Power v poverty

Privatisation, free trade and market forces . . . the rich world insists poor states play by our rul

The global food price crisis is exposing frightening levels of vulnerability in poor nations around the world. Yet these are countries into which the rich world, for half a century or more, has diverted hundreds of billions of dollars of humanitarian aid in pursuit of the high ideal of ending poverty. It is a good moment to take stock and ask what went wrong.

Compare two of the most vulnerable economies, Haiti and Botswana. In Haiti, spiralling food prices have in recent months prompted widespread rioting, claiming the lives of six people and forcing the resignation of the prime minister. This unrest has set back the search for political stability in an archetypal "fragile state". No such riots have occurred in the Southern African nation of Botswana. In a country that imports 90 per cent of its food, soaring prices have undoubtedly hurt the poor, but the state has the money and capacity to help them cope.

Why does Haiti sink while Botswana swims? A landlocked state with a small population and an arid landscape, Botswana has a high dependence on diamonds - the very "curse of wealth" that has destabilised many other African countries. At independence in 1966, it had just two secondary schools and 12km of paved road, and relied on the UK for half of government revenues. Botswana ought to be a basket case.

But Botswana has become Africa's most enduring success story. Its GDP per capita has risen a hundredfold since independence. Over the past three decades it has been the world's fastest-growing economy. It negotiated hard-fought deals for its diamonds with De Beers and used the royalties well. It has throughout remained one of sub-Saharan Africa's few non-racial democracies, despite being bordered (and occasionally invaded) by racist regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia.

The secret of Botswana's success lies in politics. The country's elite come from a single dominant ethnic group (the Batswana) whose governance systems, emphasising broad consultation and consensus-building, emerged largely unscathed from colonialism. Botswana's leading human rights activist calls it "gentle authoritarianism". The government broke every rule in the so-called Washington consensus, setting up state-owned companies, nationalising mineral rights and steering the economy via six-year national development plans. "We are a free-market economy that does everything by planning," one local academic told me, laughing.

In the second half of the 20th century, dozens of developing countries emulated Botswana's success and achieved similar growth rates. "Getting the politics right" was key for them all. These countries have built effective states that guarantee the rule of law, ensure a healthy and educated population, control their national territories and create a positive environment for investment, growth and trade. For many, the growth spurt began with the redistribution of land and other assets.

This story bears little relation to the cruder theories of development advanced by rich-country governments or, for that matter, some NGOs. Yet, getting the politics right really can "make poverty history". Aid alone cannot.

In many countries the state remains a work in progress and the rosy picture is not without flaws. Power battles and shifting alliances mean reverses are frequent. Raw power and gangsterism prevail in states that are more master than servant to their citizens. In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, written at the onset of the Cold War, George Orwell portrayed a totalitarian state built around the cult of Big Brother: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - for ever." In the 20th century, some 170 million people were killed by their own governments, four times the number killed in wars between nations. But the worse deprivation and suffering now are not Orwellian in nature. They exist where states are weak: half of all children who die before the age of five live in states defined as "fragile".

Fixing this is not easy, but it can be done. Some states once branded as "failing" provide evidence. Malaysia went within a few decades from a post-independence meltdown of ethnic rioting to an industrial powerhouse. The economist Ha-Joon Chang points to his own country, South Korea, from where, in the 1960s, government officials were sent by the World Bank to Pakistan and the Philippines to "learn about good governance". The pupil swiftly outstripped the master.

If you define development merely as rising GDP per capita, then the story almost ends there - effective states create the basis for rapid growth. But development, parti cularly tackling poverty, is about far more than that. When the World Bank, in an unprecedented exercise, asked 64,000 poor people around the world about their lives, what emerged was a complex and human account of poverty, encompassing issues that are often ignored in the academic literature: the importance of being able to give one's children a good start in life, the mental anguish that poverty brings. The overall conclusion was that, "again and again, powerlessness seems to be at the core of the bad life".

Tackling such powerlessness is not just about election campaigns and government. Building "power within" - for example, women's assertiveness to insist on their right not to be beaten in the home - and "power with" - in the form of collective organisation - is essential to achieving the wider empowerment that transforms politics and societies.

In 1900, New Zealand was the only country with a government elected by all its adult citizens. By the end of the century, despite severe reversals, including fascism and communism, and succeeding waves of military coups against elected governments, there were ostensibly 120 electoral democracies in place. Democracies are often flawed and, as we have seen in several African countries, progress is reversible, but the overall trend remains positive.

Successful transformations

Effective states in east Asia and elsewhere have typically taken off under autocracies. In Latin America, active social movements and political organisations have rarely been accompanied by effective states. Does this mean active citizenship and efficient governments are mutually exclusive? Happily, the evidence suggests that the "Asian values" argument for benign dictatorship, once espoused by leaders in Singapore and Mal aysia, is wrong. A recent survey by the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik found that democracies produce more predictable long-run growth rates, greater short-term stability and more equality, and are better able to handle economic shocks.

Many of the countries that have had active citizens and been run efficiently have already ceased to be poor and disappeared off the development radar. Some of the most successful transformations in the past century, such as those of Sweden and Finland, have been triggered by social pacts within a democracy, showing what the combination of activism and good government can achieve.

Yet, though this combination is at the heart of development, it is seldom acknowledged in debates about the "development industry", typified by international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF. Here, economic policy is king, and politics is often seen as an irritating process through which unworthy individuals use their power to unravel the plans of wise economists. "Getting the prices right" requires the state to get out of economic management, freeing the stage for the true heroes of development: the entrepreneurs.

It hasn't worked. The retreat of the state in Latin America, once a faithful devotee of Washington consensus prescriptions, failed to lead to lasting progress. Meanwhile, countries such as China and Vietnam, which maintained a central role for the state, prospered.

The importance of politics in development will only grow. The world is entering a new age of scarcity, in which food, water and carbon are rationed, either explicitly, through regulation, or implicitly, by price. In this environment, conflicts over access to basic resources are bound to intensify. Politics and power will decide who gets what.

All this poses challenges to the $100bn global development industry. Official donors such as the UK's Department for International Development are trying to reassess their thinking to understand better the role of politics in development. But they face a dilemma: any outside body, especially a government institution, interferes with domestic politics in developing countries at its peril. To get round this, there is always a temptation to turn political issues into technical ones - for example, by focusing on "governance" or "institution-building". But, by failing to confront issues of power, such approaches often give rise to the same frustrations as those that focus on economic policy: why won't these countries do what's good for them?

From grass roots to government

International organisations such as Oxfam have long been criticised by some developing-country partner organisations for preferring policy to politics. But they face real limits. Charity law, mission and bitter experience should dissuade them from becoming mere support groups for any political party in a given developing country. Instead, they have to promote empowerment without becoming politicised. It is a fine line to tread, but it is eminently feasible.

In Bolivia, for example, 20 years of support for the Chiquitano Indians helped them move from semi-slavery to becoming a political force, with the founding of indigenous people's organisations, such as that led by José Bailaba, and the election of Chiquitano mayors and senators. Following the election of South America's first indigenous president, Evo Morales, a land reform bill gave the Chiquitanos rights to a million hectares of traditional lands.

Even though the alchemy of development takes place primarily in the crucible of effective states with active citizens, global institutions such as aid donors, the UN and transnational corporations play a significant role.

Nation states will not wither away, even if their actions are constrained by an ever-growing web of global and regional trade agreements, bilateral investment treaties and the proliferating "soft law" of international conventions and codes of conduct on everything from financial services to human rights. Rich-country governments and their citizens need to ensure that this system of global government supports national development efforts based on the state and its people working together. They must also deter powerful countries and corporations from doing harm, whether through paying bribes or imposing policies that hurt the poor.

The fight against poverty, inequality and environmental collapse will define the 21st century, as the fight against slavery or for universal suffrage defined earlier eras. It is hard to imagine a more worthwhile cause.

Duncan Green is the author of From Poverty to Power
published by Oxfam on 23 June

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge