Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Development, inequality and co-operation: reflections, including on climate change

This paper was prepared for a meeting held in New Delhi in April 2015, called “Research and education for rural development and food security to build resilient rural environments: Australian and Indian perspectives. It was organised by the Australian India council, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, the NGO Pradan and the Ambedkar University of Delhi.

Here is the early version. I will add some links if I get time. The slides, however, are available here.


This paper argues that, despite considerable rhetoric to the contrary, privileged populations have long undermined “development”, in several ways and scales. The degree of this erosion of development has arguably increased in recent decades, although there are countering trends, especially the spread and declining cost of communication technologies including mobile phones, the internet and now social media.

Aid has become unfashionable, and many attempts to increase fairness have instead been denigrated, with language such as the “politics of envy”. Arguments that it is in the rational self-interest of societies and indeed of the whole world to become more equal have also had little effect, despite phenomena such as the September 11 attacks and the rise of the Islamic State, which now attracts violent idealists from many countries.

Finally, this paper argues that anthropogenic climate change is a manifestation of global inequality, which, unless addressed, is likely to not only make inequality worse, but even to threaten the fabric of global civilization, in combination with other stresses that reflect aspects of “planetary overload”.

Neoliberalism and shift away from global development

In 1969 representatives of most “developed” capitalist countries participating in the Pearson Commission on International Development agreed to raise their levels of overseas aid to 0.7% of gross national product. During the height of the Cold War, these economies felt at least slightly obliged to try to minimize or reduce poverty in “Third World” nations, lest communist ideology should capture another client. At this time, the leading dogma of development economists, shared by a series of US Presidents, was that slowing population growth would favour development, including by changing the dependency ratio, that is, by lowering the proportion of dependents (children, as there were few retired people) in the economy. At least in theory, smaller families would enable more investment in their education; a lower quantity of children could be offset by a higher quality.
Yet, soon after, in part triggered by the first oil crisis, almost all high-income countries reneged on their pledge to give more aid, becoming less generous, with the exception of four small northern European economies, and very recently, the United Kingdom. In the late 1970s a resurgence of free market economics commenced, especially in English speaking economies, also affecting the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Supporters of this doctrine, most commonly known as “neoliberalism”, reversed the dominant thinking of the 1960s that development required aid, in order to supply determinants such as nutrition, education and concepts (Freire, 2006).

Adherents of neoliberalism claimed that unconstrained market forces would provide a much surer and faster route to prosperity. Remnants of aid might be justified as levers for foreign policy influence, but it was no longer seen as morally valuable, not only by high-income governments, but by most of their populations. Of course, some people and organisations remained advocates of aid, but gradually they became less influential. Books criticizing aid also emerged, supported in some cases, by corruption among aid groups. Instead of aid, supporters of neoliberalism held that populations in rich countries could continue to consume with a clear conscience about inequality and poverty, each of which was automatically to be solved by the free market.

The failure of the free market and the emergence of the 1%

The triumph of neoliberalism was deepened in the late 1980s by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rejection of Communism in Eastern Europe. Funds freed by the end of the Cold War were briefly touted as fuelling a “Peace Dividend” that could be used, in part, for poverty alleviation and development. But this did not occur. Instead, inequality continued to rise, not only between countries, but within many countries. Today, phrases such as the “top 1%” reflect growing public awareness of rising inequality.

Various forms of corruption in so called developing countries have long been scandalous (eg Mobuto in Zaire, various kleptocrats in Nigeria, Suharto in Indonesia and Thaksin in Thailand), but the accumulation of enormous wealth has now contaminated several high-income counties, including the former political leaders of Britain (Blair), the US (the Clinton family) and Italy (Berlusconi). Inevitably, wealthy leaders are inhibited from supporting policies that harm their own economic class.
This context of relentless and worsening global inequality is partly alleviated by the attainment of some the Millennium Development Goals. The target for poverty has been pronounced as successful, largely due to the reduction of extreme poverty in China, a country with a greatly reduced population growth rate. Until recently (and paradoxically, given the claimed poverty success) the target for global hunger relief was stated by the Food and Agricultural Organization as severely failing, but a revised method introduced in 2012 has greatly narrowed the gap (Butler, in press).

The key ingredients needed to promote development are not indecipherable. They include better nutrition (from conception), better treatment of infections, including parasites, better health systems, and improved sanitation and handwashing. Primary school education is also vital as are tolerable human rights, acknowledged by other, more powerful groups. Given sufficient ingredients the poor might further escape poverty through self-organising processes such as trade unions, night schools and self-help, triggering further self-reinforcing virtuous cycles. Increasingly literate parents might not only value education, but effectively agitate for improved education for their children and for better health care.

However, the delivery of these determinants on a sufficient scale is a formidable challenge. Reduction of poverty is too often seen, whether or not correct, as a threat to the privilege of more wealthy groups. Very often, higher income populations use their existing power to maintain, or even seek to increase their advantage. Similar arguments apply globally. That is, despite rhetoric to the contrary, most rich countries do not want poor populations to catch up.

But such strategies are ultimately self-defeating. Excessive inequality is not only morally repulsive, but it ferments resentment and insurrection. Our modern world not only has nuclear weapons, but is evolving towards one with perhaps ubiquitous 3 D printers, armed micro-drones and robotic surveillance. Greater inequality will undermine security and well-being, even for populations who today consider themselves impregnable.

Climate change as a case study of global inequality

The reality of anthropogenic climate change is now beyond doubt. Myriad forms of evidence support concerns that not only were hypothetical only fifty years but which could then be only poorly measured and monitored. Yet, despite overwhelming scientific support, some governments and corporations remain openly skeptical of the findings of climate science.

The scientific community is calling, almost desperately, for most fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas, tarsands) to remain unburned and underground. At the same time, cost-effective sources of renewable energy are emerging, especially solar and wind. Advocates of these technologies claim that their large-scale introduction could limit global climate change to a relatively “safe” level of no more than 2 degrees C average warming. More warming than that threatens the fabric of civilization, through cascading pathways that included conflict, famine, mass migration and economic collapse (Butler, 2014).

Slowing climate change would require an enormous restructuring of the global economy. Not only would some corporations lose vast amounts of money and power, but so would some countries, including Saudi Arabia and Russia. Until very recently, the self-interest of so many powerful sectors has led to the effective suppression of action to adequately tackle climate change. But this elite consensus is now under strong attack, not only from the rising power of cleaner energy generating technologies (eg solar and wind), but also by civil society of the global middle class. China is also now an important actor, in part motivated by its rising middle class which increasingly protest at that nation’s life-expectancy reducing air pollution.

Australian corporations and politicians are at the forefront of the movement to delay the clean energy transition. They have some allies in India, although India is now showing signs of following China along the route towards cleaner energy. But it is disturbing that India is not threatening to expel GreenPeace India.

India is highly vulnerable to climate change. Agricultural models consistently forecast a reduction in its food-growing capacity. Unlike China, India lacks potentially arable land at higher latitudes where its farmers might migrate. Neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh face risks from reduced flow to the Indus and Brahmaputra rivers, not only from glacier melt but (in the case of the Brahmaputra) from Chinese dams. Increased instability in India’s neighbours, one of which is nuclear armed, is not in India’s national interest.

Overall, wealthy countries have been slow to act on climate change in large part because they believe (arguably incorrectly) that their own wealth insulates them from all but trivial harm. At the same time, they have been reluctant to do anything which might reduce their capacity to make money. Poor countries have been generally slow to act to tackle climate change, not only because they have limited funds, but, I would argue, because those who are relatively wealthy in poor countries not only feel similarly insulated (as in rich countries), but also lack sufficient concern for the people who are on the front line of climate change and who are vulnerable in so many ways.


Reducing inequality, poverty, and climate change is not only morally right, but offers hope that civilization as a whole will prosper long into the future. Elites, both in low and high-income countries, need to see that such actions are in their own self-interest. Those of us who are not in that elite, but who can see the value of these arguments, need to use our influence to try to change local, regional and national policies. It is an extraordinarily difficult path, but technology such as mobile phones, the internet and social media is assisting. The fact that the UK now exceeds its Pearson aid promise is also very encouraging. Technology and mechanization might one day reach such a level and scale that cheap labour is not needed to produce the goods and services that the rich crave.
Literacy, including of health, might allow the self-propelled spread of minimally acceptable living standards, especially if assisted by mobile phones and the internet. Children living in huts (or under platforms) next to railway lines may vanish. Conflict over inexorably diminishing resources might decline, as birth rates fall. New technology might also slow the rate of climate change.

This does sound utopian, but together we can strive towards these goals. However, the current stranglehold which elites have on policy needs to be strongly challenged. Development will not happen by itself, though its rapid growth could occur once sufficient seeds can be planted.


Butler C.D., editor. 2014, Climate Change and Global Health. CABI, Wallingford, UK
Freire, P. 2006, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary ed. New York: Continuum.