The term ‘development’ implies betterment through change. Some aspects of development – like clean drinking water and reduced child mortality – are inarguable. The tasks of mitigating poverty and reducing violent corruption in developing countries are also admirable. The implication of betterment, however, becomes problematic when basic necessitates are met and pains relieved. When the development model seeks not to repair, but to upgrade. How does one go from developing Burkina Faso to developing Denmark? (More on this later.) The most apparent issue with development to people in developing nations, on the inside, is that the problems deemed ‘theirs’ are, and remain thanks to World Bank terms, ultimately caused by western involvement. In many ways, foreign aid ought to be called foreign compensation. But the historical roots go much further than damage and compensation, into complex inter-reliance.  

The bloodied partition of Pakistan from India, for example, came about because the British were there to begin with. Some sources convince that conflict between Muslims and Hindus occurred because of colonial intervention classifying people, hence unmediated partition consequent to Indian independence triggered violence (Nehru told a journalist in 1946 that “when the British go there will be no more communal trouble in India”, and unionist Gandhi wrecked a ten year transition deal proposed by Clement Atlee.) Of course, though, South Asia would not have liberal-democracy on the British model, and India or Pakistan for-that-matter would not exist as unified political wholes—nations—if the British had never invaded. (Saying that something similar would have happened internally is to guess without good causal reasons. An Indian Mao or Chiang Kai Shek is just as possible as Gandhi in this hypothetical timeline.) History is not zero-sum; as Hegel declared, at the macroscale of history, every bad move has corresponding good counterpoints. It took a foreign outside force, with guns, to combine different languages, religions, ethnicities, and cultural behaviours under a foreign, and imaginary, concept symbolised by an international flag. (Nothing unites like an envied common enemy. As Putin and Xi Jinping know and practice in Russia and China.) The conflicting empires that constituted the Indian subcontinent, such as the Awadh, Maratha and Mughal regimes, were combined. And the trade The East India company imposed resulted in atrocities and Raj misrule in eleven tragic famines; yet long-term market trade is a stabilising peace giving force (as Steven Pinker deftly numbers in The Better Angels), and it does not follow it was entirely down to misrule since there had been famines prior to The Raj takeover. (Fareed Zakaria is especially clear headed in thinking through the historical legacy of India in his book, The Post-American World.)

Consider that when the majority of Indians were told that India was finally independent – ‘the British have finally left!’ – most Indians had never known ‘the British’ at all. On record 128,000 British ruled 228 million Indians. One set of standards once considered natural to Indians – or the people who became Indians – became unnatural and the imported western standards combined to make new ways. Literally redrawing the lines. For instance, universalist thinking – European in origin – mitigated the caste system and slowly introduced elections, though from protests among educated Indians themselves. (The British wanted to divide and control.) In no objective way can one judge that such ‘change’ is better or ‘progress’, for the points of reference have changed whereby imaginaging an India without the shaping of colonialism and colonialist ideas and state-rule is impossible. No one can think, for example, like a Gujarati prior to British invasion without thinking from the biased present and in a language inherited from western ideals and rights; a fair comparison cannot be made.

This is relevant to development, as the momentum precludes fair comparison to living before certain standards and goods were normal. An analogy I think of is this: humans do not need shoes and in many ways, no shoes is better for limbal support. But once a society normalises shoes and encases its childrens’ feet there’s no going back. Habituating to inessential luxuries means the common notion of necessity is little more than familiar expectation: wanting to become more developed in a western image may be down to global fashion rather than genuine Indian choice. (UK trading with India also is not so much a choice but an economic necessity.)

Indeed, the notion of progress and linear movement to a destination is very much a western-become-globalist narrative. Abrahamic religion (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) makes it easier to see the world and its people as moving forward because the ignorant must go from doomed to saved through their trials and acquired knowledge. Science makes it easy to see the world as progressing as more phenomena are explained via accumulated data and models. Scientists, like Steven Pinker, sometimes mislabel history as ‘experiments’ which are improvable via feedback. This is to ‘mislabel’ because unlike laboratory experiments historical events are too chaotic for human design. (Even the American Revolution could have failed had some tiny circumstances gone awry.) Liberalist politics and economics makes it easier to understand the world in an optimistic narrative because the French revolution and industrial capital brought about individual rights and choices as the axioms of modern life. If one considers before they existed as equally valid to after, society seems to lack purpose. And indeed it does lack purpose. Humans tend to attribute purpose to everything which happens indifferently. But often this is a rationalisation for what has already happened, rather than a rationalisation for what ought to happen. Technology happens and then integrated humans catch up. Whoever voted the internet into existence, or had a referendum on Google? No one.

In the case of relieving pain, development has an obvious purpose which is objectively grounded in suffering. But defining developing to a comfortable standard is easier to define than flourishing. Development still implies a levelling where the developing nations are brought up to the level of the developed. Which badly presupposes, as the Gates foundation does, that one form of progress – developing-world toilets for example – must correspond to developed world toilets, when actually Western toilets hinder and misshapen human bowels. Therefore developing world toilets ought to be introduced with lids but no bowls. Squatting may feel awkward (to you now) but that’s a learned cultural whim. Accept it. What is true for obvious toilets, may be true for intangible things like individualism and for-profit capitalism which would do more harm than good in places like Nepal, much as it does in the spiking suicide rates spiking with growth in East Asia (the logic follows the Durkheim argument–capitalism raises suicide–from then newly capitalist Europe to now newly capitalist East Asia.)

The challenge of moving from development to flourishing becomes obvious when one considers how Denmark, Norway, or Switzerland can become further developed. They cannot, in our eyes become more developed – the task is done. Yet on the scale of changes likely to occur these countries too will become outdated. For countries like the UK and USA in many respects, undeveloping would be preferential; railways and roads and trade routes are easier to build than to constantly repair. Where are the magnet levitating trains of Shanghai in London or New York? The task of developing, making a good change, is never done.

Because along with the world economy running by itself, culture over determines how people think and schematise the world. Institutions like the United Nations do give the semblance of humanity’s purpose – but their purpose is to mitigate damages and prevent wars. It is easier to know bad, than it is to know good. And the purpose ultimately is that there is none, which humans don’t make up and write down at somepoint in a holy book or a revenue review.

Funnily, Jean-Paul Sartre claimed a privilege of living in the westernised world  was the awareness of history; instead of being part of a community one is part of society and history and that can be liberating to live in good faith that your choices are worthwhile with the authority you yourself, and knowledgeably, imbue. Far from going from existential dread to liberation, however, by enacting neverending development and good changes, knowledgeable humans are forever dedicated to restlessness and a vague sense of homelessness.

Anthropologist and Marxist Claude Levi-Strauss differentiated ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ societies from each other. The larger scale societies with market economics and large data processing systems – like the incessant news media, and now the internet – for knowledge exchange are hot societies. (Like atoms that interact more and constantly move into new states.) Cold societies by contrast are clean of media and large data processing systems or market economics. (Like atoms that are colder and interact less and move fewer into new states.) Both forms of societies, hot and cold, have their merits and demerits. But whereas Sartre claimed a privilege in accumulated knowledge, Strauss considered it a curse. Whereas cold, basically tribal or chiefdom, societies are happily ignorant of history beyond the spoken and mythic, humans in nations are troubled by having no pretend ordained purpose and by being encouraged to never be content – for there is always engineering problems, mechanical or social, that can be improved.

Now, there is no going back to chiefdom or tribal societies (beyond some anarchist offshoots), but humans ought to embrace how a smaller community and less data processing and more living – a cliche for a reason – in harmony with nature is preferable. After all, it is not living in harmony with an external or god given nature, but our biological nature. A miracle of the modern world is how humans can interact with strangers (expecting to be understood) because everyone puts their faith in words and money, but a downside is that whereas smaller communities do not expect you to become anything outlandish or to distinguish yourself from billions, our society and data-processing systems do. Knowing that the system is rigged for discontent, can help one get over it. As the Buddha recommends, ‘be still, be nothing’.

The bigger question is how we can go from the interdependence of primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary economies – it’s problematic. It is an assumed truism that tertiary and quaternary are better – what else motivates developing in their image? – but once most nations reach tertiary or quaternary how could the world economy work? If all countries became like Denmark what would there be left to do? And how would growth, which depends on simpler imports from developing nations, continue? Of course, it’s assumed that once India and China take over as ‘the new world’ then it will be the old worlds, America’s and Europe’s, turn to redevelop.

Levi-Strauss envisioned a Utopia where the human project was done and people could relax, but no such time will come. By the time machines liberate workers, it won’t be liberation, like the contraceptive was for women and the tractor was for peasants, but existential dread of irrelevance, of not fitting into the economic infrastructure (almost) everyone thinks within.