Why you can't develop a nation

| 11th June 2000
Gard Binney examines the need for an alternative to the dominant development paradigm of globalisation.

One of President Clinton’s favourite phrases is ‘growing the economy’. You can grow tobacco, and you may be able to grow a moustache, but I’ll be darned if you can ‘grow’ the economy. The economy can be boosted or improved, but it cannot be grown. That is one of those annoying examples of illogical and grammatically incorrect newspeak which has permeated Wall Street and Fleet Street in the last days of the 20th century.

Another prime example of this latter-day linguistic laziness is the use – or abuse – of the word ‘development’. You can develop a film or a rash, but you’ll have a tough time developing a nation. Yet it is hard to turn on the telly or open the papers these days without reading some reference to the urgent need of developing nations. And if what we mean is nations ‘developing’ – a word ineluctably tainted with condescension - the question arises: from what to what? From an agrarian society steeped in centuries-old communal traditions to a stressed-out, high-tech, dog-eat-dog existence with traffic congestion, urban sprawl, high crime rate and everybody hooked up to the internet and desperately clutching a cell phone, lest they  be ‘left out of the loop’ for a single second?

For what is really meant by this mantra of Milton Friedman orthodoxy is the need for industrialised nations to develop new markets for their resource-depleting production among the teeming billions of Asia, Africa and Latin America, thus boosting the stock value of the multinationals – under the benign guise of raising the standard of living among the new converts to consumerism. For the cross and sword of the conquistadors of yore we have substituted the dollar sign and the sweat shop.

Much like ‘the Third World’, catch-words like ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’ are manifestations – however well intended their application in global economics – of a prevailing, if unwitting, arrogance inherent in so-called civilized (read: white, Christian and capitalist) society. One need only read the recent spirited exchange in these pages between Economist editor Bill Emmott and Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva (Vol 30, No 2) to recognize the truth of Kipling’s assertion that ‘East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet’. Their measured politeness and mutual respect prove that it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable. The irony is that both writers are ‘right’, even though they represent diametrically opposed points of view. As the saying goes, it all depends where you’re coming from, or, on which culture you have been weaned.

Bill Emmott represents the pragmatic Western point of view which holds that – the teachings of Christ, Marx et al. notwithstanding – shortsighted self-interest is the primary motivating factor driving human activity. Vandana Shiva, on the other hand, advances a more idealistic, but not necessarily less realistic, world view, mirroring a deeper insight into the human existence, one that is embodied in the Hindu and Buddhist concepts of Nirvana – and so eloquently expressed in Matthew 16: ‘What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’


One is reminded of the possibly apocryphal account of the meeting between Diogenes and Alexander the Great. The Macedonian conqueror was so intrigued by tales of the Greek sage who lived in an old wine barrel - apparently content to dispense with the most rudimentary comforts of life – that he paid him a visit. Summoning Diogenes to step outside his vintage abode, the emperor asked him if there wasn’t anything he wanted, so that he, Alexander, might grant him his wish.

‘Sire’, came the prompt reply, ‘I wish you would step aside, so as not to block the sun’.

Cultural and philosophical differences aside, it is simply not possible for the rest of the world to consume finite resources and emit ozone-depleting gases, or to pollute and trash the environment, at the rate we in the West are doing it. Such a scenario would spell the absolute and unquestionable extinction, not just of the thousands of other species who share the planet with us, but also of the human race. As Gandhi once said, were all the world’s people to consume at the same rate, a dozen planets would be needed to accommodate our lifestyle. And since the Mahatma uttered those prophetic words, world population has doubled to six billion – an annual increase of 90 million people to house and feed!

No. The alternative to globalisation must be for the rest of the world (‘emerging  economies’, ‘developing nations’, ‘the Third World’ – pick your own cliché) to bypass our untenable form of economic activity and set its collective sights on a more sustainable Way of Life. The time and technology is ripe for those nations not already addicted to fossil fuels and wasteful consumerism to adopt a truly renewable economic infrastructure. For surely a global adaptation of our profligate ways cannot be the answer. To paraphrase Disraeli, global trade is not a principle, but an expedient.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2000


The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate here