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Calls into question the very universal, unquestioned assumptions about globalization, development, and environmental change that undergird much of development and economic policy. Compels the reader to question conventional wisdom and explores alternative ways of achieving meaningful, enduring improvements to human well-being.
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Globalization's Shoreline and the Road to a Sustainable Future
By Edward R. Carr
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2011 Edward R. Carr
All rights reserved.
Taking It All Apart
In the early evening of July 8, 1997, I found myself sitting in the courtyard of a house in Dominase, a small rural village in Ghana's Central Region. I was there to pay a social visit to some of the people who were kind enough to share the history of Dominase with me. It was pitch dark, and my 24-year-old Ghanaian research assistant, Francis Quayson, and I had walked about 500 meters from the slightly larger village of Ponkrum, where I was staying. We had used a flashlight to navigate the overgrown, uneven remnants of a dirt road between the two places. As per "official" local custom, I had brought a bottle of (appalling but cheap) local gin with me as a gift. This was accepted by Kwame, one of three brothers of the only family still living in this village. We sat and talked by his wife's cook fire for a while, drinking the gin and discussing everything from the history of Dominase to the cost of living in the United States.
It was my first trip to Ghana, and I had been in the country only 28 days. Like Francis, I was 24 years old. I could not speak Fante, the local dialect of the Akan language, in any meaningful way and so was nearly completely dependent on Francis for translation. His translations were halting, at best, and my struggle to comprehend his limited English was compounded by the fact that any resident of the village within earshot—roughly a dozen people—felt free to contribute shouted questions and comments from across the courtyard. He had great difficulty deciding whose comments to translate at any given moment or what to do when two or more people were talking at once.
After spending about an hour there, Francis and I prepared to make our unsteady way back to Ponkrum. As we stood up, Kwame asked Francis to translate something for him. Kwame spoke quickly, and Francis tried to keep up, giving me this translation:
"Once, the government had to build a bridge over a river. They hired a Ghanaian contractor to do the work. Before he was halfway done, the bridge fell down. The government hired another contractor. This new contractor began to build the bridge, but it fell down before he could finish. The government went and got a white man. He came and bottled the river gods, and his bridge stood."
Kwame then looked directly at me, and as he spoke, Francis translated: "How did the white man do this?" Completely taken aback by the question, I beat a hasty retreat to Ponkrum without answering.
My discomfort was not the product of an inability to explain what Kwame was describing. Of course, the white contractor had not "bottled the river gods." Instead someone had seen the contractor, or one of his workers, conducting some sort of hydrologic analysis necessary to properly design and plan a bridge. However, with no understanding of hydrology as a science, the person who saw this measurement incorporated this event into his or her worldview to create an explanation that referenced local cosmology.
My visceral reaction was to the implication of his story. Kwame described an infrastructural development project, probably designed to better connect various parts of the Ghanaian economy with the global economy via improved transportation access. It was intended to improve the well-being of the people living around the bridge, likely via the benefits of economic growth. In its implementation, however, this project had produced a local understanding of a technology that identified one group of people (generalized as whites) as having control over at least the minor gods of another group of people (generalized as black Africans). Something had leaked out of this project, this engagement with the global economy, that was neither intended nor understood by those who designed and implemented it. This leakage could not be measured through conventional means, such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but it mattered greatly. It called into question most tenets of development, as I understood it. How could people who translated the construction of a bridge into a clear statement of their own inadequacies feel comfortable offering their advice and opinions with regard to the design of future development projects? How can someone benefit from participation in the global economy if one considers oneself as somehow subordinate to the other actors in that economy? If development projects create or reinforce a sense of inferiority among "the developing," how much material improvement is a person's self-esteem worth? The trade-offs between the benefits and problems associated with this bridge, as articulated in Kwame's story, were jarring, disorienting, and upsetting.
I have returned to this story many times in my career. I did so a few days after I first heard it, engaging Kwame and one of his brothers in a conversation about technology, hydrology, and development, trying to call into question the problematic relationships I saw emerging from this story. More recently I have come to see it as a tool for thinking about why development and globalization often do not seem to work the way they are intended. The prevalent, though not ubiquitous, view of these closely linked ideas is that by bringing development to deprived areas, we can improve people's quality of life and enable them to sustain those improvements through engagement with global markets of unprecedented wealth and opportunity. Indeed, such engagement is generally seen as inevitable, its benefits obvious, and therefore the achievement of well-being for all is a goal that is just around the corner.
Chasing this dream, hundreds of thousands of highly trained, well-meaning professionals devise plans, policies, and projects that will maximize the impact of more than $100 billion in aid funding each year. These individuals build policies that create ever-freer trade regimes that allow goods to flow from one end of the planet to the other. These projects and policies have reshaped the world. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, global life expectancy, which stood at 46.6 years in the period 1950–55, rose to 66.4 years for the period 2000–05. The International Monetary Fund reports that global economic production rose, in 2009 dollars, from $12.47 trillion in 1980 to $68.99 trillion in 2009. The production of wealth on planet Earth today is unprecedented in human history.
After centuries of growing global trade and more than six decades of formal development (overlaid on many more decades of colonial efforts), however, the improvement of the human condition has been uneven at best. This fact is visible in the development agencies' own statistics. According to the World Bank, $40 trillion of global economic production is today concentrated in "high income economies" (those with per capita Gross National Incomes of $11,906 or more) that contain roughly one billion people. As a result, in 2010 nearly 58 percent of global wealth was produced and controlled by about 16 percent of the world's population. In addition, while things have gotten much better at the top of the income scale, in many places things have actually become worse. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), there is less food per person in sub-Saharan Africa than there was 30 years ago. The Human Development Index of the United Nations suggests that average life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa, which stands at an astonishingly low 46 years, is actually lower than it was two decades ago. Further, recent assessments of the global environment make it clear that whatever benefits we reap from ever-freer global trade and development are coming at a considerable environmental cost that will compromise the well-being of future generations. If free markets, global trade, and development were supposed to move us toward a world without poverty and with greater opportunity for all, then clearly something has gone terribly wrong.
Of course, many have made these same observations. For example, since the late 1960s proponents of Dependency Theory and World Systems Theory have, broadly speaking, argued that the structure of the global economy requires—and therefore produces—inequality as a part of its very workings. Therefore, development is a project at odds with the very economic system that funds projects and shapes policy. Awareness of these problems is not enough, however, as new initiatives framed around reversing this extended failure continue to fall short. Take, for example, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), eight broad but noble objectives for development announced by the United Nations in 2000 to be achieved by 2015. In 2010, only six years from the 2015 deadline, it is clear these goals will not be achieved. The 2008 Millennium Development Goals Progress Chart paints a disastrous picture. Sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania are behind target for every single goal, on every single metric. West Asia will not achieve the goals specified in 14 of the 18 total metrics. Latin America and the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and Southern Asia are all behind on roughly half the goals. By the MDGs' own statistics, we are making satisfactory progress toward these basic goals in only 39.5 percent of the places and problems under consideration. When even the most broad, basic development goals cannot be achieved, it suggests there is something fundamentally wrong with what we are doing to improve the quality of life for people everywhere.
This failure haunts me. I am principally an academic, a geography professor who has spent the last 13 years studying the intersection of development, globalization, and environmental change. I did not start out intending to become a professor who studied these things. Thirteen years ago I was a PhD student in archaeology who headed to Ghana to assist on a dig led by my dissertation adviser and to identify a site for my own dissertation work. As it turned out, one summer of living and working in Ponkrum and Dominase, the two villages discussed at length in this book, changed my life. My understanding of poverty was first thrown into crisis and eventually dismantled by the contradictions around me. People in these villages lived on less than two dollars a day but never seemed to go hungry. They lived in houses that were made of earth and roofed with sheets of tin but managed to maintain a high standard of hygiene; chronic illnesses, such as malaria, were exceedingly rare. Infant mortality had touched nearly every household in these villages, but even so, many people lived well into their 70s and beyond. Few people in the villages had completed elementary school, but they were able to adjust their farms and livelihoods to address the challenges of an unpredictable climate and economy. Despite all the challenges that marked the residents' everyday lives, people were more often than not joyful and full of life. This was not a community of downtrodden individuals. I was overwhelmed with respect for this group of people, who had withstood tremendous challenges and remained living in a place that had given them every reason to leave.
Understanding how they stayed alive and in place with so few resources, and so little outside information or help, became a central part of my research. I am convinced the people living in these villages, and in other places like them around the world, are repositories of information about how to improve the human condition cheaply and with minimal environmental impact. This book is, in part, an effort to convey some of this information to a wider audience that rarely gets to see the global poor as anything but helpless victims of circumstances beyond their control.
At the same time, this book is more than the story of the residents of two Ghanaian villages. It is also an effort to create for the reader an experience like the one I have had in the course of my fieldwork in Africa and as author of two global environmental assessments. When we connect the story of how these residents have managed severe economic and environmental shocks for more than 40 years to issues of global economic and environmental change, the result calls into question more than the idea of poverty. It also calls into question how we understand globalization, how development works, and the environmental implications of these processes.
Getting It Wrong: Development and Globalization
Implicitly, conversations about development long ago turned into conversations about globalization. While particular discussions of development might be focused on specific problems, such as the eradication of various diseases (for example, malaria, cholera, HIV/AIDS) and parasites (such as former president Jimmy Carter's work on eradicating guinea worm), these specific discussions are couched within larger conversations of how to convert these small victories into long-term improvements in people's lives. In the policy world, and in much popular literature, these discussions are rather rigidly tied to the goal of incorporating people into ever-freer global markets. Development has become a means by which people around the world might engage with these global markets to maximize their incomes and their well-being. This basic assumption is at the heart of many discussions of globalization and development, to the extent that even many critiques of globalization fail to challenge it, instead arguing that globalization is not working correctly because the markets are somehow distorted or perverted.
This linking of development and globalization is decades old. While the era of global free trade has resulted in the greatest generation of wealth the world has ever seen, it has not yielded expected improvements in well-being for those in the developing world. The vast majority of wealth generated by this belief in globalization, and the use of development to globalize ever-larger numbers of people in the world, has accumulated in the already wealthy classes of already wealthy countries. We may be living in the era of the greatest wealth in history, but we are also living through the most unequal global distribution of that wealth in history. Not all boats are rising on the tide of global economic growth.
There are many who look at outcomes, such as the falling life expectancies and declining access to food seen in Africa over the past two decades, and see an intentional effort to keep the poor "in their place" both poor and located far from the wealthiest countries in the world. I disagree with this view strongly. While there are significant political challenges to the successful design and implementation of any development project or program, the vast majority of people working for development organizations are intelligent and good-hearted. They care deeply about the plight of the global poor and labor each day on projects and policies that might, finally, reverse the trends of inequality and unsustainability that mark life in much of the world.
What we are left with, then, is a much more interesting question. If these agencies and individuals are, by and large, trying their hardest to do good and have billions of dollars to work with, why are they failing? The answer lies in the character of development. As writers such as the anthropologist James Ferguson have demonstrated, contemporary development is not the product of a single organizational mission, a single theory, or a particular set of practices. It is the congealed outcome of more than six decades of often-uncoordinated administrative decisions, monitoring reports, economic theories, academic studies, and local responses. These ideas, such as the value of free trade and global markets for the global poor, are repeated so often and in so many venues that they seem to lack a single author or source. For the contemporary development practitioner, they seem to come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. The same assumption is repeated over and over in development documents until, for example, it is impossible to talk about development in the absence of markets. The results are practices and ideas that seem both universal and eternal.
This, in turn, is the problem with the most visible, influential books that purport to explain the failure of development to live up to its most noble aspirations, such as the eradication of poverty. None of these books fundamentally questions the assumptions at the heart of the prevailing understandings of development or globalization. Instead they tweak the edges of these assumptions, leaving the core beliefs untouched. For example, the Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs (The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time; Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet) and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (The Lexus and the Olive Tree; The Earth Is Flat; Hot, Flat and Crowded) make basically the same argument for development and globalization, respectively: if we want to improve the quality of life for people around the world, we need to foster policies that will enable the engagement of the global poor with global markets, and leverage these policies with the infusion of relatively large amounts of aid in strategic areas, such as health and education. Such a "boost" will push individuals, communities, and entire countries out of the "poverty traps" in which they find themselves and set them on the road to productive futures. This approach never examines whether or not globalization, the engagement with global markets, is in fact such a good idea for the poorest on Earth.
Excerpted from Delivering Development by Edward R. Carr. Copyright © 2011 Edward R. Carr. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Table of ContentsTaking it all Apart Getting to the 'Beach' A Day at the Beach Living with Uncertainty Nothing Has Always Been Like This The Tide Goes Out The Tide Comes Back In Scaling Up: Why the Lessons of Dominase and Ponkrum Matter to the World Losing the Signal in the Noise The Long Emergency on the Shoreline of Globalization: It's Not Their Problem Understanding the World Anew Truly Participatory Development Two Futures (Out of Many) Uncertainty Is Hope Bibliography