Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Democracy and....Development?

There is an almost common sense assumption that democracy is good for post-colonial societies, and that it goes hand in hand with almost any understanding of development. According to everyone, democracy and development are positively correlated: one leads to the other, and both are obviously a 'good' thing. Democracy allows for participation, empowerment, and opportunities for the masses to achieve some level of social justice.

But is it really that simple? Of course not. There are a lot of problems with the simple equation of democracy = development. History has shown that development often precedes democracy, and examples of the past thirty years have shown that all rapidly developing countries (East Asia, China) had neither a clean bill of human rights nor a democratic structure of any kind; in fact, they were quite authoritarian. I would go so far as to argue that a certain level of stability is necessary to achieve economic growth-- a stability, rarely, if ever, found in democratic systems...particularly those that would evolve in a post-colonial state. But my focus is not on this...I would rather focus my discussion around this question: Are the current democracy-promotion strategies dominating development policy really a positive improvement in Third World societies? Or are they only masking the true intentions of democracy promoters? Many argue that any form of democracy is naturally a social democracy: assuming human rights are upheld, the majority will always vote in favour of policies that help alleviate poverty. Considering most of the Third World are poor, then logically it follows that those poor will vote-in electorates that would help lift them out of poverty. But if that's the case, then how come we have yet to see a country pull itself out of poverty through democracy?

I think the reasons for this have a lot to do with everyone's favourite uncle, Globalisation [insert Jaws theme song here]. Before we start throwing the G-word around like nobody's business, let's really examine this, simplistic-blog-stylez. Democracy relies on a strong state that maintains some level of autonomy and legitimacy. It needs to represent and uphold the wishes of its citizens, and it needs to command their respect. The past decade has seen as erosion of state autonomy and legitimacy: global forces have rendered the nation state unable to control the economic and political spheres of its society. When this happens, it doesn't matter who is elected into office at the state-level, because global capital is authoritarian in nature: it cannot be held accountable for the political and economic reprecussions it has on any state. Thus, for one, globalisation makes the state unable to control its economy, which in turn renders any democracy useless. What we find then is democratic structures at the national level, but authoritarianism at the global level. Ultimately, this low-intensity democracy is about as useful as Bob Geldof is in solving 'African' problems.

Secondly, the nation-state itself is a problematic concept, and in recent years has played less and less of a role in community-building. Gone are the days of the anti-colonial nationalism of the '50s and '60s; we are finding ourselves in a world that is slowly but surely creating transational linkages, of which state democracy plays a little part. Technology is producing a world where we are able to join groups, communities, and associations that are not limited by state borders. Is our current understanding of democracy relevant when we don't even think of ourselves as necessarily belonging to the state?

There are obviously a few more arguments that can be made, but perhaps those shall be left for another time. For now, there is one final question to address: why, then, do we see this huge rise in democracy promotion, led by Western donors and financial institutions? Firstly, democracy fits in beautifully with the neoliberal agenda: as a system that lowers rent-seeking, corruption, and transaction costs, it is perfectly compatible with free-market ideology. Throw in a few buzz words like 'freedom' and 'participation', and its a sexy image to present to a Third World population devastated by false hopes and empty bellies. Secondly, democracy legitimises exploitation: Arabs can't complain about their economic and social problems when they have the power to change their government and "make a difference"; in this sense democracy is what Gramsci would refer to as a 'passive revolution': while there is a change in the type of people in power, it does not translate into a change in the social structure/ structural conditions; the hegemony of global capital remains, and is legitimised by the inapplicable system of state democracy.

What do I suggest? I would say we need to re-examine the concept of democracy, as well as the concept of 'human rights', in order to make both more applicable to the current conditions of globalisation. This entails 'globalising' both concepts, and removing the 'state' from democracy (I really don't know if this is possible-- any ideas?). Of course theories of 'global governance' are not something I want to get into: theory and practice are highly disjointed. While the UN could theoretically provide a good avenue for transnational democracy to form, real politik makes it a highly unlikely solution. Global civil society/ transnational social movements? Perhaps, but again, theories on both are still in their early stages of formation, and I don't believe things such as the World Social Forum are anything more than a way for white hippies to clean their conscience and get a nice tan.
Sorry this was a long, boring postie. I promise more fun times in the next one. Actually, no I don't.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Po-Mo Development

The mother of all ivory towers lies in the sub-par field of post-modern development (or post-development). I would normally just spit on this and move on quickly, but alas, it is too tempting to rip this piece of crap apart on an unknown blog, and in essay format. Considering I am actually obliged to not only read all the bullshit proponents of post-Development have to say, but also must analyze and discuss their stupidity, means that a mere blog-post ripping them apart is the least I can do.

Proponents of post-Development basically question the entire field of development; they are not merely questioning the means by which development is achieved, but rather question the entire concept of development itself. Now this critical analysis is very important in a Foucault sort of way; even someone like me calls for the importance of post-structuralist analysis every once in a while. But it's not so much this aspect of post-development that twists my, it gets ugly, real quick.

Post-development theorists call for radical relativism: basically calling into question anything and everything-- from human rights, to economic growth, to technology, and yes, even science. Everything to them is a construct; there exists no grand narrative, and everything can be disputed. Now, some of this is particularly relevant: for example, Arturo Escobar (pictured left) goes into excellent detail about the construction of a 'problem'. For instance: any paper on Egypt almost always begins with a mention of how every god-damn Egyptian is populated around the Nile. This is true, but this categorizes Egyptian "problems" to simple demographic policy tools and population control. Basically, Escobar says Westerners create a problem, then go about categorizing the Third World and putting them into neat little boxes to be fixed; then, they send these boxes back to the Third World ('re-conceptualizing them'), where the elites gladly learn all this new stuff about their country that they didn't know before. Somewhere along the way Westernization happens (oh, by the way, according to them, anything Western is bad).

Then, all of a sudden, Escobar drops the bomb: "Poverty on a global scale was a discovery of the post-World War II period...poverty became an organizing concept and the object of a new problematization." Here's a newsflash for this idiot: poverty IS a can't problematize a problem; that, in itself, is problematic. Escobar goes on to talk about the invention of development post-WWII...which is false anyway, because development was 'invented' to deal with socio- economic problems in Europe post-Industrial Revolution, a fact that is well-known to anyone with half a brain (or maybe no one told Latin America yet).

This does not make any logical sense: how can you go and tell some poor African woman that it wouldn't be a problem that she can't buy any food, except "the West" had to go and make it a problem. Unfortunately, if you confront a post-Development theorist with this logic, they will most probably tell you logic is a construct, and then blabber on about ecological feminism or buddhist economics or some other useless tripe. Unfortunately, this retardation does not stop with Escobar. No, now you have wonderful catchphrases like "the art of suffering" (i.e. suffering is good for the soul), and "quality of life is more important than quantity of life" (i.e. it's okay that the life expectancy in Zimbabwe is 35...they ENJOY life more)...everything is a godamn discourse to these over-privileged idiots, including suffering, hunger, poverty, inequality, exploitation, and AIDS...most importantly AIDS.

So in essence, post-development theorists "reject" Westernization, modernization, technology, industrialization, capitalism, universal rationality, and dichotomic thinking...all of these are Western notions of what we SHOULD be...when in essence, we all want to wear burqas and beat women with sticks. Instead, social movements should aim for things like the art of suffering and quality of life, as well as, and I quote, "happiness, beauty, frugality, authenticity"...because after all, it don't matter if you got da AIDZ, all dat matter is you happy wit dat shit. Oh, please.

Before some of you hippies stop braiding each other's hair and make stupid remarks that "happiness is good, maaan", let me throw in another quote made by Esteva, another proponent of post-development:

At the risk of being accused of parochialism, cultural relativism or, worse yet, inhumane indifference to dowry deaths, clitorectomies, gay bashing and to the million other ways in which people torment and torture each other, we want to explicitly reject all contemporary attempts to globalize human rights. Their moral and philosophical foundations are increasingly suspect to us.

Frankly, this will not do. Mr. Esteva, how about you argue the same b.s. when you are born a woman in a village in Somalia, or a gay man in Egypt, or an ugly village-wife-to-be in rural India. I'm sure this wave of cultural relativism you're riding seems ultra-cool to your colleagues in university, but that shit totally doesn't fly with pretty much everyone subject to the above abuses of human rights (except perhaps, some random woman called Odhiambo in Tanzania who enjoys her clitoris being violently ripped out of her vagina). She can go screw herself too, and she won't enjoy it either.

But let's humour the bastard and see what he proposes...Esteva says, again, that the key to a good life resides in simplicity, frugality, meeting basic needs from local soils, and shitting together in the commons. I am not joking. To be fair, they do recognize that defecating together in urban areas of the South is not the pleasure that it is for some in the countryside. Nonetheless, I was tickled by their tubgirl reference.

Off the soapbox.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Financial Liberalisation

Financial liberalisation is always a hot topic, particularly capital account liberalisation. In the '80s and early '90s, it was heralded as a prerequisite to development. How could countries such as Bangladesh, Ghana, and Bolivia ever develop if they did not have the finances needed to sustain economic growth and investment? Solution: open the economy up like an Eastend hooker, and let the cash flow in and out as it pleases. After all, according to neoclassical logic, markets will solve everything: finances will naturally flow from capital-rich areas to capital-poor areas, and everyone wins. Unfortunately, this makes about as much sense as legalising prostitution so that the ugly prostitutes don't feel "left out"...but I digress.

In theory, this makes sense: capital account liberalisation encourages foreign direct investment, which in turn means more money flows into the economy, thereby creating growth. The reality of the situation is that many financial systems in developing countries were simply not developed enough to handle this fast-paced flow of large sums of money to and from the country, which resulted in financial volatility, and in some cases, financial "crises" or "crashes". With speculators betting against a weak currency, sooner or later the state will have no choice but to devalue said currency; international investors get the hell out of the country, and the economy is left in a deep pile of poo-poo.

Now I will resist the urge to go all hippie by talking about the Asian Financial Crisis, the Peso crisis, and the Crises in South America. If you want to know more, google it. Point is: bad things happened man, like...totally. What we learn from these crises is what matters to me; they illustrate a number of things: (i) although they may provide much needed financing to increase investment, the inappropriate management of capital flows overwhelms weak financial systems; and (ii) the structure of the financial system needs to be addressed from a political economy perspective.

Let's begin with the first point; management of capital flows is straight-forward enough: if the government is able to channel capital into growth-enhancing sectors such as industry or agriculture, the economy would see substantial growth that would lead to development (as opposed to capital flows into 'rent-seeking' sectors such as real estate and the stock market, which only create a bubble that will eventually burst, ala the Peso crisis of '94). However, how much power does the government have? East Asian countries were able to control capital flows because they already have high-savings rate, which meant low interest rates. However, high savings rates are difficult to achieve if you're a country like Zimbabwe. In that case, you have little choice but to succumb to "the powers that be" and let the evver-so-efficient 'market' decide what is worth investing.

This brings us to part (ii); the mainstream understanding of financial systems has been deeply depoliticised. Like all social and economic systems, the financial system inherently contains power structures that influence the rules (and obviously, the structure) of the game. For this, I will only list questions that will hopefully leave you with some incentive to research more about this topic: who benefits from the current nature of global finance? Who carries the risk, and who is immune from the risk? Who has the power and why do they have it?

...and finally:

What are the implications of the increasing power of global finance for development?