When Worlds Collide #45: Reimagine Development: Where Nobody Gets Left Behind

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 9 December 2012

Cartoon by W R Wijesoma - Development that leaves some behind

Cartoon by W R Wijesoma – Development that leaves some behind

Paul Hermann Müller (1899 – 1965) was a Swiss chemist. He won the 1948 Nobel Prize in physiology (medicine) for his 1939 discovery of DDT’s insecticidal qualities and its use in controlling disease carrying mosquitoes.

That knowledge was soon put to wide use. DDT was sprayed during the latter part of World War II to contain malaria and typhus among troops and civilians, and then adopted as an agricultural insecticide.

Christopher William Wijekoon (CWW) Kannangara (1884 – 1969) was a Lankan lawyer, legislator and effectively the country’s first minister of education during the pre-independence era. In the mid 1940s, he introduced far reaching reforms in that sector, enabling children from all levels of society to study from kindergarten to (and including) university level for free.

C W W Kannangara remembered on Sri Lanka stamp

C W W Kannangara remembered on Sri Lanka stamp

It’s unlikely that Müller and Kannangara ever met. But their legacies have impacted twentieth century Sri Lanka’s development process in ways that neither individual could have imagined.

In both respects, 1945 was a watershed year. Dust was still settling on the Eastern and Western theatres of war thousands of miles away. The sun was slowly setting on the British Empire. In Ceylon, the movement for political independence was gaining momentum.

On 1 October that year, Kannangara’s educational reforms came into effect, having survived stiff opposition in the State Council and sections of the media. A quiet social revolution was launched.

Around the same time, by coincidence, Ceylon became the first Asian country to develop a scheme of indoor industrial spraying using DDT. Memories of the devastating malaria epidemic of 1934-35, which reported 5.5 million cases, were still fresh in people’s minds.

In 1946, when spraying commenced in earnest, the island still recorded an annual total of around 3 million malaria cases — high for a population of 6.6 million (1946 census). With widespread use of DDT and other measures, there was a drastic reduction: down to 7,300 cases in 1956 and just 17 in 1963. (There was a resurgence in the late 1960s which took two more decades to bring under control. But that’s another story.)

DDT Generation

There was another population census in the year we almost beat malaria: it returned a head count of 10.58 million – a 60% increase in just 17 years. That was due to post-war and post-independence baby booms, combined with a reduction in deaths from malaria and other infectious diseases. I have called this Sri Lanka’s DDT Generation.

This demographic wave was the first to benefit from free education. It inspired a tide in rising expectations and aspirations that has preoccupied every Lankan government in office since the 1950s.

Sustained investments in public health and education yielded impressive social indicators. Life expectancy went up, and infant deaths came down. As a nation, we quickly added years to life. Adding life (quality) to years proved harder.

It’s these demographic and aspirational imperatives that all development responses in independent Sri Lanka addressed. That includes the Green Revolution of the 1960s and the Mahaweli River diversion programme of the 1970s.

Such development was pursued under considerable duress: two youth insurgencies in the south, and one protracted separatist war in the north and east. While these conflicts arose from multiple causes, the mismatch between aspirations and opportunity added to the social tensions.

By the time a pro-market government was elected in July 1977 with a five-sixths majority, the “DDT Generation” was rising in the work force.

President J R Jayewardene, himself a former finance minister, correctly read the writing on the wall: a massive demand for more jobs, higher incomes and better infrastructure. How his government responded to that challenge is still being hotly debated 35 years later. But then, it’s easier to be critical in hindsight.

As the Jayewardene juggernaut flexed its muscle to make sweeping policy reforms that, in turn, triggered massive societal changes, only a few public intellectuals and activists dared to question — let alone challenge — any of it.

British-built Victoria Dam, part of Mahaweli River Diversion Programme in Sri Lanka

British-built Victoria Dam, part of Mahaweli River Diversion Programme in Sri Lanka

Mahaweli diversion

Systems ecologist Dr Ranil Senanayake did so – and paid a high price. For a short while in the late 1970s, he worked as an advisor to the Mahaweli Ministry. But when he questioned the mega-project’s development premises and dubious ecological practices, the minister promptly sacked him.

Did anyone at the time offer viable alternatives to the big and quick Mahaweli, I asked Ranil in an interview earlier this year. He strongly believes there were other options that were soundly ignored.

For example, instead of a few large dams, many medium sized ones could have generated the same or higher quantities of electricity. But that wasn’t glitzy enough.

“The idea was to grab the (aid) money and put up the largest possible things! Also, they were making huge reservoirs without consideration of the silt load coming off the mountains…So the huge investment we were doing was being ‘discounted’ almost from the time we were constructing!” Ranil says.

My long conversation with Ranil (“Remember the Mahaweli’s Costly Lessons!” on Groundviews.org, 3 June 2012) is highly relevant in view of today’s massive infrastructure development.

The current ‘development spurt’ is comparable to the Mahaweli. Now, as then, a strong government is bulldozing its way through without adequate public debate of the cost-benefits, choices and alternatives.

How many discordant voices do we hear this time around?

Development of the kind we have had in Sri Lanka is certainly imperfect. Failures there have been many – of vision, leadership and implementation — some far more costly than others.

Yet, it serves little purpose now to question the motives of those who shaped and implemented development policy decades ago. They had to cope with the confluence of DDT and CWW legacies…

It would be more instructive to dispassionately critique that development’s impact — and learn from it. The Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), a think tank, is aiming for this at their annual symposium on December 11 and 12. This year’s theme: Reimagining Development.

Imagination is more important than knowledge, as Einstein once said. For imagination to be meaningful in development debates, however, it needs to be rooted in ground realities and informed by analysis. Run-away imagination of the fanciful kind, which some of our environmentalists indulge in, won’t solve the tough problems of today.

Yes, development planners must belatedly question their blind acquiescence at the Bretton Woods ‘temples’. Likewise, development researchers and activists must also rethink their uncritical hero worshipping of those who challenged the status quo, such as Ernst Schumacher, Edward Goldsmith and Rachel Carson.

Village in the Jungle

The bottomline: inclusive development is all about creating choices for everybody – and ensuring that nobody gets left behind. Not quite rocket science, but a bit harder than launching satellites…

Leonard Woolf portrait by Henry Lamb

Leonard Woolf portrait by Henry Lamb

It’s a century since an empathetic colonial official named Leonard Woolf wrote one of the most evocative novels based in Ceylon. The Village in the Jungle, first published in 1913, was based on Woolf’s experiences on the island from 1904 to 1911, culminating as assistant government agent of Hambantota.

The novel captures the harsh reality of an impoverished village, where men and women were completely at the mercy of the encroaching jungle, assorted disease, unkind climate and uncaring government. Multiple hardships fuelled suspicion, fear and superstition among them.

A century on, our jungles have receded, and Hambantota is the new epicentre of fast-tracked development. But significant numbers of rural and urban poor still struggle with many forces that once bedevilled the residents of Woolf’s Beddegama.

Modern day Silindus and Punchi Menikas walk among us, leading lives of quiet desperation. They have been bypassed by decades of development. Cosy slogans and romanticised strategies – many of which don’t work at the scales or speeds required – will not liberate them.

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
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3 Responses to When Worlds Collide #45: Reimagine Development: Where Nobody Gets Left Behind

  1. This is a well written piece and adds to our knowledge.
    The writer has drawn our attention to the unexpected nature of the outcome of public policy interventions which are implemented by people with good intentions. His column is titled aptly “when Worlds Collide” and this collision takes place due to a fundamental deficiency i our thinking:

    We know only linear thinking, that is, for our own convenience, we imagine things according to our suitability ignoring all others; but nature is non-linear capable of multidimensional reactions at the same time. Hence, our linear thinking allows us to start from one point today and finish at at a previously predicted point tomorrow. But, nature, guided by laws of nature and not laws of men, will come up with its own process of change which will result in a completely different outcome to what he have predicted.

    The Buddha tried to put non-linear thinking int the heads of his followers by emphasising on the law of cause and effect, law of impermanence, law of evolution and the law of unity. However, today’s Buddhists appear to have lost this track by allowing emotions to rule their heads.

    Hence, as predicted by the writer, Silindus and Menikas will walk among us forever despite out honest and well-intentioned attempts at uplifting their conditions. However, the writer’s wish that all development endeavours should seek to make everyone inclusive appears to be clashing with the non-linear leaning of nature.

  2. Rohan Samarajiva says:

    When re-imagining development, it is important not to fall into the trap of central planning. Today’s economy is highly complex. It is not possible to predict all possible outcomes and interactions. So we have to place our faith in decentralized innovation and principles like “crossing the river by feeling the stones.” Mahaveli was central planning undertaken by a government that claimed to be pro-free-enterprise. The alternatives you propose are also central planning, just different plans. There is no value in revisiting these old debates. The dams are there there, the reservoirs are connected, what we now have to do is make the best of it.

    In a complex economy driven by decentralized innovation, there is no possibility of equalizing outcomes. What government must do is to create the conditions for decentralized innovation and support the people who fall behind by the use of intelligently designed safety nets.

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