There is a growing realisation that industrial capitalist futures for whole world are unsustainable in resource, energy and pollution terms as well as unattainable in political economy terms. Large swathes of today’s poor will continue to be excluded from the rising living standards enjoyed by those who have captured the lion’s share of the globalisation dividend.
This prospect is encouraging the emergence of other indicators of progress and self-esteem: more spiritual, more rooted in ideas about well-being, more millenarian identities, more in harmony with nature. It is also encouraging greater attention to inequality and a highly skewed distribution of benefits, not only as a moral and ethical issue, but as a pragmatic issue of rising political tensions and threats to any prospects of collective action and agreements. Inequality and unfairness underpins wars and fragile states.
The thinking about development since the Second World War has occurred within a dominant paradigm of capitalist modernisation. It is often based upon the assumption that people’s wellbeing is a simple function of improved material standards of living, indicated by increased real incomes.
Of course, embedded in the notion of modernisation was the formation of more open, rights based societies characterised as liberal-democratic pluralist. From the late 1960s, these assumptions were challenged, especially from Latin America, by the argument that formally free, post colonial societies had their path to modernisation thwarted by the continuing economic dominance of advanced industrial and post-industrial societies (known as the ‘dependency’ argument). This set the terms of exchange and thus accumulation in the global political economy.
The so-called communist bloc of Soviet Union, China and their client states offered the only alternative for poor countries, but at a high ‘clientelist’ price and therefore unattractive. Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the consequent liberation of Central Asian societies as well as Eastern European and other client states in Africa and SE Asia, the world has become a very different place, especially with the rise of the BRICs and the location of significant poverty in rising middle income countries alongside the poor ones.
While many conferences about development have recently been obsessed with more immediate policy evaluation and especially the progress with MDGs, the one day, November 2010 DSA conference in London was deliberately designed to enable academics, policy leaders and practitioners to assess the significance of some big questions. Now is an important time to address issues such as continuing poverty, inequality, exclusion, well-being, religious and millenarian identities, and a proliferation of development cosmologies, so that all parts of global society can do development better in the future.
Without the opportunity for this deeper reflection, we risk blundering forward on narrow assumptions while the world around us breaks up under the deeper pressures upon it. This one day conference was to some extent a prelude for the joint UK and European (DSA and EADI) conference planned for York in September 2011 on ‘Rethinking Development’, with exciting proposals for panels and papers already coming in to the organising committee.
Geof Wood is an Emeritus Professor of International Development at The University of Bath and a Council Member of the Development Studies Association