Development is a form of theft

Conventional development, under which the rich take from Third World people most of the value produced by their labour, land and capital, is a subtle and little-recognised form of theft.

By Ted Trainer

There are two quite different ways of conceiving development. The conventional approach tells poor Third World people to increase their exports, because then they will earn more money and be able to buy more things they need and build more of the factories etc they need. This sounds sensible. Indeed, what else could they do; they can’t get things or build factories if they don’t first earn the money to pay for them, can they?

But what happens as a result of the conventional approach is that the productive capacity of the majority of poor people ends up producing mostly for the benefit of others. If they were able to devote all those resources to meeting their needs they could ensure very satisfactory living standards for themselves in a few years at most.

Consider for example the flow of benefits from an export plantation. Only about 10% of the value of the crop sold in a rich country goes to the exporting country. Most of that will go to the plantation owner, who is probably a rich world corporation or a rich Third World landowner. The people who do the work in the plantation will, as everyone knows, be paid only enough to live in extreme poverty. Only a few of the people in the region will get jobs in the plantation. In one case a Central American ranch producing beef to export needed only two people to look after 3,000 hectares.

Now what is happening here is that both the large fertile land area and the labour of  the workers  is  almost  entirely  producing  for  the benefit  of  others —  the  plantation owners, the corporations, the ship owners, the packagers, the exporters, the retailers and especially the shoppers in rich world supermarkets.

How long will it be before this strategy yields any significant development for the people in the region? In most of the Third World it never does. In fact hundreds of millions became poorer during the 1980s. Their governments do receive some taxes from the plantation but very little, if any, of this money is spent on developing the industries the people working in the plantation need.

Because the government sees development in conventional terms it will spend the tax income on building dams, tourist hotels, airports, and more plantations. Why? Because those are the infrastructures and industries that will most “stimulate the economy”, boost sales and business turnover, entice foreign investors in and facilitate exports. These are the things that are crucial for economic growth and officials take for granted that growth = development, or at least is the key to it.

But anyone can see that the result is development that is of no benefit to most Third World people. It is great for the urban rich few, the middle class who can get the few well-paid jobs in the city, and the foreign investors. Look at any Third World city and the way it all works is stunningly obvious; vast development of hotels, offices, freeways and airports, while 50-80% of people are more or less ignored.

The crucial question should be, how much benefit could be gained by the people of a region if the labour, land and capital of that region were fully geared to producing by them to meet their own needs. How many people could 3,000 hectares provide for if developed intensively according to Permaculture principles? The answer is probably 20,000! (Intensive gardening can produce enough food for 6-11 people from one hectare.)

The core concept in appropriate development is for the people of a region to devote the productive capacity of the region to meeting their own needs, instead of producing things to export in order to pay for importation of food and other necessities. The difference is enormous. Compare the 2 kg of rice that an Indian plantation worker can buy with a day’s pay with the amount of food, clothing or services that one person could produce in one day working for the benefit of a local community.

It must be stressed that it is the region that should be as self-sufficient as possible, not all individual farmers. Highly self-sufficient local economies must be the goal, so that many can specialise in production of different items for local use. Any small Third World region could organise  itself  co-operatively  to produce for  itself  most of  the basic food,

clothing, housing, etc it needs for a perfectly satisfactory quality of life (if it was allowed to). The basically simple alternative technologies and arrangements required are summarised in my The Conserver Society, Zed Books, 1995, and Towards a Sustainable Economy, Envirobooks, 1995.

It must also be stressed that it will always be important to produce some exports to be able to pay for some necessary imports to the region. However, importing and exporting can and should be quite minor parts of the total economy.

The difference between the paths is immense. The appropriate path via small, highly self-sufficient local economies would enable Third World people to easily and quickly develop the simple arrangements that could guarantee basic necessities and a high quality of life on very low GNP per capita. The conventional path condemns most people on earth to hopeless poverty.

The core issue in all this is, to what purposes are you going to gear productive capacity? The conventional development path draws the Third World’s productive capacity away from Third World people and into producing for the rich few. The main beneficiaries are the Third World rich, the transnational corporations and people who shop in rich world supermarkets.

Conventional development theory tells you that by exporting more and inviting the foreign investor in you are developing, and raising “living standards”. But what is really happening is that the rich in this world are increasing their market economic relations with you and thereby getting more access to forests, minerals, fish, land and labour, and increasing their capacity to sell things to you.

How would they be if the Third World decided it would prefer not to trade much while making for itself most of what it needs. This would be a catastrophe for the rich world and its corporations.

It should be clear then that conventional development is a process whereby the rich take from Third World people most of the value produced by their labour, land and capital. This is why many have come to regard development as a subtle and little-recognised form of theft. — Third World Network Features