Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Development Dilemma

Culture and Human Resource Capital, UPNG  2010

Everywhere I go I hear the words LNG in many people’s talk. So much buzz is made on this economic promise that seems to drive a certain agenda of development. In Port Moresby and Lae there is a building boom. Lae has moved into converting old houses into multiple blocks of flats. Port Moresby has grown into a mega for multi-storied buildings. They are eye catching and startling in a way. The government is proud to see this development, quickly declaring to the people that LNG is here and Papua New Guineans have to cash into the LNG or else they stand to lose out on the benefits. The conclusion I seem to have is that the LNG excitement has also promoted an even growth in our society.

I may be slow in seeing the benefits, but I am circumspect with the use of words like development, economic independence, and cost and benefits. We have to understand some of these words are used by certain people to promote a certain kind of agenda, ideology, and notions about what they consider to be right or is the truth. This does not have to be the case for others.

In thinking about this issue I came across J.R.E Waddell’s paper “The Development Dilemma: Self-Reliance or Dependence?” published in the collection From Rhetoric to Reality? Papers from the Fifteenth Waigani Seminar on Papua New Guinea’s Eight Point Plan and National Goals After a Decade. The book was edited by Peter King, Wendy Lee, and Vincent Warakai.

“The most important quality of a word like development,” writes Waddell, “is that it means all things to all men, thus enabling people with divergent views to think that they are talking about the same things. In such a situation, the rich and powerful can impose and implement their own definition of development and at the same time convince the public that the latter’s interest are being served. They can say that development is taking place even in a country where, according to my definition, economic development plans have failed conspicuously, because they define development in terms of Gross National Product or Gross Domestic Product per head. Indeed, a glance at any text book or United Nations publications should convince one that the division of the nations of the world into categories such as ‘developed’, ‘less developed’ and ‘least developed’ is based almost exclusively on ranking by GDP per head. Other criteria have been used but have never quite replaced this basic one.”

The rich and powerful is a term that applies to the world’s rich and powerful nations, but can also be used to make reference to sectors within a politically Independent nation that another contributor to the book cited above, Peter Fitzpatrick, describes as “the national petty bourgeoisie” who have consolidated their presence in the political and economic chambers. In 1985 Fitzpatrick lamented the absence of such a social class, arguing that Papua New Guinea is certainly no banana republic.

Fitzpatrick argued that “the Eight Aims in operation present a picture of marked success and almost equally marked failure. The key to the success of the Aims is in their character as a charter for a technocracy; much of their failure lies in their not responding to the interests of the national petty bourgeoisie.”

“The conflict between the between the technocracy and the national petty bourgeoisie”, Fitzpatrick continues “has been central to the making and to the operation of the Aims. It has been the basic division in national politics. The conflict persists but it is one that the technocracy must win. The state occupies a central position which the technocracy uses to consolidate its class power. In this, it blocks any challenging advance of the national petty bourgeoisie, even at the price of tolerating and encouraging foreign domination of small-scale and middle-level enterprise. This same situation also maintains the power of the peasantry; but in its ‘natural’ state of ethnic division. Part of the centrality of the state lies in its ability to contain the peasantry.”

These observations were made 10 years after Independence in 1985. The situation 35 years on has turned out to reinforce the dilemma Waddell had in mind at that time. “How is ‘development’ to be redefined so that it accords with the needs of the have-nots rather than the haves?” Waddell asked at that time. “The most important step is to turn conventional thinking upside down and start with people rather than the economy as a whole,” was Waddell’s answer.

“If we think solely in aggregate terms,” Waddell adds, “we shall merely reinforce an inequitable and inappropriate system established by and for foreigners. If we accept the inherited economic system as datum, an unalterable given, we shall immediately be concerned with the need to generate massive amounts of foreign exchange and expand cash-cropping and the extraction of minerals and timber—activities which bring in foreign exchange and budgetary revenue but do not necessarily bring net benefits to the population at large.”

Since this observation 25 years ago our people have not done any better in area of small business developments, but rather have become mere spectators in the increased Asian domination of wholesale and retailing business. The national petty bourgeoisie has emerged as the small political and technocrat elite with millions of people’s wealth diverted into personal accounts, and political decisions have been made for the convenience of few powerful individuals defending a degree of accrued interests in business, political power, and maintenance of flawed bureaucracy based on biased appointments to senior positions that does nothing more than a show of puppetry. Instead of technocracy resisting the influence of the national petty bourgeoisie it has compromised itself as revealed in many of the Parliamentary Audit Committee reports in recent years.

In writing this I am asking myself one simple question: Why bother? The answer is not as simple as it seems. Understanding development in the academic sense is not the same as development in the lived experiences of our people.


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