Friday, 23 July 2010

Why the Asian growth model could still fail

“The rise of the rest should not be seen as a threat to the West” – this is a key message coming out of the recently released report by the OECD Development Centre entitled Shifting Wealth. Many countries envy the “Asian miracle” and try to imitate what they believe made the Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians and Thais successful. But what if the “rise of the rest”, i.e. the rise of Asia as a dominant region world-wide, were to stop? And not because of outside interventions or external shocks, but rather through increasing internal conflicts about how to share the fruits of the hard work.

A recent string of isolated events across a number of Asian countries are cause for concern. The examples below suggest that we are witnessing an erosion of social cohesion between different groups in these societies.

• In May this year, “red-shirt” protests against the government exploded across Thailand. The protesters largely portray themselves as rural and poor supporters of the former prime minister, opposed to the urban elites that back the current government. It appears that the fruits of the past progress in Thailand is perceived as not having been shared equally among the society.

• Just days ago, yet another suicide of a worker at the world’s largest contract maker of electronics, China’s Foxconn Technology Group, was reported. This makes 15 attempted or committed suicides this year among workers at this highly successful company, which produces parts for Apple’s popular iPods and iPhones. Low morale and a difficult working atmosphere are among some of the reasons cited for the suicides.

• In India, there has been an escalation of violence as Maoist rebels continue to engage in bombings and gunfights throughout Andra Pradesh and West Bengal states. India’s government has begrudgingly acknowledged they form the greatest internal security challenge for the South Asian giant. Calling themselves the Naxalite rebels, they claim to be fighting for the rights of rural poor who have been neglected by the government for decades.

• In June a long-running, quiet labour movement erupted onto the scene at Japanese-owned Honda factories across China, where workers demanded the right to form independent labour unions and asked for a doubling of their salaries to keep pace with rising prices in the country.

All the abovementioned cases represent a lack of social cohesion within the societies in question. Large portions of the population lack basic social services and also perceive that they aren’t fully benefiting from their society’s success. In other words, they see, or simply believe, that other people in their society are doing better than they are.

Are these single, isolated events or are they just the beginning of a broader movement of discontent which could turn into violent conflicts and thereby put an end to the Asian model of growth? While we do not have an answer for this, now is the time to act and re-think how societies can maintain a minimum level of cohesiveness while growing and catching up with the west.

As fellow blogger Jon Hall recently pointed out, there is a lot of promise in Asia to help us understand broader questions of how to measure progress in societies. Not so much because Asia is that different than the rest of the world, but more because it is a place where society is changing faster than the rest of the world. Any lessons we can draw from how to build a more cohesive society won’t just benefit Asia alone; it will also benefit the world as a whole.

Johannes Jutting and Chris Garroway

Photo used under Creative Commons from macgeek800.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Trevor's update on wiki.stat

Well the World Cup is over we can finally talk about something else other than football - although I must say it was wonderful to see the progress Africa has made in organising such a marvellous tournament. Thanks for that South Africa. And while we were all watching Italy, France and England self-destruct there has been a great deal of activity in the wiki.stat data warehouse. As you of course remember from technical updates #1 to #4 wiki.stat is the online database where we are uploading the datasets that you have been sending us to provide a unique repository of progress-related statistical data. In the last two months the warehouse has grown to cover themes ranging from Biodiversity to Social Welfare, Physical and Mental health to Freedom of Speech, Education to World Peace….I could go on but I won’t because it would take me too long to type it and you should just go and see it for yourself if you haven’t already.

And there is more data coming. Much more.

So go here and check it out for yourselves – and please get back to us with feedback and suggestions for other data that you know about that you think could find a home there.


(find out more about the background of wikiprogress.stat here)

Thursday, 8 July 2010

East meets West

A couple of weeks ago I was in Singapore for an expert hearing on “Asian Perspectives on Qualitative Growth” that was organised by the Bertelsmann Foundation, the Austrian Government and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. The organisers brought together an interesting collection of people – many very prominent – for a 'serious reflection on the nature of progress and qualitative growth in Asia'.

It was a refreshingly open discussion, and several people noted how difficult it will be to persuade the Asian region of the need to adopt a more sustainable development path, when the West, which has already enjoyed the benefits of economic growth, did not seem ready to make many sacrifices. There is a risk that calls by Westerners to go “beyond GDP” would be viewed by many in Asia as a not too subtle ploy to slow Asia’s rise to become the economic superpower.

If that is indeed the case it will be a great pity for those of us interested in rethinking progress. Not because Asia has much to learn from the indicators movement. On the contrary, because the indicators movement has much to learn from Asia. Though Asia is so diverse a continent, it is almost meaningless to generalise, several countries at least have a deep tradition of thinking about a more balanced, more sustainable development. During the various regional conferences the OECD organised in the run up to the Istanbul and Busan World Forums, 'Asia' stood out as the region to have thought most about progress. The Chinese, for instance, have a concept of ‘harmonious society’, while concepts of balance seem to be deep rooted in Buddhist and Japanese traditions. And the Bhutanese, with their Gross National Happiness, have arguably thought – and done – more than anyone to move away from GDP as the progress paradigm.

It seems to me that to many Westerners, “Sustainable Development” means continuing to let the economy grow as quickly as possible while using some of the spoils of growth to try to patch up the damage done to the environment or society in the process. In the East, many seem to understand the concept more as a development path that seeks greater balance. And that is more in keeping with what it ought to mean. So it is indeed a pity that countries like China and India have become so fixated on their latest growth figures, to a much greater extent even than the western economies: they are “GDP junkies” as one person at the meeting put it.

As Asia rises to dominate the world’s economy and population, whatever Asia does will increasingly determine all our futures. So if the work to reconceptualise progress is to have a real impact then Asia needs to be involved. Given the region’s pedigree of thinking about this, wouldn’t it be natural for Asia to take the lead and show us all what ‘progress’ really means and how we can measure it? I hope so.