27.01.2009 Feature Article

The true cost of development

The true cost of development
27.01.2009 LISTEN

First printed in Graphic Business (Ghana, No. 021, Tuesday 20 January 2009) and in Africa Week magazine.

I have always been a strong advocate of progress and development for Africa. My greatest wish is to see 'Black Africa' – and my native Ghana in particular – emerge as force on the world stage and be seen as a key contributor to world affairs. I have often annoyed many relatives and friends with my passionate discussions about Africa and her development.

In a bid to make some sort of contribution despite my limited station and resources, I started writing articles which seek to identify some of the root causes of our failings, challenge conventional thinking, and make some recommendations for change and improvement.

In recent weeks, I have been re-examining and challenging some of my own views and beliefs, and asking questions about what development means for Africa. Questions like:

  • What is development, actually?
  • Must all development come in the conventional westernised way?
  • What does development really cost?
  • Is development founded on capitalism suitable for Africa?
  • Won't we lose some of the variety and diversity that makes the world interesting?

    After some considerable thought, I have come to the conclusion that these issues are worth sharing and discussing.

    Development is necessary but costly
    In my view, some form of development is and will always be necessary. Without continual change and improvement, people and cultures would stagnate, and we would have few of the significant achievements humanity has seen. A critical requirement for development and growth is a 'fertile' environment that encourages learning and experimentation.

    Development does not come easy or automatically, and it is not without cost. There seems to be an invisible force in life which tries to maintain some sort of equilibrium; gaining in one way often means losing in another. The good often comes with the not-so-good, so sacrifices must be made. As with any important project, the goals and costs of any development initiative need to be clear – so that commitment to the cause can be as true as humanly possible. No man-made institution or achievement is perfect. While we aspire to perfection, most, if not all, of our achievements have their respective 'pluses and minuses' – hence the need for continuous improvement.

    Globalisation and the wonders and reach of modern technology have done away with some of our differences, probably for good. Those countries and cultures that have taken the lead have, in a way, assimilated those who lag behind – we all love burgers and Hollywood blockbusters. However, since nations are engaged in a complex mix of competition and cooperation – against a backdrop of finite resources – it is imperative that each develops and highlights differentiators that set them apart.

    The realities of 'western-style development'
    When one examines the progress of so-called developed nations, it becomes clear that they are not perfect; a case of all that glitters is not gold. Despite their obvious and admirable economic wealth and power, they have problems too. There are many undesirable occurrences that afflict many a developed nation, and judging from my own experiences and the complaints of many people I know, life is not always a bed of roses.

    Development for these nations has come at a cost, and many sacrifices have been made in the process. Some of these costs are obvious, others are less so. The former tend to be tangible investments that are related to time, money, and human life, whereas the latter tends to be side-effects or unplanned, sometimes undesirable, consequences or outcomes. Developing countries – even those that seem to be on an accelerated development programme – will experience some of these costs and consequences.

    It would appear that the same 'isms' – that is, capitalism, liberalism, and materialism – that have given rise to the laudable achievements and growth in western countries, are also responsible for some of the ills in their societies. The pressure to sustain quality of life and acquire material possessions has brought with it community and family breakdown. More than one-third of all marriages end up in divorce – even though there are fewer marriages to start with. People are drowning in never-before seen levels of personal debt, which is now plaguing western economies.

    Family values and social interaction – sometimes referred to as 'social fabric' – are in steady decline and have reached an all-time low. People can live somewhere for years and hardly know their neighbours.

    Nursing mothers often have to leave their babies and return to work a few weeks after giving birth, and pay someone to look after the baby. Parent-child relationships are being impaired due to this and other reasons. The youth have become intimate with their rights, but have shunned responsibility – a phenomenon which has greatly contributed to increased disrespect and anti-social behaviour. People seem to be getting more selfish and individualistic, causing some politicians and social commentators to coin a new term: 'broken society'.

    'He that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow'
    Worryingly, the recent near-collapse of the hitherto much-lauded global financial system – which gave birth to the credit crunch and global recession – has gone a long way to show us that some of the achievements of western democracies may not be as sound as previously thought. Westerners may no longer be able to console themselves with the idea that they've made worthwhile sacrifices of social interaction and family values for financial wealth and material possessions.

    The flipside of all the laudable achievements of westerners is the loss of some key things needed for effective communities; so there is still much discontentment and unhappiness. Mental ailments seem to be on the rise, and news bulletins frequently feature murders and other unspeakable reports. There are already signs that some of these cracks are appearing in developing communities too.

    Recent worldwide research found that the places were people where happiest, were those that we see as 'simplistic' or underdeveloped; Papua New Guinea was cited as an example. These people live fairly content and happy lives because they don't have our insatiable appetites for material possessions, inordinate wealth, and impossible dreams. As I watched the documentary that presented the findings of this research, I couldn't help but think of my favourite quote from the book of Proverbs: 'he that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow' – a variation on 'ignorance is bliss'. Modern 'civilisation' often thinks it has all the answers, but sometimes all we do is increase 'pain'.

    Challenges for African leaders and intellectuals
    Africa has immense potential, and it would be one of history's greatest travesties if she is unable to realise this potential and become a force on the world stage. With a largely friendly climate, vast mineral wealth, and talented people (yet to be maximised), the continent still has much to offer the world. We mustn't, however, let our admiration of western achievements and successes cause us to emulate them without due consideration of the implications.

    The challenge for African people at home and in the Diaspora – politicians, community leaders, senior professionals, and academics – is to develop a common and compelling vision for their respective domains. They have to paint a picture of the 'promised land', and set course to reach it. This raises some obvious questions: Where is this 'promised land', and what does it look like? Is it the same place that is currently occupied by our European, American, and Asian cousins? If it is, will there be enough space there for all of us? We need to be careful: Capitalism seems to work by enforcing a wealth class system, and, in a way, through exploitation.

    One advantage of being a late 'bloomer' is the fact that it is possible to learn from the outcomes and failures of pacesetters, and avoid some of the mistakes they made. African leaders therefore have to occupy themselves with the same questions that have occupied me for a few weeks now, and develop a viable and sustainable vision for Africa:

  • What does a developed Africa look like?
  • What is that common and compelling vision that Africa needs? Integration?
  • What are the key pillars of this vision? Human capital? Technology? Agriculture?
  • How do we formulate realistic, achievable, and appropriate development goals from the vision?
  • Will capitalism work for Africa?
  • Will globalisation continue to erode our cultural differences and tastes? What might this mean for Africa?
  • Are Africans conditioned to accept a radical Afro-centric vision and strategy, or have we bought into western dreams?
  • Do we have the right development aspirations?
  • What would it cost us – financially or otherwise – to develop, and how long will it take?
  • Are we ready to accept the costs, and deal with the consequences?
  • What mitigating strategies do we have to reduce the impact of some of the societal 'ills' that development would bring?
  • Is there some alternative development approach that we could adopt? One which would preserve Africa's good points?

    A radical approach to sustained development
    I am not an authority in socio-economic and political matters, and cannot even begin to answer some of these questions, but I believe African leaders, intellectuals, and patriots need to give some serious thought to them. We mustn't underestimate or take for granted what we stand to lose – family values, social fabric, respect, and the positive aspects of our culture; these are all forms of 'wealth' too.

    We may need a radical new approach for our development; some sort of hybrid strategy that will bring about growth while preserving some of the unique aspects of our society that we hold dear. The methodologies used by others make not work for us, so we must be willing and able to develop our own. This can't be easy. If it was, we would already have it. We therefore need our best brains on it.

    Whatever we ultimately decide, and whichever path we choose to follow, we must do so with our eyes wide open, and we must be ready for all outcomes and implications – both positive and negative.

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