Friday, June 29, 2007

A Neo Perspective


“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”[1]

Economics, let’s face it, has a soporific effect on most of us – recent attempts by the likes of Thomas Friedman[2], Paul Krugman[3] and Steven Levitt[4] to sex up the subject notwithstanding. It is, however, difficult to avoid – we all deal with inflation, we face globalisation, and when revenues do not match expenditure we are in deep s***. It is equally difficult to get information that makes sense on economic issues – does, for example, growth matter more and lead to a trickle-down a la CII, or are the comrades right in demanding a focus on equity – and this results in debates that are high on rhetoric and low on substance, and viewpoints that invariably become a dominion of scoundrels.

Strong? Here are some scattered examples of this from my personal experience in the development sector.

A colleague of mine went on a tour of Europe about seven years ago with a group of Indian farmers – they were brought by national farmers’ associations of European countries to protest and demonstrate at some EU summit. I enquired further, and it was obvious that the policies they were brought to protest against were actually in the interests of Indian farmers, and that these guys were just pawns in a retrograde agenda.

A meeting on tsunami relief in Sri Lanka in 2005 degenerated into a harangue against neo-liberalism. What was neo-liberalism? I did not know, so I asked the others. Nobody in the meeting could tell me, but they did know that it was an official villain. What did they think of its direct opposite, neo-conservatism? The invariable answer – ‘Neo-what?’

Back in my days in Rajasthan in the early 1990s, many of my colleagues did not drink Coke or Pepsi. Why? They did not want to contribute to the profits of American companies. And they were sincere about this – it wasn’t a health campaign in disguise. The same colleagues were using Windows on their computers and had no objection to American aid contributing to the financial health of their respective institutions.

It was therefore illuminating to read an article on economic growth by Shankar Acharya[5] (SA) that, among other things, explained those much-reviled terms neo-liberalism and the Washington Consensus to the layman. SA begins with a short history of economic growth, and says that it is a recent phenomenon. Global GDP per capita did not change much between 1000 and 1800 AD, and increased by about 200 and 900 percent in the 19th and 20th centuries respectively. In 1820, income inequality was within countries – there was little difference in average incomes between countries. By 1950, there was massive disparity in average incomes across countries.

Growth per capita in advanced countries was steady (with exceptions during the world wars and a few busts and booms), and gains in living standards came from prolonged and sustained growth and not from occasional bursts of rapid growth. The growth experience of developing countries, however, has been varied, with the sustained growth over decades required to raise living standards being rare.

In the 1950s, development thinking favoured government-led import substituting industrialisation. It had its effects – in India, the Hindu growth rate of 3.5[6] percent per annum between 1950 and 1980 was much more than the 0.8 percent annual growth of the last 50 years of British rule. But, over time, problems arising from this approach mounted. These included –
· South Asian growth was plagued by foreign exchange scarcity.
· In Latin America, growth halted with a series of debt crises in the 1980s.
· East Asia, with outward looking foreign trade policies, enjoyed ‘miracle growth’.
· There were increasing incidences of government failure.

The resultant disillusionment led to the evolution of the Washington Consensus, which was driven by neo-liberals with the backing of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Its tenements were stabilisation, deregulation, liberalisation and privatisation, and it drove ten policies down the throats of client nations. These were –
1. Fiscal discipline
2. Reordering public investment towards economic, health and education infrastructure
3. Tax reform
4. Financial liberalisation
5. Competitive exchange rates
6. Trade liberalisation
7. Liberalisation of foreign direct investment
8. Privatisation
9. Deregulation
10. Property rights

Cracks in the consensus appeared when it was obvious that countries that took the reforms in full had modest growth and those that did not, such as China and India, had high growth. A newer view accepts that the uniform prescription along ten fronts for everybody does not work. Property rights, rule of law, market-oriented incentives, sound money and sustainable public finances are desirable factors everywhere in driving growth, and the others (such as, for example, privatisation and liberalisation of trade and FDI) need to be adjusted for the specific circumstances of the country.

The article goes into other interesting matters, such as the relationship between growth, poverty, employment and equity and the importance of economic policies to spur and sustain economic growth. SA makes two important points –
· Rapid and sustained growth is the most effective way of reducing poverty – that, on average, growth of income among the poor is very similar to growth of mean income.
· There is substantial variation around this average. Economic growth can be more or less pro-poor, and the policy environment is a key determinant to this.

I am not going to dwell on these matters, and would like to return to the issue of neo-liberalism. As mentioned earlier, it is considered an official villain within NGO circles. Why exactly this is so is not clear to me – the various analyses that I have been subjected to appear to have been developed in some donor agency’s boardroom, possibly with Africa and Latin America in mind. Theories with a global perspective, as we all know (and, for us in foreign donor agencies, as we constantly and invariably unsuccessfully try to communicate to our masters) do not apply very well to the Indian situation. And many of us who profess a deep antipathy to neo-liberalism can be seen in actuality to be proponents of its principles, as the popularity of user-fees for NGO-provided development services (even though, in most cases, some donor is meeting the costs in full) and other widely practised neo-liberal tenements indicate. There is clearly a need for clarity on this matter – is neo-liberalism a good thing, a bad one, a necessary evil, what?

Why so? For one, because crumbling public services are a fact of life! Creating demand for services and pressure upon the state to undertake its constitutional responsibility and provide them a la the ‘rights mode’ approach has not resulted in improvement[7] – the Indian state is good at resisting pressure to perform. It is unlikely, in my lifetime, that I will see an acceptable quality of service in health and education for the poor, and that the taxes and cesses that we pay will aim to provide this rather than contribute to our politicians’, bureaucrats’ and contractors’ personal wealth. People looking to by-pass the state and set up parallel systems for today’s sick and today’s children have a point.

And yet, by creating parallel outlets for the demand, we contribute to a vicious circle of reduced pressure on public systems, poorer public services and governance, increased donor dependence, and zero options for those unable to pay. It is one thing to have toll taxes every 20 km.s on every road (as does Gujarat, where I write this) and quite another to have the most privatised health system in the world (which India does) when health expenditure is the single largest cause of households slipping below the poverty line.

I do not claim to have answers – I would merely like to see good information and an educated and non-partisan debate on these matters. In my lifetime? I certainly hope so!

CII Confederation of Indian Industry
EPW Economic and Political Weekly
EU European Union
FDI Foreign Direct Investment
GDP Gross Domestic Product
[1] From “An Essay on Criticism” by Alexander Pope in 1709
[2] Famous for finding the world flat!
[3] Famous for being a one-handed economist – he is not constantly saying ‘on the other hand’.
[4] He achieved the impossible by writing a popular best seller about Economics, the book “Freakonomics”.
[5] “Economic Growth: Some Reflections” by Shankar Acharya in the EPW of 4th November 2006.
[6] Apparently the term’s origin is in the similarity of 3.5 to the symbol for ‘Om’.
[7] Anyone doubting this is welcome to look at DFID’s recent evaluation of its work in India.

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