On Wednesday, September 25, I assisted with the David Morrison Lecture in international development., where I had the pleasure of listening to Dr. Manfred A. Bienefeld. Prof. Bienefeld is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University in Ottawa. The 2013 David Morrison Lecture was a follow-up to his 1992 article, Rescuing the Dream of Development in the Nineties.

There were many provocative ideas put forward by Bienefeld. Those of you who study development know extremely well how difficult it is to explain what development is all about. There are such questions as: What is development? What does international development study? What is the development dream about?

These are questions that do not have a definite answer, and are always being contested. He argued, “When development assistance was embraced, many people took it to mean, and understood it to mean, [as] trying to assist societies achieve outcomes that had been achieved in certain societies in the world, the ones that came to be known as the developed countries.”

It is fairly known by now the idea that developing countries should follow the steps of the developed world is problematic and can be considered ethnocentric.

“The characteristics that defined development were broad, but relatively well-understood: full employment, relatively high wages, widely distributed income, relatively high levels of social protection, economic security, and, as part and parcel of all of those features, the possibility of stable and legitimate democratic governance.”

The link between development and democracy has been brought up under many circumstances. These two words have many meanings, and therefore, it is highly difficult to define them in precise terms.

According to Bienefeld, “Democracy is clearly, unquestionably, the most desirable form of government: to have a government in which citizens make choices, according to their priorities and circumstances, and to do so in the context of a free exchange of information.”

An  important point he also brought up was that the idea of democracy “has only been feasible and realizable in circumstances when the differences to be settled through the political process are relatively modest: when we have not allowed society to develop income differentials that are so enormous that they undermine respect and faith and belief in the fairness of the system; when we have not allowed power differentials to rise to a level in which people start to distrust the law and the political process; when we have not created a situation when people’s economic assistance is constantly at stake.”

Based on the idea that development action has to be bounded on a theoretical framework, Bienefeld argued we have to be increasingly aware of the way in which the concept of social policy is evolving.

“We already have free capital movement, we have virtually free movements of goods, and all I can say is that if we have free movement of labour tomorrow, you can kiss the idea of collective social policy good-bye,” he stated.

“All those conditions associated with development are all conditions that could only exist and that existed because societies had made choices, but in order for those societies to make these choices, they first have to exist as entities. The members of those societies must share, at some fundamental level, a commonality of interest around which they can negotiate their differences. In the absence of such social entities, there cannot be social policy.”

The idea of nation-states has been challenged in the current times of globalization and liberalization of economies.

In terms of the role of the state, Bienefeld proclaimed, “We can make a strong case that successful operation of markets requires the existence of relatively strong states that are capable of containing the centrifugal forces of markets; otherwise, they become extremely dangerous and they do not only lead to instability, but also to massive inefficiency as they did in the ‘30s, and as they are doing today. If a polity is to manage an economy effectively, then the polity and the economy in question have to be largely congruent.”

Many have argued it is important to be careful of the power of the state. Some people would suggest that the extent to which the state has the legitimacy to make those choices is contested.
The theoretical backbone on which Bienefeld is basing his remarks is that of Keynesian economics.

“Markets are powerful, positive instruments. They are potentially extremely valuable, have been historically progressive, and they have served public welfare remarkably at times. But, they only do so, and they only can do so, when they are embedded in frameworks that have to themselves be politically and socially defined. Those frameworks cannot be left to be defined by market forces, and if those frameworks do not exist, markets have a tendency towards instability and fraud.  It is not about markets versus states, nor about markets or not markets. It is about markets in what context?”

Bienefeld concluded on a very powerful note: “What a true Marxist would say is that you have no idea how powerful market forces are, and the idea that any political structure could withstand those forces is naïve and unrealistic. In ancient times, alchemists had two key projects. One was to create gold, and another to create a universal solvent. There was a lovely philosophical debate about if you created a universal solvent, what container would you keep it in? If market forces need to be contained, and if Marx ends up to be right in that they are uncontainable, then we have got a very big problem.”