Development Revisited from Afar

For many social scientists, the word “development” conjures images a specific bundle of socioeconomic and political transformations: rural to urban, farms to factories, illiterate to literate, poor to middle class, lawless to lawful, despotic to democratic, insecure to secure, even sad to happy. Many of us see these changes as not just interrelated but interdependent, a beneficent syndrome of social improvement. Equally important, we often think of states as the engines of them.

A few things I’ve read in the past few weeks have vividly reminded me how much this idea of ordered, collinear, policy-driven development misses the mark. The urbanization part remains quite real, and economic growth is shrinking the share of the world’s population that lives in absolute poverty. Importantly, though, the social orders that produce these changes often lie outside the state. These orders fall within the territorial boundaries we plot on our political maps, and they are affected by the actions of domestic and foreign governments, but policy choices and the beneficence of external actors seem to have very little to do with the massive transformations afoot in many of these places.

Take Kibera, a shantytown with hundreds of thousands of residents in Nairobi, Kenya. As described in a recent issue of The Economist, mornings in Kibera sound a lot like mornings in most urban neighborhoods:

Men in patched overalls and women in freshly washed blouses walk down a narrow lane just after six in the morning. They are packed in tightly like spectators leaving a sports stadium, but this is their life, their every morning. Backs are straight; trousers and sleeves rolled up, exposing mottled yet able limbs. They crush discarded wrappers of quick-fry breakfasts under foot, corn and oil dripping from mouths. Banana skins are ground to dust by thousands of feet. Everyone is moving in one direction, jostling and shoving, out of a maze of low-strung shacks, past shops selling shoes and phones that have already been open an hour, out into the high-rise centre of Nairobi, where factories and offices pay salaries.

What’s fascinating, though, is that this orderly scene emerges without any real help from state authorities. “Government,” we’re told, “is absent: it offers the residents (regarded as squatters) no services, opens no schools, operates no hospitals, paves no roads, connects no power lines and pumps no water into homes.” A internationally recognized government does not induce and sustain this cooperation. Instead,

Kibera is an African version of a Chinese boomtown, an advertisement for solid human ambition. Like Guangzhou and Xiamen, it acts as a magnet for talent from rural areas, attracting the most determined among young farmers. To equate slums with idleness and misery is to misunderstand them. Two out of three Nairobians live in one, half of them in Kibera. Officials occasionally try to evict squatter-residents but many fight back, with the help of Muungano wa Wanavijiji, their own lobby group…Slums are far from hopeless places; many are not where economic losers end up, but rather reservoirs of tomorrow’s winners.

The same themes appear in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo’s award-winning book on life in Annawadi, a shantytown next to Mumbai’s international airport. The families that Boo follows routinely suffer things that I can’t imagine tolerating for a day—roach swarms in their kitchens, rat bites while they sleep, lice, putrid water, foot fungus so large it’s described in three dimensions, and, of course, omnipresent hunger—but most of them just keep getting up and trying again. The state does seem to reach into Annawadi more than in Kibera, but that reach is often exploitative rather than supportive. Police officers solicit bribes to ignore the extra-legal activities on which many residents’ livelihoods depend, bureaucrats set up sham schools in the slums to extract payments from international charities and state governments, and local officials extract blocs of votes in exchange for small favors.

Contrary to the prevailing narrative on corruption as the antimatter of economic growth, though, the slumdwellers Boo describes seem to take a more ambivalent view of the problem. In a chapter on Asha Waghekar, a middle-aged woman who aspires to become the unofficial slumlord of Annawadi, we get this subtler take:

“The big people think that because we are poor we don’t understand much,” she said to her children. Asha understood plenty. She was a chit in a national game of make-believe, in which many of India’s oldest problems—poverty, disease, illiteracy, child labor—were being aggressively addressed. Meanwhile the other old problems, corruption and exploitation of the weak by the less weak, continued with minimal interference.

In the West, and among some in the Indian elite, this word, corruption, had purely negative connotations; it was seen as blocking India’s modern, global ambitions. But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.

These off-the-regression-line amalgamations of statelessness and order, of poverty and hustle, of corruption and opportunity also show up in Caracas, Venezuela, in a recent New Yorker piece by Jon Lee Anderson. Anderson gives us a first-person account of life in scores of buildings in the Venezuelan capital that have been occupied in the past 10 years by squatters known as invasores. One of those buildings is the Tower of David, an unfinished residential skyscraper that was one of the first structures the squatters claimed, and Anderson toured the Tower with its current boss, an ex-criminal named Alexander Daza.

As we went along, Daza explained how the building worked. He had a rhythmic, emphatic way of speaking, like a preacher. “There’s no prison regime imposed here,” he said. “What there is here is order. And there are no cells here, but homes. Nobody is forced to collaborate here. No one here is a tenant but an inhabitant.” Each inhabitant had to pay a monthly fee of a hundred fifty bolivares (about eight dollars at the black-market exchange rate) to help cover basic maintenance costs, such as the salaries of the cleanup brigade and the work crew. People who couldn’t afford to build their dwellings were given financial assistance. The residents were all registered, and every floor had its own representative delegate to attend to problems. If problems couldn’t be solved at the floor level, they were taken to a Tower council meeting, which Daza led twice a week. A common problem, he said sourly, was residents’ not paying their monthly quota, and it was hard to dissuade tenants from flinging their trash into the courtyard. Transgressors, he said, “are given a warning to appeal to their conscience.” There was a disciplinary board, and serial offenders could be kicked out of the building, but there were always those who took liberties.

Like Kibera and Annawati, the occupied towers and warehouses Anderson describes are, in a manner of speaking, being governed, but their bosses are neither elected nor appointed by anyone in the chain of command recognized by the international system. “It appeared that the government did not officially approve of the Tower of David invasion,” we’re told, “but it had made no attempt to close it down.” It’s also clear that violence plays a more important role in producing the political order Daza described than his rosy narrative of a self-sustaining democracy let on.

Daza’s version of the Tower’s law-enforcement system starkly contrasted with stories I had heard of prison-style executions, of people being mutilated and their body parts thrown off the upper floors. This was the usual punishment for thieves and squealers in Venezuela’s prisons, and the custom had crept into Caracas’ gangster-run barrios. When I asked about these stories, Daza made the non-committal pursed-lip movement common to Venezeulans. “What we want is to be left to live here,” he said. “We live well here. We don’t hear gunfights all the time here. Here there’s no thugs with pistols in their hands. What there is here is hard work. What there is here is good people, hardworking people.” When I asked Daza how he had become the Tower’s jefe, or leader, he pursed his lips again, and finally said, “In the beginning, everyone wanted to be the boss. But God got rid of those he wanted to get rid of left those he wanted to leave.”

I don’t mean to romanticize the violence and poverty and fear suffered in these places, or to suggest that states and policy and aid are irrelevant to political and economic change. These slums certainly aren’t libertarian utopias, and most of the residents we encounter in these reporters’ stories regularly imagine their escapes to richer neighborhoods under government writ.

What I do see in these stories, though, is the idea that, in many places, governance and growth are happening as much in spite of the state as because of it. Urbanization continues apace, but in real life that leap from village to city isn’t hitched to public schooling and policing and property rights protected by impartial judges the way I suspect it still is in many of our imaginations. This is all old hat, I’m sure, to people who live in or routinely travel to cities where these transformations are occurring. For those of us who don’t get out that much, though, these second-hand accounts offer an important antidote to the prevailing narrative of state policy as the force that hauls lagging corners of the world into “modernity.”

Leave a comment


  1. Nice post Jay. You raise an important idea that I do not thing gets due investigation. Development seems to start with what is defined as “developed” and worked backwards. So, on the issue of governance, the goal is to make it stronger and more responsive. What matters, in a historical sense, is if governance is a cause or an outcome. I will not posit an answer, but it is something that is necessary to know if applying development policies.

    • Thanks, Tom. That’s a great question. Part of what I’m trying to get at with this material, too, is the idea that governance also has lots of epicenters—some spatial, some sectoral, some defined by the shape of social networks—and the state’s version isn’t always the stronger or the better one.

  2. Grant

     /  February 12, 2013

    It seems to me that there’s not that much difference between this and late 19th growth. Hardly means it’s ideal of course.

    • You’re probably right. This divergence probably has as much or more to do with drawing the wrong conclusions from the past as it does with changes in the present.

  3. A much under-explored topic, I think, and probably one worth watching. A couple observations

    I lived in Cairo one summer — i suppose i did get out a bit — a couple blocks from Tahrir Square, and was struck by the extent to which Cairo was essentially a collection of villages (in the positive sense). Within a couple of days of arriving, we walked into the local bakery, I believe for the first time, and were greeted with “Oh, you are the Americans who just moved into the neighborhood.” Even more impressive, there was a street vendor a couple blocks away who had a large cart from which he sold small household goods — hand tools, electrical parts, light bulbs, sort of a one-person hardware store. At the end of the day, he would cover this with a tarp and leave! I don’t pretend that it wasn’t somehow being watched, but the amount of social capital required to reliably pull off that sort of thing is remarkable, and we can be sure the Mubarak administration and their police had little to do with it.

    The other interesting point — which has probably been pursued in a variety of historical texts which political scientists should be paying more attention to — is the multiple, often overlapping levels of self-organization (and the comparative weaknesses of central states, such as they were) in the late medieval and early modern periods. The complexity of the guild systems was incredible, and these in turn interacted with assorted power centers in noble families and wealthy merchants, various ecclesiastical authorities and so forth. In some instances — Venice and other Italian trading states, and the Hanseatic League come to mind — these were both powerful and stable for centuries, but with nothing resembling a Hobbesian centralizing authority. Well into the 19th century, the hold of central governments on even their capital cities could be tenuous — ref: Les Miserables, the Movie — and this was particularly true in slum areas — ref Oliver Twist, the Book.

  4. You say you don’t want to romanticize these places, but isn’t that precisely what The Economist’s piece on Kibera does, based on the passages quoted here?

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