Friday, 7 March 2014

Can we combine the best from rich and poor countries?

Classified as: reflective journal, ideas, advocacy

While I was in Africa, and during my talks with Sandy, I became increasingly interested in the idea of marrying the best - most useful and most sustainable - skills and technologies from wealthy, high technology, capital intensive societies such as Australia, with the best (ditto) skills from poor, low technology, labour intensive societies such as Kenya. I was tempted to call Australia a 'highly skilled' country and Kenya a 'low skilled' one, but I would say on reflection that although that may be a common useage of terms, it's wrong. People in poor countries actually have a lot of skills - they can build houses, grow food, make clothes and household goods and maintain simple technologies, probably better than I could (and for an Australian, I think I'm relatively skilled in several of those areas). In countries like Australia, people have more specialised skills which they cultivate to a higher level. (By the same token I think people in pre-literate societies may have better aural and visual memory than people in literate societies).

It's generally been taught - at least in the progressive view of history - that the development of farming, individual land ownership, and urbanisation, were associated with specialisation, and that that was a good thing. But with the rethinking of modern industrial society that is going on (due to issues around environmental sustainability in particular, and the issues of chronic disease, obesity and health inequalities more specifically in public health) this might now be questioned. We can think about societies that have a broad skill base but simple lives (hunter gatherer, poor countries) or countries that have highly specialised skills and a complex array of technologies and material goods.

In part this line of thought was also suggested because I recently read Paul Collier 'Wars, Guns and Votes: democracy in dangerous places', which Sandy recommended. I'm not usually taken with conservative economists, but this book is based on wide ranging social research and analysis (rather than just economic theory and modelling), and I accept that there is something in what he says, even if I sometimes question his conceptual frameworks and assumptions. One of the points he makes (pp 94-95) is that violence, and particularly civil war, de-skills societies. He points to the construction industry as a key example and suggests we need "Bricklayers without Borders" to teach young men construction skills (he focuses particularly on young men, to encourage not only rebuilding and reskilling,  but alternative occupations to violence and warfare).

Sandy and I usually had our discussions about what needs to be done (or "if I were the Queen of Kenya") in terms of issues such as conservation (we agreed on banning plastic bags, which has been done I think in Rwanda, stopping poaching [although not sure how], and planting trees), ending corruption, providing basic services such as free education and primary healthcare, and raising living standards, particularly nutrition and housing. (We didn't talk much about jobs and private sector). I was more inclined to look at living standards (eg subsidised solar panels and water tanks for all houses and shambas, and possibly floor tiles instead of dirt floors) while Sandy tended to emphasise education and healthcare more (eg she would increase access to primary health care rather than subsidising floor tiles). Both of us  agreed on nutrition, and I think we would both tend to support local self-sufficiency (eg increasing the reliability and productivity of shambas and communal land) rather than increasing cash crops. Reading Collier has also made me think about this question from the perspective of skills as well.

So returning to the question - marrying the best of wealthy societies with the best of poor societies, to create sustainable ways of living - is it possible? How would you do it? What are the priorities? Critics of greenies, in Australia, sometimes say we want to take wealthy societies back to the 'Stone Age'. I don't agree - but if that's not the plan, what is? Off the top of my head I would say we could have

- at household level, technologies such as tablets (eg iPads), mobile phones, solar panels and bikes, combined with skills such as being able to build your own house (from local materials, not highly processed, and preferably not using much cement), grow and cook your own food, and make your own furniture, clothes and soft furnishings (again from local, not highly processed materials)
- combined with government provision of services such as education, health care (with emphasis on quality primary health care) telecommunications and public transport, and
- international provision of peace-keeping and justice services.

Growing and making food and goods, is pleasurable, if it's not associated with monotony and hardship, or lower status and less leisure (as in women's traditional roles). To me there is some idea of the good life in there. Some people might think it sounds awful, but I put it out there for discussion.

(Clearly I haven't specified the role of the private commercial sector. I'm not against it, but it's not my focus here. In a society and economy such as I'm imagining, it would have a smaller role, though it could still be significant. There would still be a role for specialised skills, and for markets and exchange, as well as commercial production of smart and sustainable technologies.)

Wilkinson and Pickett in 'The Spirit Level' (2009) showed that in poor countries, there was a close association between increased life expectancy and increased average income up to about $10,000 per annum (US dollars, pre-2009 statistics). After that, there was no clear relationship, and life expectancy was more clearly associated with income equality. For example, the USA (average income over $40,000, but with very high income inequality) had a slightly lower life expectancy than Cuba (average income slightly less than $10,000, but more equally distributed).

I should note that the evidence on subjective wellbeing and happiness is much more complicated (will look at this in detail at a later time). There appears to be evidence that people's happiness does rise with income (at least up to a point), but that this occurs in both rich and poor countries. The question seems to be (across countries), how much money do I need to live a good life according to the current standards of my society? My question is really a different one: if we accept that we need to reduce consumption and the movement of goods in order to create sustainable societies, what could constitute a good life?

Beautiful world

Classified as: reflective journal, updates, beautiful world

I'm now in Germany, with my youngest daughter, who had her first child a few weeks ago. I'm officially on leave until mid-April, but I will be keeping in touch through the blog, and thinking through a lot of issues.

For now I just want to share the best of my Kenya photos.