Looking out for Lisbeth....

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Looking for something different to read recently I saw Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl who Kicked the Hornets Nest” in a friend’s bookshelf. It’s well known and seemed just right. Fast paced and relatively light Larssosn’s story is not inhabited by real humans. His characters are  “goodies” or “baddies”, two dimensional cardboard cut-outs of his ideas and he uses cliched techniques to explore themes. He promotes feminism by creating women who all attractive, multi-talented, intelligent and “goodies” and he uses a final courtroom scene to let lawyers give words to arguments around his major theme. Still it was a good read- the plot is complex and nuanced and action swirls and shifts ceaselessly. Into his story he pours a volatile mix of Russian spies, lawyers, motorbike gangs, doctors, police, secret police, journalists, international computer hackers and more. They mingle like whiskey and water. Delicious. 

 Larsson’s central theme is the interplay of rights and responsibilities between individual and state. Lisbeth Salander, the novel’s eponymous hornets’ nest kicker is a volatile young woman in whose dragon tattooed skin all wrapped up together are intellect, physical prowess, emotional vulnerability, wild sexual preferences, non-conformism, IT savvy and intrinsic feistiness. None of her attitudes or activities impinge on others’ freedoms so, Larsson argues, there is no reason for the state to limit her. On the other hand, the secret police aided and abetted by foster carers and an evil psychiatrist, in the name of security, violate her rights and freedoms, her very humanity infact …

OK, a good book but does it belong in a development blog?

Yes, because Larson’s slippery subject is freedom and rights. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen in his foundational work, “Development as Freedom” suggests assessing development by the freedom to make and act on choices. By this measure Sweden, where Salander’s escapades are set, might be considered highly developed. Countries with massive inequality (e.g. India and Brazil) where the majority have few choices and countries which limit freedom by extrajudicial killings, or incarceration and torture without trial (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, USA) might be considered less developed. In a globalised world we should consider the freedoms of every human including poor people affected by greenhouse gasses, falling biodiversity and unjust trade, a child in a Bangladeshi sweatshop, a man in an orange jumpsuit in Guantanamo bay, a person wiht schizophrenia in India without access to a psychiatrist because they are being highly paid to work in Britain and New Zealand- every human. If we globalise “Development as Freedom” the entire rich world is “poorly-developed”.  

Development as Freedom? Many thinkers, economists, development practitioners, national governments and the people who elect them present “small government” as development. Neo-liberal economics, market forces and a laissez faire philosophy offer freedom from regulation, taxes, religion, politics and ethics. Individuals live lives without being controlled by “Big Brother” and choose what they spend their money on rather than have “the Nanny State” do it for them.  I don’t see it that way , as evidenced by my last blog and several others on this site. I see a few people sipping martinis and extolling “freedom” on the upper deck, while in the under-deck the vast majority dance to Big Market’s drum. But how do I reconcile “development as freedom” with my position on governance with a big vision, overarching regulatory bodies as intrinsically necessary and my support for controls and services provided by a decision-making units larger than individuals?

The Swedish state in Larsson’s novel abrogated its responsibilities to vulnerable Lisbeth. My work in development is all about vulnerable people and environments. Lisbeths. They need local, national or international institutions to do more for them not less. Recently I have worked with lower caste Indians, Afghans with psychosocial disability, indigenous Cambodians, Indonesians living with HIV, and a fragile Himalayan ecosystem. Small government and lassiez faire economics only leaves them more vulnerable to exploitation, less free. I contend small government may, in the short term, increase freedom for rich elites (including me and everyone reading this blog), but decreases freedom for the vulnerable majority. Getting enough food (especially protein) to a poor young rural Indian woman might be the most important step to increase her freedoms and choices. After that might come the opportunity to go to a well resourced government school,  give birth in a well-staffed free hospital and live where the State protects the river flowing though her village. Somewhere in the ladder would be the opportunity to live in a society not prejudiced against her because of gender, caste, ethnic and age. If legislation against caste and gender discrimination, state led environmental protection, tax-payer funded schools and hospitals are necessary and a funded nutrition programme are needed to get her those rights, then so be it. In a few decades these may not be necessary, but right now they are and she has as much right to grow up healthy and free to kick hornets’ nests as rich Brahmin boys in Kanpur. Neither she nor upper caste men should be able to do things that restrict other’s rights and freedoms. Small government does not help any of that. 

There is a further complication- Globalisation globalises the conflict of freedoms. Freedoms are relative and now seven billion people’s aspirations rub shoulders and jostle for space. Right now powerful free people and free markets increase freedom for the minority by reducing freedoms of the majority.  We need international, trans-border institutions to ensure that does not continue. For example it is everyone’s right to live in a healthy planet despite huge amounts of CO2 freely dumped over the planet. A few people get most of the benefit. International controls on greenhouse gasses is the kind of regulation free markets will always fail to deliver. In the face of last week’s terrifying WWF report saying that 60% of the worlds animals have been decimated in the last half century we desperately need international enforceable restrictions to stop the invisible hand strangling the planet’s biodiversity and humanity’s future. Let’s put a young woman in Mali- lets call her Lateesha in Lisbeth’s skin. Even if she is black, does not live in a rich country and does not look like us she has rights. Don’t you agree that all humanity and the governance we choose for ourselves is responsible to provide and safeguard her rights? Starting with the right food. If you disagree your country would have to stop using human and physical resources from beyond your borders and keep all pollutants (including CO2) within your borders. You agree, right?* To really kick a hornet’s nest lets say Lateesha’s right- the global majority’s right- to food and health trumps my rights to a good coffee, to go  skiing, to fly where I like on holiday,  countries’ rights to develop and hold high-tech weapons, companies freedoms to exploit global commons for share-holders (especially the global common of people desperate to work for minimal wages). I’m saying she has more right to education than a smiling Kiwi kid has to a jet ski or a middle American’s to an Iraq oil-powered SUV. That should create an angry buzz… 

But, but but…. yes, big government raises the spectre of totalitarian control, prescribed state education, reduction in religious freedom, political conformity, military excesses, imposed ideologies (hang on, isn’t free market led development an imposed ideology?). Maybe development is about getting the mix right- just the right sized institutions controlling just the right dimensions of life to increase everyone’s freedom by valuing and protecting essential parts of human life including intangibles (e.g. biodiversity, justice). Development also has to create over-arching institutions that safe-guard our freedoms yet also prevent them intruding on dimensions of human life where they have no place. 

Development as getting our local, national and global governance mixes just right? As skilled and satisfying as preparing the perfect Scotch maybe.  Just the right measure of whiskey, water, two-not three- blocks of ice. Shaken, not stirred. **

 Hauling a handcart to Hell. Small government doesn’t protect these faceless silhouettes’ labour rights, their health their children’s education, the sacred Ganges running polluted beneath the bridge…

Hauling a handcart to Hell. Small government doesn’t protect these faceless silhouettes’ labour rights, their health their children’s education, the sacred Ganges running polluted beneath the bridge…

Comments?


  • Just because it is logical it does not mean you have to agree. As I write this the people of USA are deploying their army- planes helicopters and all- to stop a “dangerous” caravan of desperate Latino migrants from “violating” their border. “Nobody’s coming in…” says the leader the richest people on earth elected for themselves. Unsaid, but implicit is “….but sure as hell our greenhouse gasses are going out”

  • ** this similie is purely literary. I know nothing about whiskey and may have had 5 glasses in my life. Aficionados please forgive my inaccuracies.