I’ve just written a piece for Change.org about Oswaldo de Rivero’s book, The Myth of Development. De Rivero argues, in essence, that development is never going to happen for most of the poor countries in the world: they lack natural endowments, and more importantly, the world economic and political structure has changed in such a way that they cannot exploit or manipulate what they do have to achieve development in the same way that the currently developed world has done. It’s an advance on the crude biological determinism of Jared Diamond, in that it’s crude economic and political determinism as well.
I’m not much of a fan. On the one hand, it depends on predicting the future, something that economists have been very bad at in the past; indeed even historians have difficulty working out why economies developed in the way they did. On the other, he acts as if the global political regimes that stifle the poorest countries are givens that cannot be changed, which is unduly pessimistic. Also, if he is right, and certain countries can never develop, it immediately makes open borders and free migration the only real solution to endemic poverty (as the Roving Bandit would not doubt be quick to point out).
Yet the conclusion he does draw, that non-viable national economies should focus on the basics (water, sanitation, health and education) closely resembles the actual policies of many development agencies, even if these same entities would argue vigorously against the idea that development is impossible. Considering his arguments is worthwhile, then, just to focus our attention on the reality that we are doing far too little to actually address the economic problems of developing countries. We shy away from getting involved in the development of domestic capitalism, we do very little to encourage banking to the middle classes (a far bigger problem from a purely economic point of view than banking to the poor), and intently study our feet when called upon to make any strong statements on trade, subsidies, tariffs and the immense hypocrisy of the West on all of these issues.
I don’t believe in the inevitable economic failure of the poorest countries. But I believe that their success will take far longer than those countries that used colonies and force to accelerate their development and others who used their geopolitical importance to push through policies that would otherwise have been sabotaged by the Western powers unless we actually address the economy directly. It’s easy to focus on social development and ignore the national and international economy. It’s just also morally dubious.