Listen to the women

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution by Partha Dasgupta
    Oxford, 661 pp, £35.00, July 1993, ISBN 0 19 828756 9

The project of ‘developing’ the South, the countries of Latin America and the poorer former colonies of Asia and Africa, dates, as a deliberate project, from the Forties and early Fifties. It showed its origins. Economically, development meant industry. Adam Smith and Marx, it was assumed, were right. Output could most effectively be raised by moving as quickly as possible to capital-intensive mass production. David Hume’s alternative, to think in terms of a ‘product cycle’, of simple agriculture at one end and advanced manufacture at the other, and to position oneself at the point at which one could make the most of one’s endowments and of trade with other countries, was all but forgotten. Politically, development meant a directive state. The countries of the North had themselves recovered from depression and mobilised for war by bringing their economies under direct political control. There seemed no good reason, after that war, to suppose that for its development the South should not do the same. Politicians in the South concurred. They wanted to catch up, and were happy to have strong powers to do so.

The project seemed at first to succeed. Rates of economic growth in the South in the Fifties, Sixties and early Seventies were higher than anyone had expected. And according to some of the most persuasive indicators, such as the average expectation of life at birth, welfare seemed to be improving too. The successes, however, were deceptive. Most of the growth in output and income came from the export of primary commodities, of food and minerals, to a booming North. It confirmed Hume rather than Smith or Marx. Only in East Asia, and there only by the Seventies, was much of it coming from the export of manufactured goods. And even in those countries which were selling agricultural products, people in the countryside were doing markedly less well than those in the cities. Inequalities of all kinds were increasing. And many of the contentedly directive governments (most of them supported by a superpower patron) were unwilling to extend civil and political rights or to open themselves to electoral defeat.

The self-deception, now, is clear. Interest rates in the North rose after the second oil-price rise in 1979, and the demand for imported food crops and other commodities began to decline. The cost of Southern countries’ debt went up, and their earnings went down. Many had to turn to the multilateral institutions for help, and to accept the institutions’ conditions. These would anyway have been severe. But they were made more fierce than they might have been by a change of mind in the North. Economically, it was agreed, development might still mean industry. But this should no longer be financed by debt. If Southern countries couldn’t raise the revenue for it by exports or taxation, they would have to rely on private investment. Politically, the North insisted, states should be less directive. They should sell off their unprofitable enterprises, cut their social spending, stop protecting their currencies, and open themselves fully to imports. They should, in short, restructure themselves. And uninterested now in pursuing its Cold War in the South, Washington added that they should think about becoming ‘democratic’. By the end of the Eighties, funds were flowing back from the South to the North, incomes in Latin America and Africa were lower than they’d been in the late Seventies, and except in India and China, poverty everywhere had increased. But there had been some elections.

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