Beyond Development: Escaping the Linguistic Prison

12/22/2015 05:40 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2016

There is a poignant story - apocryphal, perhaps, though it has a ring of truth about it - about a tiger in a Moscow zoo, kept in a pen measuring ten-by-ten meters. At a certain point, the regime at the zoo changed and the pen was removed, leaving the tiger free to wander over a greatly expanded range. However, for the rest of its life the tiger stayed within the ten-by-ten space.

Today, as a society we are behaving very much like the tiger, especially in the sphere of economics. The bars of our prison comprise the language we use to define the challenges we face and the range of options available to us, obscuring from view all kinds of new creative thinking and solutions that are potentially open to us. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that among the key challenges we face in transcending the tired charade that passes for political and economic debate today is a conscious societal engagement with linguistic and narrative deconstruction and reinvention.

Let me illustrate the point with reference to development (itself a term deeply encoded with half-hidden ideological assumptions), a field I worked in over a couple of decades, primarily in West Africa. At the broadest and crudest level, the terrain is defined in terms of developed and developing countries, first world and third world. These are shambolically inaccurate concepts (is South Korea less developed than Portugal?; Shanghai or Sao Paulo less developed than Belfast?) that, by steamrolling the glorious diversity of the human experience into just two categories greatly narrows our perceptual frames.

Then, once the development worker hits the ground, she is trained to begin by identifying the problem to be solved. This immediately sets up an expert-client relationship, with the beneficiaries defined from the outset by what they lack rather than what are their assets, achievements, and aspirations. Moreover, it is in the interests of the aid recipient to overstate the scale and nature of the problems they face so as to maximize the assistance they might receive. In short, the framing encourages passivity and disempowerment.

The very word aid further poisons the pool, setting up an insidious charitable relationship based on the generosity of donors. The mix becomes positively toxic when poverty is defined in terms of GDP and incomes. In the words of Wolfgang Sachs, ''Once the scale of incomes had been established, such different worlds as those of the Zapotec people of Mexico, the Tuareg of North Africa, and the Rajasthani of India could be classed together; a comparison to the 'rich' nations demanded relegating them to a position of almost immeasurable inferiority."

And thus, a chasm of misunderstanding opens. The world gets divided into neatly defined zones of undifferentiated wealth and deprivation, with the trajectory imposed by the development narrative driving earth-depleting consumerism and sapping cultural coherence and self-confidence in much of the world.

Yet, those who have been privileged to spend time in the global South are generally struck by the diversity and vitality as well as cultural and spiritual wealth in evidence. This sets up a form of cognitive dissonance, as the lived experience stands in such contrast to the dominant narrative in which poverty is framed in terms of money income alone.

Some years back, the new economics foundation launched a new metric for measuring wellbeing called the Happy Planet Index. This measures just three indicators: longevity, subjective feelings of wellbeing and ecological footprint, so setting up an altogether more useful and insightful question; namely, "how much natural resource do we need to consume to live long and happy lives?" There is something deliciously subversive in this radical, yet common sense-based shifting of the frame. And tellingly, not one "developed country" makes it into the top twenty-five.

Now, this is not to suggest that this snapshot provided by the Happy Planet Index is in some absolute sense true. The point, rather, is that the conclusion arrived at depends on how one frames the language and the question.

We need to develop a language and a meta-narrative that better reflect the kinds of partnership and reciprocity we will need between the culturally and spiritually-rich South and materially and scientifically-rich North as we move further into the resource-constrained 21st century. A key challenge of this century will be making do with less, finding ways of de-linking wellbeing from the consumption of material goods. Here, we have much to learn from the global South.

The fields of anthropology and ecology are a great place to start in the search for a language fit for the purposes of the 21st century. Both reveal a mosaic of diverse, elegant and creative adaptations to the specificity of place; a global heterodoxy of beautiful solutions to the challenge of living well on a diverse and finite planet. The concepts that lie at the heart of these disciplines - such as resilience, adaptability, symbiosis, the power of networks and so on - open up whole new ways of understanding and generating reciprocal wealth and wellbeing within the biophysical boundaries of the planet.

As in development, so right across our economies and societies, the language we use is trapping us in old, unhelpful, zero-sum-game ways of thinking. We continue to pace in our cramped ten-by-ten circles when beyond the linguistic bars of our cage there exists far greater freedom of imagination and action than we are currently engaging with.

Beyond Development: Living Well on a Diverse and Finite Planet - Three Week Intensive, Schumacher College, Jan 18 - Feb 5, 2016