Development is an axiom of economic theory, the holy grail for policymakers around the world, the criterion by which nations are placed in the “3rd world.” Its significance is tacitly recognized in the United States, where the media treats the growth rate of the economy as a key yardstick of the country’s wellbeing. Throughout this week, however, a series of talks titled “The Progress Paradox: Critical Perspectives on Development” has sought to challenge the accepted the concept that growth is good.
The organizing committee for the conference is made up of a group of seniors who share an global perspective: four of the organizers — Mary Jean Chan ‘12 of China, Min Sern Teh ‘12 of Malaysia, Majandra Rodriguez ‘12 of Peru and Lizah Masis ‘12 of Kenya — are international students, and the fifth, Aden Tedla ‘12 of California, was born to Ethiopian parents. How many? studied abroad. Teh said that the things he learned outside of the U.S. gave him a new perspective on the meaning of development.
“I’ve done a lot of work with indigenous communities in Malaysia and in Ecuador during my study abroad,” he said. “Working with the communities, I saw that people actually had very different needs, and those needs were not being answered by these grand ideas of what a developed economy or country looks like.”
The organizers’ abroad experiences, however, have come from the classroom as much as first person experience. Chan began to question the idea of development when she took “Globalization,” a political science class at Swarthmore taught by Ayesh Kaya, which submerged her the in the ideas of William Easterly (pro development) and Jeffrey Sachs (questioning development orthodoxy).
She continued exploring the topic during a semester abroad at Cambridge University in England, where she took a class titled “Politics of Security of Development,” which took a critical view, tracing the concept of development to the colonial era. When she returned, she found that she shared many of her newfound views with Rodriguez, who told Chan she was planning a conference on the topic. Chan came on board, and the rest of the committee followed suit as they happened upon discussions of the conference; the organizers are all friends.
That the organizers shared an international connection of sorts was a coincidence that became an important characteristic of the conference. According to Chan, the talks represent an “international aspect on issues” that had been missing on campus.
“Even though Swarthmore is a very international and global institution,” she said, “there is still this tendency to take an American-centric view on things. As international students we feel the effects of American foreign policies, which puts us in an interesting place to talk about them.”
In the case of this years conference – and the organizers hope there will be more – an “international aspect” has largely meant the introduction of perspectives not widely espoused in the United States. With the exception of the Mexican activist Gustavo Esteva, who provided a prelude to the conference with his March talk titled “Beyond Development and Globalization,” no international speakers were able to make the conference.
This is perhaps explained by the short notice: planning for the conference began in February, and the organizers did not begin to send e-mails out to potential speakers until March. Even then, the e-mails were sent to potential speakers using addresses scrounged up online. Perhaps due to Swarthmore’s academic reputation or maybe some superior powers of persuasion, the planners encountered a high level of enthusiasm and a willingness to participate among some of the most respected minds of our society. Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz responded saying he would have loved to come but he was out of the country; Gustavo Esteva, of course, agreed to speak; Immanuel Wallerstein, a pre-eminent world-systems analyst, signed on as the keynote speaker. Add that to several other activists and professors and a pair of Swarthmore students who presented papers they wrote for class “Development and its Discontents,” and a full speaker list was in place.
Paradox of Progress received funding from myriad sources, most prominently the Rollover fund, but also including the Presidents Office and the Communication Office.
Two talks remain in the conference. The first, called “Is ‘Sustainable Development’ a Myth?,” is scheduled for today at 4:30 p.m. in Sci. 101. The final talk, titled “End-note: Community Alternatives and Looking Forward, Exploring the Solidarity Economy in Philadelphia,” will be presented at 4:30 p.m. on Monday, also in Sci. 101.