Why does the developing world remain stagnant?

For over 100 years poverty patterns have remained stubborn. Do we just pump more money into poor nations? Nah. Three trillion dollars of aid over 75 years has shown that doesn't work. But is it really a lack of money in the first place? Or poor choices of a mind that has a certain image of Self and Others?

CHOICES. WE ALL MAKE THEM. But why do some prefer to make one set of choices, whilst others make another set of choices? Some people for example prefer to save their income for a rainy day, while others prefer to splurge on a night on the town. Some choose to hold onto their money, while others go gambling. To begin to unravel this question, let’s begin with a riddle that may shed some light on the answer: “What is the similarity between a person romantically rejected and a person living in a postcolonial society?” On the surface, not that much. But the more you think about it, the more you realize that for both persons the emotions thatthey can experience, can drive similar decision patterns.

First take a look at those romantically rejected: some of them blame their rejection on themselves and believe that if they change their appearance or behaviors, they may fall back into favor with the rejecter. Some become timid and risk avoidant, while others engage in short-term gratifications that cater to their now fragile ego, such as by going on wild shopping sprees[i], eating binges or reckless sexual behaviors. Some simply avoid relationships altogether and trust the intentions of no-one.

Now look at the behavior of many who live in a postcolonial society: they attempt to ‘whitewash’ their appearance using hair straightening products, hair extensions and colored contact lenses – driving billion dollar industries. Usage of skin whitening products is as high as 77% in Nigeria and 50% in the Philippines. In India 61% of the dermatological market is focused on skin whitening[ii]. Many entrepreneurs and politicians in such societies avoid taking risks[iii] as evidenced by their focus on traditional sectors such as civil service, agriculture, mining, reselling of imported goods or tourism. When as a result economic growth remains elusive, it’s these same politicians that invest in short term prestige projects that make constituents feel good now, at the cost of these same constituents later. And when it comes to mutual trust, the jury has been out for a while: societies which were colonized exhibit less of it[iv].

In both the case of those romantically rejected, and those once colonized, there is a common theme: a changed perception of control based on a changed relationship between people changed their choices. In the case of those romantically rejected, rejection took away their perception of control and led to choices to regain that control. This introduction argues that in the case of colonialism, colonial force and the fraudulent story of color has led to choice patterns that have resulted in economic stagnation.

The problem: economic stagnation

The age of European colonialism was characterized by mainly two types of nations: the colonizers that laid down the rules of global economic trade across nearly ninety percent[v]of the earth’s surface landmass – and the colonized whose existence revolved around sustaining that trade.

The end of World War II heralded an end to European colonialism and the beginning of independent economic development – or at least so it was hoped. In 1949 US President-elect Harry Truman claimed in reference to the former colonies: “More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery. For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and skill to relieve the suffering of these people.” Yet nearly three quarters of a century and three trillion dollars of development aid later[vi] it has become apparent that Truman’s claim was easier said than done: more than half of the world still lives on no more than USD 2.50 a day. Four hundred million people are in a situation of chronic poverty called a ‘poverty trap’[vii]. Out of 101 countries that enjoyed a middle income status[1] in the 1960s, only 13 have since made the ‘high income’ cut[viii], expanding economists’ worries of ‘poverty traps’ to include ‘middle income traps’[ix]. Countries across Latin America and the Caribbean are on the verge of bankruptcy or otherwise suffering at the hands of autocrats that the population willingly voted into power. In 2017 the UN warned that parts of the African continent are once again facing a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. How could Truman have been so wrong that suffering could be relieved so easily?[x]

Hungry for an alternative explanation

Many books have been written on the topic of poverty and stagnation, so why another one? Surely by now we must know what causes them, so we can just work towards implementing solutions to these problems? Let’s review some of the popular books which provide explanations for poverty and stagnation in the developing world. ‘End of Poverty[xi] points to the poverty trap from which developing countries can’t escape without more Western aid being pumped into them. ‘White Man’s Burden’[xii] argues however that aid does not work. ‘Dead Aid’ takes that argument one step further and argues that aid itself is to blame, and that capitalism is the solution. Yet despite open market policies and accessible credit markets, there is still a long list of countries that are on the verge of bankruptcy.

So what about a nation’s political institutions as an explanation? ‘Why Nations Fail’[xiii]argues that ‘extractive’ institutions permit the elite to rule and exploit others, keeping them poor. But how does that explain for the poverty of colored communities across the Western countries in which institutions are more inclusive and more people have a say in the political process? And how does this argument account for the success of the ethnic minorities across Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands that also deal with extractive institutions? Across many parts of Latin America[xiv],[xv] the Caribbean and Africa voters – despite inclusive democratic institutions – prefer ‘strong man’ autocrats, like the ones European colonizers left behind. Their minds seem to want to be told what to do, seem to accept corruption, and seem to need dominance to give them psychological comfort. Here’s another explanation: hot climate keeps countries from developing. Next time when you’ve been almost run over by a Rolls Royce in Singapore or Hong Kong, just check whether you’re wearing a sweater or a polo shirt – and send me a postcard.

But there’s also the one explanation that people silently mention around the water coolers in their offices: race (‘shhh’). Maybe all these colored people are just intellectually inferior? “IQ and the wealth of nations”[xvi] shows large differences in cognitive performance between the populations of various countries – with the lowest scores in the Caribbean and Africa, followed by Latin America and South Asia. Some argue that Africa, despite having been decolonized for years, are still nowhere ‘proving’ that colonization never held them back. Latin America after its infamous ‘lost decade’ grew for a while on the back of high commodity prizes, but is now back to stagnation. It’s still plagued by inequality and corruption. It just seems everywhere ‘colored people’ are, they tend to be poorer than the rest: twenty-seven percent of all African Americans live below the poverty line compared to just eleven percent of all other Americans. In Australia nineteen percent of Aboriginals live below the poverty line, compared to twelve percent of other Australians. In Canada more than half of the First Nations (native American) children live in poverty. In New Zealand more Maori’s are poor than European New Zealanders. And despite all the opportunities handed to them on a silver platter, they still make counterproductive choices!

Sociologist Oscar Lewis and others however debunked the racial argument. They pointed to a ‘culture of poverty’ whereby those who are poor across widely different ethnicities – including whites – exhibit similar emotions: feelings of fatalism, helplessness, dependence, weak ego structure, strong present time orientation, psychological pathology and inferiority.[xvii] These emotions seem to lead towards counterproductive choices[xviii],[xix]: poor people make less use of preventive health care,[xx] come late at work even if it puts their job at risk[xxi],[xxii], give less attention to their children,[xxiii] and are poorer managers of their finances[xxiv],[xxv],[xxvi].

But what is poverty to begin with? Outside of extreme poverty, poverty is less of an absolute concept than it is a comparative one. I know millionaires that consider themselves poor when in the neighborhood of billionaires. I also know natives in the Amazon that would be considered poor by those in the city, but in no way consider themselves poor in the jungle. Poverty is determined by our relative position to others along some social totem pole.[xxvii]

With none of the other arguments convincingly explaining stagnation, the common behavioral patterns of people living in poverty when compared to others provides an alternative direction: social rank. If we use the Merriam-Webster dictionary to define an economy as ‘a process by which goods and services are produced, sold, and bought in a region’, what does that have to do with social rank though? For that insight we need to understand what shapes an economy: choices.

Choices shape economies

Ever since Adam Smith’s book ‘The Wealth of Nations’[xxviii], economic decision-making has been generally considered to be determined by rational choice: individuals will consistently choose the best action in their own economic self-interest, given certain constraints (i.e. technology and capital). Economists who believe this, belong to a club called neoclassical economists. They argue that removing constraints will increase a nation’s ability to produce a higher standard of living as measured by its income per capita. This ability lies in the productivity with which its labor and capital resources are employed: the efficiency by which one unit of resource gets converted into output to create value.[xxix]

To understand the idea of productivity, consider the fictional former European colony, named Bellisario, along with two of its colorful characters, Jose and Maria, who work in a bakery. Maria invests BRD 2 (Belissarian Dollars) to buy imported ingredients to make a loaf of bread (the oven was free). She employs Jose who works an hour mixing and baking them, and he then sells the loaf for BRD 5. Maria pays Jose BRD 1 for his labor and makes BRD 2 on her investment. Bellissario’s national income just increased by BRD 3[xxx]. If Bellisario has no other inhabitants, its productivity is BRD 3 ÷ 2 people = BRD 1,50 and equals its average income per capita. The government now taxes Jose’s wage and Maria’s capital return to pay for public services so Jose and Maria can send their kids to public school, go to the hospital and drive their cars without falling into a sinkhole.

The neoclassical economist would now argue that to increase Bellisario’s income, Jose and Maria should be enabled to convert ingredients into loaves more efficiently through for instance new technology (a better oven), increased competition (open markets) and better management practices (give Jose stock options). Similarly the economist would argue that by addressing constraints across the postcolonial world – i.e. imperfect credit markets, governmental failures, and import tariffs – the set of available choices should blossom and poor ex-colonies should bloom. For a neoclassical economist preferences – the reasons behind economic choices – are irrelevant sociological details[xxxi] and as long as the choices themselves are rational their models have predictive power. In reality however most ex-colonies did not blossom nor did they bloom, and the models did not have predictive power. The models were missing a crucial element: Jose and Maria.

Over the years evidence emerged that human choice isn’t as rational as economists had assumed. Some thus looked towards the psychology of Jose and Maria, how that could influence their choices, and when these choices are taken together, how they could drive entire economies[xxxii]. Economic growth was already shown to be related to psychological traits such as intelligence[xxxiii], motivation[xxxiv], trust[xxxv], altruism, risk tolerance[xxxvi] and patience (time orientation)[xxxvii]Intelligence for example led Maria to discover and exploit an opportunity in the bakery business. Motivation determinedJose’s effort level to sell more bread and create more value[xxxviii]Altruism determined how much of this value Maria shared with Jose, but also how much Bellisario’s ex-colonizer shared with Bellisario. Maria’s choice to invest in either the bakery business or an IT startup wasn’t only based on access to credit, but also her tolerance for risk and her investment time horizon. Maria’s choice was also shaped by the choices of government: government could choose to shape a private sector that met the needs of the population – or met the needs of a donor. Lastly, Maria’s trust in Jose that he wouldn’t steal anything is the same trust that drives people to collaborate with one another. Intelligence, motivation, altruism, risk tolerance, patience and trust are all psychological traits driving productivity and economic growth.

All of these traits, except for motivation, have been measured across the world[xxxix],[xl],[xli],[xlii],[xliii],[xliv],[xlv]. If we now look at global patterns of intelligence, altruism, risk tolerance, patience and trust, we start to see something peculiar: most parts of the postcolonial world rank lower on all traits (see figure next page). What is even more striking: these patterns look uncannily similar to the behavioral patterns we saw in the prologue. Coincidence?

To date no unified theory exists that can explain these global patterns. What has been missing is a fundamental theory of what drives choices that can serve as an alternative theory to rational choice. Without such a theory economists find themselves reverting to tried – yet failed – standard economic models[xlvi].

Control shapes choices

In their book ‘Poor Economics’[xlvii]authorsBanarjeeand Duflo argued that the stress of living on less than 99 cents a day leads poor people to make poor choices[xlviii]. The elevated cortisol levels as a reaction to this stress decreases someone’s tolerance for risk[xlix] and patience[l]. Cortisol however helps us combat or run from a threat[li], but what threat do poor people face? Threat of starvation only applies to the extreme poor. If we agree that poverty is comparative, the threat must be tied to the comparison itself – and it’s not always a financial comparison.

Take for example a British study conducted in the 1960s. It investigated the social determinants of health among British civil servants.[lii] It showed that the lower their grade levels, the higher their stress, the more they became ill and the shorter their life expectancy! The relationship between health and status became known as ‘status syndrome’. [liii]

Two hundred years ago Adam Smith observed a similar relationship between status and emotion. Smith suggested that lacking specific goods was not only a materialproblem but also a social one. Without having control over certain goods that some story considered important, a person “would be ashamed to appear in public without (…).” [liv],[lv] In this way society’s stories determine a person’s status and along with it his or her control. This level of control influences self-esteem and – if that person has limited control – can lead to stress.

So how does all this tie together? Well, so far in our journey we know a couple of things: first, economic growth is shaped by choices. Second, such choices are determined by psychological traits such as risk tolerance and patience. Third, such traits can be influenced by emotions such as stress. Fourth, stress can be induced by a lack of control over something considered to be of value. Finally, that value is determined by some social story. A story that seems to rank individuals along those who have something – and those who have not (Chapter 1).

To apply this logic to the post-colonial world, we need a better understanding of how social rank was determined there and how it related to a perception of control with people who were colonized. It could help to understand not only stagnation but also possibly provide an opportunity to break rank.

Stories shape control

Despite the fact that colonialism knew various forms of settlement and administration, it had one common characteristic: colonialism differentiated people into unequal social ranks using physical force that was justified by identity fraud: the story of racial inferiority[lvi](Chapter 2). A person’s color became a determinant where he ended up in the social hierarchy and thus the extent to which he could control his or her own destiny.[lvii],[lviii] In many cases this differentiation was etched in law: the Sistema di Castas introduced to the Spanish Americas the idea of social stratification according to the color of one’s skin, the US introduced the ‘one-drop rule’, that racially classified individuals, US Black Codes were laws that defined the movements of freed slaves, and Jim Crow laws enforced segregation. In Canada and Australia Aboriginal children were lawfully removed from their parents. In all instances the removal of control was justified becausethe colonized were considered to be ‘cannibals’ or ‘savages’, easily identified by the color of their skin. They were to be christened and civilized, even if it meant by force. Even after the whitewashing was done however, the rules of oppression did not change, the coloreds continued to be excluded, rejected, and oppressed by the colonizer. The result was that they stayed at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Physical force and identity fraud isn’t just confined to colonialism however: fraud goes wherever force does. It’s a strategy that seems to have evolved in the human species to survive. Just look at a bully when he hits another child: he will usually call him a name to justify the abuse: “you are stupid!”. To manage our anxieties of others and make interactions more predictable, our mind categorizes those others by skill, race, religion, nationality, even office floor, drawing a sharp line between ‘Us’ and ‘Others’. The mind then constructs stories around these categories to rationalize and justify this categorization, and develops rules of interaction for the various categories.

Those who are unable to adjust the story about themselves, adjust themselves to the story instead[lix]. They actually behave as if they in fact are for example ‘stupid’. In this manner, they conform to unseen authorities, adopt a self which is not theirs, bow their head, hang their shoulders and gaze at the floor. They become unable to look beyond the story, because they have become entrapped in the story and so they develop new identities (Chapter 3).

Story entrapment can be seen all around us. Take the example of a husband abusing his wife: here too physical abuse is accompanied by verbal abuse to justify it. “You’re worthless”. Slowly over time, the abuser no longer requires force. When resistance appears futile and control is perceived to be lost, the narrative becomes accepted by the abused to avoid further punishment. Story entrapment also comes in more subtle ways: media present us with images of beautiful smiling faces perched on slim symmetric bodies dressed in fancy expensive clothing. Having fun. Living it up. The story? Your life is incomplete and so are you. Buy stuff, strive to adopt another identity or die from irrelevance. It’s capitalism’s force supported by fraud about who you are now, versus what you need to be. Story entrapment leads to fragile identities, and for the persons affected, to adopt behaviors to try and regain control in order to avoid losing more control.[lx]

This mechanism is why the heritage of oppression which was left behind by the colonizers continued to flourish after colonialism – oppression simply led to the adoption and acceptance of further oppression. It became internalized in the people once colonized. All you need to do is look at all the authoritarian governments left across the postcolonial world: although some were installed by European colonial regimes after they left as an alternative to military coercion, others were democratically elected. The majority of society in these formerly colonized countries accepted, even expected authority to dictate how they ought to think and behave; authoritarianism had become the only acceptable model of how people should behave[lxi]. People gradually deferred their choices to others, a behavior that ran pervasively across society, from private enterprises, to schools all the way down to the family. Within companies, the manager is the only one who makes decisions, in schools, only teachers have knowledge, and within families, parents are to elicit mindless obedience from children at any cost. Those who view themselves incapable of making choices continue to defer decisions to those considered more ‘senior’ and more ‘capable’ than they are. They avoid asking confrontational questions and avoid giving their own opinion for fear of the punishment embedded in society’s fabric. When they get a chance to exercise authority, they simply turn around and behave in the same way as those who had once threatened to punish them. This behavior is the mind’s way of retaking the control it once lost. Brazilian postcolonial author Paulo Freire once wrote about such behavior of Brazilian peasants during Brazil’s military rule:

The peasant is a dependent. He can’t say what he wants. Before he discovers his dependence, he suffers. He lets off steam at home, where he shouts at his children, beats them, and despairs. He complains about his wife and thinks everything is dreadful. He doesn’t let off steam with the boss because he thinks the boss is a superior being. Lots of times, the peasant gives vent to his sorrows by drinking.

–       Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1957

Postcolonialism is an academic study of the human consequences of colonialism. Its scholars have argued for decades that a relatively high occurrence of psychological pathologies are an effect of internalized oppression linked to colonialism: lower levels of personal and collective self-esteem and other emotions related to it such as depression[lxii],[lxiii], feelings of inferiority[lxiv],[lxv], resignation and powerlessness[lxvi], learned helplessness[lxvii], shame[lxviii], humiliation[lxix], higher levels of stress[lxx] and anxiety[lxxi] and poor body image[lxxii],[lxxiii]. The ‘white-washing’ behaviors portrayed earlier can be seen as attempts to address this low self-esteem and transform people’s identity into one that is more acceptable according to some story. And the story of ‘acceptable identity’ in the minds of many today is white and not colored. From the perspective of people with color the story is not about ‘Us’. Their decisions at the subconscious level become focused on repairing the ego and regaining a sense of control – and it comes at an economic cost (Chapter 4-6).

Stories shape choices

Although triggered by observations made in post-colonial societies, this book doesn’t just cover behavioral patterns linked to ‘colonial’ story entrapment, ‘racial’ emotions and the decisions of ‘other’ people living in the postcolonial world. It’s also about seeing patterns of story entrapment, emotions and decisions everywhere. Patterns observed in the post-colonial world can be found in capitalist societies as well, and across socioeconomic classes. Jerry Springer taught us that much. In the case of colonialism these patterns are produced by the feelings of inferiority based on force and the story of color. In the case of capitalism it is based on the story of wallet. Both are perceptions of the mind, shaped by stories that lead to false perceptions and along with it, to false identities. We simply don’t see the resemblance between colonialism and capitalism because our minds are conditioned to associate certain behavior with the color of another’s skin. This narrow perception makes interactions more predictable for us, and our anxieties about other people more manageable. But because perceptions are born out of stories, we’ll not only look at the patterns that come from the stories of colonialism. At times we’ll also explore the behavioral effects of capitalism. Both colonialism and capitalism are social structures where people have become entrapped in stories. And none of them are true.

Investigating the effects of story entrapment on control, emotions and economic decision-making is a road less traveled. Overlaying a colonial context onto such an investigation becomes even more troublesome for many western researchers who would prefer to stay well clear of a sensitive minefield that touches culture, race or identity. Yet this book argues that understanding economic stagnation cannot be detached from understanding the stories that regulate how one perceives oneself in relation to others within that economy. Such perceptions are never objective, as the stories that shape them make reality subjective. This observation leads to a theory of choice I call Control Probability: it argues that the difference in people’s preferences are based on their need to survive which is based on their perception of control.

If we perceive ourselves to be in control of something, we feel confident. Possibilities are endless, nothing can stop us approaching opportunityand choosing to take action when faced with uncertaintyJobs are growth opportunities and people gaze at us because we are interesting. If we however perceive ourselves to have no control, we feel anxious. The world is a dark place, and disasters are just waiting to happen. This perception leads us to avoid uncertainty, so we don’t lose even more control. Jobs are risks, as failure is imminent, and gazes from others are perceived as criticism.

Yet we must realize that reality is a perception, and our perception of control is but an illusion tied to some story. As Henry Ford once remarked: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”

(for more information or to buy the book go to Amazon.com. )

[1] Countries with an average income per person between $1,005 and $12,235.

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[lx] Dockterman, Eliana, “Why women stay: the paradox of abusive relationships”,Time, 9 September 2017, Retrieved from http://time.com/3309687/why-women-stay-in-abusive-relationships/. Web. 28 February, 2017

[lxi] Freire, Paolo. “Pedagogy of the oppressed”, New York (Herder & Herder) 1970.” (1970).

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[lxiii] Ross, Lori E., et al. “Can talking about oppression reduce depression? Modified CBT group treatment for LGBT people with depression.” Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services 19.1 (2007): 1-15.

[lxiv] Pheterson, Gail. “Alliances between women: Overcoming internalized oppression and internalized domination.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 12.1 (1986): 146-160.

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[lxvii] Prilleltensky, Isaac, and Lev Gonick. “Polities change, oppression remains: On the psychology and politics of oppression.” Political psychology (1996): 127-148.

[lxviii] Rosenwasser, Penny. Exploring, resisting, and healing from internalized Jewish oppression: Activist women’s cooperative inquiry. Diss. 2005.

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[lxx] David, Eric John Ramos. Brown Skin, White Minds: Filipino/American Postcolonial Psychology. IAP, 2013

[lxxi] Tull, Eugene S., et al. “Relationships between perceived stress, coping behavior and cortisol secretion in women with high and low levels of internalized racism.”Journal of the National Medical Association 97.2 (2005): 206.

[lxxii] Bailey, Tamba-Kuii M., et al. “Development and validation of the Internalized Racial Oppression Scale for Black individuals.” Journal of Counseling Psychology 58.4 (2011): 481.

[lxxiii] Lehman, J. D. “The effects of internalized oppression and family influence on bodyimage in Filipina American women (Doctoral dissertation).” Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database.(AAI3323735) (2009).

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