There Is An Alternative

Last week the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) published the 2013 edition of its flagship annual publication, The Human Development Report (watch an animated summary here). Since its launch in 1990 this contribution to orthodox thinking on international development has played an important role in shifting attention away from an exclusive focus on economic measures, to a more people-centred or ‘human’ conceptualisation of development. Key to this was the introduction of the Human Development Index (HDI) which is a composite measure of development that includes life expectancy and education indicators in addition to national income. What is interesting about the 2013 report is its attempt to influence the debate on the more theoretical understandings of how to achieve development, rather than offering alternative ways of measuring it. The title of this year’s report is The Rise of the South.

Image Its focus provides a welcome shift of attention away from the dominant intellectual home of thinking on international development (the global North) to the progress achieved by some key states in the global South (especially Brazil, India and China). Whilst not claiming that there is a definitive model at work in these countries, the report does suggest that lessons can be drawn from their experiences over recent years. In particular, it notes three key drivers that have been central to the human development progress achieved in these countries:

  1. A developmental state that has been vitally important in regulating markets, supporting industrial development, and directing the terms of their engagement with the global economy.
  2. The state has also played an important role in investing in health, education and other public services.
  3. Engagement with global markets has been gradual and facilitated by state support.

The notion of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ development strategy is dismissed within the report as both unrealistic and ineffective. Instead there is an emphasis on the flexibility and pragmatism that has been central to the approach adopted by many countries in the global South. The report does acknowledge that, despite such advances, concerns remain over levels of inequality and questions of sustainability, and that both have the potential to undermine much of the progress that has been achieved.

Although there is some discussion of the need for countries in the global South to have greater representation in the key international financial institutions, the report focuses in the main on the domestic obstacles to development. UNDP’s acknowledgement of the important role that developmental states can play is clearly a move away from the days when policymakers suggested ‘there was no alternative’ to the free market as the means for the global South to achieve development.

Image However, what the report fails to acknowledge is the structural limits within which countries in the global South have to operate. These include the continued failure to effectively regulate both transnational corporations and global financial markets and the deepening of trade liberalisation through the exponential rise of bilateral trade agreements in the last two decades.

Nevertheless, the arguments made in the 2013 Human Development Report do suggest that the wheel is finally turning within liberal thinking, away from the neoclassical orthodoxy, which has informed development policy since the 1980s, back towards some of the ideas that dominated the debate in the immediate post-war era. It is interesting to note that the headline quotes that precede each chapter of the report include both John Maynard Keynes and John F. Kennedy. Of course, what is very different from the post-war era is the position of leading states in the Global South within the contemporary geopolitical balance of power. Nevertheless, if the ideas and alternative experiences of the global South are to have any significant impact on dominant thinking on development there will need to be some significant changes in both the material and ideational structures of the global economy.

Declinism and South Africa

Over recent months, international media coverage has portrayed South Africa as a ‘broken’ country. Only this week we have seen on our TV screens evidence of serious police brutality, which reminded me of many of the images from the 1980s that had such an impact on me as an impressionable teenager. Similarly, in August 2012 we watched in horror as striking platinum miners in Marikana were shot dead by police. Such events have generated a ‘declinist’ reading of the situation in South Africa, most aptly demonstrated by The Economist on the front cover of its non-UK edition in October 2012.Image

What is striking here (no pun intended) is that such views contrast quite sharply with the orthodox narrative used to depict developments in the rest of the African continent in recent years, which points to rapid rates of economic growth in a number of countries (in particular Angola and Nigeria) that in 2011 were dubbed ‘African Lions’ in the very same publication. It seems that South Africa is being singled out as an isolated case in a continent that is otherwise making economic advances. This perception provides the flip-side to earlier suggestions that Africa was the ‘hopeless continent’ when again South Africa was described as the exception to the rule.

Inside the 20th October 2012 issue the two articles ‘Cry, the beloved country’ and ‘Over the rainbow’ paint a worrying picture of the situation in South Africa as it approaches the end of two decades since the first multi-racial election. The assessment of what has gone wrong since 1994 suggests that the major causal factor has been the incompetence of the African National Congress (ANC), which has led the government throughout the post-apartheid period. Former President, Thabo Mbeki, and current incumbent Jacob Zuma, are charged with leading a party that has fostered corruption and has failed to attract the foreign investment needed to address rising inequality and the grinding poverty that is the daily existence of the majority of the population. The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), are claimed to have the ‘right ideas’ and striking miners are seen as a serious dent to South Africa’s reputation as a potential investment opportunity.

Whilst such analysis correctly identifies the key tensions in South African society – inequality, unemployment and poverty – and notes some of the undoubted failings of the ANC, it fails to identify the ideological alignment of the ANC government to neoliberalism and the place of South Africa within global capitalism as key parts of the ‘problem’. In this sense I was reminded of an article by John S. Saul entitled ‘Cry for the Beloved Country: The Post-Apartheid Denouement’ published back in 2001 in the Monthly Review.

Here Saul emphasises, as many have done, how the negotiated transition to democracy was designed as a way to organise the handover of political power to the ANC, whilst at the same time maintaining the continuity of capitalist economic relations and an acceptance of the dominant neoliberal orthodoxy. Saul’s conclusion that the transition has failed to address the underlying social relations within South Africa, despite being made over ten years ago, looks ever more pertinent as each year passes. The central premise of both the ANC’s economic strategy, and the analysis presented in The Economist, is the need to attract foreign investment to South Africa through a policy framework designed to create a set of business-friendly conditions. What is not questioned, however, are the potential consequences of such an unrestrained engagement with the global economy. It is this ideological side to the ANC’s hegemony within South Africa that is often ignored by those who focus on the more coercive measures adopted by the state to quash displays of discontent amongst South Africa’s justifiably impatient majority.

Whilst it is certainly true that South Africa needs a more effective government than the one it currently has, it also requires a significant shift to the left in ideological terms if it is to address such divisive socio-economic inequalities. It is becoming increasingly apparent that despite the removal of Mbeki, this is not possible within the confines of the ANC. The DA who argue in favour of the need for ‘an economy that is characterized primarily by the free choices of individuals’, offer little in the way of a genuine alternative, except for a potentially more efficient and less corrupt neoliberal state. The need for change runs much deeper than the mainstream declinist critics of the ANC government suggest.