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Why I am in development? (Guo)

March 15, 2010

In 1900, Kaiser Wilhelm II. gave his infamous Hun speech, where he called his soldiers to “revenge the grievous injustice that has been done” by the Boxer rebellion. Prussians, he went on, should “exercise [their] arms such that for a thousand years no Chinese will dare to look cross-eyed at a German.”

Today, merely 110 years later, the German Reichs are long gone: The former capital of Prussia, Berlin, is deindustrialized and stagnating, with unemployment rates as high as 20%. Even more amusing, a Chinese born like me happens to be German himself, graduating from the Humboldt-Universitaet Berlin where Nazis (from one of these supposedly ever-lasting Reichs) chased Jews and torched books not much than 60 years ago.

Today, many developing countries have embarked on high growth trajectories, overcoming economic backwardness and catching up with the (former) imperialists. The Chinese story, in particular, has not remained abstract to me: Today, my hometown Nanjing is barely recognizable from the city I left behind at the age of six, and the aftermath of the ’78 reforms are still transforming the lives of my Chinese relatives.

All this is development, and it is this all encompassing nature of the topic that has fascinated me ever since. Development is not only about giving out deworming pills in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is also about the big issues of humanity: What are the roots of our societies? What defines our modes of production? What explains the great divergence and the failure of some countries to develop, while others have somehow managed to take-off? And, more importantly, where are we – where is humanity – going? Is the raw capitalist concept of development sustainable at all? Latter question was rhetorical.

Why am I in development? Reading through the earlier posts, I was surprised by the similarity of reasons that drove people to pursue development. My reasons are not much different: Besides the intrinsic academic interest, I see my involvement in development as a duty and necessary act of solidarity: It is only by chance that I have had the opportunity of growing up in the developed world and the resources to study at the LSE, where a degree costs more than the average annual per capita GDP of most of the developing world. For me, this chance is an obligation. Pursuing development is not simply to “make a difference”, “give something back”, “doing good” or “helping”. Its dead serious and about – if I may say so as an old-school Social Democrat – domestic and international class struggle. The contemporary development-speak of the powerpoint-esque development industry tends to neglect this.

Then again, maybe I should have come to the LSE fifty years earlier.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. jnabongo permalink
    March 15, 2010 10:45 am

    hmmm never thought about tuition in terms of gdp per capita. great point.

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