April 29, 2017

Development, biospheric ethics and a new way forward

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The Future of Progress front cover

Contribution to The Future of Progress – reflections on environment and development, edited by Helena Norberg-Hodge, Peter Goering and Steven Gorelick on behalf of ISEC (the International Society for Ecology and Culture).

This is a collection of essays that challenge the Western notions of progress that dominate the current debate on environment and development. Contributors include Edward Goldsmith, Vandana Shiva, Sigmund Kvaloy, Martin Khor, Nicholas Hildyard, Gary Snyder and Helena Norberg-Hodge.

The Future of Progress is a Resurgence Book, and published by Green Books in association with ISEC. The 1995 revised edition (254 pages, paperback) is Available from ISEC for £8.95 / US$14.50 – buy here.


The ‘development’ currently imposed by the industrialised nations on the Third World is producing a whole series of interconnected negative impacts on the very people the process purports to help. In this paper, I will discuss two important strands in this complex weave of causes and effects: how ‘aid’ mainly benefits the industrialised world via the opening up of Third World markets for its manufactured goods, and the connections between ‘development’ and population increase in the Third World. I will also sketch out a new way forward based on a biospheric ethic inspired by the world’s traditional cultures.

The fallacy of aid

Those with a superficial knowledge of the development process often remain convinced that aid is designed to help the peoples of the Third World. Even many environmental institutions still appear to believe this and persist in campaigning for increased aid. Yet, surely, if the governments of the industrial countries were really concerned with the welfare of the people of the Third World, they would have provided some of their vast food surpluses (which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to store) to the starving people of Africa – even if this would not have solved any long-term problems. Alternatively, they could have spent on famine relief the money which US farmers are now paid not to produce food.

Needless to say, no politician has suggested we do anything of the sort. On the contrary, in Britain, in 1985-86, in the face of the worst and most widespread famine Africa has ever known, our government actually reduced its aid to the people of that continent, so that, as John Madeley notes, “There is more in the kitty for better off countries such as Turkey and Mexico” (which, unlike the countries of Africa, have the money with which to buy British manufactured goods).

This ability to buy goods from the industrialised countries is the crux of the matter. Indeed, the US Department of Agriculture admits that American food aid is a means of creating a demand for imports from the US. “Food aid,” it declares, “can pave the way for US commercial exports.” For example, in 1956-58, United States food aid to 17 overseas markets was $3.1 billion, and commercial sales of all goods was $3.6 billion. Two decades later, food aid from the United States to these same countries was only $756 million, and commercial sales had grown to $43 billion.

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Aid and trade

One of the main reasons why aid is sound commercial practice is that much of it is officially tied to sales of manufactured goods. In the same way that colonies were once forced to buy their manufactured goods from the country that had colonised them, today’s recipients of aid must spend much of the money they receive (money that is supposed to relieve poverty and malnutrition) on irrelevant manufactured goods that are produced by the donor countries. What is more, if they dare refuse to buy any of our manufactured goods or to sell us some resource – generally, because they want to keep it for themselves or to conserve it for the future – they are immediately brought to heel by the simple expedient of threatening to cut off further aid, on which they have become increasingly dependent.

Thus, a few years ago, a World Health Organisation (WHO) study revealed that only a minute fraction of commercial pharmaceutical preparations were of any real therapeutic use. Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries of the world, decided to take the study seriously and announced that it would ban all superfluous drugs. The US government immediately reacted by threatening to withhold food aid if Bangladesh discriminated in this way against US pharmaceutical manufacturers. So too, in 1979, the Bangladesh government decided to stop selling rhesus monkeys (a threatened species) to a US company called Mol Enterprises for experimentation in its laboratories. The US government’s response was, as New Scientist notes, “swift and strong” and “even included a suggestion that American aid could be cut off if Bangladesh refused to honour its contract with Mol Enterprises, the monkey importers.”

The British government behaved in a similar manner with the government of India by threatening to cut off aid if India did not go ahead with plans to buy 21 Westland helicopters at a cost of £60 million – an effort which, it is encouraging to note, was bitterly opposed by responsible elements within the Overseas Development Administration.

All this is simply a slightly more sophisticated means of achieving what Commodore Perry achieved by bombarding Nagasaki in order to force the Japanese to trade with America, and what Britain achieved by going to war with China so as to force it to buy opium from British merchants in India.

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Bretton Woods

It was at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944, held under US leadership, that aid was institutionalised as the industrialised world’s principal tool of economic colonialism. At that conference, 44 nations agreed to set up the key international institutions. They were: the International Monetary Fund (IMF); the World Bank (IBRD); and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). These highly interconnected ‘agencies’ formed a single integrative structure for manipulating world trade, which until the early seventies was basically dominated by the United States of America. The original role of the IMF was to make sure that member nations pegged their currency to the US dollar or to gold (72 percent of world gold supplies were in the possession of the US). This expedient would, among other things, make it difficult for Third World debtors to get out of their financial obligation to the Western banking system by manipulating their currencies.

The World Bank’s first function was to reconstruct Europe’s shattered economy after World War II. Its second function was to prevent the recurrence of a 1929-style slump by systematically expanding the Western economy. Significantly, as Susan George writes in her hook, A Fate Worse than Debt, Article 1 of the IMF charter prescribes six objectives, the principle being:

“to facilitate balanced growth of international trade and, through this, contribute to high levels of employment and real income and the development of productive capacity . . . To seek the elimination of exchange restrictions that hinder the growth of world trade.

She goes on to comment,

“Even those objectives described in the first Article that may appear strictly financial are, in fact, geared to a single overriding objective: the growth and development of world trade.”

As a result, the World Bank soon moved into the business of Third World development (its main activity). It has built roads, harbours, ports, and so on – to supply the infrastructure required to enable the importation of manufactured products and the export of raw materials and agricultural produce. It then invested heavily in energy generation, in particular in hydropower, the adverse consequences of which have been documented in our book The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams (Vols 1-3).

More recently, since the 1970s, the Bank has played a leading role in financing the commercialisation of agriculture in the Third World and, in particular, the substitution of export-oriented plantations and livestock-rearing schemes for traditional subsistence farming designed to feed local people. In doing this, it has made a massive contribution to the growth of poverty and famine in Africa and South and Southeast Asia.

The role of GATT, the third of the institutions set up at Bretton Woods, was to liberalise trade and, hence, to ensure that Third World countries did not try to manufacture locally what they could buy from Western countries – that is, indulge in highly frowned-upon ‘import substitution’.

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IMF conditionalities

The IMF has complemented the work of GATT in this respect. Loans, either from the IMF itself or the World Bank, have only been provided to governments that have undertaken to observe the IMF ‘conditionalities’. This has meant above all, abolishing import quotas and reducing import tariffs to a minimum. This prevents Third World countries from protecting their fledgling industries against competition from the established and highly capitalised enterprises of the industrial world – industries that during the early stages of their own development were themselves well-protected from foreign competition, and many of which still are.

Third World governments have also been required to devalue their currencies to make their exports more attractive to the industrialised countries – which means they must pay more for their imports. They are also required to abolish expenditure on social welfare and, in particular, on food subsidies which are often badly needed to protect the mass of the population from the disruptive effects of the rapid socio-economic changes that development inevitably brings about. Such expenditure is seen as being better spent on Western imports or on building up a country’s industrial infrastructure.

If the Fund were really interested in the fate of the people of the Third World, it would not cut down on food subsidies to the poorest people of the world, most of whom only need food handouts because they have been deprived of their land to make way for large-scale development schemes (largely funded by the West), and the import of nonessential items – armaments being a prime example. Yet, as Susan George notes,

“The IMF consistently demands that its pupils make drastic reductions in civil spending, but arms budgets remain untouched. When asked about this anomaly, Fund personnel recoil and explain in pained tones that such measures would be “interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign nations” (which is exactly what the Fund does every working day).”

Similarly, the IMF could insist on a purge on corruption in Third World governments and, in particular, ‘capital flight’, which could be responsible for the loss of as much as $100 billion a year.

Apart from being made to devalue their currencies and cut social expenditure, Third World governments must also undertake to mechanise their food production – that is, to adopt the ‘Green Revolution’, thus providing an important market for Western agricultural machinery and agro-chemicals. They must also replace subsistence agriculture with export-oriented agriculture so as to provide the West with agricultural produce. (Third World countries must export in any case to pay for the capital equipment they need to mechanise their agriculture and to finance the mass of manufactured goods that now flows into their countries.)

This package of policy prescriptions has been imposed on Third World countries by all the multilateral development banks. Rupesinghe, for example, quotes a report by the Asian Development Bank on SE Asia’s economy:

“Countries must move away from inefficient import substitution policies and free the economy of import controls and price controls. The Green Revolution must be promoted as a ‘genuine dynamic force’ of economic development. Agribusiness should be invited to cooperate in a country’s drive towards self-sufficiency. Resource allocations must shift from domestic production to export crops for the world market. Local support, generous tax incentives, profit registrations, should be provided for foreign investors, and legislation must be enacted to create a climate of stability for foreign investment.”

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Recycling capital

Since the early seventies, the amount of capital pumped into the Third World to finance such development policies has increased massively, as has the destruction it has financed. One reason for this capital expenditure is the need to recycle the vast sums of money accumulated by the OPEC countries into the Western economic system.

This is fully admitted by the US government in one of its publications:

“In the 1970s the large increase in petroleum prices gave rise to large amounts of what were called petrodollars, since petroleum was (and still is) paid for in dollars. Commercial bankers were enjoined by the United States and international agencies such as the International Monetary Fund to reloan or recycle these dollars to keep the international economy from collapsing. This they did to a fault, giving rise to what later came to be known as the international debt crisis.”

Unfortunately, the process is about to be repeated, since, with the aid of the World Bank, we now plan to recycle, via the economies of Third World countries, Japan’s annual $80 billion surplus – which is equivalent to the OPEC surpluses of the late 1970s.

The impact that the vast development schemes (which alone can sop up all that money) must inevitably have on the already devastated environment of the Third World is too awful to contemplate.

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The population explosion

An essential reason why economic development cannot help combat malnutrition and famine is that it must inevitably give rise to a population explosion. The experience has been the same everywhere. As soon as a traditional society embarks on the path of economic development, its population simply explodes. It happened in Britain (where the population was under 8 million when the Industrial Revolution began), where it increased by more than 7 times before it eventually stabilised. It is happening today wherever economic development occurs throughout the Third World.

Our reaction to this problem is always the same. Population growth is interpreted in such a way as to make it appear amenable to a technological solution – the only solution the North is organised to provide. It is the only solution that involves producing the sort of hardware that the corporations into which our society is organised can manufacture; the only type of solution, in fact, that is ‘economic’ and hence politically acceptable.

The World Bank estimates that to achieve

“a rapid fertility decline in Sub-Saharan Africa would mean increasing the amount of money spent on ‘family planning’ by 20 times by the end of the century.”

Just think how the export of contraceptive pills, condoms, IUDs and other forms of birth-control gadgetry will rocket. Is it possible to imagine a more ‘economically viable’ and ‘politically expedient’ solution? But what is the point of providing vast numbers of men and women with expensive birth-control devices if, as happens to be the case, they want the children whose birth these devices are designed to prevent? The answer is clearly none at all.

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Stable populations

We tend to forget that the populations of traditional societies were stable for centuries, if not millennia. They had to be, in order to preserve their social structure and their physical environment. The reasons for that stability are clear.

To begin with, traditional society exploited a wide range of cultural strategies – such as taboos against sexual activity during lactation and during the first years of widowhood, or the prohibition against widow remarriage among certain castes in India – which are intended to minimise population growth. However, as a society’s social structure and cultural pattern are destroyed by the process of economic development, such population control strategies can no longer operate, which means that the population in question simply grows out of control.

The population of traditional societies is stable for another reason, namely that each individual belongs to an extended family and lineage group which provide an extraordinary degree of security. What is more, each individual has a right to the land they and their family occupy by virtue of their status as a member of these groupings. In addition, the agricultural methods used are designed to maximise security even at the cost of limiting yields.

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Development and alienation

Development changes all that. In fact, it shatters every aspect of traditional life. Indeed, it is a process which, as Robertson notes, is “more likely to generate unhappiness, violence and tyranny than social harmony.” Esenstadt also considers that because

“modernisation entails continual changes in all major spheres of a society, [this] means, of necessity, that it involves processes of disorganisation and dislocation, with the continual development of social problems, cleavages and conflicts between various groups and movements of protest and resistance to change. Disorganisation and dislocation thus constitute a basic part of modernisation, and every modern and modernising society has to cope with them.”

In particular, development destroys a society’s cultural pattern and its associated social structure. The society thus disintegrates and becomes atomised, as in the industrialised world today. Such a society can no longer govern itself, nor provide its members with the security that it previously provided: instead it must now be governed by a government bureaucracy, which previously would have no raison d’etre.

Such a bureaucracy, however, can never compensate people for the inestimable social capital provided to them by the social groupings to which they previously belonged. Nor can participation in the formal economy, usually as grossly underpaid casual workers, compensate people for the loss of their land – which is inevitably taken over to accommodate more economic land uses. All this creates the most terrible misery and insecurity, and in order to survive, people are forced to seek an alternative strategy for providing themselves with some sort of security, however precarious. One such strategy is to have more children, who can be hired out as labourers or who can even be trained to beg and steal in the cities.

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Malthusian dogma

Interestingly enough, one of the official explanations of the population explosion is that, with development, food production increases, which means that more food is available to the local population which, in a true Malthusian manner, can be counted upon to breed up to the available food supplies. The opposite, however, seems to be true. Thus, although food production has increased in, for example, both India and Zimbabwe in the last decade, this has not meant that more food has been made available to the local population. On the contrary, the food has mainly been produced for export or for consumption in the cities and, in reality, as both Banjeree and Kothari and Jackson point out, less food is available to the rural masses.

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