We are all developing countries now.  Are we?

Tony Payne’s argument needs to be set in the context of the global ‘structural power’ of a still highly uneven capitalist political economy

graham_harrison_100In 2013 Tony Payne wrote a blog that made the argument that dividing the world up into developing and developed countries was no longer very useful and that we ought to do better when thinking about the way states and global processes interact.

Quite right.  The geography of economic growth and transformation is now far too complex to be encapsulated in aggregate country classifications that resemble the cognitive landscape of the Cold War. Equally, the history of development is not a simple forward march towards an end-state.  Looking forward, the conclusion that Tony came to is that we should see all countries face a ‘universal problematic’ of development.

There are two corollaries that emerge from this position: a need to understand all states as existing along a continuum as they offensively and defensively deal with global development challenges; and an overarching assumption that all countries are always developing, rather than ever reaching a completed state called ‘developed’.

I think that the insight Tony offers here is valuable but partial.  Its value derives from its ability to understand important facets of the international political economy of development.  It provides a useful starting point to understand the differential effects of global economic crisis, the ongoing reordering of intergovernmental relations and the increasingly pluralised diplomacy of states in the profusion of international fora and institutions that regulate the benefits, opportunities and constraints for development programmes.  It provides a more nuanced understanding of state power than might be afforded by a priori and dualised categorisations of developing and developed.

It would be a misrepresentation to intuit from Tony’s blog that this approach means assuming all states are on a level playing field; but the piece does argue that the differences between states are of degree rather than type and there is in this shift of perspective an appeal to downplay any structural differentiation between states.

There are ways in which one might feel anxious at this point.  If every state is facing global development challenges, it is surely noteworthy that the articulation and institutionalisation of those same challenges are themselves defined by quite small numbers of states, governing/managerial elites and epistemic communities, and/or small groups of economically powerful capitalists.  No ‘challenge’ emerges into the world innocently; it is defined by particular groups even if that challenge is then something that all states have to engage with.  One might characterise this as the global ‘structural power’ of a still highly uneven capitalist political economy.

One might also want to pause and consider some criteria of ‘developmental difference’ between states before abandoning categorisations entirely.  One way to think this through is to consider countries which have over 10% of their Gross National Income (GNI) deriving from Official Development Assistance (a UNDP measure of aid dependency) and then ask whether this is a difference that makes a (categorical) difference to the global universals of development.  Another metric might be to look at the Atlas of Economic Complexity, think about the striking variations in the visual representations of exports and consider what it means to rely on two or three low-technology exports for 90% of export earnings.

My point is that, although rigid polarised categorisations and certainly notions of a developed state are now arcane, it is not straightforward that we should move from this realisation to a ‘sliding scale’ approach within which differences between countries are seen in the context of a universal development problematic.

Furthermore, I think that this point is the more important when looking not so much at global political economy, but at that other facet of development that Tony defines as the construction of a ‘viable functioning political economy’ within the national space.  Here I think we can readily see some quantitative and qualitative distinctions which are not well captured by the notion that all countries are ‘developing’.

Quantitatively, we have the plain facts of poverty and inequality.  One can argue that the global rich have become more transnational, but one cannot make the same argument for the global poor, say those on an income per day of US$2 or less.  These people live out their struggles very much fixed within a group of countries within Africa, along with parts of South and Central Asia and a scattering of other countries. There are all sorts of questions about the reliability of these kinds of aggregated statistics of poverty and inequality, but there comes a moment when one has to decide the significance of a world in which the figures reveal such extreme levels of poverty and inequality and ask to what extent is the statement ‘we are all developing now’ a sufficient palliative to those who see in these inequalities something more structural, more set into enduring but not unchanging structures of power and the concentration of capital.

This is, of course, a question that can only be answered in part as a judgement, but there is, I think, a cautionary ‘nudge’ here to those who wish to embrace a de-categorised international political economy of development within a universal development problematic.

But it is the qualitative aspect of ‘domestic development’ that is perhaps the most persuasive as critique.  In a nutshell, it makes a considerable difference if a government’s domestic development project is defined by a transition within its agricultural sector from peasant agriculture towards more commercialised forms of production.  If a country has a large peasant economy (as do most African countries, India, still China, and some South American countries), then the principal political challenge of development is of a different type and order.  It is the management of a diverse and complex transition away from smallholder agriculture towards industry, services, and commercialised farming.

In development studies, this transition has been framed as ‘the agrarian question’. Historically, the political management of agrarian transition has been at the heart of the turbulent political economies of sustained economic growth in almost all countries. This transition – ongoing in many countries – is surely of a different kind to that currently faced by fully capitalist countries.  It poses different (and greater) political challenges; it presents issues of poverty of a far greater order (look at the percentage of people in agriculture in the 29 countries which have a GNI per capita of less than US$1000); and it tends to throw up a far greater degree of risk and uncertainty in development strategy.

It might be unfashionable, but it remains historically accurate to say that development is capitalist development and that those countries where general levels of material well-being are high are those that have gone through a difficult and often violent transition away from peasant economies to fully capitalist ones.  For as long as some countries have not gone through this transition, their development challenges are both universal and specific and in that respect I would argue considerably more challenging.