The Propaganda of Prosperity

My people are tired of development, they just want to live" was a sentiment expressed by Mexican author Gustavo Esteva in his remarks at a conference of the Society for International Development in 1985. Today as we are surrounded by the propaganda of prosperity, it is exceedingly difficult to ponder the exhaustion and exasperation contained in that statement. The 1980s and 1990s have witnessed expanded investment in countries that have relaxed foreign investment restrictions. The friendly logos of Western corporations are seen all over the world from neon-lit billboards to cars, from electronic items to television programs. In Eastern Europe, Marx is out and Ronald McDonald is in, and in Maoist China, Russian prostitutes are available for services.

The size of the global village is shrinking, the middle classes everywhere are swelling their ranks, the course of capitalism is secure and the "free" market has triumphed once and for all. That the gods of the West have won is the gospel of globalism. While this appears to be the surface

picture in the popular press, there are nagging realities that continue to beleaguer the prosperous world—the ecological crisis and the population "problem." The two issues are closely related; I will take up the subject of population and consider how it fits in the global context.

What of the population question? What is so problematic about human population that we have to "control" it? Is talk of "population control" a semantic subterfuge for control of poor people, women, and other "inferior" peoples (frequently those of color)?

Is there a Darwinian urge to engage in triage—a medical practice in wartime when physicians save the strong and leave the weak to die? Is it a strategy for the rich and powerful everywhere to carry on as usual with no thought to control themselves and their numbers? Should we not extend the categorical link between poverty and population to include wealth as part of this triangle of crisis? No doubt these are some of the questions I might ask if my class or tribe of people were the targets of some top-down plans to control growth among our numbers.

The world, with more than six billion people, continues to see population increases in the two-thirds world despite a decline in total fertility rates there. From the standpoint of simple formulae, galloping birth rates and lagging economic growth rates are detrimental for social welfare. Economists and demographers see excessive population growth rates as a direct threat to economic development, the maintenance of the environment, food security, and family health and welfare.

In light of this crisis, international development organizations, the World Bank, foreign governments, and Third World governments have long encouraged and instituted family planning programs to reduce the numbers. Yet rapid population growth in and of itself has not always been a problem. Europe welcomed an increase in population during the Industrial Revolution, as did the United States in the 19th century.

Besides the search for natural resources and raw materials, the value of human resources was also a factor in the rampages of colonialism in the past. Today governments such as those of Singapore and the United States welcome the growth in select populations through their family planning programs and immigration policies. Why then is growth in some segments of the population seen as a drag on development—especially if the world’s food supply is adequate for the feeding of its people, as experts in the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization and other development agencies have attested to over the years?

The "problem" of population ceases to be one if there is adequate distribution of food supplies. The economist Amartya Sen defines the issue in terms of "entitlement," meaning there are large numbers of people who have no access to food because of their social locations. Mahatma Gandhi said, "There is enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not for some people’s greed."

At this juncture one asks, What is the link between population density and poverty? Is the relationship cyclical? While countries like Japan, Holland, and Belgium are densely populated, little energy is spent on the control of their populations and their people don’t rank among the world’s nutritionally needy. They trade their electronic goods for food. Conversely, the Indian state of Kerala (which, if classified as a separate country, would be ranked as the ninth poorest country in the world) has low birth rates compared to the rest of India and other low-income countries. Bolivia, with five people per square kilometer, is susceptible to famine.

How many people is too many people? Is the "too many" in reference to their food needs? Are those who are concerned with needs and resources equally concerned with too few people having access to too much, such as Americans who represent 6 percent of the world’s population and consume 35 percent of the world’s resources? Further, is there a connection between overconsumption and overpopulation? In other words are consumptivitis and "over"-population two squares on the rubik’s cube of social questions?

Analysts vary in their explanations of poverty and population. Nigel Twose of Oxfam argues that while poverty that deprives poor people of access to contraceptives is the reason for large families, the poor themselves are reluctant to have large families. Demographers like Paul Demeny suggest otherwise—that poor families are not keen to plan families because children provide social security for their parents.

Regardless of the correctness of their conclusions, the implication is that reducing poverty will lead to the automatic reduction of population. However, as pointed out previously, there are other intervening variables in the equation. In Kerala, despite low per capita income, birth rates have fallen due to a series of redistributive measures undertaken by the government. These measures were enacted in the areas of land reform, price controls on food and other basic needs, free or inexpensive medical care, public housing, educational services, and various social and economic policies to improve the position of the poorest groups in the population.

Research on Kerala and the other Indian states reveals a weak connection between income and birth rates. Rather, studies show that the states’ redistribution of wealth and provision of basic health care contributed significantly to changing birth rates. Demographer K.C. Zachariah notes that the shifts in birth rates were brought about in the following sequence: "reduction in infant and child mortality, followed by or along with an increase in female education, followed by redistributive policies, and finally the official family-planning programme."

This cameo illustration of Kerala leads us to put the subject of population in a larger framework, one in which population is not treated in isolation from the more critical and imperative discussion of development and human welfare. Such an approach rids us of our perception of God’s creatures as a "problem" we must "control." If we see that all societies are developing, our discussion of human population growth will cease to be in the oppositional categories of us and them, rich and poor, Christian and pagan, First World and Third World.

The imbalance of demographics exists in a more cosmic imbalance of power relations at multiple levels in the global community. All are enmeshed in this gridlock of power, hence it is counterproductive for the long term to isolate population growth and treat it as mere cause or effect.

"My people are tired of development, they just want to live." What is the experience of development that provokes such a response? Essentially, "development" is a post-colonial terminology and program that has emerged from the West to identify and evaluate itself and others on the basis of the success of Western industrial capitalism. The assumption behind development thought is that Western economic categories of "needs," "growth," "efficiency," and "productivity" are inherent goods in themselves and are thus universally applicable to all human societies. The post-colonial era in most non-Western societies has been one of adopting, accommodating, and adjusting to this model of "development"—otherwise known as progress.

There is one snag of chimerical proportions in this paradigm of "development"—the suggestion that development can be had without the colonization of "other" peoples, cultures, and ecologies. Historical and contemporaneous dishonesty abounds in the neglect of this reality among advocates of development. Rosa Luxemberg has pointed out that colonialism is a constant necessary condition for capitalist growth. Thus, while development produces certain forms of wealth, there is an attendant creation of particular forms of human misery and marginalization. It is this "maldevelopment" that Gustavo Esteva laments.

When development is enlarged beyond its conventionally economic connotations, we move toward developing in concert with the entire creation—not only economically, but socially, politically, ecologically, and spiritually. Stated simply, an alternative perspective on development is that it is relational. It is the process of becoming fully human in relation to God and all creation.

This scheme will resist the creation and objectification of poor people whereby they are turned into commodities subjected to the whims of others, or to the cruelties of impersonal forces. Development is about choice and responsibility for the individual that frees her to grow personally and socially. Development is about facilitating the individual to embark on twin journeys—an inner journey of spiritual realization and an outer journey of affecting structures around her. Development is about the twin goals of love and justice.

My use of the female pronoun with regard to development is not only to be gender inclusive but it is also to state the fact that women in the two-thirds world have been victims of development. Alongside her stand all indigenous people and nature. Scores of studies show that her workload has increased, her family structure has been split (with the men leaving to find employment), her control of and access to family resources has decreased, the "goods" of development such as health, education, and credit have all been systematically denied to her. This was the unanimous conclusion at the end of the U.N. Decade for Women in the 1980s. Two-thirds world feminists argue that development is a project of modern Western patriarchy.

However, it seems too late in the day to carry on earlier arguments about colonialism, capitalism, the West, and development. It is beyond dispute that Western values have a far-reaching impact on the destinies of poor people and the Earth. While the impact has been largely mixed, it is clear that rich and poor countries are inextricably intertwined in their relationship of dependence. This relationship of dependence is unequal, with the rich and powerful everywhere exploiting the poor to their advantage.

While communism was a reaction to the failings of capitalism, it too has been a flawed model. Both systems have failed to reckon with the ontological considerations of human nature operant in them. It is human nature to exploit, to overpower, and to subdue. It is equally in the nature of humans to resist evil in their dealings with power. Thus for all the homogenization brought on by globalization and development, resistance is also spawned from its recipients. Material prosperity has not been able to root out the universal desires to pursue or preserve values of community, language, culture, kinship, and religion.

In this heyday of global capitalism, there is no evidence at all that people everywhere will find work, shelter, food, clothing, health, education, and all the supercilious "goods" that the multinationals taunt in their faces. There is a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots globally. Increasing numbers of poor people and their children are part of this gap, and it will be these marginalized groups that will challenge the colonialism of development.

Even as the virus of consumptivitis has caught the imagination of the rich and the poor alike, so also the dream and work of solidarity with God and creation grips a critical remnant of people age after age everywhere. This consciousness for solidarity does not stem from the hubris of having a "solution" to the "problem" of population or poverty. Rather, it rests in the knowledge that love, peace, and justice come about in the freedom of the subordinate partner—whereby all subordination is ended.

One does not merely have to imagine the possibilities. We have already been taken over by creative imagination. The recent report of the young boy in California who was embarrassed by hair loss from cancer treatment and the response of his teacher and several of his classmates to shave their heads in solidarity with him illustrates our capacity to give up freely. My husband is witness daily to the extraordinary care rendered to young gay AIDS patients by their partners, gay nurses, and others from the gay community.

The Freirian pedagogy of the poor is insufficient without an accompanying pedagogy of the rich. Conscientization must be followed by advocacy and confrontation to bring about concrete changes in social structures. In the face of corporate evil, the potential for and the actuality of corporate good also prevails.

The attempt at equity is a mutually engaging process between rich and poor, First World and Third World, church and world, men and women. A unilateral attempt at social change and development is rife with all the old images of paternalism and condescension where it is assumed that in time the "poor" will become like the "rich." The ills of affluence that post-industrialized societies are going through compels us to redefine "wealth."

What can we learn from one another? The story of the Good Samaritan is not merely about giving, it is also about shattering an ancient apartheid. An orthodox Jew accepts help from the "other," a pariah, a Samaritan. The Canaanite woman, while pleading on her ailing daughter’s behalf, actually thwarts Jesus’ agenda. Poor women, indigenous peoples, and the Earth have much to teach us about the follies of our consuming culture. We must learn about the poverty of our abundance and also about the abundance of our poverty.

The process of solidarity is ongoing and unending—in our personal, national, and international relations we must understand the virtues of temperance and acceptance. The task of solidarity is a universal one. It is not merely for the First World in its relationship to the Third World, but it is also a challenge for the ruling elites in the Third World in their relationship to the marginalized.

As the century draws to a close, calls for personal and collective introspection are a distant wail in a wilderness burgeoning with materialism. Poor Indian parents are driven to sell their children into bonded labor to nearby carpet factories that export their product to the United States. Little children in a south Indian fishing village are turning blind for want of vitamin A, as the fish caught by their parents are transported to satisfy the dietary whims of faraway consumers. Thai parents would rather gamble with the AIDS virus than with hunger as they send their little boys and girls off to Bangkok to satisfy the sexual fancies of tourists.

The complicity of the rich (from the megastructures of finance and trade to their personal acquisitiveness) in this violence is less than tenuous. In the main the rich would rather not lose their appetite, and so they flip the channel on the poor in their midst. They blame the victims and their "irresponsible" breeding behaviors with little discussion of their own responsibility in the tragedy.

My own hope for the future well-being of our world flags and flails as I see the overwhelming capacity of free-market capitalism and entrepreneurial Christianity to sway and "save" the world. I am moved by a diary entry by Min Chong Suk, a South Korean sewing-machine operator who works from 7 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. in a garment factory (perhaps she was the seamstress of my blue jeans!). She wrote, "We all have the same hard life. We are bound together with one string."

Something within me resonates also with David Jenkins as he writes in an essay on The Power of the Powerless: "It might be that Christians have to decide how to take sides in light of the fact that the Christian’s basic alignment is always with and for the powerless and that it is the power of powerlessness, when taken up in suffering, absorption, reconciliation and love, which is one constantly creative and open-ended force at work in the world." Such truths about our human bondedness and the possibility of God’s presence are our only guarantees as we pursue our personal and collective destiny.

IVY GEORGE, a native of Madras, India, is professor of sociology at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"The Propaganda of Prosperity"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines