The Price of Progress by Patrick Mellors

July 15, 2010

Although economic development is an objective of many governments of developing countries and development agencies, it is often realized at the expense of cultural norms and values. In evaluating whether development initiatives have been successful, we must first define “success” in real terms. Ultimately, economic development is just one objective required to meet the overarching goal of improving the quality of life of individuals living in developing nations. Unfortunately, the concept of quality of life is also difficult to define. Some multi-lateral development agencies, including the United Nations Development Program, have attempted this through the elaboration of Human Development Indicators. The Human Development Index is a “measure of a country’s human development” and includes three basic dimensions:

  • a long and healthy life, as measured by life expectancy at birth;
  • access to knowledge, as measured by the adult literacy rate and the combined gross enrolment ratio in education; and
  • a decent standard of living, as measured by GDP per capita in purchasing power parity (PPP) US dollars.

These dimensions were developed as a part of a broader movement by UNDP to make economic development initiatives more “people focused”. However, these dimensions remain limited. Quality of life remains subjective, and different societies and cultures assign different meanings to the concept. Only the individual who is affected by development projects can truly assess whether his or her life has actually improved. In many instances, although these projects might improve certain indicators, such as literacy or per capita GDP, they might run counter to other cultural priorities. Perhaps this rather abstract discussion can be clarified with a short story about a shoemaker from Masaya, Nicaragua. I will refer to him throughout the story as Antonio.

Antonio lives in Masaya, on the other side of the Pan-American Highway, which for Nicaragua is one of the few visible signs of progress in the traditional sense. Antonio owns a clean house complete with professionally done photographs of his children, shining tile floors, and a television, all of which are rare for a Nicaraguan household. Across the street, he has his own shoe workshop, which over the years has been the exclusive source of his income. In his living room he has stacks of leather sandals produced in his workshop; the sandals are simple but very appealing and of good quality. At first glance, it seems that Antonio has everything he needs to live happily.

Yet in just looking at Antonio, he looks tired and troubled. The first time I visited his shoe workshop I noticed that his arms hung limp at his sides; his handshake, very unlike that of most Nicaraguan males, was weak. Antonio explained to me that in 2009 he was very sick, and at first I thought this explained his seemingly downtrodden and tired demeanor. However, I soon learned at the offices of Alternativa, my host organization, that Antonio was afflicted with something more devastating than any physical ailment.

About two weeks ago we invited Antonio to our office to participate in a meeting with other shoemakers. After the meeting, I invited him into another room to conduct an individualized needs assessment for a capacity training project coordinated by Alternativa. The survey I used first asked the shoemakers how many times they reported accounting data in 2009, and then asked for an explanation if they had not done so consistently. The explanations were presented as four options. After I finished reading the possible explanations, Antonio made up his mind and identified one in particular. The explanation he chose was that he simply “did not think accounting was important for his business”. I was surprised by this answer, because he was the last shoemaker to be interviewed and none of the previous interviewees had chosen this option.

A little annoyed at first, I asked Antonio to elaborate; I didn’t expect what came next. Antonio looked at me and said bluntly, “Young man, I am very depressed”. He went on to explain that he was emotionally distraught about the future of his business and consequently, had neglected many of his managerial duties. His two children, both of whom are college educated, have told him unequivocally that they will not be taking over his business. He explained that they have greater expectations for their careers than running a simple, locally owned micro-enterprise. His son, for example, attends classes in the morning and interns with a multi-national corporation in Managua in the afternoons. Perhaps Antonio doesn’t understand the extent of the financial benefits that his son will receive. It is more likely, however, that Antonio and his son have competing, antithetical priorities. Antonio might not view economic progress and competition as a necessary condition for improving his quality of life. For him, personal satisfaction is derived from hard labor, the familial structure of his business, and friendships in the community. Antonio may view these opportunities, which will ultimately distance his son from the family and Antonio’s shoemaking business, as a threat to his personal values and thus, to his personal happiness and wellbeing.

While in many instances the influx of foreign direct investment in developing countries has led to more jobs, higher wages, and economic progress, stories such as this pervade developing nations. While I think it would be very unwise to condemn globalization altogether, this story and others like it demonstrate that development is not realized without sacrifice. Antonio, still in poor health and uncertain about the future of his life’s work, is confronting an existential crisis brought on by economic advancement; such is the price of progress.