Storm in a coffee cup.

A short thought piece about development this time.

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“We won’t save the Earth with a better kind of disposable coffee cup” . George Monbiot's insightful piece in the Guardian two days ago, responds to a request (retweeted 600000 times) to Starbucks and Costa to replace their disposable plastic coffee cups with cups made of corn starch. A request to multinationals to  save our earth for us.

Monbiot's response is both factual and conceptual. Factually he asks whether corn starch cups are really better considering the land area, pesticides, soil damage and chemical fertilizers involved. Philosophically he questions tinkering with specifics of a system when the system itself is the issue: “The problems... are structural: a political system captured by commercial interests, and an economic system that seeks endless growth.” Monbiot says we have to change our four planet lifestyle given we we have only one planet to live on. Corn starch coffee cups don't change any of what matters. 

I totally agree. Monbiot's article stimulated me to this definition of development:

“Development? When, and only when, a destructive or harmful system is replaced with something better.”

 Cashew on a Cambodian forest floor. Whether the forest is mulched up into cashews, coffee or ecotourism makes no difference. Its the economy, stupid

Cashew on a Cambodian forest floor. Whether the forest is mulched up into cashews, coffee or ecotourism makes no difference. Its the economy, stupid

Equating development and structural change enforces system thinking on development practitioners, forces us to think of what, really, needs to be changed rather than just fiddling superficially with the symptoms of systemic ills. True development would alter the way we buy and consume, the way we understand economics not just change the material of the disposable cups in which our multinationals serve us our coffee. Development would have a drug and  HIV centre in Indonesia moving from direct rehabilitation to advocacy, availability of information and services and challenging stigma (the project I’m evaluating right now). Development in NE Cambodia may be Indigenous rights and controls on tropical hardwood exports. Little is achieved by gazetting a small national park and offering the the rest to the neo-liberal juggernaut to mulch up and repackage as rosewood furniture in China, rubber in the neo-liberal machine and cashews in our muesli. A nice organic coffee production and marketing project instead of cashews may be as meaningless as cups made of corn starch not plastic. Even a nice indigenous eco-tourism project may not be sufficiently systemic. Development practitioners may have to consider that a truly developed world should perhaps not even have eco-tourists flying across the planet- carbon and all-to find the earth's last forested folds where indigenous people still live to sip organic coffee in hidden jungle lodges glowing with burnished tropical hardwood. Hmm...uncomfortable stuff.  

Development as structural change is inherently, awkwardly, political. The winners of any system resist real change. Specifically to divert attention from underlying structural issues they promote and advertise superficial, symptomatic tinkering. Good, safe development championed by good safe practitioners. Vaccination projects for far-off black children fit this narrative, so too green energy Bhutan or empowerment projects for burkaed women in Yemen. Corn-starch over plastic. Practitioners of this development are do-gooding weirdos- admired (and pitied)... and funded. They're (we're) part of the system's narrative. Following its script. That's the script in which wage slaves in sweatshops across the planet supply a "global free market", three planes on one day in USA was "terrorism", years of high-tech slaughter in Afghanistan and Iraq is "operation enduring freedom", brown people torturing brown people in Myanmar is "genocide" and white people torturing brown people in Cuba is "enhanced interrogation", Indian cities are dirty but New Zealand is “clean and green” because its massive carbon footprint blows over other people. That script.

What if, alongside income generation in remote Himalayan valleys development practitioners indulge in our own enhanced interrogation? Ask questions like why a world economic system that seamlessly supplies the North with Southern oil isn't seamlessly sending money from CO2 producers to indigenous people in far-flung forests. Ask where the world's WMDs really are and whose freedom, whose markets and whose over-consuming lifestyles they protect. We could ask why resources slide so easily from poor to rich world but unskilled poor people drown if they try to follow, or end up committing suicide in an Australian holding pen. True development practitioners would use minuscule** rich world grants on mental health projects for Indians without psychiatrists but would also question the rich world's insatiable appetite for the poor world's skilled people. We’d also interrogate India's insatiable appetite for inequality expressed in structural discrimination via caste, gender, ethnicity, religion, age etc.  Yeah, lets waterboard the systems in which we work.

Structural change is inherently, awkwardly,  politically incorrect. Going for it takes us off- piste, Off script… definitely off funding.  

** minuscule compared to what the rich world has, what it spends on itself. what it makes by taking the poor world’s psychiatrists. “Where have all the psychiatrists gone? The rich world head-hunted them, every one”.

Storm in a coffee cup? What do you think? Does development exist in the fraught space between supporting nice status-quo narratives and uncomfortably interrogating unjust systems and the societies which harbour them? Societies we are part of