On the erroneous belief of understanding the arrival point of development

Are “developed countries” deluding others or themselves?

Ryan Murphy (2010): Eat Pray Love

Diligent students of Economics might wonder what a scene from a Julia Roberts movie and the Italian expression “dolce far niente” have to do with development. Having been an Economics student myself confronted with heavy loads of neoclassical and neoliberalism theory, I would like to shed some light on the coherence of the aforementioned from a new point of view.

When researching definitions of “development”, one encounters numerous versions with rather diverse quintessences. For the purpose of this blog post I would like to concentrate on the following interpretation by the G8 of development as “… a strong, dynamic, open and growing global economy“. This choice is not one taken out of agreement, but one that tries to focus on the pivotal assertion that still drives the development discussion today. It is a discussion that is dominated by only a few parties, namely the Western nations 1, and it is directed if not to a single pathway of development at least to a single arrival point: consumerism. Post-development thinkers, such as Wolfgang Sachs, refer to the 1949 inauguration speech of Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States, as the corner stone of the first world hegemony in development. In this inauguration speech Truman proclaimed:

“[…] we must embark on a bold new program […] for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. […] Their economic life is primitive and stagnant. […] Greater production is the key to prosperity and peace.”

By coining the term “underdeveloped areas”, Truman constructed a hierarchical system that imposed a materialistic Western lifestyle, an “American World Dream”, as the ultimate goal of development on the rest of the world. On the verge of the Cold War, it was a strategic move to demand allegiance of the decolonizing countries of the third world to the first world reinforcing its supremacy against the communist-socialist bloc. US economist W.W. Rostow argued in his 1960 “The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto” that with the right development assistance of capital and technology all countries would eventually converge to the ultimate stage of development, “high mass consumption”, from which the USA had already emerged from.

Largely concealing the fact that this prevailing notion of development is socially constructed and is an ideological concept generating power for the first world, it has found its way into the syllabi of leading universities in the form of varying development theories and it has successfully been perpetuated from there on. As a response to the failure of “improving the life of the masses”, development policies shifted repeatedly during the last 60 years: from growth orientation over poverty alleviation towards the aggressive neo-liberal policies of the Washington Consensus 2 implemented by the Structural Adjustment Programmes by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the 1980s, when debt levels and aid-dependency spiked (Moyo, 2010, p. 20-21).

Despite the failure to advance development, it “… had achieved the status of a certainty in the social imaginary” (Escobar,1995, p.5) in such a way that even the opponents of capitalism looked for alternative ways to develop, rather than questioning the construct of development and its arrival point itself. This mistake is equally reflected in the different ways and the evolution of how development has been measured ranging from purely economic indices that depict economic growth (e.g. gross national income per capita, gross domestic product) or defining the percentage of people living below the poverty line 3 to multidimensional indicators of human development such as the New Human Development Index (2010) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The latter include factors such as life expectancy, birth rates, literacy, years of schooling and income, which again play into the hands of the already known development front runners. Despite the creation of hierarchies and the homogenisation of “under-developed countries”, I believe that the biggest mistake herein lies in the assumption to know the arrival point of development, which in turn leaves little necessity, but also little freedom for the front runners to change.

From a Western perspective, what assures us in the end that we objectively chose the right path to development? Based on national footprint data from the Global Footprint Network, Tim De Chant calculated that at least 4.1 worlds would be needed in order for 7 billion people to live an average American lifestyle 4. Luckily we only have one world. So, if the development myth of the last 60 years neither has worked nor has been proven to be a realistic vision for the entire world at all, has it brought any good for the countries that reached the “top of the ladder”?

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 23.06.47

Source: Illustration © 2012 Tim De Chant, Data from Global Footprint Network

Aristotle firstly described that happiness (eudaimonia 5) is the ultimate end for all human activities and all activities are therefore only means to pursuing happiness, not ends in themselves. It is enticing to assume that if there could possibly be a universal goal for development, it could only be the pursuit of happiness. Despite the fact that the Unites States had already recognised precisely this as an inalienable right in their Declaration of Independence in 1776, it took over 200 years for happiness to take center stage in the broader discourse about development. In 2006, the New Economics Foundation introduced the Happy Planet Index (HPI), which measures “the extent to which countries deliver long, happy, sustainable lives for the people that live in them”. Four years later, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network followed with the first World Happiness Report (2012). Attempting to measure happiness on a global scale, six factors are being used: GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support, trust, perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity. Critics of the past approaches to development might favour this new course and feel vindicated by the fact that the report highlighted the circumstance that “despite strong economic growth” happiness had stagnated in the USA since the 1950s (Helliwell & Layard & Sachs, 2012, p.61). It would be hypocritical, however, to incautiously declare happiness as the new panacea for development and it might result in making the same mistake this post is trying to highlight in the first place. The following should explain how the newest debate of development is still caught up in its initial mistake.

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 02.58.45

Source: Happy Planet Index, Map for Experienced Well-Being 6

The initial development debate described high mass consumption as the arrival point of development and with it a set of policies was created by first world countries that allowed for interventions in “poorer countries” that were seldom altruistic. In contrast, the theoretical beauty of defining happiness as the ultimate arrival point of development is that happiness in its philosophical sense is something utterly subjective, a self- determined measure of achieving what one wants in life — whatever that be and by whatever means this can be achieved. But it seems rather naive to believe that the concept of happiness is not strongly subject to ideological contextualisation and that we actually open up the way to a freely open discussion about “development”. I dare to raise the question whether the attempt to measure happiness using constructed proxies such as generosity destroys the exact justification of the pursuit of happiness as the only universally favourable concept of development: subjectivity. Does it not declare the “status of certainty” 7 of just another constructed arrival point of development despite being barely less ideologically biased than the previous development agendas? Is the pursuit of happiness a new “wolf in sheep’s clothing” to perpetuate the hegemony of a few countries?

To refer back to the introduction of this article, I believe that in many Western cultures we are indoctrinated that happiness is achieved by increased economic productivity, efficiency and consumerism. Forced onto society with the help of vast quantities of advertisement, this absolutely fails the liberal definition of happiness, but helps to ensure the economic system from within. By making happiness measurable and comparable, the only thing we achieve is giving a new name to an old strategy.

In the first World Happiness Report of 2012, American Economist Jeffrey Sachs successfully describes the phenomenon of “the ills of modern life” (Helliwell & Layard & Sachs, 2012, p. 3-4) such as obesity, smoking, diabetes and depression and calls them “disorders of development”. The subsequent report in 2013 promisingly even devoted a whole chapter to mental illness “as the main cause of unhappiness”, but I believe that it disappointed in two facts: Firstly, the report states that “…the large majority of persons with a mental disorder reside in low- and middle-income countries of the world” (Helliwell & Layard & Sachs, 2013, p. 41). However, the report then follows with data from the World Health Survey describing depression rates by groups of countries showing the following results: high-income countries 7.1%, upper middle-income 7.6%, lower middle- income 6.4% and low-income 6.0%. It seems that the initial statement is therefore not coherent with the findings of this study, but tries to reinforce the economic hierarchy constructed at the historical beginning of the development debate. My statement should in no way question the existence of equal importance of mental illnesses in the “developing countries”, but rather suggest a perceptual bias in the interpretation. Secondly and most importantly though, the World Happiness Report 2013 defines risk factors for mental illness such as loneliness, bereavement or a low self-esteem. Despite briefly explaining the problem of under-treatment of mental illnesses and introducing effective ways for treatment, the report does not question at all what causes or favours the risk factors of mental illness to originate or to increase. I believe that the World Happiness Report capitulates to the past development approach and does not reflect sufficiently on the possible influence of systemic errors in the contribution to mental illnesses and therefore reduced happiness.

Like other development approaches before, the pursuit of happiness in the ascribed way is looking for remedies to problems that are caused by a system that the approach itself tries to uphold, because dealing with the actual cause of the problem would most likely require a change in that same system. The initial movie scene from “Eat, Pray, Love” should surely not be used as a serious reference, but it puts in a nutshell what from a societal point of view is starting to be recognised in different movements: We live in a world where happiness is imposed to come from economic wealth and in which technology helps us to become more and more efficient and time saving in what we do. But instead of directing this newly achieved time towards things that essentially would make us happy, we use the time to become even more productive and more busy. Sadly, “dolce far niente”, the sweetness of doing nothing, became socially unacceptable in many contexts.

Ultimately, I wonder if followers of movements that try to “slow down life” and reconnect it to real terms can teach us anything about development? The only fact that it can hopefully support is that the assumption to know a generalised ending point of development is an erroneous belief. Or did Rostow actually expect the emergence of a social group that would prefer to be modern traditionalists rather than pure modernists?

1  The “first world” or “the West” describes a group of capitalist countries aligned with the United States after World War II that were opposed to the “second world” communist-socialist countries states headed by the Union of Soviet Socialists Republic. Accordingly, the third world incorporated non-alined states.

2  The Washington Consensus are ten economic policy prescriptions developed by John Williamson that are used for the structural reform of countries in crisis.

3  In the EU the poverty line is defined as 60% of median income.

4  Highest ranked were the United Arab Emirates with an estimate of 5.4 worlds needed.

5  Aristotle described the concept of happiness in the Nicomachean Ethics.

6  Experienced well-being is assessed in the HPI using data from the Gallup World Poll, which asks respondents to imagine a ladder, where 0 represents the worst possible life and 10 the best possible life, and report the step of the ladder they feel they currently stand on.

7  Compare to Escobar, 1995.


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