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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Development and Dynamic Ground

By Joseph Bornstein

Editor's note: The following blog post was originally published as a comment by Joseph Bornstein, responding to the numerous reactions generated by his previous entry "What Is Called Development?: Exploring The Nexus of Economy"

"Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none."
Emerson, paragraph one of "Experience"This conversation has been truly exhilarating in that it has offered key themes for how we can perhaps answer the critique that I suggested as well as new criticisms in their own right. And like all good conversations, we now find ourselves in a series of thoughts and questions which illuminate our humility and lack of ultimate Knowledge.

Not one of us was able to offer a clear approach to development that navigated all of our concerns and could claim the title of being the final answer which we seek. If anything, we offered more questions than answers. I personally do not believe that this is a bad thing per se. Indeed, it seems to be a necessary aspect of our lives to be constant seekers and never completed finders. Socratic dialogues are famous in their aporetical nature, which is to say that they often do not end in a clear conclusion. Our inter-continental dialogue has many similarities in this regard. We sought to go to the deepest level of what we are dealing with in "BoP Development" and asked what it means and how we can do justice to the end that we seek to realize.

Though we did not perfectly determine a "how-to" guide for practicing our desire to help marginalized and impoverished peoples, and though we did not even perfectly define what "helping" really is, or the terminal for-the-sake-of-which, or value we which seek to promote-we have taken steps in a "series of which we do not know the extremes."

Below is a summary of the steps I believe that we have taken as a community in dialogue:

Addressing the Key Issue of Reception or Absorption Regarding Technology: Our commentator Dr. Shailendra Vyakarnam provided an excellent way of framing the question we have been exploring. He made the point that a knife is not just a knife, that a phone is not just a phone, and that computers are not just computers. Each technology represents a means to a myriad of ends. Knives can be used to kill people or they can be used as life saving tools. Phones, as my original post notes, can be used for mobile banking as well as entertainment. Nuclear technology can be used to provide energy to communities, or it can be used to destroy life. From this point of Dr. Shailendra Vyakarnam's, it is clear that it is not the technology itself that makes a community rich or poor, but rather what that technology means and how it frames one's life. A house in communist nation MEANS something completely different than a house obtained in a purely capitalistic one. The philosophy behind a technology therefore presents the way in which that technology will be absorbed. My extension of Dr. Shailendra Vyakarnam's point is that it is ridiculous to claim that it is only our responsibility to provide for basic human needs in whatever fashion we can get them there. That model is not socially sustainable as commentator Ben Carrier points out with reference to the IMF and WB. For example, it would be unjust to introduce knives into a community with the unpinning philosophy of violence being why you are offering that technology.

Now take that hyperbolic example, and ask how is it that we present development projects to communities. What systems of truth and value do we offer through each project? I would say that one of the deepest value propositions we offer is free market capitalism. Personally, I am not versed enough to determine whether or not free market economics is the best approach to political economy, but what I can say is that presenting issues and projects through solely political economy is insanity. We need to stand at the nexus of economy and ground ourselves first and foremost in an economy of life so that the right kind of absorption can happen.

Consensus on Increased Sensitivity: If there was one major theme of the commentary, it was a call for increased sensitivity to the community in a number of ways. Though we did not specifically outline best practices that could be taken-up now and ever more, we did begin to address the issue. Our commentator Pradeep Suthram made the point that we must not introduce supply without first thinking about a community's needs, or the demand within that community. The point was furthered by Curt Bowen, Ben Carrier, ECSP, CJ Fonzi, Dr. Shailendra Vyakarnam and Harrison. The key insight seems to be that we do not fully understand what a community is, that it is a dynamic system and one which we must approach with a full investment of care and mutual respect. Key elements of sensitivity include:
  • Studying what the community truly demands rather than what we think it demands.
  • Questioning what richness means in terms of the community itself, and not our own definition of richness.
  • "Sector Scaling" does not incorporate enough of an integrated approach to community development. The community "served" needs to have a sufficient voice to ensure the social benefits and social sustainability and of a given project. From what I can gather of our commentary, the appropriate mode and means of such integration remains unknown. Stu Hart, Erik Simanis, CK Prahalad's first book, and ECSP's posts are all good places to start in divining for the right balance.

The Genie is Out of the Bottle: No matter what one's perspective about whether or not the world should have less or more technology, it is quite clear that this genie is out of the bottle. Technology and "progress" are not going to go away. The hand of connectivity is reaching its global capacity and there is little chance of preventing that. As our commentator CJ Fonzi put it, "People in the village want to play with my computer, they enjoy it when I give them a ride in my car, and the community leaders already have their own mobile phones. A market exists for western products, and someone is going to fill that market."?

This leads us back to Dr. Shailendra Vyakarnam's point of absorption regarding technology. If technology is here to stay and its reach is ever-expanding we must consider the way in which we will absorb or receive that technology as well as the way in which we will present technology so that it is absorbed in beneficial ways instead of destructive ones.

Though this review of our dialogue does not cover all of the issues we have discussed, I hope it hones in on the most complex and unique insights we have drawn. Starting August first 2008, I will be traveling on a Watson Fellowship until August first 2009 studying the philosophies and strategies of environmental organizations in Latin America, India, Thailand, England and Ghana (project description here). Please let me know if you have any suggestions for places to visit or people to speak with.

I look forward to continuing this dialogue of the course of this year and intend to make guest posts throughout the year (with Nextbillion.net's permission of course). For the sake of our own self-growth as well as the quality of the work that we bring into this world, I hope that we continue forward along this series of thoughts and questions. Indeed, it seems to a topic worth a lifetime of contemplation and a lifetime of attempted implementation.

Please, let's keep discussing this if people are up to it!

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