Uneven and Combined

If we want people-centered development in the Global South, it will have to be led by strong left movements.

The specter of Trotsky is haunting the United Nations. The UN Development Program’s 2013 annual report — boldly titled “The Rise of the South” — gives a glowing account of how uneven and combined development is remaking the world.

Despite “very different endowments, social structures, geography and history” countries like Ghana, China, Algeria, India, Malaysia, Brazil, and Indonesia are all said to be experiencing “rapid people-centered development” made possible by the “rapidly expanding connections” between countries in the South. These connections are creating a more equitable, balanced form of globalization: “Global production is rebalancing in ways not seen for 150 years.”

The ingredient list for this happy story is short: “developmental states,” “tapping global markets,” and “determined social policy innovation.” These factors, we are told, are enabling countries — both large and small — to rewrite global power relationships, leapfrog old barriers, and transform human development. Human wellbeing, according to Human Development Index measures, has increased dramatically since 2000, and not just in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) — nearly every country has seen improvement and the Millennium Development Goal on poverty was met three years early.

Yet excitement over the “rise” of the South was already tempered by the 2014 World Development Report — which focused heavily on risk, vulnerability, and stalling gains — and this year’s tempestuous spring and summer look set to dampen expectations even more.

China’s stock market crash and broader slowdown, nail-biting anxiety over the Federal Reserve’s decision on interest rates, the multi-dimensional crisis in Europe and the Middle East, and dismal prospects for countries dependent on primary product exports are all stoking fear and uncertainty about the future.

What should we make of this schizophrenic picture, where on the one hand we are told that humanity is better off than it’s ever been, while on the other these gains seem like a mirage amid growing volatility, inequality, and uncertainty?

Reconsidering the past fifteen years, and the nature of development in the South, offers a way to dissipate some of the “global fog,” as historian Eric Hobsbawm once called it, surrounding the current moment. A second glance at the ingredient list for success — states, global markets, and policy — demonstrates the contradictions of development; how immiseration and inequality, economic growth and innovation, can be flip sides of the same coin.

Take the developmental state. Countries like China and India haven’t played by the rules of the Washington Consensus and, in certain respects, it’s paid off. Interventionist state policies have enabled many more “Southern” corporations to become “global challengers,” while heavy infrastructure investment and regulated economies combined with pro-business policies and growing domestic markets have spurred investment from both domestic and multinational capital.

But this playbook has its own set of limitations, and there is little evidence to suggest that the BRICS are providing an alternative pathway for development for other countries in the South. Instead, they benefit from the still-robust features of neoliberal capitalism, while using the language of South-South solidarity when it eases access to new markets and resources.

At the same time, while interventions to reduce poverty — like cash transfer programs — have been effective in some circumstances, they are set against a broader policy framework that makes working people’s lives more, rather than less, precarious. While educational attainment is steadily increasing, so too are unemployment and inequality — 85 individuals own as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion.

Financial volatility underpins “growth,” and global finance uses the language of inclusion to profit from skyrocketing household indebtedness. Global trade policies foster corporate growth, but also rising food prices and food insecurity. Meanwhile, no real progress has been made in combatting the climate crisis, which threatens to devastate already vulnerable countries.

All this simply indicates that capital won’t do the work for us. Economic growth and the reboot of the developmental state over the past fifteen years have lifted many out of poverty, but they’ve also made it considerably harder for many more to escape it, solidifying and expanding global capitalism and the volatility, inequality, and environmental destruction that goes along with it.

Relying on bouts of economic growth and policy interventions to ameliorate the worst effects of the for-profit system does little to change the underlying logic of capitalist development. The contradictions of development are the contradictions of capitalism — development will only bring meaningful and long-lasting gains when it moves beyond capitalism.

This doesn’t mean we should advocate a return to crude, modernist development schemes, or worse the small-scale, community-based models pushed by many international NGOs, who increasingly work hand-in-glove with multinational corporations and project the interests of Northern governments.

Global capitalism, and the crises it has generated, are wide, deep, and formidable. Real people-centered development will require strong left movements to take — and use — state power, channel and constrain capital, and build the large-scale infrastructure to combat the climate crisis and provide for the needs and wants of all.