The Software of Development

Conventional economic theory focuses on the hardware of development: industries, technology, exports, infrastructure, and so on. Social welfare is regarded as an obstacle to development — to the extent that because you have to feed people, you cannot spend this money on building up capital. This trade-off takes a mathematical form in the Solow growth model, which states that the less we consume, and the more we invest, the faster we will grow. As this model was applied all over the world, many planners became aware of the harsh realities concealed beneath the mathematical beauties: we must deprive our population of basic necessities in order to accumulate the capital required for growth. Experience with implementing such policies and watching the brutal outcomes led Mahbubul Haq to revolt against this economic orthodoxy. He went on to formulate the Human Development Index (HDI), which includes education and life expectancies as proxies for the human component of economic development. The insights of Mahbubul Haq about the central role of human beings have had a profound impact on development planning everywhere. He expressed this insight pithily as follows: “…after many decades of development, we are rediscovering the obvious — that people are both the means and the end of economic development.”

The surface simplicity of this statement conceals a depth of meaning. It encapsulates at least three critiques of current development practices, and also points out a radical alternative. First, by focusing on capital, economic theory neglects the crucial importance of human beings as producers of growth. The Solow trade-off between feeding the hungry and building up capital is a false trade-off. Human beings are best themeans of development, superior to all alternatives. People have much more potential to promote growth than the machines we can buy with the money saved by starving them.

Second, by putting growth over human lives, we not only sacrifice our best tools for development, we also achieve inequality and injustice as a result. The split of society into haves and have-nots has disastrous social effects. Mahbubul Haq noted this in his famous remarks about the 22 families who ran Pakistan. Although conventional economics has no place for them, practitioners have come to recognise the importance of social cohesion and trust in the process of growth. Mahathir Mohamad generated miraculous growth by getting diverse groups in Malaysia to work together to increase the size of the pie, instead of fighting one another for shares in a diminishing pie. The ties between economic inequality, social unrest and many types of crimes, including terrorism, are well known.

Third, the fact that human beings are the ends of development means that it is not permissible to sacrifice their lives in the pursuit of other goals. The HDI takes a first step to correct conventional GNP measures by incorporating important elements of the human life experience. Furthermore, developments in this direction have been made in the capabilities approach of Amartya Sen, which has been operationalised in the multidimensional poverty framework. The key insight of multidimensional poverty research is that income-poverty is just one small element of the problem. Enriching the lives of the poor involves providing support in many different dimensions. The hardware components of this support are well known. What is extremely surprising is that the software components are little known and completely neglected. We are familiar with stories of children who studied in candlelight, under the trees, with unpaid teachers and went on to spectacular successes. Recent research confirms that the magic missing ingredient (from conventional policies) is inspiring teachers, who motivate students to set high goals and to struggle to achieve them. When this software is there, success stories will come out of very poor material environments. If we fail to light the spark in the hearts of the children, then the best educational facilities will churn out cogs, who fit into the production process without individuality, personality or creative genius.

Every seed is a living miracle — put it in the ground and it extracts necessary materials from the soil and fashions roots, barks, leaves, fruits, thousands of complex chemicals arranged in a perfectly coordinated fashion. To those who reflect, it is amazing how, not just a tree, but the power to produce a forest is packed into a seed, which has no moving parts, no hands, no eyes. All the seed needs is the right environment, and rest it does without any help. The message of Mahbubul Haq provides a radical alternative to conventional development theories. Every child is an even greater miracle than the seed. If we can just provide all of the children of Pakistan with the nourishment, sustainment and love that they deserve, they have the capabilities to amaze us all. They will accomplish all the things we desire, such as advances in technology, growth in exports, building of infrastructure and much more. Timages (1)he blueprints for excellence are already built into them; all they need is a chance to flourish.

On the recent anniversary of the tragedy of December 16, the nation united in the outpouring of love for the innocents who were massacred. Let us also channel this love towards the living children of Pakistan, and vow to provide them with all the opportunities forcibly taken away from those who have found their place in the folds of the mercy of their Creator. Because there are millions of children, the task seems overwhelming. However, if each person does his and her share, and takes care of the needs of just a few children within easy reach, an enormous amount of change can be created. Instead of only c
omplaining about ghost schools and out-of-school children, let us create the change that we want to see in the world. It does not require much in the way of material resources to change lives. A kind word, a smile, sharing of knowledge — small changes easily within our capabilities can have dramatic effects.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 21st,  2015. Asad Zaman

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