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 â€“ 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 arenâ€™t just between â€˜developedâ€™ and â€˜not developedâ€™ countries â€“ one gets the same feeling moving between Hong Kong and London. Itâ€™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 isnâ€™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 â€“ 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 companyâ€™s business just a little bit further. They know their jobs are not well protected, and depend on the strength of that individual company â€“ 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 isnâ€™t an unreservedly good thing: while itâ€™s great to be in a vibrant place that doesnâ€™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 isnâ€™t great, responding closely to economic conditions. Life in England isnâ€™t completely different, but itâ€™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 â€˜developmentâ€™ or â€˜developednessâ€™ 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 doesnâ€™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 â€˜developedâ€™.
These are just thoughts. There are good reasons why we focus on incomes, health and such â€“ these are the real experiences of people. But perhaps, in keeping with the modern obsession for measurement, weâ€™re focusing on the wrong end of the development process.