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The Great Debate: Development, Sustainability and Environment

Thinking Big
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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Click Here for Think Big web site and trailer.

Panel: 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 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 happy.

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 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 anything.

Caspar J M Hewett, April 2007

Click Here for Think Big web site and trailer.

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Proceedings of the First Conference on Development, Sustainability and Environment
Proceedings of DSE2: The Second Conference on Development, Sustainability and Environment
Proceedings of DSE3: The Third Conference on Development, Sustainability and Environment

Think Big web site and trailer
A Letter to Geldof web site and trailer
Institute for Research on Environment and Sustainability
Supporters of Nuclear Energy (SONE)
Scientists for Global Responsibility
Woudhuysen: Thinking about the future

To Build or Not to Build Proceedings by Caspar Hewett and Mo Lovatt
The New Moral Code - Environmentalism in the 21st Century by David O'Toole
That's the limit by Roger Higman
Our Legacy of Nuclear Waste by Aidan Burton
Reflections on Policy in Republic of South Africa by Caspar Hewett, June 2003
Where there's the will, there's water by Ceri Dingle and Esme Young

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© C J M Hewett, 2007