Eben: Developmentalizationism

October 5, 2009

I do my best to comport myself in ways that make people think I’m not stupid.  A casual visitor of this site, however, might not get that impression.  There are continuous references to development throughout the blog; I wrote a whole post about it before coming to Senegal, for example, and the title of my program (Minnesota Studies in International Development) indicates that I’m here to learn something about it.  It would be easy to conclude from these (and similar) examples that I’m some idiot who thinks that by studying somewhere for five months I can change the world.  I assure you, though, that I am not here to save the world, or Africa, or Senegal, or Dakar, or even to save the whales.  Mostly, I’m here for personal gain.  Aside from the instant credibility I’ll get with white people around the world for having traveled to a developing country, I also think I’m learning a good amount about worthwhile subjects like language, politics, other people’s worldviews, and so on.  (And you think I’m kidding about the first reason.)

But much as I’d like to repudiate the idea that I’m only here to save (or learn how to save) the world, I certainly think that development is one of those worthwhile issues about which I’m learning a good amount.  More so than learning about it in that often funny/ridiculous development class, I’m living it every day.  Every time the owner of a boutique can’t speak French because of a lack of education, for example, I’m affected (although the fact that they even learn French in school is another development issue).  When I cut my foot (which I did in Toubacouta) and my doctor sneezes in his hand before touching my wound, I’m affected.  I’m also affected on the positive side; the lack of electricity in many rural homes, for example, makes for less technology-driven detachment from family and visitors, meaning there’s more time spent talking to people like me.  (That could easily be spun as negative, though; visiting a house with wireless internet would sure be more convenient, and their own lives are negatively affected by a lack of electricity.)  But clearly, it’s hard not to be constantly aware of the challenges and issues involved with living in a country that’s less developed than the one I grew up in.  So I figure that devoting a post to describing some of these observations is worthwhile.

Now, up to this point, I’ve been vague about the word “development,” using it six times in this post in lieu of more directed or specific words.  I think it is used like this so often that it has become more of a buzzword than an actual idea — hence the title of this post.  So what exactly among all of the issues of development do I have the relevant experience to describe?  Most of it, obviously, is anecdotal. But I think being here has given me an understanding of how big a challenge it would be to effect the kind of change necessary to make Senegal appear like a Western country. (It’s obviously fair to question whether this is even good, but this is some people’s definition of being economically developed.) Being here has also given me an idea of how much the country’s economic climate would have to change in order to bring economic transactions in line with the way they work in theory. And being here has shown me the some of the type of development people do consider important, and although I’m sure I could express it all in economic terms, I think that misses some of the point.

My first impression of Senegal regarding development was one of mild surprise.  I knew I was going to a developing country; I expected poverty and infrastructure problems, among others. But numerous sources insisted, before I left, that “Dakar is just like Washington, DC” or something similar. It is not. Sure, there are a bunch of people and some important business buildings and some restaurants and cars and houses and stuff. But there are also goats roaming the streets scattered with trash and concrete rubble. There are no sidewalks, and the roads are often a mix of dirt and sand. There are multiple power outages on a daily basis, halting businesses as well as electric fans guarding against the stifling heat. The pure poverty doesn’t leap out at you in awful ways — there are fewer beggars than I expected, for example — but the differences between Dakar and the cities I know certainly do. There are, of course, many nice areas of the city; Centre Ville, for example, is a nicely developed business district, and the northwestern tip of the city (called Almadies) has expensive restaurants and nightlife on par with most other cities I’ve been to. But this isn’t the impression the city gives most of the time. The majority of the time that my host family tells me that I’m going to a nice neighborhood upon hearing my plans for the day, I’ll arrive to see a good number of people living in gutted houses whose borders are defined only by crumbling cinder blocks.

Equally striking is the scene outside of Dakar. The rural areas I know from my past are different than cities in many ways, certainly, but ultimately I could move to a small town in Iowa and live much the same life as I would in DC. There would be roads, internet, and cable TV (as well as more significant similarities, such as some availability of steady jobs). I could not move to Soucouta, Senegal and expect any of the same things out of life that I could in that small town in Iowa, or that I could in Dakar. Senegalese villages are characterized by thatched-roof huts, no running water, and dirt roads pocked with potholes to the point that cars often just can’t pass through. And this doesn’t really touch on the personal level of life. As was clear in my description of Waly’s family’s house in Karang, there is nothing to do at home. There’s often no communication with the outside world. There’s really nowhere to look for a steady source of income.

Further, as I mentioned above, economic transactions often do not work as they would in a theoretical framework, especially in a rural setting. In the simplest form of theory, one makes as much money for delivering a good or performing a service as that good/service is worth to the entity to/for whom it is delivered/performed. In simpler terms, you should get paid as much as what you’re selling is worth. This seems pretty tautological. But it does not hold here. Poor villagers are forced to get basic training and work as volunteer doctors if their village is to have any medical care. This service is certainly worth more than nothing. On the flip side, villagers with no access to price information can easily become the victims of price gouging by duplicitous fishermen (or simply by fishermen who don’t know the correct prices either due to a similar lack of communication technology). In this fairly well-documented case, the villagers are paying more for the good than it is worth. And so on.  Despite what libertarians would like to think, markets simply do not work by themselves.  This directly hurts both consumers and producers, as these markets don’t clear at either efficient prices or quantities of the products being sold.

In short, turning this into Germany or England or America would require an upheaval of nearly unimaginable proportions. It seems like a horribly futile goal for the near future (not that I’m sure that anyone really thinks it’s possible). The vast majority of roads would have to be paved or repaved; land would need to be cleared; most houses and buildings would need to be torn down and rebuilt; enormous amounts of trash would need to be cleaned from the cities and shorelines; and information technology would need to be instituted at an impossible pace, just to name a few. There is simply no income source for this type of project, nor could the planet really afford it in an environmental sense if it took place on a widespread scale among developing countries. Now, all of the world’s more developed countries were obviously not created rich or successful; they had to go through a long development process, too. But they had the benefit of phenomena like the Industrial Revolution allowing them to essentially create wealth out of thin air. I wish Senegal good luck with Industrial Revolution Part II: The Developing World Strikes Back, but it seems like overly wishful thinking.

I understand that to this point I may have given the impression that Senegal is some sort of hellhole.  It certainly isn’t; I’ve loved my time here, and I think that what I’ve gained in terms of knowledge, friendship, and understanding has far outweighed whatever minimal discomfort I may have experienced due to its state of development. And although I will not be one to put forth the condescending idea that Senegal is really equivalent to The Netherlands taking a vacation in Africa and that the people are all living happy and simple lives, I do think that the criteria for happiness here certainly consist of more than simple economic prosperity. As such, the types of changes that would really help people’s lives are not the traditional ones we tend to think about (e.g., trying to rebuild it in the model of a Western country). Sure, increasing GDP per capita by a significant amount would be great, but it’d take a ton of that to really affect the stagnant structure of an underdeveloped society. Instead, what makes sense to me as a starting point is assuring stability in people’s lives. This assumption relies heavily on a point that I’ve written about before, namely, that relationships between family and friends — and not economic prosperity — tend to define a person’s life here in many ways more so than in a society like America’s. In many cases, I think people would be happier knowing that they will make it through life with sufficient food and shelter while maintaining all of their close relationships, rather than living very affluent lives in which they can’t keep up all those connections. As such, steadiness and stability is key.  I’m not the type to eschew all growth in favor of stability — some more wealth would be great, too — but it’s become painfully clear in the context of the recent recession that even in a place like the United States, economic balance deserves plenty of focus in addition to productivity.

In terms of which tangible aspects of stability would be helpful, both the public and private sectors must play a part. There needs to be some sort of government-created social safety net. Before you (maybe not you, but the straw man) yell at me as another crazy liberal, think about the position you’re doing that from. Assuming you’re from America, you live in a country with Social Security, and I’m pretty damn sure you like the security of having some money saved for when you’re not earning any more. Unemployment benefits are more hotly debated by Reaganites than Social Security, but imagine the millions of people who would be thrown into near-poverty without them. And the ongoing health-care reform debate has shed light on just how much old people really love their Medicare. In short, social services do work to help assure economic stability throughout life. These kinds of reforms instituted here wouldn’t require anyone to change the face of the country; instead, they would require competent governance, likely coupled with a good amount of outside financing.

Regarding the private sector, one of the best ways to create stability is by increasing access to financial services. If a poor Senegalese woman has access to a bank account in order to save some money that her husband would otherwise spend, that makes her life more stable. Access to credit is a little more controversial given that it can put people into debt, but theoretically it too should help smooth consumption over the course of a lifetime. And services like life insurance and health insurance ensure that a family will never overly suffer for the loss of a relative and that a sickness will not reduce a family to poverty.

For this financial access to take hold on a large scale would require some infrastructural improvements, but this process is already in the works on certain levels. Near Toubacouta, for example, we visited two groups of women who had started microfinance organizations. Although one organization has had some difficulties due to its self-financing, the other is a thriving success story; after some initial financing from an environmental NGO, it soon became an independent, profit-making institution that now gives out both individual loans and access to savings accounts. Meeting the ladies who run this group was inspiring in a clichéd way; it’s easy to divorce yourself from the realities of development by spending your time crunching numbers, but not so much when you’re sitting under the town tree hearing how microcredit has changed people’s lives. And when someone posed the question of what these women wanted most for their organization, the leader responded confidently that it was not wealth, but rather simply to keep the organization going and pass it onto future generations. Organizational stability to ensure economic stability, in other words. These improvements in financial access are happening mostly on local scales, but organizations have to start somewhere while the government tries to get its act together on the side of structural change.  To give a quick impression of the scope of these organizations’ work to this point, some data I helped gather this summer for David Roodman’s microfinance book (done while interning at the Center for Global Development, an economic think-tank in DC) indicates that about 15% of Senegal’s adult population has a savings account.  Not horrible — Sierra Leone is at 1.1%, for example — but there’s plenty of room to grow before we could consider the level of access to financial services to be universal.

So that’s the summary of my first impressions. It is highly generalization-driven, which I hate doing, but unfortunately there just aren’t so many numbers to back up many of the assertions I’m making. I’d be interested in hearing if some of the readers who have traveled to developing countries have similar or discordant takes on this pretty explosive issue. And I’ll be sure to update my thoughts as I get further into my time here and get some firsthand experience working in a microfinance organization for my internship.

One comment

  1. Thank you for your insightful comments.

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