The Chemistry of Development
How many frustrations, misunderstandings and instabilities
can a professional team have designing a development project?
Doesn’t the same happen among the project’s future beneficiaries?
We who work in development cooperation must consider the feelings,
perceptions, religious beliefs and attitudes of the people we work with.
If we don’t, we won’t be clear about what to do and how to do it.
I have a brother, a twin, who’s very different from me. Up to adolescence we received the same stimuli and grew up in the same environment, in the small Spanish town of Castilla. But I’m more extroverted and he’s more sensitive. My brother is a doctor of chemistry, researching polymers, contributing to the furtherance of science… in other words, to everybody’s development. For years now I’ve lived in Central America, working in different “development cooperation” projects, two ever more diffuse and complex words.
Why are my brother and I so different? Why doesn’t Costa Rica follow the same economic and social trend as its neighbors? Perhaps human chemistry, which is the basis for some of peoples’ behavioral and attitude differences, can also tell us something about how and to what degree countries move forward or backward in their development goals.
A rapidly changing realityThe amount of development aid has increased in the last two decades, as has the poverty it is trying to combat. And, without our being able to prevent them, some humanitarian crises continue to take on biblical proportions. Why is it so hard to meet development goals and achieve economic and social stability?
Ideas evolve, theories are overlaid and built on or discarded for others. “Only truths” disappear. We’ve known for some time that the Earth is round despite the medieval Catholic Church’s infallibility. Intellectuals defending the neoclassic system, starting with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, now admit that an unequal distribution of wealth, made worse by globalization, is causing conflicts that affect the system itself. Scientists have shown that testosterone, a hormone with a complex chemical structure, is one of the causes of character differences between men and women.
Notions about development are no different. They have also evolved. Development, when linked to international aid, is a concept that came from the inaugural address of US President Harry Truman on January 20, 1949. It was based on the Western vision of modernity and technological advancement: “Greater production is the key to prosperity and peace. And the key to greater production is a wider and more vigorous application of modern scientific and technical knowledge.”
The idea also emerged at that same moment of underdevelopment as a negative concept, a condition that must evolve towards development. That day two thousand million people became underdeveloped. Forty years on, the adjectives describing development (sustainable, compre¬hensive, ethno-, self-generated, even anti-development coming from Porto Alegre…) have evolved as much as underdevelopment theories themselves (stages of economic growth, unequal exchange, dependency…). And they will continue to do so as the economic, social and political studies of an ever more rapidly changing reality increase.
How do “underdeveloped” What if all development theories are incomplete and it was found that people’s socioeconomic and cultural advancement is also affected by human chemistry? When all’s said and done, development is based on peoples’ behavior and attitudes.
people think and feel
I write from personal experience. I distance myself from the simplistic accusations of development’s detractors (a new masked form of colonization, an excessive lifestyle, emergency aid to clean consciences…) and the skeptics’ crises of faith (badly designed projects, uncoordinated aid, corruption in the recipient countries...).
Although there’s a lot of truth in all these criticisms, this article only wants to point out certain gaps in international aid that I think are as important as they are little studied and considered. Working with men and women who are trying to overcome a disaster or a recent conflict, or with communities seeking their own development, requires knowing insofar as possible not only the political context and the socioeconomic aspects of the society they are part of, but also the way they think and feel, their scale of values, their worldview, all concepts linked to disciplines as scarcely valued in the development field as psychology, anthropology, religion and ethics.
Taking feelings into account:“Fear of crowds, fear of solitude, fear of what was and what could be, fear of dying, fear of living.” Eduardo Galeano: Upside Down. A Primer for the Looking-Glass World
Fear, insecurity, distrust...
There is no doubt that feelings influence our actions. How many times are our desires frustrated by fear of change or of the unknown? How many episodes and important economic and political changes in society are based on certain key historical figures’ feelings of passion, love or revenge?
Remember when, in 1995, the Hutus from the hills descended on Burundi’s capital city, Bujumbura, terrified because the Tutsi army, in an attempt to control the Hutu guerrillas, had started another attack against the civilian population. In their crazy race the crowds crossed paths with isolated soldiers calmly walking the other way. None of the Hutus confronted those impassive soldiers, or even shouted threats at them. Is it that they didn’t hate them? In my opinion, it’s obvious that the leap to civil violence in Burundi and Ruanda comes more from fear than hate. It’s about killing before being killed.
Kill before being killed. In the generalized violence of today, we could find ourselves facing this same dilemma in any of the Central American capitals, almost before we’re aware of it. If the basic institutions of a rule of law—the police and justice system—don’t work well, citizens may at some point take justice into their own hands. This is already happening and citizens are quite logically opting not to let themselves be killed.
In Guatemala, where the legacy of an atrocious and repressive conflict is enormous social disintegration, distrust and fear, the lynchings in the indigenous highlands cause both terror and confusion. This “popular” violence is linked to fear. Widespread violence, measured in terms of homicides per capita, is not greater in the poorest areas, as is generally believed. Departments where the indigenous population is in the majority actually have lower homicide rates. And Nicaragua, the poorest country in Central America, is also the least violent.
In Europe, 60% of people trust their fellow man or woman, while in Latin America, according to a recent sociological survey, only 20% believe and expect something positive from a stranger. Does insecurity cloister us and so feed our distrust? Or does distrust provoke insecurity?
Both sides of the argument are valid. And both faces, distrust and insecurity, undermine our quality of life, our development… but do they also affect happiness, which I understand to be a state of energy, an impression, a feeling?
The paradox of happinessSome surveys contradict common sense. Nobody would say that Colombia, which still has important doses of violence based on the internal armed conflict, is the third happiest country in the world and top of the list in Latin America, even though this was the result in 2007 of an annual survey by the University of Michigan’s Social Research Institute. That survey tries to measure the level of “subjective wellbeing.” The Latin American populations following Colombians on the list that year aren’t exactly oases of peace in the region, either: the next happiest are Guatemalans, Mexicans, Venezuelans, Brazilians and Argentines, in that order.
And now that we’ve jumped from violence to happiness, let’s jump from happiness to development. Common sense tells us that the most developed should be the happiest. But some surveys also contradict this, at least if we measure development as a growth in income per inhabitant.
This “paradox of happiness” has been very well explained in several articles by an excellent economist, Jürgen Schuldt, from whom I have borrowed the following. Between World War II and the 1990s, per capita income in the United States and Japan has increased three and seven times, respectively, but the index of self-perceived wellbeing, according to sophisticated surveys, has remained stable throughout this period and even experienced small periods of downward trends.
If there is a “paradox of happiness,” there also may be an “economy of happiness.” Economists who have already taken social areas under their wing seem also to want to head up spheres of knowledge linked to psychology and culture. These economists, according to Schuldt, offer various explanations. The first relates to “relative income,” and explains that people aren’t as concerned about their absolute income (or consumption) as they are about what they have compared to their “reference groups,” which suggests that their wellbeing could diminish if the economic standard of living of work colleagues, neighbors or whatever this group is defined as is getting steadily higher than their own. Another explanation is that as people’s income increases, their aspirations also expand. A third argument deals with “negative externalities,” a euphemism that economists use to cover all those things that bother us about development: urban agglomeration, pollution, solitude and abandonment, less time for friends…
Taking beliefs into account:“All those who follow a doctrine and sink down into a creed or into sectarianism are freed from an exhausting, immeasurable weight: that of their freedom.” Margarita Carrera: Del placer de ser rebaño (From the pleasure of being herd).
The weight of the religious aspect
Why is a religious focus discriminated against when analyzing the origins of conflicts or of underdevelopment? If so many historians argue about the superiority of the United States compared to the rest of the continent, or of northern Europe compared to the Mediterranean countries, based on the Protestant Churches’ conceptual differences from the Catholic Church in matters such as work and enrichment, why, I insist, is the religious aspect marginalized in most multidisciplinary analytical reports, starting with the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report?
Returning to the complicated Burundi situation: in an attempt to understand the ethnic conflict through extensive reading, I found a small marginal book (edited by some African Salesian friars) that pointed out some simple causes and a further explanation of the problem of violence: the Belgian colonial administration eliminated the Tutsi king, who was universally respected due to an ancestry as ancient as it is unknown, and Catholic evangelization destroyed the only motive merchants and cattle ranchers had to respect the poor Hutu farmers: their spiritual power given by the gods and represented by the famous Burundi drums, which now only interest a few lost tourists.
What does a project designed to increase the income of peasant farmers in Central American gain if, at the same time, some aggressive evangelical sect attracts them into a herd that promotes resignation and conformity? It’s worth recalling that the now rapidly growing neo-Pentecostal churches in Latin America only emerged at the end of the 1970s, influenced by the US civil-religious trend called the “moral majority,” and taught that the poor and sick suffer from their lack of faith or because they live in sin.
Religion is a reference point to explain life and the world. As such, it influences an individual’s identity and thinking. If the majority of actions—apart from instinctive, repetitive or some automatic defense mechanisms—are based on prior thought, individuals with a strong spiritual conviction, which is increased by greater suffering and poverty, clearly make decisions based on their religious conceptions. Fear as a spur to action in Guatemalan lynching is often based on some religious convictions manipulated by evangelical pastors.
It would be a mistake to center all criticism just on certain evangelical Churches. In 2005, the Guatemalan Congress approved a family planning law, very important for health and poverty control but, heavily pressured by an active Catholic Church led by Archbishop Rodolfo Quezada Toruño, President Óscar Berger refused to ratify it.
Living with magic?But not all beliefs need a god, or worse, a religion. In animist cultures, which are not exclusive to indigenous peoples, the component of magic is a very important way to explain the inexplicable. When studying for a Masters in development we were taught about the evils of capitalism and colonization, which are still true, but they hardly went into cultural aspects like African “magical beliefs.”
In Danané, on the Ivory Coast, I recall that Yapi, an appreciated and intelligent national colleague and lawyer, believed that a person with powers could cause physical harm to another, even if they are far away from each other. In fact, he “observed” at a bus station window how a bottle hit an individual buying his ticket without anyone touching it. Is it possible to eliminate these beliefs? Or better put: Do we have the right to eliminate them, even when they can influence the development of those seen to be “affected” by them?
With or without development, with more or less power from the churches, we’re all hurrying through life faster and faster. The essence of things, the value of small moments of pleasure, which some have called the poetic side of life and others spirituality, are being lost. In this regard, I support the ideas of theologian Leonardo Boff, expressed in a marvelous article I read in envío in August 2007. Boff said that it isn’t enough to adapt to new realities, new global challenges; we have to go further. We need to “re-found the meaning of life, to create a new spirituality… a new and greater sense of our purpose in this world, of our coexistence as human beings… counter[ing] despair and disenchantment with motives that make us discover reasons to continue living, to ensure that the world and humanity will continue to have a future.”
A spiritual world view is not the same as a religious world view. Religions don’t have a monopoly on spirituality. Spirituality is a human dimension, the consciousness that makes us “feel part of a whole, of being more than ourselves.” I believe this as a baptized Catholic leaning towards agnosticism, just short of atheism, a follower of that famous refrain by the French writer Georges Sand: “I prefer to believe that God doesn’t exist rather than think that he doesn’t care.”
Taking attitudes into account:“Mankind is not a means, but an end.” Miguel de Unamuno Racism in Guatemala, the desperate intrigue of the Somalis, mystery and witchcraft on the Ivory Coast: these are not abstract concepts but living realities that one way or another, in different contexts, have influenced my work in development cooperation.
From paternalistic aid to political will
We don’t have to step outside of our everyday world to see how selfishness relates to development. A self-centered person tries to reduce all reality to his or her own person, considers all the rest mere masks and, generally, doesn’t feel part of other people’s destiny. Meanwhile, ambition, the first cousin of selfishness, doesn’t have to be materialist. I don’t believe that the intellectual elites of Central America’s former guerrillas only aspire to monetary gain or materialist comforts. Their place in national politics, or their ego satisfaction in having their ideas and opinions recognized in the construction of peace and promotion of development could be incentives as strong as money.
The concept of aid went from passive paternalistic assistance, initially linked to Christian charity as defined by the great European Catholic and US Protestant institutions, to a participatory aid that sought and continues to seek the structural causes of problems. But not only does the current structure have to be modified; the thinking of the social sectors they represent has to be modified as well. Public debate and dialogue between diverse sectors isn’t enough if the minorities’ interests continue to prevail when transcendental decisions are made.
In her book Guatemala: linaje y racismo (lineage and racism), based on interviews in the late 1970s, Marta Casaus Arzú shows two things about the great Guatemalan families: their deliberate tactic of “inter-family marriages” to maintain power alliances, and their mostly racist and classist mentality. Until this changes, indigenous Guatemalans and the majority of ladinos—a term that implies being of mixed race (mestizo)—are allowed just enough advancement to prevent a social or revolutionary outbreak while ensuring that their poverty continues to force them to migrate to the large coffee and sugar plantations and sell their labor for miserable wages.
How do we move from The established oligarchies in many “democratic” countries have no interest in changing the power relationships. Their selfishness and ambition prevent it. At the same time, some poor people, those not yet resigned to their lot, dream of an improvement in their living conditions. In theory, political science tries to find a balance. And the players in development, although aware of this struggle, can do little or nothing if society as a whole doesn’t have a real volition for change.
discussion to action?
It remains uncertain whether those who still unlawfully hold power in Central America have such a volition. It’s true that there have been advances in policies and laws that would have been unthinkable just five years ago, especially those concerning rural development and food sovereignty and security in the region. But the element that should be inherent in all these policies—fiscal reform, understood to mean higher taxes to achieve more efficient expenditure—remains a taboo subject among the region’s political and economic elites.
Over the last few years many young entrepreneurs I’ve spoken to in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador admit that it is no longer profitable to maintain so much poverty, that there has to be an improvement in poor peoples’ standards of living in order to increase internal consumption. They sometimes even brandish arguments linked to morality and ethics. But when there’s any attempt to move from discussion to action, from ideas to actually “putting their money where their mouth is,” all remains the same. With an average taxation of 14% of its gross domestic product, Central America is very lightly taxed considering its needs.
Taking the senses into account:“Life, in general, is nothing more than a series of frustrated hopes, thwarted projects and belatedly recognized mistakes.” Arthur Schopenhauer
Do the poor feel underdeveloped?
If feeling hungry or thirsty or tired affects decision-making to calm those feelings, why don’t we think solitude, incomprehension, a feeling of inferiority, pain, pleasure or other emotions act as a motive? How many problems arise in a work team due to our own frustrations, mutual incomprehension or erroneous perceptions? Well, if this happens to us in an office where we’re designing a development project, why wouldn’t it happen to that project’s future beneficiaries, to a degree that could affect its results?
Not only are our perceptions of others important. Our ideas about their perceptions of us also influence our actions. How many things are done that go against what most people want in order to avoid “what people will say”?
Linking the conceptual origin of underdevelopment in the 1940s to perceptions so that someone can conceive of the possibility of escaping a given condition, they first must feel what it’s like to have fallen into it. But do the poor feel underdeveloped? In her first autobiography, the indigenous Guatemalan Rigoberta Menchú, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, clearly states that the priority of her people—the Quichés, one of 23 Mayan groups—isn’t to emerge from a state they perceive more as being forgotten than being underdeveloped, but rather to maintain the traditions inherited from their parents. It’s like a survival instinct, forced by years of oppression to the point of rejecting teachers in order to avoid “ladinizing” their culture.
It is in this field of perceptions that anthropology has been a dynamo for the vision of development. According to Mexico’s Gustavo Esteva, in equating education with diplomas, underdeveloped countries have lacked teachers and schools; in equating health with dependence on medical services, they have lacked doctors, health centers, hospitals and medicines; in equating eating with technical production and consumption activities, which are associated with market or government mediation, they have lacked income and suffered from a scarcity of food.
Now more than everI end with a penultimate question: Will development or emergency aid defeat poverty and prevent humanitarian crises? No, because both types of aid are only geared to the consequences, whether intermediate or final, of some phenomena that can’t be controlled at their origin, such as precariousness and the risk of loss of life during or after an armed conflict or natural disaster, or poverty and social disintegration resulting from an unequal sharing of investment and public spending.
Neither development aid nor emergency aid can fully meet their ultimate goals or, if they do, they can’t maintain them over the long haul because in addition to the feelings, beliefs, attitudes and senses that affect them, a genuine international political will has to arise that can modify the present system of international relationships based on an unrivaled economic model.
Does this mean to say that this aid should be eliminated? Now less than ever. It’s not just a matter of money, but of once again seeing and feeling ourselves as belonging to the same group of people on Earth. To again quote Leonardo Boff, the first act that distinguished us from other animals was to hunt and eat in groups, in a cooperation that is the founder of humanity. “That’s why cooperation, solidarity, interdependence isn’t a law among others,” he says. “It is the fundamental law of the universe and of human life. That’s what makes capitalism so perverse, putting the whole accent on the individual, on competition and not on cooperation.”
Present-day capitalism is unsustainable in the long run because of the tensions, conflicts and environmental deterioration it generates. Globalization is increasing inequality. As there aren’t enough checks and balances, there has to be an increase in development aid, especially in its quality, because without it, however inefficient and self-interested it may be, the world would have shattered into a thousand pieces awhile back, carrying us all away and returning to the origin of what it once was: pure chemistry.
Carmelo Gallardo is the coordinator of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s food security program in Central America