When most of the year is gone, it is easy to look back and try to see what worked and what did not. We keep on trying to evaluate our actions, maybe in order to see if we are on the right path. Individuals, organizations, companies, communities, sovereign governments, and society in general, we all look back with different levels of scrutiny. And then we use different wording for what we believe success is.
I had been a banker since 1992 when I joined a social engagement organization last year. Working in the financial industry, I’ve seen Brazil being considered in different categories over time: third world country, underdeveloped, emerging and so on. Over 20 years it wasn’t just the terminology that changed; the evaluation lens we use at different times in history changes too.
In a nutshell, the idea of development has always been a political-economic one, the idea being to chart the progress of less developed countries in catching up with developed countries. So development has always been understood from an economistic perspective, using largely GDP and percentage points to compare growth in terms of piling up goods, or reduction of poverty (=lack of material means). Recently politics have gained attention in terms of democracy, justice and human rights.
But development is about facilitating resourcefulness, not transferring resources. Many researchers criticized former president Lula (and his government) since 2002 saying the transfer of wealth (using government programmes like Bolsa Familia) is not the ideal way to eradicate poverty in Brazil. In fact, current president Dilma’s government logo ‘a rich country is a country without poverty’ sustains its intervention intentions.
Urbanização de Favelas: Lições Aprendidas no Brasil (Slum Upgrading: Lessons Learned in Brazil) was launched on 3 September during the World Urban Forum, sponsored by the UN. The book is based on an IDB study on urban housing policies in seven Brazilian cities over the past 10 years. The book’s summary says that project continuity over time is the key to success in improving living conditions in slums. Continuity defines living phenomena. If we are stating that development is an organic process, how do interventions relate to the need to reduce poverty? How to pinpoint people’s needs? How to evaluate development interventions, if in general we judge on a handful of measures, indeed inaccurate material measures? GDP measures not only goods and services over a period. Every time we build a prison, every time there is a divorce, a car accident or a suicide, GDP has an uptick. Sales of cigarettes, and entire sectors like the drug industry, profit from human misery. Is this development? In the conventional definition of development, where can we find social values, artistic, cultural and language diversity? If we continue to see growth and development in terms of economic standards, the world is definitely becoming less developed with respect to everything which lives outside the economic.
The weekly Veja Magazine dated 12 September carried a story about the legacy of previous presidents of Brazil. With simple line graphs, it shows that sewage and water systems are in 52.5% of houses compared to 8.6% in 1950. The percentage of children between 5 and 9 years old registered in schools grew from 10.5% to 94.5%, causing illiteracy to plunge to single digits, while 57% of the adult population could not read in 1940.
One of the things I love about writing is that it helps me exercise seeing and thinking in new ways. I would probably need a couple of theses to discuss development in more depth as well as breadth. But I want to reflect a little on my own work in the social sector.
Allan Kaplan’s The Development Practioner’s Handbook includes some enlightening definitions of growth and development:
- Development is not growth. While growth entails a quantitative increase, and may precipitate development, development implies a qualitative change in structure.
- Development is a process in time, is discontinuous, and is mostly irreversible.
- Often a crisis is necessary to precipitate development; development is often accompanied by pain; development entails the need to let go of the past, to overcome resistance to change.
So how can we define sustainable economic, social and institutional development to improve the living conditions of vulnerable populations? What is the difference between progress and growth in that matter and how can we contribute to the reduction of poverty?
It is easy to feel lost when you have more questions than answers. But that does not mean you are on the wrong path. If you are working to increase your awareness, there is no way the result will be poor. Accurate and sensitive readings of the particular situation are necessary to keep development in motion. You cannot predict the outcome, but you can suffer less if you are able to understand that development never ends. It is the thrust of the development endeavour to eradicate or alleviate poverty.
Elaine Smith is development manager at Instituto Geração.
Further articles from Alliance magazine related to social investment in Brazil: