What Does Development Look Like?

Hong Kong

Not everywhere will look like this

Apologies for my long silence. I was at home in Hong Kong on holiday attempting to eat a hole in the restaurant industry and drain the islands of tea. Going between the places where I work and Hong Kong is always an extreme contrast – the physical dissimilarities are jarring enough, an emblem of the extremes of material wealth that Hong Kong and, say, Zanzibar represent; but beyond this, the conceptions of what constitutes a working economy and society are different as well.

But these differences aren’t just between ‘developed’ and ‘not developed’ countries – one gets the same feeling moving between Hong Kong and London. It’s a reminder of the fact that development looks different in different places. Of course, there are characteristics that unite developed countries: higher average incomes, longer life expectancies, better education, less poverty and better prospects for employment. But the way in which these places function are different.

In England, and most of Europe, working hours are relatively short, incomes protected by legislation and unionism and living standards safeguarded by a social safety net provided or supported by the State. In specific enclaves of the economy, there is frenzied activity: the City of London (dominated by financial and legal services) operates on long hours, high volumes of transactions and isn’t the most stable of employers. But for the most part, England seems a more sedate place with a pretty good work/life balance.

Hong Kong is different. That frenzied economic activity that characterizes the City is everywhere, driven by rampant consumerism. People work insane hours, and not just the bankers and lawyers. Many of my friends there own or manage companies – they work long hours, but most of their staff do as well. Many are paid for a standard eight hour working day, but without the inducement of over-time pay or extra leave choose to stay in the office well beyond this most days to push the company’s business just a little bit further. They know their jobs are not well protected, and depend on the strength of that individual company – any edge they can provide helps safeguard their livelihood. This attitude carries over to the retail sector as well: walking down a busy street in Causeway Bay or Wan Chai and you can buy shoes, movies, stationery or handbags at midnight or later.

This isn’t an unreservedly good thing: while it’s great to be in a vibrant place that doesn’t shut down, a common complaint about Hong Kong is the poor work/life balance. People are compelled to work extremely long hours partly because the Government takes a minimalist approach to social protection and the fact that job security isn’t great, responding closely to economic conditions. Life in England isn’t completely different, but it’s at a different point in the scale of uncertainty, work/life balance and commercialism.

These observations matter for development. We take for granted that there is a vision of ‘development’ or ‘developedness’ that poor countries are striving to, but how accurate is this? There are many different paths that can be taken to the same aims of better incomes, life expectancy, health and education. These paths will lead to a different kind of economy and society, with different advantages and drawbacks. Yet, it doesn’t appear that development policy, certainly not from the donor side, takes into account the myriad approaches to development. From the developing country side, the mania for strategies, visions and plans, while well intentioned, seeks to hit specific targets rather than laying out a conception of what kind of society and economy is desired.

If we accept that developed countries have used different methods to get where they are, and that they have created economies, state structures and societies that have different sets of advantages and disadvantages, there is a case to be made that development policy should focus on individual countries. Specifically, perhaps we should be looking at how the population, state, geography etc. might best develop as a functioning economic and social structure, rather than focusing on the outcomes and outputs that these structures are supposed to achieve to merit the tag ‘developed’.

These are just thoughts. There are good reasons why we focus on incomes, health and such – these are the real experiences of people. But perhaps, in keeping with the modern obsession for measurement, we’re focusing on the wrong end of the development process.

7 thoughts on “What Does Development Look Like?

  1. Justin Kraus

    May 29, 2010 at 4:29am

    Great post. And it is so true that the rigidity of the Western conception of what “development” looks like is a huge problem. Here in Korea the situation sounds quite similar to Hong Kong’s. Developed, yes, Western work culture, no. I actually think a focus on indicators may be a good approach so long as Westerners realize that it is likely that non-Western countries will achieve those indicators in non-western ways. Unfortunately, at least within my field (coastal management) we are so obsessed with getting the process to look like what we want it to that we ignore whether or not it actually leads to good results (sustainable coastal resource extraction).

  2. Kartik Akileswaran

    May 29, 2010 at 4:35pm

    Great to have you back. Hope you enjoyed your travels.

    Your post reminds me of Lant Pritchett’s comment over on David Roodman’s blog: http://blogs.cgdev.org/open_book/2010/05/is-microfinance-a-schumpeterian-dead-end.php#comment-4517.

    I think you’re right that because of the myriad ways to achieve “development” ends, a focus on individual countries could prove to be quite fruitful. In fact, Pritchett’s comment reflects your point about how even developing countries get caught up in specific programmatic targets as opposed to developing broader visions for their economic and social structures.

    However, as Pritchett alludes to, I think there certain outcomes (e.g. being able to take a hot shower in your home) that countries can agree are good and that merit particular focus. The key, as you and Justin point out, is allowing for different countries to work toward these outcomes in different, self-determined ways.

  3. Matt Davies

    May 29, 2010 at 10:26pm

    Very interesting post, not least because I was at school in HK in the 1980s (Island School) and although I’ve not been back in 20 years, I retain a lot of ties there through friends now also in Europe.

    More relevant perhaps though, could’t agree more on the need to focus on individual countries. A look at the one size fits all approach of the MDGs, with its lack of flexibility and ambition in terms of targets says it all.

  4. Ranil Dissanayake

    May 31, 2010 at 7:41am

    Matt – I went to Island school too! I only started in the 1990s, though.

    Thanks for the comments all, and for the link to the Pritchett comment, Kartik.

  5. Third World Goes Forth

    June 3, 2010 at 3:46pm

    @Kartik: I think that your example undermines your point. Not all country’s would agree that hot showers are necessarily good – I’ve been known to prefer a cold shower myself in certain places at certain times of the year. Countries do differ enormously from each other, and a country-specific approach is the only effective way to do things.

    Having said that: does this country- and culture-specific argument undermine things like the universal declaration of human rights?

  6. Kartik Akileswaran

    June 7, 2010 at 10:03pm

    @Third World Goes Forth:

    I’m not sure I agree with you when you say that not all countries would agree to access to a hot shower as a laudable goal. That seems a bit odd to me.

    Otherwise, I completely agree with you that country specific approaches are critical. In fact, to briefly respond to the question you posed, I do think that the country-specific arguments are compatible with things like the universal declaration of human rights–precisely because the declaration refers to widely-held GOALS/IDEALS that can be achieved in country-specific WAYS.

  7. Tarry Asoka

    June 12, 2010 at 10:21pm

    Seeing development purely from Western political-economy perspective have been the fundamental problem with Africa’s development for the past fifty years. And the fault lines have been noticed ever since. In 1968, Ayi Kwei Armah, in his book – ‘The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born’ – noted that “The leadership’s political choice to adopt the European colonial economic and social model instead of creating an African model, would have such a devastating long-term effects on African society”. Little wonder several years of development assistance has not had any meaningful impact. What is needed now is critical thinking and action that leads to a major paradigm shift in development.

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