development

A gentler path to the summit

In our final co-authored post, Katherine Trebeck and I look at what Arrival means for developing countries.


We both live in Britain, and the message of Arrival is predominantly aimed at richer countries. They’re the ones that are overconsuming, and where failure demand and diminishing marginal returns are most obvious. But we think the idea is relevant to developing countries too. It’s almost a warning – you don’t have to go this way.

Imagine two people out walking in the countryside. They are heading towards the summit of a hill. One of them – let’s call him Wesley – has eaten a hearty breakfast and he’s got sturdy boots and walking poles. Wesley strides ahead, carrying most of their shared provisions in his backpack. He walks up the hill to their destination, but once there, he decides that the hill isn’t as high as he’d like. Instead of stopping to admire the view and enjoy the sense of accomplishment, he starts gathering stones and piling them up on the summit.

From the top of the hill Wesley notices an easier, alternative path to the top than the one he took. This path is less rocky and has fewer of the nettles and brambles that stung and snagged him on the way up. If he’d taken that less arduous path, he wouldn’t have been so hungry and thirsty – and he might have left more of the water and the snacks for his companion who still needs to make the climb. That gentler path even has a bridge over the ravine that Wesley had to scramble through.

Wesley’s companion has seen glimpses of this path along the way and suspects another route might be possible. But the one Wesley strode so assertively is the one highlighted on the map, and the bootprints of previous walkers all lead this way. From the summit, Wesley keeps shouting down to say that having gone on ahead, he can categorically say that there’s only one certain path to the top.

This is where we find ourselves – GDP-rich countries are in Wesley’s position. They refuse to acknowledge that they have Arrived; they have consumed more of the collective resources; they have harmed themselves along the way; and yet they insist (through text books, international agreements, and official ‘advice’) that their route is the only one. Countries that have not yet Arrived are being compelled to follow the arduous path – yet many of them know there is a different, gentler route.

Solar in DRC, image by CIFOR

For countries like Britain, the task before us is to undo past mistakes through retrofitting– we have to wind up coal power, electrify trains that we once chose to run on diesel, stop throwing so much stuff away, and redress systemic inequalities. We have to break our lock-in to uneconomic growth. Less developed countries can learn from this and do choose cleaner and fairer ways of doing things that won’t need to be undone later.

They can develop a circular economy first time around, avoiding the take-make-waste processes that have left richer economies littered and depleted of resources. Where there is no fossil fuel infrastructure to dismantle nor industry lobbyists to defend it, decentralised renewable energy can be the default option. Institutions can be built with a deliberative and participative ethic right from the start, rather than bolting it back on after other approaches have failed. (Indeed, many of our examples in the book that show what making ourselves at home entails come from so-called developing countries – participative budgeting in Brazil, community auditing in Nepal, and open planning processes from Kenya.)

The Kiira Poc EV, designed in Uganda

The term ‘leapfrogging’ is usually applied to technology. Many Africans have mobile phones without ever having owned a landline, for example. We think the same principles apply to institutions, policies, and infrastructure. There are many ways to circumvent, tunnel under or teleport past the bad ideas of the richest countries, and to choose a path that is gentler on the planet and places less strain on people.

Perhaps most importantly, countries that have not yet arrived could explicitly position the wellbeing of their citizens and the planet as their first priority and utilise growth to serve that goal, rather than following wealthier countries in the pursuit of growth at all costs and as an end in itself – a pursuit that led to rushing past the point of arrival and into the era of over development and uneconomic growth.

One comment

  1. Great post. Its important to understand that developing countries no longer have to follow the path of environmental exploitation for economic gain. As customer preferences are shifting towards sustainability, eco-tourism is a major opportunity for developing countries to leverage their assets in a different way.

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