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Chapter Twelve:Development after Ecology

Bob Sutcliffe

It was during the period roughly between the first Indian Five Year Plan and the first oil shock that the time came for the idea that the whole world, including the poorer countries, should be developed. The great majority of those in governments, international organizations, universities and the media who became specialists in the field agreed that the journey to development for the economically backward countries involved following in the path of the more advanced ones until they caught up. It was assumed also that the majority of the people of the poorer countries had (or would acquire) needs and wants which were consistent with this end.


Debates About the Vehicle...

The specialists disagreed frequently and vigorously among themselves about the best mode of transport or vehicle to use for the trip: planning or the market, protectionist or openness to the world economy and to trade and investment, using labour or capital intensive technology, giving priority to agriculture or industry; through balanced or unbalanced growth. The central issue in these major vehicular disputes was about what was to be the relative role of the state as an agent of development. What were seen as the successes of Soviet planning and Keynesian management encouraged those who saw the state as important, though the proponents of the free market as an agent of development were never lacking. A bold economist's simplification of these disputes is to say that they boiled down to the correctness of two key prices, that of foreign exchange and that of labour A common argument was that labour tended to be overvalued and foreign exchange undervalued by the wage and the exchange rate respectively; and this was judged to justify state intervention, labour intensity and protectionism.

Few of the participants in these debates doubted that the journey would take not-yet-developed countries past the same landmarks as the earlier travellers: increased saving and investment, higher material productivity, industrialization and the decline of agricultural employment, urbanization, the use of modern technology and eventually high mass consumption. Some thought that the stages2 of the journey were clearly marked; for others, progress on all these fronts would be more intertwined. For some the journey would be gradual; for others progress would depend on a big push, a critical minimum effort, and an investment programme for balanced (or for unbalanced) growth. Acceleration metaphors abounded.

The development journey was seen as a limitless sum game and, in a phrase suggested by Albert Hirschman as a touchstone, could bring 'mutual benefit to all countries, developed and developing. Sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, the acceptors of mutual benefit assumed that development could and would take place in basically capitalist economies, even though some of them advocated a very high level of state activity and intervention. Not all of them excluded the possibility that the journey could even be made under socialism, but they did not see it as necessary. Often development policies were recommended regardless of the social and political system. A catching up (or modernizing) perspective dominated the vast development 'industry' which grew up during the years after 1950 and which included national aid agencies in the developed countries, national ministries of planning and development in the underdeveloped countries, and a vast array of international institutions nominally dedicated to the fomentation of development. But, as time went by, such a multitude of writers, administrators, politicians and institutions naturally engendered an opposition.

...and the Route

It is often difficult to say where one debate ends and another begins. But during the 1960s, coinciding with a revival of critical social thinking in general in the West, a new deeper level of difference began to appear in development debates. Differences about exchange rates, protectionism, the price of labour, the need for state investment and so on had all been, to begin with, about policies within an assumed socio-economic system. Increasingly they shaded over into a deeper difference about the relationship between development and the socio-economic system itself.

The key difference in this more basic debate was over the question of mutual benefit. For some, the development of poorer countries was in no way contradictory to the interests of the developed ones: a rising tide would raise all boats. Others, however, denied the possibility of this mutual benefit. They believed that the development road map was either out-of-date or falsified. They thought that the developed countries had destroyed behind them the (capitalist) road by which they travelled to their development so that it was no longer passable. Some of them said that major reforms to the world economy (a New International Economic Order) might still enable them to travel the road. But many, including myself, agreed with Andre Gunder Frank that the underdeveloped countries had been made underdeveloped by the success of the developed ones so, since they were not starting from the same point, they could hardly travel the same road. Meanwhile, the continuing under development of the 'South' was complementary to the continuing development of the countries of the 'North'. For sceptics about mutual benefit economic relations between developed and underdeveloped countries were seen as necessarily unequal, so they tended to see development of the underdeveloped countries as requiring some degree of disconnections from the world (economic) system headed by the developed countries and from the social system (capitalism) which dominated it.

This collection of ideas, all of which reject mutual benefit in one way or another has been given many names: world systems theory, dependency theory, neo-Marxism, structuralism and many more. For some purposes it would be useful to give very precise definitions of these terms and theories and to draw fine distinctions between them; but for my purpose, as for others (Frank 1992), they can be bundled together and seen as a broad church with different detailed ideas but a common thread in the rejection of mutual benefit and of development as a possibility by way of the capitalist road and integration in the world economy.

Those who held these ideas, however, still thought that the underdeveloped countries could reach development, but by a different route. If the capitalist road was blocked or inaccessible they would have to build a new socialist highway to development, but they could all get there in the end. So, to the differences about the vehicle (the policy mix) were added more profound differences about the route (the social system).

Here there were additional differences: over the kind of socialist system necessary to produce development, over what political changes were necessary to bring it about, over whether one country could attain socialist development in isolation, and, if not, over how many would need to adopt socialist systems for a really viable alternative to exist, and over whether development of the poorer countries was thinkable without socialism in the developed countries as well. There were, then, various alternative routes envisaged.

The debate about the social system, unlike earlier disputes over development policies, spread out far beyond the development specialists and was reflected at many levels in world politics. If we call the two sides in the debate the acceptors and rejectors of mutual benefit, then it is not an oversimplication to say that just about everybody (except left wing extremists) who pondered about the question in the developed countries were acceptors. And just about everybody (except fairly right wing people) who thought about the question in the underdeveloped countries became rejectors.

The different theories were points of reference in social and international conflicts. Governments who professed themselves acceptors of mutual benefit mined the harbours of, or refused to buy the products of, or financed opposition movements of, or plotted the assassination of leaders of countries ruled by governments rejecting it.

After 1973, however, the clean lines of this debate became more wavy. A third group (called the Warrenites, after their founder) were also left wing but seemed to agree with the acceptors of mutual benefit (Warren 1980). They dismissed what the rejectionists called the socialist road as a nationalist blind alley. For the Warrenites socialism was not a road to development but something attainable only when approaching the destination. Like most of the acceptors of mutual benefit they believed that the capitalist road remained open. Their arrival on the scene produced a slightly different debate which more or less petered out since some Warrenites accepted the seriousness of impediments on the old capitalist road and some rejectionists began to argue that some countries could travel along part of the road to produce 'dependent development' (Cardoso and Faletto 1979 and Evans 1979), or that some countries attained intermediate positions between the developed and the underdeveloped (the semi-periphery) (Wallerstein 1979). Many people concluded that the positions of the initially opposed sides in the debate thus eventually tended to converge (Sklair 1988, Leys 1986, Slater 1987).

But all in all it certainly had been a great debate. It polarized the discussions of development for a generation. Political leaders and intellectuals concentrated their actions and thoughts within the space defined by the debate. And there seems, even today, no doubt that the debate was about really important and still vital issues. But I will return to that later.

Tacit Accords

Today the echoes of that great debate have become fainter. What became of it? Why did it recede? Part of the answer is that the world threw up facts and problems which seemed important but which could not be easily explained or answered by either side in the great debate. The growth of the NICs seemingly violated the expectations of the rejectionists and helped to throw their paradigm into crisis. And the accumulation of development disasters, especially in Africa, along with the reverses associated with the debt crisis and worsening terms of trade seemed to confound the optimism of the proponents of mutual benefit. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we can also see that there was another reason that the debate receded: although at the time it had seemed to be based on profound disagreement, there was much more common ground than appeared. In debates, things on which both sides agree don't seem to be important at the time and so are ignored. Yet they may in the end turn out to be more significant than the matters which are debated. And so, in my view, it proved with the great development debate.

What was it that all the sides agreed on? First, there was an idea of what development would be like. It was, roughly speaking, thought to be similar to the situation which existed in the developed countries, which of course is why they were so called. Development was a place on the conceptual map somewhere between the United States, Western Europe and Japan. These countries might not be perfect but no one questioned most aspects of their (especially economic) characteristics: industrialization, the use of modern, highly productive technology, high levels of employment of productive workers working with machines for about eight hours a day, high average standards of living, efficiency, punctuality, longevity, the elimination of most deaths from infectious diseases... the familiar list can be long.

The second shared idea was that there was a close or even automatic connection between these economic aspects of development (especially rising production and productivity) and the meeting of basic needs and human welfare. Some held that development would after a time automatically equalize benefits, others believed that the state might have to intervene, still others thought that the best that the poor could expect was what trickled down from the rich. But all believed that national material riches (development) would or could result in greater human welfare. In other words, they believed that development was desirable.

The third issue they all seemed to agree on was that the idea of development applied first and foremost to countries or nations. That is why the characteristics of development already listed refer basically to the structure of national economies. It also explains why the predominant attitude to human welfare was that it was a sub-product of national development.

The fourth clause of the tacit accords was that, if there were obstacles to the universalization of development, then these were social, economic and political (domestic or international) but not natural. It seldom occurred to any participant in the great debate that universal development to European/Japanese/United States levels might not be materially possible. If everyone had some conception (sometimes implicit) of the relation between development and welfare almost no one thought about the connection between development and the physical environment.

The fifth clause is closely related to the fourth. Universal development was implicitly expected to produce an equalization between countries. This would be through a levelling up. So equalization did not imply redistribution (ie those at the top being brought down so that those at the bottom could gain). The famous aid target of 0.7 per cent of GNP was the most daring redistribution that anyone proposed. And the rejectors of mutual benefit in general saw deliberate redistribution through aid as a fraud or a poisoned chalice.

The sixth accord was that development was seen as a permanent state. There was a kind of socio-economic ratchet and countries were not expected to revert to underdevelopment once development had been attained.

Not everyone who was interested in development and underdevelopment thought that the great debate over mutual benefit was the most important one. Some people didn't hold the six shared assumptions and so tried to launch different debates. But for a long time they were regarded as fairly marginal to the real issues; the time for their ideas was still to come.


The great debate receded because events and research exposed the dubious nature of these shared opinions. It was not that the problem of route, the fundamental issue in the great debate, was resolved or disappeared; but rather that, as the journey proceeded, problems of destination (the subject of the tacit accords) which previously seemed trivial began to appear ever more problematic.

Despite repeated efforts to move along the old road or to locate the new one, and even make some apparent progress, an unexpectedly large proportion of the population continued to suffer from extreme material and cultural deprivations. The assumption that the pursuit and even the attainment of a measure of development would increase human welfare seemed ever more shaky. On the one hand empirical data which emphasized the persistence and even growth of poverty, hunger and disease: positive rates of growth of income coincided with worsening distribution; the statistics for Africa and South Asia lagged obstinately behind those for the successes of East Asia, those for women behind men, those for rural areas behind urban; in Asia the green revolution increased food production but did not reduce hunger to the same extent; in Africa the 1970s saw a return to major famines; the success of eliminating smallpox and the spread of child vaccination was followed by the chilling threat of AIDS. On the other hand there was a growing mobilization of groups demanding the fulfilment of their basic needs and rights which they saw as either not met by development or actually threatened by it. Such groups included women, indigenous movements, people threatened with forced removal from their land because of the arrival of commercial agriculture or the building of dams, and many others. As long as development was regarded as progressive it was assumed that people on the whole would want it. But when increasing numbers of people made it clear that they did not want it, it began to seem less evidently progressive. The map, so it appeared to many, gave a false idea of the nature of the terrain in the region of development.

In addition, ideas from various sources converged to fortify the increasingly critical approach to actually existing development. To a re-examination of fundamentals among disillusioned, or at least disappointed, development specialists were added:

So a new debate began to take shape: not so much about how to attain a known goal of development but rather about whether development as hitherto conceived was a worthwhile destination. What, by analogy with debates about socialism, we might call actually existing development was a destination which to many looked less and less desirable. Many development specialists began to advocate the attainment of basic human needs as a primary rather than secondary objective (Streeten 1981 and Stewart 1985); others searched for a more appropriate technology; others concentrated more on the problem of the poverty of individuals and groups rather than the underdevelopment of nations. The common feature of these approaches was an attempt to see development in terms of what happens to people rather than to abstractions like nations. One of the best summaries of this approach can be found in a recent comment by two of the key contributors to it. The important questions to ask in assessing development, they say, are:

Do [people] have the capacity to live long? Can they avoid mortality during infancy and childhood? Do they avoid illiteracy? Are they free from hunger and undernourishment? Do they enjoy personal liberty and freedom?

These are the basic features of well-being which derive from looking at people as the centre of all development activity. Enhancing their capabilities to function in these elementary ways is what lies at the core of human development. The achievements of people foe it in terms of long life or functional literacy are valued as ends in themselves. This should be contrasted with more mainstream economic approaches which discuss human resource development. Here the focus is on human beings as a resource an input into production activities. The development of human resources is seen in teens of their contribution to income generation as an investment, like any other, in enhancing the productive potential.

(Anand and Sen 1993)

It is in this context that the environment makes its first appearance. An important facet of this many-sided destinational critique of development arose out of the sudden growth in awareness of the effect of human activities on the environment and the resulting impact on the conditions of human existence. Development produces pollution of many kinds and this means that any benefits of development can be partly or wholly offset by worse conditions of life. Many of these disadvantages (air and water quality, for instance) were only too obvious; others (like the health effects of asbestos, electric fields, nuclear power, noise, diet) were revealed by scientific research. In this sense growing ecological awareness was no more than one more strand in the critique of the desirability of the previously unquestioned development destination.

Environmental consciousness and research, however, also gave rise to a different concern which often appears to transcend the others, not because it is intrinsically more important but because it portends happenings which would make the other debates redundant. In the early 1970s many people began to foretell the imminent exhaustion of the material resources on which development had been based (Meadows and others 1972); later came the predictions of climatic and other changes resulting from actually existing development which would at best shortly inflict profound changes on the physical conditions of human life and might at worst rapidly make it impossible, through the overuse of resources or the overproduction of wastes. Here the concern is not merely that development has undesirable side-effects on human life but rather that it, and in particular its generalization, might make human life impossible.

The influence of environmental questions in the development debate is new. Until very recently authoritative texts on development appeared which made no reference to it And, once incorporated into the debate, it produced very varying reactions regarding its practical and methodological importance. Even for those who regard environmental questions as important in development there are some who see them as factors which must be taken account of within a basically unchanged, if slightly more complicated, methodology (for example, Mikesell 1992 and Pierce, Barbier and Markandya 1990) and others who see them as demanding a drastic methodological change. Some see the environmental problem as confirming the need for rapid economic growth (World Bank 1992) while others see it as demanding a cessation of growth and a radical reorganization of human social life (Daly 1991, Trainer 1985 and 1989).

Thus the great debate about the route to development, which displaced debates about the appropriate vehicle, has itself been to a great extent displaced by two different ones about, respectively, the desirability and the possibility of the previously posited destination. From now on I will refer to these as being about the welfare critique and the environmental critique. The welfare critique asks if a destination of development different from the one normally posited would not be better. The environmental critique questions whether the normally posited destination actually exists if it is pursued by all. In other words it argues that the current state of the world, or at least the state towards which it is heading, is materially unsustainable.

So, we might say that the welfare critique is about destination and the environmental critique is more about the validity of the map. It is in these areas that we now find the most challenging and original contributions to the discussion of development and the future of poor countries, at least at the intellectual but partly at the political level too.


These two critiques of actually existing development (the welfare critique and the environmental critique) have a number of important features in common. In the first place, both of them, in different ways, see actually existing development as a partly contradictory process. The proponents of the welfare critique question the assumed positive relation between development and welfare and even suggest that actually existing development may produce negative consequences for human welfare and thus be undesirable.

The environmental critique embodies an even sharper notion of the contradictory nature of actually existing development. It sees the possibility or probability that such development will undermine its own material base and so become impossible to maintain. So, a phenomenon whose global generalization was previously regarded, almost axiomatically, as both desirable and possible is seen as neither: attempting to produce something regarded as good produces something else which is to a significant extent bad and which progressively destroys the chance of producing anything at all.

The second common feature of the welfare and environmental critiques, largely a by-product of the first, is their rejection of the most commonly used indicators of development, especially the national product (GNP) or national income. As a measure of welfare or development this concept has received so many criticisms during its history that it is really surprising that it continues to be economists' most successful export to the rest of the world. Nonetheless, national income and national product continue to be the most commonly employed economic statistics: a remarkable violation of the economists' principle of the virtues of the market!

The proponents of the welfare critique point out two drawbacks to using the well known measures of national income or product as indicators of economic welfare. First, they assign equal value to a dollar's worth of production of arms or untruthful advertising on the one hand as to a dollar's worth of medicines or literature on the other. This means that there is a relative undervaluation of those activities which contribute to human welfare. Second, they value a dollar of income of a millionaire on a par with a dollar of income of a poor person when the latter is obviously 'worth' more.

The proponents of the environmental critique also make two main criticisms of the calculation of the national income or product. The first refers to its way of dealing with pollution and its ill effects. Nothing is subtracted from the figure for national income to take into account the 'negative externalities' of pollution. (Hence, assuming these are greater than positive externalities, the national income is overestimated). Even more absurd, if action is taken to rectify the bad effects of pollution (for example, expenditure on cleaning up a river polluted by industrial waste) such expenditures appear as positive in the national income figures. In other words it is possible for the cost of contamination to appear as a benefiit in the national income, not only once but in some cases twice!

The second criticism refers to the conversion of the national income or product figures from 'gross' value to 'net' value in order to take into account the part of the capital stock which is used up in the production process; but the capital considered here is only capital created by human investment and, wrongly, does not include the natural resources used up (see Daly 1988). These criticisms, like those from the side of the welfare critique, lead to the conclusion that the national income or product figures tend to overvalue enormously what is really 'produced' by human economies and what is really 'earned' by their participants.

The two critiques coincide on a third point. Both reject the idea, one of the main characteristics of earlier development thinking, that development is a process in which the 'underdeveloped' progressively approach the state of the 'developed'. This coincidence leads to a fourth: both see development not so much as a problem of some countries (underdeveloped ones) which the developed countries have overcome but rather as a problem for the world. The environmental critique emphasizes global interdependence, while the welfare critique draws attention to deficiencies in meeting needs in both rich and poor countries.

A fifth point which the critiques have in common is their concern with distribution and equity - between rich and poor, both within and between nations (welfare) and between present and future, or between generations (environmental), a point to which I will return later.

Finally the critiques share a sixth characteristic that they are not at all new. Every one of the arguments mentioned up to now was present in economic debates more than a century ago. The modern critique of development is as much a revivalist as an original phenomenon.

There is a parallel between the beginning of the great debate about mutual benefit and these new development debates which has aided their impact. Rejectors of mutual benefit argued that the previous debates about development policy were all but irrelevant if they took place in the context of an unequal global socio-economic environment which prevented development. Those who advocated major social change as a necessary preliminary to development, therefore, seemed to be positing something more basic as the main discussion. Economic policy debates seemed trivial in comparison with the choice between capitalism and socialism. Now, similarly, both the welfare and the environmental critiques of development appear to define a problem which is in some way logically prior to the question of the socio-economic system. If humans do not benefit from it, and if it is materially impossible, it hardly seems to matter under what social system generalized development takes place. If such a line of thinking helps to explain the present interest in these issues, they are not, as I shall reassert later, soluble in isolation from the question of the socioeconomic and political system.


Although the two critiques overlap and share many arguments against actually existing development it is important to insist that they are different from each other, both conceptually and in terms of the problems they identify and the remedies to which they point. Theoretically it is possible to imagine a process which reduces or even eliminates the environmental damage of human activity but which does not advance the welfare of the deprived. There is an important current of opinion in ecological thinking which argues that too much concern with human welfare is 'soft' while ecological rationality requires hard unsentimental decisions.

Equally, it is possible theoretically to imagine meeting current human needs more widely yet doing so in a way which is not at all sustainable and which may even add to existing environmental damage. The two critiques have discovered not one but two things wrong with actually existing development.

This difference is closely related to, if not identical with, a difference suggested by Ekins and Jacobs in their chapter in this book. They use three concepts to clarify the relationships involved: throughput (physical use of resources), GDP (the value of output) and welfare. The ecological critique of development is concerned with the relationship between throughput and GDP; the welfare critique with the relationship between GDP and welfare.

Since both these separate critiques point to the need for important changes in human activity, it seems important to look at the ways in which the changes they demand can be integrated, and to see the conditions under which they are consistent and inconsistent with each other.

Once again oversimplifying grossly, I will call the kind of changes advocated by those who have been most concerned with the welfare critique 'human development', and that advocated by those who have emphasized the environmental critique 'sustainable development'. These terms have their dangers in that they have recently come to be used positively by people of such a wide range of different and conflicting persuasions and interests that it is not possible that all of them mean the same thing by using these terms.

The terms also have the disadvantage that they are both enshrined in and closely associated with different prestigious international reports. These reports use the terms with a very concrete definition which is not necessarily an ideal one. The two concepts of human and sustainable development have for the most part arisen separately and from different preoccupations, movements, writers and organizations. There is, therefore, no reason to think that they will necessarily coincide or even be entirely consistent with each other. Reports, books and articles devoted to one often neglect the other. When the ideas are presented jointly it usually reflects the good intentions of the author rather than analytical equality and unity. Sometimes, however, it does mean that a combined positive reponse to the problems suggested by both critiques is being defined, as in the case of Ekins and Jacobs' 'strong sustainability' (see Ekins and Jacobs, Chapter 2).

I do not want to enter in detail here into the problem of defining human and sustainable development. But I believe that, despite the problems mentioned, the terms are useful shorthands for two distinct sets of ideas which need to be unified. In general terms 'human development' can be taken to mean a process of social and economic change whose main motive is to produce a radical improvement in the material and cultural standard of living (or perhaps capability) of people now suffering deprivation and which judges the utility of other aspects of development (production, technology and so on) by the criterion of their contribution to this improvement. This is the reverse of the traditional idea that welfare is a byproduct or necessary result of economic development; needed economic development should be justified by its contribution to welfare.

In similar terms, 'sustainable development' can be defined as changes in human material activities which radically lessen the depletion of nonrenewable and not easily renewable resources and the harmful pollution of the environment, which thus radically lengthen the time over which human material needs can be met.

If there is no logical reason why these two things should coincide and yet both of them seem self-evidently desirable, it seems a logical next step to try to combine them and see the conditions which will aid and impede their common achievement.


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