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Profs compare development standards

Liz Lefebvre | Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Two University professors discussed how to measure development across different cultures at the first lecture in the Ford Family Program in Human Development Studies and Solidarity Discussions on Development series Monday.

Carolyn Nordstrom, a professor in the department of Anthropology, and Amitava Dutt from the department of Economics talked about whether people across cultures and communities can agree on what development is and how it can be gauged.

Nordstrom began with two stories from her field experiences in war-torn Angola in southwestern Africa. The first story told of a single man who appeared to practice development by resettling displaced people onto a farm that produced goods which were then exported to other countries. Nordstrom pointed out that in this man’s system, he made all the profit without doing any labor.

“This man is heralded as a king of development,” she said, despite the fact that he was acting as a “robber baron” and profiting off of these displaced citizens.

Nordstrom’s second story focused on a group of women in Angola, who, after having their entire lives destroyed by the war, pooled their resources and began to make and sell their own products before eventually setting up their own community banks.

Nordstrom noted that while groups of women like these are often ignored or disregarded as informal traders, “people like these women are the ones actually building the country.”

In light of these contradicting perceptions of development, Dutt addressed the ways in which economists measure development.

“Development is some kind of progress, some kind of good happening,” she said. “But in what sense? Who decides what is developed, and at what level?”

While presenting different ways that economists attempt to quantify development, each style had its own pros and cons. Dutt said there is “no single indicator” that signifies a “best” way to achieve development.

“Our choices may depend on what we are trying to do for what purpose,” she said. “There is nothing fixed about development, as meanings and environments can change.”

Nordstrom said development is a “dangerous term” because it is such a difficult concept.

“It seems simple, but it becomes slippery the more you look at it,” she said. “If we can’t have a single meaning of development, then at least we can try to shed light on why it is a difficult term.”

The Ford Program aspires to connect scholars, citizens, and institutions to address critical challenges that face people who live in extreme poverty. The program investigates difficult questions related to development and uses critical thinking and solidarity to implement innovative solutions for people trapped in poverty.

The second part in the Discussions on Development series will be held Wednesday, March 18, in the Coleman Morse Lounge. Scott Appleby, the director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and Paul Kollman, professor of Theology will discuss “The Impact of Religion on Development.”