Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
Everyone's favorite economist, Jeffrey Sachs
, begins his recent book, The End of Poverty
, with brief case studies of four countries at different rungs on the development ladder. From Malawi
(way down at the bottom) to China (getting up toward the top), he presents small vignettes about his experiences in each of the four countries.
In the final story, Sachs sits across the table from a young, successful couple at a trendy Beijing nightclub and looks around at the rest of the club's patrons. Like his own companions, they are well-dressed business types with cell phones at the ready. The preponderance of technology in the club compels Sachs to examine the phones of his companions. Much to his delight, he finds that not only are they phones but cameras as well. The couple takes a few pictures and sends them back and forth to each other, further adding to Sachs' admiration.
As an example of the great things that the Chinese have gained through their journey up this development ladder, the ability to electronically share poor-quality pictures with their dining companions hardly provides a compelling vision. In fact, Sachs himself uses the word "gadgets" to describe the material rewards that development has afforded these young professionals.
In another recent book
that has caught the eye of the development set, University of Michigan Business School professor C.K. Prahalad
argues for the power of market-based mechanisms to pull the world's most impoverished 60%
(meaning those who live on less than $2 per day) out of such dire straights. The people who make up this segment of the global economy, which he refers to as the "bottom of the pyramid," are every bit the savvy consumers that you and I in the top 5% are, says Prahalad. But in order for them to become involved in the global economy, we (meaning Western businesses and some large local firms) must adjust our production systems to accommodate the different purchasing capabilities
that people in these markets have. Rather than cater to relatively few high-end, high-margin customers as we do at the top of the economic pyramid, we must focus on lots of value-conscious, low margin customers at the bottom. This model is sort of like Walmart, taken to the next level.
Prahalad offers a current example of the way that this kind of economic behavior by large firms can lift the tide of people at the bottom of the pyramid: by offering shampoo in single serving packets, companies like Procter & Gamble enable people with miniscule economic means to buy Pantene on a regular basis. The several pennies they earn per day are not enough to buy a whole bottle, but through purchasing a little bit at a time, people can keep their hair looking clean and fresh.
As with Sachs' cell phones, Prahalad's shampoo clearly leaves something to be desired. It is easy to ridicule the two examples as white-washed corporate favoritism or shallow consumerism run amok. And in a way, it is right to be skeptical of this type of "development:" Who is actually profiting here, the consumers or the producers? And who are we to force Western (largely American) notions of prosperity on the rest of the world? And when was the last time your shampoo actually made your life better, anyway?
But at a deeper level, to ask whether or not shampoo really makes our lives better is only half the question. In order to really get at what constitutes "development," we must ask what things really do make our lives better. Jane Jacobs begins her Death and Life of American Cities
with a quotation from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: "Until lately the best thing that I was able to think of in favour of civilization ... was that it made possible the artist, the poet, the philosopher, and the man of science. But I think that is not the greatest thing. When it is said that we are too much occupied with the means of living to live
, I answer that the chief worth of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more complex; that it calls for great and combined intellectual efforts, instead of simple, uncoordinated ones.... Because more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life. They mean more life. Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it."
In light of this, Sachs and Prahalad don't look so bad. The point of development -- the reason we've built up all this stuff
around us -- is to facilitate social interaction. And the greater the number of angles our stuff enables us to interact at, the richer our interactions can be. And while cell phones and shampoo don't guarantee complex interactions, they can be channels through which we increase the subtlety of our relationships with one another.
Throughout the rest of her book, Jacobs argues persuasively in favor of Holmes' words. She shows that the more complex the street life of a given city is, the safer, stronger, and healthier its neighborhoods become. It is interesting to think that the area in which she wrote that book - the lower east side of Manhattan - was once the mostly densely populated human settlement on earth. It was dirtier, smellier, and more crowded than any developing metropolis is today. But as the landing spot for immigrants from all corners of the globe, it was perhaps the most socially complex area in the world, as well.