Proceedings of key note debate held on 17 March 2007 as part of
Development, Sustainability and Environment 3
by Caspar Hewett
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Daniel Ben-Ami, finance and economics journalist, author Cowardly
Capitalism: The Myth of the Global Financial Casino,
Ceri Dingle, Director, WORLDwrite ,
Michael Savage, Manager, Derivatives Credit Policy, Global Banking and Markets,
Royal Bank of Scotland.
The Chair, Mo Lovatt, opened the proceedings by welcoming the audience
and speakers and
announced that the World Première of WORLDwrite's controversial new film Think
Big was to proceed the debate. The film, shot in Ghana, focuses on a number of
individuals in Ghana with aspirations to a Western standard of living, raising a range of
interesting questions about the West’s assumptions regarding the developing world. The
atmosphere of dependence created by Western intervention and by the prejudices of people
working for NGOs is highlighted – especially regarding issues such as corruption, which is
described by one of the interviewees as ‘Western ignorance.’ Some striking interviews show
a distinct mismatch with what many people in the West think of a ‘spoiling’ a place or
undermining a cultural heritage and what people in Ghana actually want – one good example
of this is a beautiful stretch of sandy beach which the interviewee described as useless in its
current state, explaining that he would like to see it developed as a holiday resort, ‘exploiting
it to our benefit … otherwise … what is the point?’ In a similar vein one interviewee defined
a ‘good country’ as one that people want to go to.
Following the film, Mo Lovatt introduced the key note speakers and invited them to make a
short statement to open the discussion.
Daniel Ben-Ami opened by pointing out the great
improvements that have taken
place worldwide over the last century. For example life expectancy in Britain for women is in
the late 70s today. We take extended life expectancy for granted. Before 1900 average life
expectancy worldwide was about 30 years old, now the global figure is in the 60s. This is one
indicator of the benefits of development. Economic growth and affluence have had enormous
human benefits, another key example being the increase in leisure time we enjoy. Looking at
the issue of climate change Ben-Ami argued that the way we will deal with it is with
more resources. Summing up he made the point that, while we have benefited
enormously from growth, we still have a long way to go.
Michael Savage wanted to focus on the shift from a focus on growth to happiness.
From the industrial revolution until very recently Western society concentrated on how best
to promote growth. However, there have emerged new orthodoxies surrounding the idea of
happiness, which Savage finds quite annoying – it is easy to say we should focus on
happiness and also quite hard to argue against, but actually there is a case to be made for
unhappiness. He posed the question ‘why should happiness be a goal?’ This is not what we
devote most of our lives to. For example, consider having children – a recent survey showed
that for most people when they are first married they are happy, lower levels of happiness are
typical while children are at home and then the happiness levels rise when kids have left
home. This highlights a difference between what is rewarding and what makes us
Savage then moved on to a discussion of income. Surveys indicate that as incomes rise up to
$15,000 per annum happiness levels rise with them and then level out. This raises the
question, do we stop there? In reality this confuses the real issues. Economic development is
about freedom all the way up the scale – as people get richer they have more choices,
which may or may not mean they are happier! Automation has been the major factor in
freeing up people’s time and providing the range of choices that people have today,
especially in the most developed countries, and it is this that we should focus on. Savage
closed by suggesting that we leave psychologists to their studies of happiness and don’t read
lessons for development into it. What we need is more development.
A lively discussion with the audience followed covering a wide range of issues related to
development including poverty, corruption, aspirations, resources, growth, tourism and
migration. Geoff Ridley noticed that the properties of some of the Ghanaian
properties shown in the film were surrounded by fences and wondered if this was a sign of
disparities in wealth whereby the richer people were protecting their property. Ian
Packer echoed this, pointing out that there is immense poverty within countries like
Ghana and wondered if this is a sign that something is wrong with the distribution of wealth
in developing areas.
Ceri Dingle replied that the big walls and fences were actually designed to keep
animals in or out, pointing out that crime is very low in the poorest areas. She went on to
discuss how remittances from people working abroad add up to three to four times the
amount provided by aid to developing countries. This is counter to general assumptions made
in the West about the reliance of developing countries on the developed world – we do not
think of Africans as looking after their own, when in fact the main reason that people migrate
to work is in order to send remittances home to their families. The perception of a widening
gap in wealth in African countries is also false – we are actually beginning to see less of a
gap. She argued that the focus on poverty is false – the real gap is North-South and what we
need to do is bring people up to our level of development. She pointed out that most people
would rather live in a shanty town than in a rural area, arguing that it is a myth invented in
the West that people in Africa do not want what we have – and this is borne out by the people
interviewed in the film.
Some questions arose about whether the Earth’s resources are finite and what the effects of
development are on other species. Michael Savage argued that human labour is the
only finite resource. For him the only value of an ecosystem is the value it has for us. He does
not care about inequality, only about development. Daniel Ben-Ami pointed out
that the question of inequality is used as an argument against economic growth. People say it
is clear that inequality is rising when it is actually not clear at all. He argued that poverty in
countries like Ghana is an argument for more development, not less. One participant wanted
to know why we think we should involved in development in Africa at all – why not leave
developing countries to develop along their own lines at their own expense?
Viv Regan and Ceri Dingle of WORLDwrite highlighted the way
that corruption in Africa had become a major subject of debate in the West. They have coined
the phrase ‘Corruptababble’ as a description of this tendency arguing that it is a Western
obsession based on false premises. There is no relation between poverty and corruption. The
discussion of corruption is more about our cynicism especially over people in the developing
world’s capacity to look after themselves. A key part of WORLDwrite’s message is
that people can and should do great things. We are not so different in different parts of the
world – most people want freedom from toil and freedom to choose. Michael
Savage, in tongue in cheek mode, stated that corruption is the best thing for the
developing world as at least the money stays local. He pointed out that there have never been
fewer barriers to developing the whole world – it is now more expensive to employ a PhD.
Mathematician in Moscow than in London!
was concerned that tourism can be a dangerous thing, leading to a
loss of culture, and drew attention to countries like Greece and Spain where whole areas of
coast have been spoilt by development. Ceri Dingle thought that this is a misleading
view – people in Ghana want tourism as they recognise that it will provide jobs and wealth
for their country – they would like to live in Spain. Responding to a question about the film
in which people expressed their desire to have material goods like TVs and fridges, Dingle
pointed out that a TV gives you the chance to see what is happening in the world, and a fridge
makes life much easier for obvious reasons – these are perfectly reasonable things to desire.
She said that Ghanaians laugh at our perceptions of them and what they want and argued that
we need to start by telling the truth – that these are people just like us.
Ian Packer wondered why have to assume that the way forward for African is along
the same lines as here. He felt that we are perhaps exporting the worst of the West to
developing countries. Ceri Dingle disagreed – people in Ghana think big televisions
etc. are good – they cannot understand anti-consumerism. They say if you don’t want it give
it to us! She made the point that carrying stuff on your head is not a cultural tradition
in Africa – it is simply a solution to a problem. She argued that cultural difference is all too
often used to justify poverty and that we should free up the 70% of people in the world who
do not have the chance to use their creative brain.
On the question of debt Michael Savage made the point that the capital is all in the
West and there are barriers even to lending Africa money – it is seen as immoral in some
quarters. Ian Packer drew attention to the exploitation of Africa, pointing out that
the World Bank stipulates how it is spent. Mark Wilkinson was worried by
individual debt, thinking that it can be a big problem for the poorest people. Michael
Savage argued that debt is not necessarily a bad thing for nations or individuals – it
enables you to ‘buy stuff’ you would not otherwise be able to buy.
Malaria is still one of the biggest killers in the world, killing more than a million people in
Africa alone each year. This gave rise to a discussion of the use of DDT in developing
countries as a means to wipe out mosquitoes. Kevin Yuill thought that DDT should
be more widely used and that it is a much better solution than mosquito nets – the fact that
inadequate little nets are seriously proposed as the best option for the developing world
highlights the low horizons Western NGOs have for developing countries. However there is
also the question of what damage is done to the environment by widespread use of DDT.
There was some agreement that the balance between these things needs to be weighed up –
how highly do we value human life? Daniel Ben-Ami pointed out that there is a
correlation between standard of living and malaria – DDT may have a place but more modern
technology can play a greater role – the best way to deal with malaria is basic sanitation.
Daniel Ben-Ami made a case for what we can do: First we need to ditch the notion
of sustainability, both here and in the developing world – the idea that we should place limits
on development is really negative. Secondly it would be positive to have more resource
flows, but not with all sorts of conditions attached. Thirdly we should end migration controls,
especially when you consider how important remittances are to the developing world – it
helps promote development, as does tourism.
Ceri Dingle closed the debate on a high note, coming back to the central theme of
thinking big, arguing that if we fight for so little for developing countries we will not get
Caspar J M Hewett, April 2007
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Think Big web site and trailer.
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