By Paolo von Schirach
Related Story – Part 1 of Series:
July 19, 2012
WASHINGTON – Part 2 -“Economic development is a recent revolution. Even in the West it reached a majority of the people only a few decades ago”. (See above link to Part 1 of this series). Just to emphasize how new “development” really is as a historic phenomenon, let us remember that until 300 years ago (a very short time in human history)concepts, ideas and theories about “economic development” just did not exist, neither in the Western world nor elsewhere. Until the inception of the industrial revolution in Great Britain during the XVIII Century, with the exception of the tiny ruling elites that had secured for themselves positions of power and privilege in different traditional societies, for most people life had been following patterns focused on mere survival based on what the land could provide. More or less the same patterns that had existed, almost unchanged, for millennia.
Furthermore, economic development did not start with a “bang”. Its inception early in the XVIII century –mostly due to the deployment of brand new technologies that increased the productivity in agriculture and in the textile industry–while setting in motion a process with incredible long-term consequences was barely noticed by most. Indeed, another century had to go by for a real industrial revolution based on additional new technologies and capitalistic enterprises to expand from its initial small base in Great Britain, reach a significant momentum first in Western Europe and then land in North America. It took that long for economic transformations due to productivity enhancing technologies to start producing truly benign economic effects for significantly large numbers of people living in those parts of the world, in terms of improved quality of living. Throughout this time, the phenomenon of economic transformation was studied and analyzed. Regardless as to the wildly diverging theories, all this new attention created and spread awareness about the existence of “growth” and about a range of new ideas and theories based on the premise that humans, through economic activities, can change for the better individual as well as societal circumstances.
Few people benefited
Still, even at the dawn of the XX century, when industrialization was in full swing in Europe and North America, relatively few benefited from it. Only a small number of people were involved in and mastered the complexities of technological innovation and entrepreneurial activities that, as experience has proven, are a necessary foundation for widespread, sustained economic growth. A century after the successful harnessing of steam, after the use of electricity had become common and after the development of the internal combustion engine –all of which allowed the beginning of modern, large-scale industry and manufacturing –the majority of the people in the industrial countries were not significantly affected by these epochal changes. Indeed, even after the telegraph, the telephone and the radio had already found large industrial and commercial applications and had thus become part of broadly used technologies, this incredible progress barely touched or altogether eluded majorities in the most technologically advanced and economically better off countries.
In truth, at the beginning of the age of the assembly line and mass production not much had changed in the daily lives of most ordinary people living in the western world. After almost a century of furious technological innovation that had revolutionized quantity and quality of industrial output as well as the structure of many economic activities and business relations, at the dawn of the twentieth century the majority of the people in Western Europe and North America continued to live in the old way.
Most lived in rural communities
Most of them were still farmers residing in rural communities, following a rhythm of life that was not too distant from what had been known and practiced for centuries. With the notable exception of the few new capitalists and of the emerging urban middle classes, most people still lived in simple –totally inadequate by today’s standards– dwellings with no electricity, no running water, no adequate heating and no sewage systems. For many, quality of life was poor and often appalling. Infant mortality was very high, women died of child birth, while hundreds of thousands died prematurely because of influenza, tuberculosis, pneumonia, typhoid and other diseases –in the same way as it had been for centuries. People had some awareness that technology was changing the world around them. But most of them, aside from benefiting marginally, if at all, from these changes, were absolutely ignorant as to the dynamics of the process, let alone have a way to participate in it as protagonists.
For hundreds of millions the dynamics of development are unknown
If this was the picture in the so-called “modern and advanced world” until not too long ago, it is no wonder that “development” and “economic growth” both as concepts and as realities, (notwithstanding further and broader economic progress), took many more decades to reach beyond the traditional western world.
No wonder that, even today, while westerners are engaged in debates about a “Third Industrial Revolution” caused by “The Information Revolution ” that has created a “Knowledge-Based Economy”, both the ideas and the processes needed to engineer “growth” –any kind of growth– have yet to reach and touch the day to day lives of hundreds of millions of people on this planet, from rural India to rural Africa. And this is indeed the issue that we are confronted with: “What does it take to make development the norm where it is not”. Lingering backwardness and untold failures of different development strategies attest to the difficulty of this endeavor.
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