Development / 29.07.2010

By Anjum Altaf I write this article to question the value of research, a seemingly contradictory position for one trained as a researcher. Nevertheless, I shall argue the case because I feel many of our problems stem not from a lack of new knowledge but from an inability to translate existing knowledge into action. We are unable to convince decision-makers to act or voters to mobilise on the basis of available knowledge. To put my training to some use I shall explore the reasons for this failure which is both important and imperfectly understood. Take poverty as an example. If we pile up all the reports that have been compiled on the causes of poverty in the country we would be well on the way to reaching the top of Minar-e-Pakistan. Yet agencies continue commissioning new studies year after year. I heard recently of a planned study on...

Development / 30.05.2010

How does one characterize the Indian state and understand its actions? In three posts (here, here and here) we have used the interaction of the Indian state with its tribal population to try and find some answers. None have been fully convincing and in this post we try a different vantage point to push the analysis further. The facts at hand point to a situation of neglect at best, exploitation at worst. There has been undeniable injustice and the resulting problems are being addressed with force, not through politics. And yet, there are very few voices speaking up for a fair deal. How are these outcomes possible in a liberal, democratic state?
Development / 07.03.2010

The challenge of global warming has brought us face to face with a stark reality. Economic growth is exploitative of nature and unless we make some fundamental changes we could be headed for an environmental catastrophe from which there might be no recovery. Thinking about this issue has revived a concern that is even more problematic: Is economic growth exploitative only of nature or is it exploitative in general? In this post we will examine the historical record to seek some answers to this question. The relationship of economic growth to nature is fairly simple. Starting with the post-industrial era (which is not much more than a quarter of a millennium old at most) economic growth has relied upon the use of fossil fuels and the rate at which greenhouse gasses have been discharged into the atmosphere, we now find, is environmentally unsustainable.
Development / 28.11.2009

I will come back to what Michelle Obama has to do with this topic after I present the facts that are pertinent to the story. These facts are fairly well known but it was nice to find them described succinctly in Jared Diamond’s book (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) that I started to read again at the urging of Vinod. Here is the essential statistic: on average, each citizen of the US, Western Europe, and Japan consumes about 32 times more resources and puts out 32 times more waste than do inhabitants of developing countries. The leaders of all developing countries aspire to lift the living standard of their citizens to match those of the developed ones – the elites are already living at that level shaping the aspirations of the rest of the citizens. The East Asian countries have been growing rapidly over...

Development / 18.11.2009

Who is Going to Bail it Out? By Anjum Altaf We have all read the stories about very big entities failing and being bailed out – these include cities like New York, countries like Mexico and Pakistan, and corporations like General Motors and Bank of America whose businesses were bigger than the economies of many countries. All of them defaulted on their debts – went bankrupt – and were bailed out by an entity that was bigger than them, the US Government alone or in concert with other developed countries. The combination of size and of the existence of a savior, the protector of last resort, gives rise to a dilemma that is known as ‘moral hazard.’ When an entity believes its failure would damage the rest of the system and that there is someone who will not allow that to happen, then it loses the incentive to...

Development / 15.10.2009

I wish to begin today a conversation about the possibility of a social movement in South Asia – not, for the moment, a social movement, just a conversation about a possible social movement. This social movement, if we agree to it and it gets off the ground, would go by a simple name – UNACCEPTABLE.  It would identify the ten things that we agree are unambiguously morally unacceptable in South Asia today and it would start a public conversation about them. It would signal our commitment to strive and eliminate them from our societies. Let me start with an example that illustrates the kinds of things I have in mind and what I mean by unambiguous. Take the practice of slavery in the West. There came a point in time when the first few voices began to declare it morally unacceptable, an affront to human dignity. From these few voices arose the discourse that transformed the issue first into a public debate and then into a political struggle that finally put an end to the practice.
Development / 13.06.2009

Before moving on in this series we need to make a correction.

One antonym for cooperation is competition; another is individualism. In the context of the behavior we have been discussing, individualism, not competition, was the appropriate term to use.

The inferences we have made are not affected but it is important to have the concept right.

Let us go over the essentials again and in a little more detail. The essence of the argument was that the nature of the labor requirements of different staple diets could be so different as to socialize very different behavioral attitudes in the communities.

Development / 13.06.2009

I find it hard to believe that I forgot the reason for initiating this series on the possible origins of cooperative and competitive behavior using Malaysia and North India as the case studies. I had wanted to revisit the partition of India. This is an event in history that I visit again and again trying to understand how a tragedy of such magnitude could have occurred under the very noses of so many eminent personalities. And the one counterpoint I keep going back to is the situation in Malaysia which, from an ethnic perspective, was even more complex than India but was resolved in a much more satisfactory fashion.
Development / 12.06.2009

Frankly, I do not know if this is a lot of idle speculation or whether there is substance to the hypotheses about the socialization of cooperative and competitive behavior. Nevertheless, I am excited about the range of issues one can think of once the imagination is given free reign. It is an endeavor that holds the promise of interesting surprises. A couple of questions on the last post suggest it might be useful to start further back in time. Readers have wondered how urbanization and education affect behavior. My response is that behavioral socialization is a very slow process and urbanization and education are relatively recent developments gaining pace only in the twentieth century. The behavioral socialization that was discussed in the last post (differences resulting from wheat and rice farming) is the result of 10,000 years of agricultural life.
Development / 07.06.2009

Question: Why are some people more inclined to cooperate while others are more inclined to compete? Answer: It’s all in the socialization. Let me explain how I arrived at this conclusion. I went to Malaysia for the first time about fifteen years ago. I saw in every government office I entered placards on the walls with guidance from the Prime Minister – Be Nice or Be Honest or Make Malaysia Great, etc. What surprised me was the seriousness that public servants accorded such messages.