Thursday, 21 January 2010

Progress For All?

This is a blog about progress. Progress matters, of course, but does it really matter for the poor and destitute of this world? Talking about absolute and relative well-being, happiness and other nice things you may want to attribute to “progress” - is this really relevant for the poor of this world? If you have enough to drink, eat, a 35 hour work week, 8 weeks paid vacation, then it might be perfectly interesting to ask yourself how you feel and other such questions.

Take the Easterlin-Paradox: it describes the phenomenon that in modern societies a strong positive correlation between income and happiness breaks away. In countries like the US, France or Germany an increase in per capita income does not necessarily translate into more happiness or perceived well-being for its citizens. If you live in France and you see that your neighbour has just bought a new Porsche, spends his vacations in fancy places, has the newest iPhone and does not buy vegetables at Picard like you, but instead spends money on “Macaron” sweets at Laduree, your recent salary increase might taste sour. In the words of the academics: your objective measurable well-being might have increased, but the marginal return of this additional increase might even be negative.

In poor countries this situation is different. Talking about “progress” in countries where people have difficulties achieving basic social and economic needs, such as reducing absolute poverty, and improving health, nutrition, education and gender equality seems at bit absurd, doesn’t it? Why should you care about the wealth situation of your neighbour if you are living in a slum of Calcutta with no access to electricity, pumped water and any basic infrastructure? Or, after an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude? Or, after a crippling civil war?

These are tricky, but important questions the progress community needs to address. My take is rather clear: Poor people care as much as rich people what their neighbours think. From my own experiences living in Ivory Coast, Senegal and Guinea, I have seen an appreciation of social relations that is difficult to boil down in quantifiable terms. This includes tangible community values such as respect for the elderly, the importance of a social life and even a certain reverence for the natural world around us. Amartya Sen has coined the phrase “development as freedom”; “progress” in this sense is enabling people to fully exploit their capacities and capabilities, beyond the purely economic sphere. We need to take this more seriously when we start to embark on the post-MDG debate. Progress matters, everywhere.


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