Fortunate developments: a personal reflection

21 March 2016

Make no mistake: you are very lucky. If you are reading these words, you are almost certainly in the top sixth of people on the planet in terms of welfare, quality of life, and socio-economic status.

This makes you lucky historically. For most of human history, most people have lived lives of extreme to moderate poverty. It also makes you lucky today. Of seven billion people in the world, 1.6 billion live in extreme poverty, on less than a dollar a day, without access to many basic services. That is almost 25 per cent of the world's population. A further 1.3 billion live in serious poverty, with less than $2.50 a day. And over 80 per cent of the world's population lives on less than ten dollars a day, classified as moderate poverty. It is pretty safe to say that none of these people living in extreme, serious or moderate poverty share your good fortune.

Why are you lucky? The affluent – ranging from lower-middle class to the hyper-wealthy - make up about a sixth of the population of the world. In pure mathematical terms, that's a dice throw in your favour. In welfare and development terms - if not in other terms, and not to negate any of the heartache, pain or suffering felt along the way – you, your parents, your grandparents, or some long distant and forgotten ancestor, rolled a six. They were born in the right country at the right time. Or if they weren't, they were able to find a moment where knowledge, the means to apply it, and the opportunity for change all came together, like stars in momentary alignment.

The story of a lucky man

In my family, it was my dad who threw the lucky dice. Kanapathy Ramalingam was born and grew up in a tin-and-mud shantytown on the edge of Mannar in north-west Sri Lanka. He was the youngest of seven brothers, a large low-caste family living at a time when such accidents of birth really mattered - unlike our far more enlightened times. His own father died in mysterious and unspoken (to me, at least) circumstances when he was still relatively young. But my dad was bright, and had the advantageous gifts of looks, charm and an unusual social confidence. He got educated, thanks to a supportive benefactor, and showed unusual ability in languages, literature and biology. He went on to win a scholarship to study medicine. The transportation infrastructure in Sri Lanka, built by the British colonial powers, meant he was not tied to the place he was born and all of its entrenched biases against his ilk. He became a doctor on the tea plantations in the south of the country. It was one of the few places in the country where his ‘low-born’ status wouldn't prevent ailing patients from seeking his knowledge and expertise.

Transportation of a different kind proved invaluable in the early 1970s, when he emigrated to England with his young family and worked in the National Health Service for two years. He moved back home after some ill-judged decisions, and set up a small hospital to serve the excluded people of the shantytown where he grew up. He specialized in bringing new technologies to the population – giving many local citizens their first x-rays, pregnancy scans, vasectomies and cancer checks. He became something of a small-scale celebrity in the process.

But humble beginnings are not easily escaped, and for all his achievements, his heart and mind were shot through with deep, searing veins of frustration, anger, fear and doubt. He piled vice on top of vice, weakness on top of weakness. He rolled too many dice, figuratively and literally, in a desperate but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to deal with the harsh and unforgiving emotional prison from which he could never fully escape. Poverty and prejudice, he was to discover, cannot so easily be rolled away.

In Sri Lanka in the 1980s, his internal battles were overtaken by a brutal external one. The civil war that erupted in 1983 led to political instability, insecurity, violence and loss of work. But he did get lucky once more: rolling another six, he embarked upon another globe-spanning migration, taking his young family with him as the early escapees of an emerging crisis that would create hundreds of thousands more desperate refugees in the years and decades to come.

Almost thirty years after my dad's sudden and untimely death, those left behind still carry the burden that for so long threatened to crush, and eventually overwhelmed him. But even living with the insidious, damaging and inter-generational reverberations of impoverishment, caste-based prejudice, addiction, social isolation and war, we are still amongst the lucky ones. We live with the benefits of his improbable sixes. One generation on from grinding poverty, we live in relative affluence. The very fact that I am writing these words, and working in one of the leading institutes in the world to research and learn about development issues, is testament to the legacy of his good fortune.

Development as distant dream

Most of the people in the world with similar beginnings to my father don't even get a dice throw. They have to deal with the dice that others throw for and around them. They are not helpless – far from it. They live in deep uncertainty that affects every part of their lives. Their children do not get education or healthcare. When shocks hit – a sudden turn towards intolerance, a civil war, a small modest business failing, an untimely death, rains that did or didn't come, an unexpected disease – their lives unravel. Sustainable development remains for too many billions today a distant dream.

It's all too easy to forget this when we work in international development. Real people and their hopes and stories get lost in the statistics and the reports; the goals and the policies; and the innovations and the evaluations and the endless, endless, endless debates.

I was reminded of this last week when IDS's Robert Chambers asked me in a seminar: ‘what about the people, Ben?’ As we discussed in a subsequent exchange, people are a blind spot in so much of what we do in development. And not just poor people, though of course they are of primary importance, but also people in governments, organisations, and networks: the people who ought to benefit from the system, and the people in the system. None of the benefits we have realised in the last 70 years of development - none - would have happened without the very human struggle and passion of the people involved.

Whose luck counts?

This week - which happens to see the anniversary of my father's birth, when he would have turned 72 - I have found myself unable to shake off this feeling that development should not be such a dream for so many. It should not be down to a dice throw. It should not be for the lucky ones. A development system that only rewards the fortunate is no development system at all: it is a damaging, self-serving, capricious illusion.

My hope is that we can focus on the needs and opportunities and the dreams of the many, and use these to inspire a new kind of development system. One that really leaves no one behind; that judges itself on how well it dealt with the most marginalized and impoverished; that puts peoples’ voices and views and capabilities at the forefront and that is able to relinquish and not shore up power. One that acknowledges that none of us can truly succeed in a world that fails the poorest and most vulnerable amongst us.

In my optimistic moments, I think that we do have the methods, tools, and ideas, some of the answers, many of the questions, and above all the people and the passion to make such a system reality.

Of course, we will also need a little luck.

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