Against Development

by | Aug 12, 2011

Bishop Hill links to an article by Oxfam’s research director, Duncan Green. Says the Bishop…

Duncan Green is head of research at Oxfam GB and has written an article exploring the question of whether the drought in the Horn of Africa is caused by climate change. The article is here and an edited version appears at the Guardian. I’m sure that comment will be freer at Mr Green’s place.

Green presents evidence to support the idea that the drought in the Horn of Africa is global warming in action: anecdotal evidence from the locals and increases in surface temperatures. He also notes rather more importantly that the rainfall records are ambiguous.

The Bishop is right to suggest that Green has to turn somersaults to make the famine in the Horn of Africa something to do with climate change. And Green admits it… Sort of…

Conclusion? Attributing the current drought directly to climate change is impossible, but in the words of Sir John Beddington, the UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, in a talk at Oxfam last week, ‘worldwide, events like this have a higher probability of occurring as a result of climate change.’ Moreover, unless something is done, the current suffering offers a grim foretaste of the future – temperatures in East Africa are going to rise and rainfall patterns will change, making a bad situation worse.

So, although we can’t say that this is climate change in action, this is what it will look like. So much for science. But the ‘science’ didn’t bother me as much as what followed in the article.

What to do? Firstly remember that while the drought is caused by lack of rainfall, famine is man-made. As Amartya Sen famously observed, famines do not occur in functioning democracies. The difference between the minor disruption of hosepipe bans, and the misery and suffering in the Horn, is down to a failure of politics and leadership. It is no accident that those communities worst affected by the drought are not just those blighted by conflict, but also by decades of official neglect and contempt from governments, who see pastoralism as an unwanted relic of the past.

Secondly, the famine shows the extreme vulnerability of poor people to weather events like failed rains. Governments and the international community have to save lives now, but also act to reduce that chronic vulnerability, building local abilities to manage the drought cycle, improving the flow of data, information and ideas for adapting to climate change and drastically increasing long-term investment in smallholder agriculture and pastoralism, which have shown they can provide a decent life for millions of East Africans, provided they are supported (rather than ignored) by governments.

Beyond helping East Africa and other vulnerable regions adapt to impending climate change, it is of course also incumbent on the rich and emerging economies to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that cause it. Fail to do that, and all attempts at adaptation are likely to offer only temporary relief.

The first thing to notice is Green’s use of Amartya Sen’s argument: famines do not occur in functioning democracies. It’s a point made here very often. It’s not climatic phenomena which determine the outcome of some climatic or natural phenomenon; social conditions are far more decisive. The test of this is to compare two natural disasters of equal magnitude — earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc — falling on places whose economies are very different. Invariably, the human cost differs by several orders of magnitude. Earthquakes that barely cause any disruption to daily life in advanced economies kill thousands in less developed places, and leave many more homeless. As Green notes, ‘The difference between the minor disruption of hosepipe bans, and the misery and suffering in the Horn, is down to a failure of politics and leadership’. The point should be obvious: if hosepipe bans got more frequent or more serious here in the UK, there would be a lot of angry people, demanding answer from utilities companies, public agencies, and politicians.

It’s interesting, then, that Green should go on to say, ‘It is no accident that those communities worst affected by the drought are not just those blighted by conflict, but also by decades of official neglect and contempt from governments, who see pastoralism as an unwanted relic of the past’. Green sees the ‘neglect’ of the interests of pastoral communities as the ‘failure of politics’. But the reality of pastoralism is that it precludes those who endure it from becoming a political force. The relationship individuals have with each other and their ‘environment’ in pastoral society is immediate and transparent. Thus, such societies are more vulnerable, and less able to assert themselves ‘politically’. The business of subsistence consumes time. Put most simply and somewhat flippantly, if you cannot read, because you have no real need to, how are you going to write to your MP to express your feelings? And if you have no stake in the economy, how are you going to assert your interests?

Pastoral communities are excluded from politics as such in almost the same way that the peasants of medieval England were largely unable to resist the enclosure of common land, forcing them from it. It was not ‘neglect’ which led to the rough treatment of peasants; it was the fact that political freedoms are created, not given. Green imagines that ‘politics’ fails to respond to pastoral societies, but he forgets that pastoralism and democracy are rarely seen together in a meaningful way, and thus he forgets Sen’s point — famines do not occur in functioning democracies. The abolition of the English peasant class was ugly. But the industrialisation of the UK created the possibility of democracy and other freedoms, albeit bloody and hard-won. Feudalism was put in its place, it didn’t take it up voluntarily.

Curiously for the the research director of a ‘development’ charity, Green seems to emphasise that there is a responsibility to ‘protect’ pastoral society, rather than to encourage — or enable — its transformation. This does two things. First, it locks the members of pastoral societies into that lifestyle — which it celebrates as ‘sustainable’ — and limits its possibilities. Second, it creates a ‘political’ role for agencies such as Oxfam at the expense of development — their influence is legitimised by the implausibility of political or industrial development, which it also precludes. I find that a grotesque thing for a ‘development’ agency to be engaged in. Rather than helping, Oxfam looks more like a parasite. The concept of ‘sustainability’ turns the concept of ‘development’ completely upside down. Progress means retrogression.

There have been several posts on this blog about Oxfam’s need for victims to legitimise its function, here, here, here and here — so there’s no need to repeat the point. (Though Oxfam didn’t listen then.)

NGOs like Oxfam have huge and growing influence over people’s lives. Yet they are completely unaccountable. And yet they presume to sit over troubled countries to complain about ‘failed politics’. And they do so without being challenged. We give money to them because we think it will make a direct difference to somebody’s life. But the only difference it seems to make is to advance Oxfam’s self-interested agenda, at the expense of development. The next time you consider donating to them, remember that you’re giving money to an organisation that would rather see ‘pastoral society’ preserved forever in aspic, rather than enjoying the roads, railways, airports, fridges, medicine, factories, shops, schools, hospitals, water infrastructure, democracy, liberties and opportunities that you enjoy. I can’t help thinking… maybe that’s the point.


  1. Carl Chapman

    In Australia, during a drought, we had the warmists saying the drought was caused by increased surface temperatures. The truth is, it’s the other way round. Moist soil cools the local environment due to evaporation. Drought causes dry soils causes higher surface temperatures.

  2. dave in L.A.

    Pastoralism is a romantic euphemism for subsistence agriculture. Repressive governments much prefer this as a form of social organization because its attendant poverty, lack of education, poor communication and limited resiliency render populations largely unable to assert fundamental rights.
    Greens are not so naive as to be unaware of this fact.

  3. Robert of Ottawa

    An excellent post, Ben. When I talk out against the Tranzie NGOs, I am met with shock and horror … “How can you speak out AGAINST such-and-such … they do a lot of good work, you know”.

    The international charities were the first to become politicized by the left, I believe. They were the first to point fingers at causes for famines; but now they have lost the plot. The salvation from starvation is not subsistance agriculture and the attendent poverty and mercy to the elements, but cheap energy and liberty to keep what you sow, as it were.

  4. Gogs

    “a failure of politics and leadership” indeed.
    Subsistence farmers living on barely suitable land: when the rains periodically fail, so do the crops.
    Then along comes Oxfam, who give them some food to survive, and the whole cycle starts again. And the population keeps rising, so there are more mouths for the subsistence farmers to feed.
    The failure of leadership is in not providing family planning so that each family can decide how many children they can afford to feed and rear in this inhospitable area. Each family needs some margin to save for the lean years. A woman trying to raise seven or more children can do little to aid the family economy.

    • Ben Pile

      Gogs, I don’t think there’s necessarily a problem with distributing food to where it is needed, or rising populations. Let’s chuck Malthus away — this is the 21st century. And I don’t think it’s the responsibility of ‘leaders’ to ‘provide’ family planning. (What are they going to do — watch to make sure that the condoms are used properly?) The point being that we wouldn’t (well, I wouldn’t, anyway) put up with ‘pastoral society’ and its ‘natural’ limitations, so why should we expect anyone else to? Yet some seem to have taken it upon themselves to make sure that pastoral societies remain where they are, elevating themselves in the process.

  5. james cox

    I agree that NGOs are by in large political tools, as without collective political will, of some sort, how else would they exist. What bugs me – and this is captured in Ben’s article – is that the political conditions, and institutional frameworks, that NGOs often help to foster abroad, would often not be advocated (or suffered) by those, both supporting and working for development NGOs, in their countries of their origin.
    Development projects – led by NGOs – are able to use non – industrialised states,as a playground for western led development economics. Romantic ideals, often held by western NGOs, lead to conditions for aid that enforce ecological or culturally conservative political conditions, thus stifling some the conditions for faster industrial growth. For me, this is hypocritical, intellectually dishonest, as well as morally questionable.
    Moreover, what is gulling, is that cultural collectively (often embodied in the notion of pastoral ethnic groups) is valorised by NGOs in developing countries. Yet, individualism and the overall possibility of rapid social change or the allowance of cultural heterogeneity, is assumed to be a fundamental right in the west.

  6. Philip

    Well said, Ben. Duncan’s responses to the comments in his post pretty quickly showed where he is really coming from, and I fear his is a typical attitude of many of the so-called development charities. People donate money in the expectation that it will be used to help development in poor countries, and the charity uses a proportion of it to support it’s environmental activism. Worse, the activism actually harms the people who the charity claims to be helping by inhibiting development.

    But people still want to help! Hence, there is a need for reliable information on charities that do not misuse their donations in this way. A ‘Which’ guide or something like that? Anyway, some of the contributors at BH have suggested that WaterAid ( and Mary’s Meals ( both fit the bill.

  7. George Carty

    Gogs, given how birth rates have fallen rapidly in the last 50 years (at least, almost everywhere outside sub-Saharan Africa) as the world has become more developed and urbanized, wouldn’t economic development also solve the population problem in the long run?

    As for the dangers of romanticizing agrarian lifestyles — didn’t they exist even within the West? The Nazi desire to depopulate Eastern Europe was to a large extent down to agrarian ideologues such as Walther Darré and Herbert Backe, who wanted to do something about the terrible land hunger which afflicted Germany’s peasantry.

  8. James Cox

    Between a rock and a hard place. Wet rice farming or working on a factory line: You choose?

  9. Mooloo

    Wet rice farming or working on a factory line: You choose?

    The Chinese choose factory work in their millions. I suspect they think it is better than the excruiating work in the fields, which doesn’t even yield a reliable result.

  10. George Carty

    Actually, I think Chinese factory workers are a bit like Eastern European immigrants in Britain.

    Eastern European immigrants can underbid Brits for many jobs because they’re willing to live fifteen to a room, thereby minimizing the major cost of living for Brits (housing costs, which are inflated by Home-Owner-Ism). They’re willing to live in these horrendously cramped conditions because within a few years they can save up enough money to return to their homelands (where houses are much cheaper than in Britain) and buy a house there outright.

    It’s a similar deal in China. Most Chinese factories are in coastal cities, but are manned by migrants from the dirt-poor inland provinces of China, who are willing to work extremely long hours in order to save up money to buy houses in their home areas.

  11. Mooloo

    No George, the Chinese do not save money and move home. They save money and buy in the city, because city living is better. Only government restrictions prevent more doing it.

    You appear to be falling into the “peasants really love the land trap” that Ben cautions against. Peasants mostly dislike being peasants and will do almost anything to stop being one.

    Have you noticed all the Turks in Germany going home once they have saved enough? The Moroccans leaving France? The Caribbeans fleeing England? The Poles might go back, but you can bet it is to the cities, not their provincial villages.

  12. James Cox

    I choose the factory line, on which iv’e worked many a time, doing twelve hour shifts, with little break. Hateful work, over long periods of time, but I am at least given a semblance of choice….
    I my opinion, colonialism is not dead, it lives on in the form western led NGOS

  13. George Carty

    Yes, but many Third World peasants end up moving to shanty towns in their own countries. Surely when people are willing to live in cities in such appalling conditions, it can only be because they were driven off the land (either by enclosure or by Malthusian pressure).

    • Ben Pile

      George, I think it’s too easy to presume that rural poverty is preferable to urban poverty.

  14. James Cox

    I agree. Hand starting screws or poking holes in soil? What say you?

    • Ben Pile

      Isn’t the point not the choice between hand starting screws or poking holes in soil, but the possibility of more than either?

  15. James Cox

    Yes.,. sorry that is comment was glib in the extreme. But not entirely insincere as I have hand started screws for three weeeks at a BMW plant. I would imagine not so different to many factories that have been built in developing states.
    I still think that the answer, right now, is hand starting screws – that is – at least, part of an evolving proccess of specialisation, and division of labour that might lead to this kind of choice disapearing.

  16. geoffchambers

    Marx had a peculiar line somewhere about a socialist paradise where one would plough in the morning, make BMWs in the afternoon, and study philosophy in the evening, or something. Just as well he gave up on utopian speculation, because he wasn’t very good at it. Just think of the commuting problems alone! And would you buy a BMW made by a part-time philosopher / ploughman?

    Viewing the urban / rural divide as a a question of economically determined individual choice doesn’t get you very far. This source of social tension is well documented since at least the time of Plato and the bucolic poets, always the same, but manifesting itself in very different ways.
    Think of the differences between the various European Green parties. The French will fight to the death to protect the Roquefort cheese-making area from frakking, but accept nuclear weapons as part of the republican constitution. The Germans refuse nuclear, since for historical reasons they’re not allowed to make their own. The British attack the motor car, since for historical reasons, they are incapable of making their own. What it is they all agree on is something ineffable, mysterious, about the countryside and their roots.

  17. Mark Harrop

    Oh, Geoff! Wouldn’t you rather buy – or obtain (seeing’s how we’re in paradise) – a BMW made by someone interested, if not fascinated, in their work rather than someone having to make it because the meter’s running? ie, the difference between someone wanting to make something and having to.

  18. James Cox

    Geof, you already do buy BMW’s from ploughman philosophers.
    I have studied philosophy and made BMW’s, and god dam it, the cars were good. Glib, and annoying once again…..I know, but I don’t see the problem or utopian aspects of sharing a like for philosophy with other more practical activity. Are you saying labourers do not philosophise?

    What’s more I have found that hand starting screws greatly adds to your ability to hook a worm.

  19. Alex Cull

    Reading this exchange, I’m now imagining what it would be like if history had taken a strange turn and there had been an alternative William Morris Car Company (might even have happened – Morris was a contemporary of Gottlieb Daimler, after all) turning out lovingly hand-crafted roadsters – they might not have been able to compete with the BMWs of this world in terms of performance and price but their styling and interiors would have been exquisite.

    On a more serious note, I think that open-source software and crowdsourcing projects can be good examples of work that is done well for its own sake, and offer a very different but effective model of labour. Could there be some sort of an automobile equivalent of Linux, in the future? Difficult to imagine, perhaps, but who knows?

  20. James Cox

    A fleet of Morris Minors with SatNav, what a wonderfull world that would be.
    My point is that I hate the idea of the job of philosphising, which means, in turn , I hate myself, as that is what I now do and teach. yuk……
    Teaching or learing politics, also, yuk ………economics, that deals in prediction, more than yuk.. totally worthless.
    Agree with above, Linux is better. But for crowd sourcing would you not capture mostly windows users… yuk.

  21. George Carty

    I don’t think the open-source model would work outside the field of computer software, because it depends on the product and its components being transmissible (perhaps over intercontinental distances) as well as copyable for negligible cost.

  22. Jmaes Cox

    “Open source” can appear like a hyper-democratic answer to social differentiation. Yet, it relies too heavily on a methodology of individuation; as opposed to the social realisation of individuality. Individuality being historically contingent and individuation being a law like constraint.



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