around the world.(more in expanded post)

Today, we divide the world into “developed” and “developing” regions, with virtually all of Africa (and most other places where the descendents of Western Europeans are a minority) falling into the latter category. The implication being that these regions of the world are or should be trying to become like the “developed” world. It seems as though the spectrum of progress hasn’t changed much since the days of Hegel and colonization. Back in that day there were missionaries and colonial administrators and educators pushing Christianity, the backwardness of non-Western societies, and the bright future of European civilization, technology, and culture. One of the stated goals of the French colonial policy in Africa was cultural assimilation-to better the primitive Africans by transforming them into little dark Frenchmen and women. Now there are Western-educated aid workers, politicians, professors, and organizers pushing the materialist religions of free-market capitalism and Marxism (both ideological descendents of Hegel’s philosophy), the backwardness of non-Western societies, and the bright future of modern technology and the American way of life. One of the unstated goals of globalization seems to be the cultural assimilation of poor Africans into the American middle-class culture of consumption. Unfortunately, this “new” spectrum of progress seems to have become almost universally accepted on both sides of the have/have-not divide.

While I enjoy my super-sized fries and time-saving appliances as much as the next American, I also recognize that the United States is far from being the exemplary society to which all others should aspire. Many Americans still struggle to make ends meet, and we have the largest per capita prison population of any nation in the world. People of colour are over-represented in both of these groups. The Americans who do “make it” often find that their material success doesn’t translate into happiness or even contentment. Most Americans are unhealthily overweight, which is symbolic of the fact that although we make up 5% of the world’s population, we consume 30% of its resources. It’s simply not possible or prudent for the “developing” world to copy the American way of life—the world simply doesn’t have enough gasoline, plastic wrap, or Prozac.

There is no linear trajectory of development, with Africa on one end and the United States on the other. This illusion of progress and American superiority has been maintained by rewriting history to make the past look worse than the present, and associating present-day non-American societies with this dark past. All of us well-intentioned people who live, work, or go to school in the so-called “developed” world need to be very careful to avoid this kind of thinking if we want to “help” those on the African end of the continuum. We’ve all been somewhat indoctrinated with Hegel’s imperialist delusion, which is fast becoming a very real nightmare for the postcolonial poor. But we can only really help the poor and destitute of the world after we’ve rid ourselves of the ideology that makes them destitute and poor.

Every society has its own dynamic history of progress or regress that must be considered on its own terms. Living on less than a dollar a day isn’t so bad if your cost of living is much lower or you’re living in a place where dollars don’t mean that much. There are several “primitive” societies in India and Western and Southern Africa that have achieved infant mortality and life expectancy rates comparable to the United States, and residents of many so-called “developing” nations such as Nigeria consistently score higher on polls of happiness, contentedness, and optimism than citizens of the US, Canada, and even the Scandanavian socialist wonderlands.

It’s no accident that many Americans have turned to Buddhist meditation, African dance classes, yoga, and soul-searching service-vacations in Latin America. Perhaps without realizing it, they’re turning Hegel’s continuum on its head, suggesting that the “developed” world, in some ways, should be progressing towards the Third World.


At 12:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! And an important topic, the philosophical roots of our meta-narratives. What does Cornel say about Hegel, by the way?

On one level I'm not sure I'm buying it: the past was indeed bad. Worse than the present.

But the present is bad, and in many places it's VERY bad (though not worse than, say, a Cossack-oppressed village). One of the points of Katrina was that many of those places of human degradation are here. And yes, what we call 'primitive' isn't necessarily worse (cf. top-of-the-line prison technology, not helping rehabilitate people s'much).

But you don't have to say that the past was good in order to say that some parts of the world now are getting a bad rap. The point, after all, is to reject the metaphor of 'progress' entirely, and affirm that 'developing' regions are not just works in progress -- and ultimately to set up a different macro-narrative. To replace Hegel? I propose Martin Buber, but that's hare-brained. Kierkegaard even more so. So how about Cornel himself? ("Too ecLECtic," he calls himself.)

More hay should be made of Katrina. Katrina showed that our veneer of development has graininess under the surface, in a big way, and I don't mean 'amber waves of.' Also, Katrina showed that global warming has consequences -- even if Katrina wasn't magnified by man-made climate change, such change in the future is extremely likely to do such magnification. And big hurricanes are bad.

Incidentally, I was just reading about how Al Gore proposed a global tsunami warning system that died in the Republican Congress. Might have saved oh, forty thousand or so lives last December. Thirteen 9/11s not prevented.

But I digress.

Great post by O. Beautiful for spacious skies, O. O, say, can you see?

Good start to the week.


At 8:19 PM, Anonymous Guess Who said...

A small country that would rank low on the "progress" paradigm that you have eloquently critiqued, has challenged the measurement of progress through economic growth and has decided to measure societal wellbeing in terms of happiness. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this article...


At 1:24 AM, Anonymous rob said...

isn't a large part of the problem of "development" the fact that we (westerners) handicapped the process post ww2? seriously, what were we thinking when we drew the borders of some of the sub-saharan african countries? sudan wouldn't be such a mess if we'd separated it from the beginning.

i do believe there is a basic measurement of progress. things such as women being treated as people and not as objects, minorities being protected, rule of law (where there is recourse to an authority to separate good from evil), educational access, medicine, clean water, food, and freedom to worship. and such things can be brought about quicker with help from people who really do want to, instead of using it as a guise for ulterior motives. =) hence the work of real christian missionaries is particularly amazing in the fruit it has bourne over the years.

i am thankful that large parts of the "developing" world are christian. that south america and sub-saharan africa have the foundations of church to rebuild communities and find progress through them, in their own terms. christianizing a people and westernizing are hopefully understood now as separate things. the former being an avenue for the indigenous people of any land to rediscover a fractured identity healed.

At 1:37 PM, Blogger O said...

what you say disturbs me. Please read my post again. My point was not (as some think) primarily about ulterior motives, but rather pointing out that "the West's" notions about what is "better" for us dark peoples, is to become like them (as you point out):

to stop treating our women like objects ("the West" is really not the best example to follow for that one)

rule of law (as if dark people had no laws before missionaires and colonial administrators gave them racist ones)

Yes tha national boundaries of Africa were terribly drawn, but I think you missed the point. The point is that your notion of development is inconsistent and wrong, and not necessarily something you want to share with the rest of the world. I'm questioning whether or not "development" (as commonly conceived) is necessarily a good thing.

At 3:50 PM, Blogger Isaias Chaves said...

I think I side with Damini on this one. The importance of national boundaries in Africa is somewhat overstated. The usual causal mechanism that relates badly drawn boundaries to bad ecnomic outcomes is that (in the lingo) the state is overextended. European nations, the argument goes, had to fight each other for their turf, so they developed into good states by some sort of darwinian process of selection.

But that is BS. LAtin Amreican national boundaries are equally arbitrary, only less geometrical. And if you want an example of a ridiculously over-extended country that doesn't break up into civil war, jsut think of Brazil. MOreover, some of the most f-d up countries in Africa are the most homogenous (i.e., where boundaries were drawn in best accordance to "indigenous divisions") Rwanda was over 90% Hutu. Other much more ethnically diverse countries have been far more stable

At 10:01 PM, Anonymous rob said...

hey o,

i didn't misunderstand what you wrote. i just didn't agree with it. looking at the debate between you an isaias, i preferred not to go into it as in depth as you guys have.

i hope you were only disturbed because you had thought i had somehow come to my previous points from what you wrote. nope, i'm not blind and deaf that i read one thing and interpret another. i used to think more along your lines until i just couldn't negate the fact that missionaries do good work. the clothe, feed, help people.

and finally, let's be a little more honest in our arguments. sure the united states isn't perfect. but in terms of rule of law, how women are treated, how minorities are treates (as say compared to France), we are doing a better job. more people in this country can lead that single family home, two cars, chicken in the pot type life than anywhere else in the world. is that such a bad thing? is it such a bad thing that so many east asian countries saw this, envied it, and did their best to achieve it?

where else but in america can you have the top institution of education accept so many minorities and give them such a great opportunity? me included.

my question is then, what are people complaining about?

At 11:09 PM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

Missionairies do do some good work, Rob, but let's net forget their primary professional function or "mission": conversion. They're not about being receptive to other spiritual beliefs, they're not about making sure countries they go to don't operate under oppressive regimes, etc. I would argue that the clothes and food that they bring is often just to pacify indegenous peoples into allowing these missionairies to enter their communities (thus unknowlingly affording missionairies the opportunity to push their product: Christianity).

As far as East Asian countries striving to achieve what the U.S. has (and even surpass it, possibly) that is what it is. I'm not very qualified to speak on the reason(s) behind this historically but we all know the corporations run the world and not governments. Nuff said on that point.

I would love to have a home, two cars, and a chicken in my pot but I will never feel comfortable with that if I know my neighbor doesn't have these things let alone those who I consider "my people" in Nigeria. I personally feel the need to work to make sure that all have and share such things, not just me and my family. The problem is that too many people (especially in the West) feel that personal "success", "progress", or "happiness" comes before community "success", "progess", or "happiness". I do not. These things are inextricably tied to my people's and I will work for theirs, and therefore my own, arduously. Working solely for my own interests in these three respects doesn't have the reciprocal effect of automatically helping my people. Do you see what I'm saying?

Finally, don't act like Harvard did us (as minorities) a huge favor by accepting us. I worked hard to get here just like many other non-legacies and lower to lower-middle class individuals who went to local and not-so-great public high schools. Our jump to Harvard was a pretty huge one but the spot I received is deserved. I don't confuse this with being replaceable because I feel like every Harvard student is on some level. Thousands that are just as academically, socially, and personally "qualified" as me to be here are at schools like Yale and Princeton, or Morehouse and Chicago State University, or your local Pep Boys shop or corner store hangout. For MYRIAD reasons they just didn't end up here. Until very recently, Harvard's idea of a minority was a non-White person. That's it. Harvard as still has very little economic diversity. Some strange people would even argue that, since Harvard admits many domestic racial minorities and international students, economic diversity is achieved as well (this runs under the assumption that these students are less well-off than the White, U.S. Harvard students). This is laughable and ignorant. Take a look at the racial minorities here and they're economic backgrounds: they're among the most financially elite people their color or nationality in the world.

People (I guess you mean Dam and those whose viewpoint he represents) are complaining about forcing another nation and people to be like them economically, politically, and socially when the country that is supposed to be emulated is ripe with domestic and international problems, social and ecnomic inequality, and other unsavory national attributes.

At 5:29 AM, Anonymous Guess What said...

I also wouldn't put too much stake in the comparison between how France treats minorities and how the US treats minorities. The 30% unemployment rate in French ghettoes is dwarfed by the 50% unemployment rate amongst black men in New York City and the unemployment rate of blacks and Hispanics nationwide is increased significantly when you include the prison population (which was largely unemployed at the time of arrest and is currently earning no more than 3 cents an hour if that) and those who have dropped out of the work force indefinitely for a host of reasons. I would also imagine that American popular culture traffics more readily in racist narratives and imagery than France, which has significantly negative effects on the capacity for self-realization and actualization amongst black youths that coorelate directly with their lack of educational achievement and probably a host of other social ills. The US, more than any other country, has a policy of criminalizing and incarcerating its minorities and leaving them, through that process, unable to participate in civil society and the workforce. Instead they become essentially human material to be processed for the material benefit to corporations, state governments, correctional officers, and politicians and the pyschological benefit of non-black/Latino Americans. I do not consider the acceptance of minority children into Harvard enough of a counterweight to ignore this overwhelming fact of life.

Moreover, I think that Rob and even Jersey Slugger (to a much lesser extent) miss the larger critique of this great piece. The author is arguing that there IS something wrong with having two cars and a big house, and that if everyone pursues this way of life, things will be worse. He is challenging the entire idea that the middle-class American dream of exurbia, SUV travel, rampant resource consumption, heavily packaged fast food, excessive landfill waste, mindless consumerism, and pathological self-interest (coalesced under the euphemism of "development") us a worthwhile goal at all. In this, he poses an even more powerful critique that Slugger's communitarian take...and this critque, is perhaps ultimately more powerful than any other challenge to the current face of the globalization phenomenon. In less capable hands in often deteriorates into silly "noble savage" romanticism, but the author seems to be taking it towards a more sustainable argument about normative ethics in the age of globalization.

At 9:50 AM, Anonymous rob said...

agreed with the unsustainability of our consumption oriented way of life. i stand corrected about treatment of black and latinos in this country.

and i do not dispute Jersey's contention that missionary work is primarily about spreading the Gospel. the great commission if you will. Jesus commanded it of his disciples, and that's one of the primary goals of Christianity.

At 7:39 PM, Anonymous Kafui said...

Thank you Damini for your thoughtful posts. (I don't know if this discussion is still going on, but I thought I would post my comments anyway).

I am also one of those people who is skeptical about the ideas of “progress” and “development.
To me, the current discussion on “development” these days resembles the discourse of the colonial era. The way in which the West thinks of non-Western people is still almost exactly the same as it was 100 or 200 years ago, but all we have done is essentially replaced the word “civilized” with “developed” and the word “uncivilized,” with the words “developing” or “underdeveloped.” We still operate on the same concept of the White Man’s Burden and saving and uplifting those heathen (or third world) people.
I personally don’t consider what most refer to as “development” or achieving more Western lifestyles as progress. What the world considers as “development” and “modernization” are not neutral and objective standards, but are based on specific cultures and lifestyles and are thus cultural standards which assume that what is not done the western way is wrong, “traditional,” or “old-fashioned.” The standards of well-being that the West uses emphasize only material wealth, and only certain types of material wealth, without necessarily considering whether these materials necessarily make a difference in the quality of one’s life, for instance in terms of happiness, health, or contentedness. If one is able to provide for oneself and family and live a content life, does it matter whether one achieved that by working in an office or by tending to a garden? Is one necessarily better off if he or she has two TV’s? Not necessarily. If he or she can function in his or her society without a TV, then I don’t see it as improving the quality of life. Is one necessarily better off if one sells one’s produce and then buys someone else’s than if one just eats one’s produce oneself?
The ideas of development often assume the supremacy of western lifestyles. For example, in an attempt to rank countries in a way that avoids income-based measurements, Amartya Sen devised the Human Development Index. Yet, I still don’t believe the criteria of the HDI objectively represent measurements of what is better for human development. The HDI is composed of longevity, knowledge, and income. But the measure of knowledge is based on the adult literacy rate and mean years of schooling. Can you really equate literacy and schooling with knowledge? Doing so assumes the superiority of certain lifestyles. Not all societies were literate societies, but just because someone does not know how to read or did not receive “formal” education based on a western model does not indicate that he or she is not intelligent or cannot contribute to the society. To assume that is to ignore the value of other forms of knowledge and education which may not involve a classroom with textbooks, and which may not include calculus. I can assure you that my mother (who by the way has PhD in linguistics) can identify more organs and their functions in a chicken and a fish just from cooking experience than I could even with AP and college biology (even if she didn’t happen to call them by the English, Greek or Latin names that we use). She can also identify almost any staple crop, vegetable, fruiting, or edible plant or tree by its leaves or can tell me what family it belongs to or what it is related to even if it’s a completely new variety in Mexico or England that she has never seen before. (Not to mention knowing the medicinal value of many plants). She didn’t learn any of this in a textbook. And, the West African woman you see selling produce in the market probably knows the basics of economics, because a lot of it is common sense, and you get much more common sense out of experience than out of textbooks. To rank countries using criteria such as literacy and schooling assumes that “uneducated” people are unintelligent and that the textbook education now predominant in Western societies is naturally superior to ‘informal’ education. I am not advocating that people not go to school, but just demonstrating an example of how development standards are culturally based.
Many people tend to think that people who hold ideas similar to mine think that the “past” is better than the “present.” But, for one, I don’t consider customs which are still practiced in the present as belonging to the past, and it is not that it is better, than that it may not be any worse.
In response to the comment about rule of law that Rob made, that view ignores the fact that non-western societies have or had institutions and laws. Also, in response to the comment about the treatment of women, it was the European culture that taught my mother’s culture that men must give their name to all their property and belongings, including their women and children, an ‘ancient’ practice that is still used in many Western societies today (to use the terminology many use when describing non-western people). So, I’m not necessarily sure that this society thinks any better of women than many other societies do.
In conclusion, when thinking about development I always ask myself these questions that I think it would be good for other people to reflect on as well. What are the criteria that distinguish a developed country from a developing one, and what is the actual cut off line? Who defines these criteria, and who determines what nation is developed or developing? What are the assumptions behind these criteria? That it is better to replace a lifestyle in which deaths are largely caused from infectious diseases with one in which the risk of death from cancer is 1 in 4? Perhaps. That it is better to wash your dishes in a dishwasher than by hand?


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