Rethinking ‘humane development’

The rise of institutional economics brought the quality of participatory social and economic institutions to the fore as a crucial prerequisite for sustainable development, as well as an alleviation of income disparities.

he enigmatic notion of “development” as a critical term that denotes several interconnected processes including socio-economic upgrading, industrialization, urbanization and structural transformation has been one of the most widely used concepts to indicate human progress since the first industrial revolution. But the true meaning and natural corollaries of development have constantly changed in accordance with specific historical conjunctures and related balances of power in the global system. Development was conceived by the founding fathers of the so-called Pax Brittanica in the 19th century as the creation of a worldwide capitalist market society to strengthen the hegemony of the British Colonial Empire. For the “late industrializers” of the late 19th and early 20th century, such as the U.S., Japan and Germany, development was synonymous with catching-up with Great Britain, the global power they both revered and resented at the same time. For the nation-states that replaced former empires after World War I, development meant formation of modern state and societal structures with rapid economic growth capacities. For countries that acquired their independence from former colonial empires during the decolonization period, development was associated with the creation of political legitimacy for the new regimes through economic modernization and wealth creation.

Development was defined in terms of reconstructing a social, economic and political consensus to achieve sustainable peace by the European countries that were trying to repair the extensive damage of World War II. During the Cold War, development was defined in the Western camp as a vital element of global stability to keep the “socialist threat” at bay through economic well-being, while for the socialist bloc state-controlled development was a key instrument to break the chains of capitalist domination across the globe. For mainstream “developmental states” in East Asia, such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan, as well as second generation newly industrializing countries (NICs), such as Malaysia and Singapore, development was the most important channel through which domestic legitimacy could be preserved and effectiveness in the global system could be achieved without taking serious geopolitical risks. For the U.S. administration and Bretton Woods institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), development was a very attractive and useful concept that could be constantly redefined according to these ideological and geopolitical currents. But seen from the prism of the world systems’ perspective, the ambition for development was a useful tool that encouraged states in the periphery and semi-periphery of the global system to embrace systemic norms and engage with both national and international actors in the core.

As we move to complete the second decade of the 21st century, the enigmatic term of development somehow managed to keep its attraction and grandiosity across the globe. Categories including developing, developed, underdeveloped and least developed countries continue to shape the self-perception of nations and their relative positioning in the global pecking order. Socio-economic development, developmental capacity and dynamism are also eye-catching terms used by policy makers, private actors and civil society. But the real substance and key policy implications of the notion of development have been historically defined, moving between different forms of economic liberalism, mercantilism, and economic nationalism.

The rise of institutional economics brought the quality of participatory social and economic institutions to the fore as a crucial prerequisite for sustainable development, as well as an alleviation of income disparities. The rise of the “human development” paradigm, on the other hand, transformed development thinking by shifting the policy emphasis from macrolevel parameters, such as economic growth and gross domestic product (GDP), to microlevel indicators of average life standards, including health, education, and sustainability.

As we stand on the eve of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the conceptual evolution of development continues in line with rapid technological advancements. However, the increasing pace and uneven character of technological transformation creates new sources of disparity among societies, undermining some of the main humane aspects of development such as family. Therefore, every major society, including Muslim societies, willing to preserve their cultural and spiritual value systems has a responsibility to get involved in the redefinition of the development concept in a more humane and culturally acceptable manner.

[Daily Sabah, 13 January 2018]

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