Is moral transformation the key to development?
By Steven Friedman
IS OUR DEVELOPMENT challenge in our heads and hearts or our policy path? The question is posed, by implication, by the government’s Macro-Social Report (MSR), A Nation in the Making. The report is far more positive about our development path than its predecessor, the Ten Year Review, also produced by the Policy Co-Ordination and Advisory Service in the Presidency. While the Review warned against continuing on our current path, the MSR seems convinced that we are getting on top of poverty and inequality.
It reports research showing a marked decline in poverty since 2000, probably as a result of social grants, and adds that access to services by the poor has increased markedly, sharply reducing inequality. Levels of primary schooling are, it says, rising and the percentage of children out of school dropping. It claims that there is substantial entrepreneurial activity even while admitting that overall levels are low. The report does not ignore poverty - it supports the current official paradigm in which the poor are trapped in a ‘second economy’. But it quotes KwaZulu-Natal data showing rising incomes for over half of African households. The ‘poverty trap’ – and, therefore, the second economy – is, it reports, limited to the bottom 20% of the income scale.
Like the Ten Year Review, the MSR quotes credible research and does not hide trends which confirm that we have severe development problems: such as the reality that most African workers, a ‘disproportionate’ percentage of them women, remain in ‘elementary’ occupations; or that African entrepreneurial activity is half that of whites and Indians. Or that HIV and AIDS is ‘a pandemic in silent attack’, whose ‘fatal impact is starting to express itself palpably in both morbidity and mortality’. But, on social trends, it tells a story of significant progress led by government initiatives. We are, it says, on the right track and government programmes are largely responsible.
The positive tone, however, evaporates when the report turns to national values. It complains that, while the State ‘seeks to redistribute wealth and income’, the market ‘emphasises huge rewards and ostentatious lifestyles’. This prompts a desire to ‘flaunt’ social status in which ‘conspicuous consumption’ is rampant ‘sometimes beyond the margins of legality‘; citizens devalue professions ‘that deal with the moulding of social values’ and hanker after imported cultural products ‘much of them of low quality’. Given this bleak view of national values, it is no surprise that the MSR’s chief recommendation is not policy change, but an’ overarching vision for the country’.
The MSR may have highlighted one important block to development – that social status is linked to a lifestyle which few can achieve and the country cannot afford. This gap between the measures of esteem and what people can legally acquire may be far more a cause of crime than abject poverty and may also pose other developmental obstacles. But whether it is the only or even the main block to progress is less clear than the MSR suggests. While just about every other claim in the MSR is backed up by copious research, this one is supported by none: the only evidence it does present is an HSRC survey finding that citizens of all races believe corruption among government officials is increasing! This suggests that the MSR has reached this conclusion not because the evidence led it there but because it planned to say this all along. The claim that our chief development problem lies in our values remains an unsubstantiated opinion.
Second, the MSR seems eager to pass the development buck from government to society. Its implied message is that the government has done everything it can to address poverty and inequality, but has been frustrated by the social values which the market instils in us. Its implied message is: ‘We – government – are doing everything we can for development. It is time for you –society – to do your bit’.
Many will insist that government has not done all it can – that, even if the indicators quoted in the MSR are accurate, the level of progress measured against need is deeply inadequate and far more is required. Our values may need changing, but so too might government policy and performance. And, even if the MSR has diagnosed our ill accurately, it is doubtful whether a ‘national vision’ will address the problem. There are few challenges more difficult than changing values. Sustained intervention is needed before a common vision is possible. Nor are values likely to change if people believe government is shifting its responsibility onto them.
Rather than seeking an unattainable sudden change in public values, the government could offer itself as a role model by tackling the one area it can control – government itself. The MSR suggests that the war on corruption is not convincing citizens – perhaps because it is not enough to ensure that prominent figures in government obey the rules unless lifestyles change too. If the government wants to discourage conspicuous consumption, it can stop its own leaders and officers from indulging in it.
Finally, the choice between a new vision and new policies may be a false one. And there may be a way of addressing both. If the government wants society to embrace a new vision, it needs to do more to reach out to citizens, particularly those who currently are not heard. The MSR acknowledges that: ‘Public interaction with legislative institutions is mainly through organised formations… As a result, it is mainly resourced individuals and advocates of specific sectoral causes – not seldom with little mandating from communities they purport to represent – who are able actively to interact with the policy-making process’.
If the government wants working with and for others to be valued, it needs to create opportunities for people to express themselves in the public realm as well as in the private search for material survival and advancement. And that requires that those who are currently excluded be included. This would not only create an alternative to conspicuous consumption. It would help settle the argument on our development path. Who better to tell whether current approaches are working than the grassroots citizens who are meant to benefit?