Antidevelopment – the paradox of development

7th July 2023 By: Saliem Fakir

It has been said by some that those who desire to ensure we have a more sustainable planet and oppose fossil fuels are antidevelopment. The antidevelopment argument against environmentalists comprises loose comments and is conducted with reckless abandon.

These flimsy comments often have no legs to stand on, and less so when so much is entrusted to the State in the hope that it will be a caring State and supposedly be the servant of the people. However, as the record often shows, this is a fallacy. In his book The Good State, the philosopher AC Grayling notes that we must not be trapped in illusory thinking, adding that “a polity run by bureaucrats will invariably be more benign than one controlled by businessmen”. The idea that resource extraction is for public benevolence does not align with what happens in reality, especially if the track record of those offering these promises is somewhat suspect.

Extracting oil and gas may bring bounties to firms that have the right to do the extraction (usually a minority of the populace, including broad-based black economic empowerment participants). However, such firms, even if they employ both skilled and unskilled labour, may not deliver outcomes that are always beneficial. For example, ordinary people see wells being dug, but what is left behind is a continued sea of poverty – if not toxic landscapes. We just have to look at different geographies of extraction to see that the picture is not pretty. It may not all be due to the doings of firms, as it really depends on what their licence to operate is. More developmental dividends can be extracted if the firms are subject to greater levels of accountability.

It is also perfectly possible that a company putting up wind turbines may create the illusion of engaging in beneficial economic activity, a noble endeavour, while, in fact, capturing, as it were, the halo of a good cause for its own self-interest.

Coal mineworkers probably thought the same 100 years ago. Wind power producers may create temporary jobs, given that certain categories of jobs will no longer be needed after the installation of wind turbines. On the other hand, coal mines last longer, as the digging of the mines needs to be done for years, and that’s one of the reasons coal mineworkers – even if they hate the drudgery of their work and the low pay – see renewables jobs as temporary and often not in places where they would like the jobs to be. There is a feeling of precariousness with these jobs. And with so much asymmetry of power between capital and labour, trust is thin.

The only lasting jobs are in those places that house equipment, tools and the ability to make things that can be sold elsewhere – factories or manufacturing hubs. This is the only thing that can replace a coal mine in terms of longevity of jobs, because places of manufacture have to be around for a very long time. They are also expressions of commitment and tend to pay much better than other labour-intensive sectors.

It is possible that companies sign up for community programmes but deliver little. Without knowing the structure of their shareholding and how the financing arrangements for independent power producer projects are done, we cannot tell what type of profits are earned and how they are distributed – whether to the local economy or internationally, or whether local workers receive fair wages, compared with workers in the firms’ countries of origin. We might also not tell whether the firms are paying their taxes or are engaging in profit-shifting.

The general principle is that nothing should be taken for granted and that the more vigilance we can exercise at both the political entrepreneurship and private enterprise levels, the more positive development dividends we can extract from a system that is inclined to squeeze more out of your sweat than it gives back. Societies that see negative development returns with increased exploitation of natural resources have all the legitimacy to query how possible it is that you can have a decline in the Gini coefficiency of the general populace while absolute wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few. Wages may increase, but often not at the same rate as profits, and neither can we assume that wages keep up with purchasing power, especially for essential household items.

The irony of democracy is that, even with all this level of political freedom (there are lots of caveats to this) there is still wealth inequality. It is glaring that democracies often do not easily translate into income equality and social welfare.

We can say that whether the standard of life increases depends on what you are measuring. These metrics have to also take into account other qualities of wellbeing besides whether one can buy a loaf of bread or paraffin to use for cooking.

What about long-term health, education and being able to take your children on a nice holiday?

Development is a product of a whole government and societal endeavour, with each party playing its role in curbing rogue behaviour that undermines trust and, by so doing, enables rapacious forms of exploitation.

Progression in income, together with government’s ability to fund essential services, will, over time, leads to an increase in the development dividend that democracy and a caring State are expected to deliver. Failing States that continue to promise development with more resource extraction can only be said to make dubious promises whereby they either do not have the capacity to deliver or those in charge have no desire to do so.