The Price of Inequality

Evolution is the biological manifestation of development.  Which, in action merely refers to a ‘gradual unfolding’ usually towards a state of greater complexity or stability.  Evolution as a process of natural selection for the most robust model of response to any environment, has been a fundamental force shaping land use in all societies; It is manifest in the biological world as patterns that endure, as patterns that have demonstrated sustainability and often also of great antiquity.

At a local level these patterns produce a great variety of responses to local conditions.  Thus a traditional system of rice production in a given region may share many common characteristics, but as the scale gets small enough to isolate village groups, the varieties and agronomic practices will demonstrate local characteristics.  The local system has evolved to respond to the local environment, physical and cultural.  This reflects the need to place value on traditional responses in terms of providing models for local development.  This approach, be it used for urban or rural development, has many appealing features as it facilitates the achievement of the goals set by the world community at UNCED and subsequent agreements reached through the convention processes.

Thus the sector framework and sectoral linkages will be seen to differ in more traditionally oriented cities while they will exhibit more commonalities in modern cities.  Whatever the case, the most fundamental and important sectoral linkage is the urban-rural sector relationship.  This involves a crucial relationship between the supply of food, water, oxygen and the buffering capacity for urban effluent.

However, the effect of the current economic development has been a unidirectional push towards increased consumption and the growth of financial transactions. As there is a very low value placed on  social, health or biological cost, the result has been a dramatic decline in primary productivity, an increase in the  state of dependency, a loss of sustainability and in human health.

Usually, one finds that this destructive model of development is promoted by persons with vested interests in either amassing personal fortunes   or getting a nation into debt as a part of their ‘official’ work , as will be clarified later.

Consumptive development or idiot development is marked by the importation of anything as long as the market demands it and  by injecting money as loans into the local economy and spending it through massive projects.  The construction of roads that the majority of the population can never use, big expensive building projects, usually white elephants whose only purpose is to enrich the ‘developers’ and place a nation in debt.

This type of ‘development’ encourages both urban sprawl and the growth of resource and energy dependent cities. The mad rush at constructing cities worldwide, has led to a call for new visions in urban consumption, waste, and space management. New city designers state that  ‘urbanism is not the problem we’re facing- the current design of urban spaces is built to serve the automobile, urban areas, as they exist today, promote the existence of an artificial boundary between the “city” and “nature” that have made it easy for urbanites to ignore their impressive impact on outside communities’. It is in these outside communities that the quality of services critical to a city such as water, food and waste removal, finally reside.

Cities have always grown on the capacity of the natural system to support them. Often, in human history these capacities have been exceeded and the loss of that city follows. The examples from the Middle East, Central China and Middle America bear testimony to that fact.

The thing that removed natural restraints to modern urban growth and enabled the cities of today was technology driven by energy. Those who had access to renewable sources such as hydro or geothermal were better equipped , those who did not, turned to oil.  However, eventually, the drive for consumption led growth created growth models for cities that took little cognizance of its reliance on the natural world for its existence.

Planning for urban growth without considering the limits of the environment to supply the basic needs of its inhabitants is indeed shortsighted and irresponsible by the future inhabitants, both urban and rural.  This ‘misdirected growth’ is often promoted to enrich the people with power or capital and creates a class of ‘super rich’ which rapidly widens the inequality gap between rich and poor.  This widening of the gap should be a reason for national concern. The reason why we should all be vigilant to the phenomenon of a widening inequality gap between the rich and the poor is very lucidly explained in a very informative and eye opening book ‘The Spirit Level’ ( by two Epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  A review in the Guardian states:

The authors point out that ‘the life-diminishing results of valuing growth above equality in rich societies can be seen all around. Inequality causes shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives; it increases the rate of teenage pregnancy, violence, obesity, imprisonment and addiction; it destroys relationships between individuals born in the same society but into different classes; and its function as a driver of consumption depletes the planet’s resources. With the result that everyone suffers – even the most well off.’ Inequality in their view isn’t just bad for the poor; it’s also bad for the rich.

Analyzing data primarily from 21 developed countries and also the different American states, they present evidence of a correlation between the level of inequality in each country (or state) and a range of outcomes: levels of trust, mental illness, life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity, children’s educational performance, number of teenage births, murders, imprisonment rates and social mobility. More inequality goes with lower trust, more mental illness, higher murder rates and so on. It has nothing to do with total wealth or even the average per-capita income. On almost every index of quality of life, or wellness, or deprivation, there is a gradient showing a strong correlation between a country’s level of economic inequality and its social outcomes.

What has all this to do with where Sri Lanka is heading?

We have gone back to the old ‘formula of ‘borrow as much money as you want for very large projects, the commissions are very attractive and the feasibility of the project is not very important’. It began with the Mahaveli and the current path of progress and development that we are moving towards today seems to be exactly what the big lenders always wanted. John Perkins ( in his book ‘Confessions of an Economic Hit Man’ states that His job was “to convince countries that are strategically important to the United States to accept enormous loans for infrastructure development and to make sure that the lucrative projects were contracted to U.S. corporations”. He further states that economic hit men as “highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars. They funnel money from the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other foreign ‘aid’ organizations into the coffers of huge corporations and the pockets of a few wealthy families who control the planet’s natural resources.

Knowing the degree of education and experience with mega projects that is required to launch such projects and when we compare it with what the current regime has, it is obvious that there is no one with any smarts to develop even anything close to a credible project from within the regime, then where do these grandiose ideas and schemes come from ? who prepares the studies and financial projections to the satisfaction of the international lenders

Are there a bunch of shadowy ‘hit men’ of various colours in this town, abetted by a bunch of the greedy locals, leading us like a bunch of ignoramuses to a debt ridden future marked by social inequity and financial slavery?

This is the process gives rise to ‘Crony Capitalism’. Using Italy as an example Dr. Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago points  out that  ”Even emergency room doctors gain promotions on the basis of political affiliations. Instead of being told to study, young people are urged to ‘carry the bag’ for powerful people in the hope of winning favours. Mothers push their daughters into the arms of the rich and powerful seeing it as the only avenue of social promotion. The nations talent-selection process is broken : one routinely finds highly intelligent people employed in menial jobs while mediocre people hold distinguished positions

The worst consequence of crony capitalism is political. The more a system is dominated by cronies, the more it generates resentment. To maintain consensus, the insiders must distribute privileges and subsidies – and the more they dole out, the greater the demand becomes “

In order to ‘dole it out’, massive projects are mooted so that the politicians and their cronies take out their commissions and move their lesser cronies into management , ensuring that the project can never be a success.

These types of massive infrastructure based development projects,  that brings in no return and no possibilities of payback, is a prime factor creating the woes due to economic inequality that Wilkinson and Pickett described. In Sri Lanka today the widening inequality gap between the rich and the poor is obvious to any observer. This type of crony capitalism, may create a fortunate future for a few, but it will produce a dismal future for the rest of us and our children.