Wanted: people to exploit

The first rule of academia: never talk to anyone from the ‘real world’ about your research.

I was reminded of this rule yesterday when I spoke to my flatmate about what I’m trying to do with complexity science-style modelling and development. I told him of the need to stop seeing development as the search for a missing ingredient, and of how being a developed economy doesn’t imply that you know what it takes to become a developed economy any more than being healthy implies you know anything about medicine. In fact, the opposite could perhaps be argued: it’s through my illnesses that I’ve learned such physiology as I know, not through my wellnesses.

I told him of the prospect of investigating a more subtle model of society which recognised that institutions, policy, wealth and technology are all interacting systems and that sudden and radical changes in state (such as that which occured during the industrial revolution) are well understood in chaos theory, but terribly predicted by linear regression. I gesticulated wildly and my cheeks grew pink with enthusiasm.

He made a point, though, which entirely deflated my new-found sense of purpose in studying why some countries are rich, safe and just and others are poor, dangerous and corrupt. Surely, he said, there can be no study of development which doesn’t account for the fact that we are where we are because our ancestors successfully stole labour and resources from parts of the world they colonised for four hundred years. In our quest to make developing countries ‘more like us’, are we going to prescribe four centuries of stealing labour and resources from us? He thought not.

The problem with using the past of our development to study the future of others’ development is that we want to improve their lot without affecting our lot in any way at all. That’s what makes development hard, and it goes beyond the usual ‘world resource constraint’ argument which says that the world doesn’t have enough stuff for everyone to live like an American. I’ve never really bought into that argument. This new argument is more pernicious: we’re not going to run out of stuff for developed countries to consume, we’re going to run out of people for developing countries to exploit.