What is real progress?

Having spent 52 years of my life in the sugar industry, including working closely with governments and regional institutions along the way, if there is one thing I have learned it is the extreme frailty of all grand plans.

In my experience, master blueprints have a terrible track record. For one thing, any plan known to man as soon as it is finished immediately begins to be overtaken by the dynamic of events. And the longer a plan looks into the future the less likely it is to have any relevance to how things actually turn out. The poet Goethe sums it up when he dismisses all such academic exercises in his wonderful words celebrating the unexpected: “Grey, grey, my friend, is all your theory but green the golden tree of life.”

In every case the infinite fallibility of human beings means that any long-term plan begins to go haywire in its execution as soon as it is promulgated. At the heart of all strategies is that fatal flaw.

It is not really surprising, therefore, that every country in the region is littered with the burnt-out corpses of plans not implemented and reports unread except by scholars long after events have turned out very differently. One only has to think of that supreme repository of theory and discarded blueprints, the Caricom Secretariat, to despair that any regional or national blueprint will ever serve a useful purpose however well meant or assiduously constructed.

Having said that, it would be obtuse not to recognize that strategic planning, at least in outline, has its place. A nation, or a business, has to be given direction and set broad objectives. Our current government has stated that its objective is to achieve the good life for all its citizens. This is admirable and has the advantage, in my estimation, of being a declaration of intent and does not involve, not yet anyway, a formal Strategic Plan.

But in all the plethora of expert debate and high-level planning which I am sure is taking place there is a question I hope will come up again and again in the discussions. It is whether we should not be re-defining completely what the good life means. I fear that it will simply be taken for granted that it means economic growth, making people better off materially, adding more and more tribute to that idol of the modern age, gross domestic product. Such an exercise is profoundly misguided.

In this respect an article in the June 1995 issue of Caricom Perspective by Professor Norman Girvan entitled ‘Rethinking Development’ continues to be required reading for all of us. Girvan points out that in the past planning has proceeded on the largely unquestioned assumption that human welfare is to be measured principally by levels of material consumption and that human progress consists mainly in increasing such levels ad infinitum.

Long ago that greatest of all West Indian thinkers, CLR James, saw the fallacy in such a foolish assumption. In a public lecture in Trinidad in the 1960s he asked his audience to consider the question, “What is the good life?”

“I am speaking,” he told them, “about the good life from the point of view of society…For example, Mr Butler [then Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK] has told the people of Britain that in twenty-five years’ time the standard of living will be doubled. It is this kind of inanity that I want to warn you against. That statement is without meaning. Fifty years ago I am sure that the amount of goods, the quantity of services, that were at the disposal of the average worker in a particular country were more or less half what they are today…Has that solved anything?…Has that solved any social and political problems which are today worse, more acute, than they were in 1910. The question, therefore, of the good life is not to be judged by quantity of goods.”

There might be development, CLR knew, but there would only be regression in real human terms if, for instance, constitutional arrangements remained unresponsive to the popular will or if runaway and brutal crime came to drive desperate fear and wholesale corruption into a nation’s psyche or if cultural creativity failed to flourish or if the safety and beauty of the natural environment could not be sustained.

In the course of his penetrating article Norman Girvan has the following to say: “The idea of human progress needs to be delinked from the fantasy of never-ending increases in material consumption. This has been seen to be physically impossible for the individual, morally questionable for society and ecologically non-viable for the human race.”

I hope our national planning will always aim to take full account of this eminently sensible thinking.

Comments  

There is still time

Suddenly I am 85 years old.  I find that ridiculous but chronologically  it is a fact. 

By ,

No fort is strong enough

In last week’s column I wrote about a pervasive anxiety about the state of things in general which currently focuses on the seemingly unstoppable spread of criminal activity and violent crime in society.

By ,

Fear of crime

The word angst derives from the German meaning fear, but signifying something a lot more than simple fear. 

By ,

Friends of America can hardly believe their eyes

Thomas Friedman, NY Times columnist, wrote in an interesting recent article that the world is faced with three immense “climate” changes.

By ,

Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly.

We built stabroeknews.com using new technology. This makes our website faster, more feature rich and easier to use for 95% of our readers.
Unfortunately, your browser does not support some of these technologies. Click the button below and choose a modern browser to receive our intended user experience.

Update my browser now

×