02 November 2010

What Can Development Learn From The Election?

Election day will bring the United States a certain change to the House of Representatives and Senate.  The House will seemingly tip to the Republicans and I believe that the Democrats will hold onto the Senate with 51 or 52 senators.  The cause of this change is most evident in the growth of the Tea Party.  Conservatism was announced dead the day after President Obama was elected; two years later they are poised to take back control of the house.  The underlying cause for this shift is one which I believe speaks directly to the way that development is viewed in America and gives me worry for what might be slashed in the next budget.

Taxes have long been a villain to many Americans, but in my hack opinion it largely rests on the idea of American exceptionalism. French writer Alexis de Tocqueville in his account of visiting Democracy in America first wrote about this idea, saying:
The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.
Edward C Luck expands on the definition saying American exceptionalism is:
(1) a willingness to go it alone on a variety of issues, along with apparent immunity to the pressures and criticisms of others; (2) an assumption that its national values and practices are universally valid and its policy positions are moral and proper, not just expedient; (3) a strong tendency to look inward, to domestic political considerations and processes, when determining how to act in international forums, in some cases coupled with a willingness to adopt national legislation that contradicts the rules and responsibilities imposed by international arrangements; and (4) a belief by national policy makers and legislators that they have other options for pursuing their nation's interests and that acting through multilateral institutions is only an option, not an obligation
If I can be so crude as to re-word Luck’s definition by wording it as an individual:
  • Often done alone
  • Action without care for criticisms
  • I know what is best for myself
  • Do what is best for me
  • Have no regard for others and laws I do not like
  • My interests come first and must be protected above all others
To me, this is largely where the Tea Party originates, but there are likely things there that many Americans will agree upon.  If there is an expectation of the government to act in the best interest of the individual, how can policies/ideas that are aimed at others become popular? An illustration of this is heard in interviews of protesters telling the government to stay out of their lives and then answer that there should be no gay marriage, no abortions, need to bring back religion in schools, and stay away from my Medicare!

The conflict of the two is not so much of a conflict when considering the fact that they are not mutually excusive when they are beneficial (or perceived to be) to the individual.  This is why, I believe, that people are more responsive to donating to individuals.  When there is one person it can still be about the self helping another.  The interaction is personal when sponsoring a child in Vietnam.

However, once the number grows, the desire to give declines.  This is the problem with development in the United States.  Development asks individuals to act and think about others as if it were there own family.  It says that there is a common bond of humanity which links every individual and compels all to act.  Right now, these ideas are being attacked by the Glenn Becks of the world.  They are telling people that social justice is bad and anyone who thinks away from the self is an evil Socialist.

An appropriate example of how this works in development can be found in the idea to do-it-yourself (DIY). The debate has been hashed out and is worth reading, but the focus ends up on the individual.  J at Tales from the Hood hits on this idea a bit as he discusses the way that people feel encouraged and empowered to "help." This attention to the self becomes even more appealing when DIY becomes a viable option.  DIY allows me to help the way I want to.  This, is American exceptionalism at work in development.

Do not let big disasters fool you.  Remember getting up in arms about Haiti?  How about Pakistan? New Orleans? The Gulf? What ever happened to all the benefit events/concerts/drives/parties for the tsunami victims?  The self triumphs in the US and most quickly retreat back to it.  Even something like global warming is met with significant push-back (how does it affect me?), as it asks people to look beyond the self and even humanity to care for the global ecosystem.

Even something like global warming is met with significant push-back (how does it affect me?), as it asks people to look beyond the self and even humanity to care for the global ecosystem.  Opponents will argue that it is false science, but they will also say that it hurts business.  Economics vs. survival is being weighed?  Why?  Because the former concerns the growth of the individual (business and person) while the latter has to do with a plant filled with billions of living beings.

When asked about American exceptionalism, President Obama quipped that he believed in it no more than other people believe it about their country.  While a small step forward, I want to challenge the idea that every country has the same strength of nationalism and individualism that exists within the US. I think that this is evidenced in the recent cuts made by the government of England which saw no change in their development budget. Does that sound like a nation that is solely focused on itself?

As long as the individual reigns king in the US, I doubt that significant changes in attitudes towards issues such as international development as well as other programs aimed to benefit the whole (globally and nationally) will shift. In fact, with the turn inward, I worry that the already small budget for USAID will be contracted.

Update: All of this is best illustrated in the speech by Rand Paul after winning his election:

Why is America great? Why are we the greatest, richest and freest country ever known to man?  America -- America -- is exceptional, but it is not inherently so. America is exceptional because we embraced freedom, because we enshrined it in our documents and because we have lived and fought for the principles of freedom.

America will remain great if we remain proud of America, if we remain proud of the American system, the system that is enshrined in our founding documents, the system that protects and promotes the free exchange of goods, the system that protects capitalism that has made this country great.

America will remain great if and when we understand -- if and when we understand -- that government cannot create prosperity. We have to understand that it comes from ourselves, it does not come from government. We are the creators of that prosperity. Until we understand that, we cannot truly protect and defend our liberties.
Note: I recognize that I am not using data for a lot of this.  If you disagree, please do so and try to explain why.