Concepts of Development: A Tale of East vs West

Throughout history the East and West have been in a constant battle of ideologies, culminating in the mid-20th century in the form of the Cold War.

But, as what we have discussed in class last Tuesday, both the East (or, more ‘appropriately’, the “Non-Western”) and West have different, and often contradicting, views on the concept of development. In general terms, the Non-Western concept of development is largely anchored on the notion of identity, place, and values; the human being is identified through his or her environment. In contrast, the self is a central, if not crucial, concept in the Western sense of development; moreover, the perception of modern development is individualistic and materialistic.

Familial relationships and its role in development
In the East, particularly in Asia and the Pacific Islands, the family is a very important unit in society and even in the formation of a person’s values and notion of culture. In my home country of the Philippines, most people are highly family-centred. Several tribes in Northern Luzon and in the southern island of Mindanao put a high value on families and clans. Even in cosmopolitan Manila, Sundays are reserved for family days – families going to church together and afterwards enjoy a walk in the park, a home-cooked meal, or an “eat-out” at the family’s favourite restaurant. Filipinos have even taken the importance of family to a whole new level: the wealthy families have dominated both the government and the corporate worlds. (I think we got this notion from China).

The “family-centric” concept that I grew up with is highly contrasting to what I have observed not only upon transferring to New Zealand but also from what I see in American, British, Australian, and Canadian movies. Once a person reaches the legal age (usually it’s 18), s/he is expected to move out of his/her parents’ home, otherwise s/he will be called a “failure to launch” (ooh I love this film!).

Now what has this got to do with the concept of development? A lot!

From what I understand based on last Tuesday’s lecture, Westerners believe that familial relationships could hinder development. Most Westerners I’ve talked to would always say that the prevalence of nepotism in both the government and the business sector in the Philippines have hindered national progress, since these families, who are viewed as still “feudal” and “backward”, would only have one thing in their minds: how to keep themselves in power. The family’s vested interests are put first at the expense of national development. Once I encountered a foreigner in Manila who told me that the Filipino’s strong emphasis on familial ties have prevented the rise of a breed intellectual managers and statesmen who could have strengthened the businesses and the Philippine economy, as well as led the nation towards economic growth.

However, Filipino business and political clans have always argued that the prevalence of nepotism in business and politics have actually contributed to national development. Growth was the product of a very important ingredient in Filipino families: trust. After all, why would one appoint in the first place an untrusted person to head one’s business?

Opposing views on land
Another point Westerners make against Non-Western concepts of development is how the Non-Westerners view land. After industrialisation swept the West, land is a commodity or a resource, whereas Non-Westerners have the notion that land is more than just a physical component of the Earth, but a part and parcel of the person (I suddenly remembered the Disney film Pocahontas and the specific line “You think you own whatever land you land on; the earth is just a dead thing you can claim. But I know every rock, tree, and creature has a spirit, a life, and a name”).

In the 1970s, the Philippine government under the leadership of President Ferdinand Marcos implemented the World Bank-funded Chico River Basin Development Project and the Cellophil Resources Corporation in the northern Cordillera provinces of Kalinga and Abra, which entailed the construction of four huge hydroelectric dams. These dams could have provided electricity for almost the entire Northern Philippines, but its construction would have flooded a large portion of the province that were mostly ancestral lands and traditional burial grounds of the Kalinga, Bontok, and Tingguian peoples. The government argued that the land was not titled, hence the government owned them. However, the tribesmen argued that their traditions dictate that they protect these lands at all costs. After months of facing determined and uncompromising resistance from the Kalinga, Bontok, and Tingguian peoples, the government was forced to discontinue the project. World Bank withdrew the entire funding for any project geared towards the development of the Northern Cordilleras.

As seen from the case of the Chico River Project, Westerners perceive land as a commodity that should be traded in order for economic growth to launch, whereas Non-Westerners view land as vital to the well-being of a community, and well-being, in turn, is vital in the development of their communities. As Karl Marx puts it, Westerners view land as something that has value after “being an object of utility”. 

In conclusion: where should we stand?
From a student viewpoint, I wouldn’t still be in a credible, if not correct, position to judge which concept of development is better.  As we see above, different concepts work because people around the world are diverse. Cultures and value systems differ from country to country. What works for the Philippines may not work for China, and altogether may not work for, say, Peru or Venezuela.

Studying these different concepts would help one assess critically what could work for the society which s/he will be working for. Furthermore, understanding the culture and the history of the country where a development project will be undertaken is essential in the success of a development project or policy.

But I should argue that development is always for the betterment of the people, and given this, the correct concept of development will always be the one that will answer the needs of the society.

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