A perspective on development

FRANCES BURNS

A former senior civil servant who spent many years promoting understanding of international development in the UK reflects on its importance for the health of society at home as well as its role in the elimination of global poverty.

Scottish people care about the challenges faced by those they will never meet in countries they will never visit.  This manifests itself most notably in their generous response to appeals at times of natural or ‘man-made’ disasters.  Images of suffering, brought into our living rooms by news reports, and appeals from charities, tear at our heartstrings and loosen our purse-strings.  Which one of us who viewed it can forget the images of starvation and hopelessness described so movingly in the1984 broadcast by Michael Buerk as a ‘Biblical famine …the closest thing to hell on earth’.  Through that BBC broadcast the world learned that a three-year drought had left some seven million people close to death.  Likewise, who among us can remain unmoved by current news broadcasts which show images of shivering, suffering children caught up in the misery of the Syrian war?  In many ways their plight seems all the more harrowing because it is not the result of nature’s vagaries but of the deliberate actions of human beings.  Our common humanity moves us to take action to alleviate the suffering we witness through these media reports.

We should be proud of the generous response made to these, and numerous other, humanitarian disasters.  We should also be grateful to the journalists and photographers who tell the stories and bring us the pictures.  However, there is a downside to all of this.  Not only do the images and stories we see and hear during times of disaster allow us to demonstrate our concern by offering practical support and demanding political action, they also shape our understanding of how men, women and children in poorer parts of the world live their lives.  But just as it would be a distortion of reality to form our ideas about life in the UK from media portrayals of, for example, the floods of 2015, by only seeing the developing world through the prism of disasters, we gain a distorted view of how people live day to day in say Uganda, or India or Nigeria.

There is nothing new in the fact that news stories across the world focus on the negative; and that when any particular disaster is no longer news the cameras move away.  Because of the media we consume, it’s little wonder that many people believe that the developing world is one long, unsolvable basket case and that the best we in the developed world can offer is charity and compassion.  And of course relief support is absolutely essential at times of disaster.  It save lives and provides the means by which local people can rebuild their communities.  But there is also a downside: long term relief programmes can create dependency and undermine local economies.  They can also let local politicians, who are responsible for ensuring the wellbeing of their people, off the hook.

An interdependent world

We may ask ourselves why, apart from offering financial and other practical support at times of disaster, should we be concerned with development?  After all, we have enough problems of our own without importing more from parts of the world with very different cultures and histories.  There is an increasing call from some politicians, both local and national, to focus on UK plc and let the rest of the world look after itself.  And that call is finding a sympathetic ear across the country.  That’s understandable when so many decent people are experiencing a drop in their living standards, and when many families depend on food banks to feed their children.  However, I would argue that bunkering down and looking inward will not result in increased prosperity for ordinary people in the UK.  Whether we like it or not we live in an interdependent world.  Whether we like it or not globalization isn’t going away.  I believe our interest will be better served by arming ourselves with the knowledge, skills and attitudes that will enable all of us to play a productive part in the increasingly global society we inhabit.

So what should that involve?  We might start by acknowledging that it is possible to banish extreme poverty from our world, and that it is in our interest to do so: poverty is one of the most powerful forces behind the unrest and migration in today’s world.  And this impacts on us all.  As far back as 1947 Harry Truman stated that for the first time in history, humanity possessed the knowledge and skills to relieve the misery in which half the world’s population lived.  Since then (as indeed before then) innumerable enterprises, some with the express aim of banishing global poverty have been initiated.  Some of these have succeeded and some have failed, but most importantly perhaps, there have been many lessons learned.

We now know that the starting point for development is local people in their own communities.  Development cannot be imposed, or grafted on to a country, or a community.  There is no one model that fits all situations.  We know that sustainable development is achieved when all members of a community are involved.  When consulted on what is needed to achieve development there will be different answers from different local groups: elites will have different priorities from those of the powerless; women’s perceptions of what will improve their lives will be different from men’s; the old and the young will view their situation differently as will the relatively rich and the very poorest.  We also know that the very act of starting a business or running a development programme will, in itself, effect changes in any community.  And, of course, local and global events can change everything in a heartbeat.  Therefore, to be effective, development initiatives must be both planned and flexible, with local people being full participants throughout.

We also need to acknowledge there have been many development successes.  If we look at literacy, one of the known drivers of development, we see that the Ethiopian youth rate rose from 34% to 52% between 1990 and 2007.  Among adult women in Bangladesh the rise has been even more impressive – from 26% in 1990 to 55% in 2014.  Between 2000 and 2015, life expectancy in the World Health Organisation (WHO) Africa region increased by 9.4 years.  The number of people across the world living in extreme poverty has more than halved since 1993 despite a growth in world population of 1.9 billion.  That means that every day over the past 25 years 137,000 people have been lifted out of extreme poverty.  That’s almost half the world’s poorest people.

These impressive statistics are the result of many factors including expanded access to medicines, improvements in child survival, improving nutrition, an emphasis on women’s education, new technology, and, most importantly, increased trade within and between countries.  However, despite this success, mind-numbing poverty, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa still exists.  While the world is hugely wealthier than it was in Truman’s day, the distribution of the benefits flowing from wealth creation are unevenly spread.  If the international community is to meet the UN pledge to lift the remaining one billion poorest people out of extreme poverty by 2030 there must be a more equitable distribution; and developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, must be equipped with the tools to grow their economies.

Creating the political climate

This will not be easy, but it is achievable.  And we as individuals can play an important role by helping create the political climate that makes it possible.  Our support for development projects, particularly those that help strengthen local communities, demonstrates to western governments that we see the elimination of global poverty as important; this pushes the issue up the political agenda.  When we lobby for fairer trade agreements between rich and poor countries; for more liberal markets; for the abolition of tariffs that punish poor countries, we demonstrate our solidarity with the poor; and importantly give them the ammunition to fight their corner.  Our support for human rights across the globe and for conflict resolution puts pressure on legislators to deliver a safer, fairer world.

It’s easy to point to development initiatives that have failed.  The media will tell us about them.  But it’s also easy to point out those that have succeeded.  All we need to do is look for them; they are there to be found.  No one would suggest that we should stop investing in research to find cures for diseases such as cancer despite the fact that many initiatives have unfortunately proved to be fruitless.  So why should we stop investing in a fairer deal for the world’s poorest people?  After all, being able to live in a more just world is as important for us as it is for them.

Frances Burns is a former head of External Communications for the Department for International development (DFID) with responsibility for building understanding of, and support for, development.  She was awarded the OBE for her services to international development.