In response to:
Joy in Mudville from the December 11, 1975 issue
To the Editors:
Moshe Safdie, writing about architecture for poor countries [NYR, December 11], complains that Indian women crush rocks for gravel by hand: would it not be better, he asks, to use a few rock-crushers to do three years’ work in a fortnight? The question speaks volumes about Western ignorance of third-world economics.
The women with their hammers are cheap labor. The wages they earn are spent locally. The hammers can be made locally. The women and their hammer-makers buy food and clothing from local small traders, who spend their profits locally. Indigenous wealth is created.
By contrast, the rock-crusher must be imported. It costs precious dollars or pounds sterling, and creates employment in Philadelphia or Manchester. When the crusher goes wrong—perhaps because the laborers were not brought up surrounded by machines in an affluent country—it lies idle while expensive spares are brought thousands of miles.
Furthermore, the crusher makes the women redundant. They cannot “in time…find other more useful jobs.” The economy is not “growing and changing.” This is the problem. The casual way Mr. Safdie assumes that jobs will turn up in a country of grinding, intractable poverty, is appalling. What will happen is that the women will become poor, as will the hammer-makers, and the small tradesmen who depend upon their purchasing power; while Western tool-makers go on overtime.
Imported machinery using scarce petroleum to reduce employment is just what poor countries do not need. Low-technology, labor-intensive jobs are required. The failure to see this point explains the uselessness of most “aid.”
Moshe Safdie replies:
It is interesting to note that often those who advocate that we should preserve the charms of the village well with all the social life that takes place around it, usually live in a comfortable house with hot and cold running water, and those who tell us that introducing a stone-crusher would create unemployment for those who now spend endless hours crushing the stone under the hot Indian sun, have probably a comfortable job in an air-conditioned office.
There is no question that the indiscriminate introduction of high technology in the developing countries can have serious detrimental effects in creating unemployment and making the economy further dependent on imported resources and know-how. But between that danger and preserving the status quo lies a range of other possibilities which suggests that if one proceeds with caution, it is possible to introduce contemporary technology to the developing world and facilitate, first of all, the industrialization of agriculture and eventually, that of other sectors of industry.
Thus begins the process of releasing labor and rechannelling it to other industries and services, creating a spiral which brings about the increase and improvement of the standard of living of the population.
I do not believe that the cautious introduction of technology in developing countries will have a negative effect. It is too easy for us in a developed world to sit back and advocate the preservation of the status quo which for the majority of individuals in the world means a very low standard of living, painstaking slave labor, and marginal subsistence.
As an example of how the carefully controlled introduction of contemporary technology can be harnessed to the improvement of the well-being of the population within the principles of self-reliance, we can look to the People’s Republic of China, which has demonstrated a number of dramatic improvements to the livelihood of its people, without sacrificing the policy of self-reliance.
In 1973 I had the good fortune of spending one month studying these issues in China. Over and over again we visited factories producing tractors and fertilizers, refineries, and petro-chemical industries, all of which have been built slowly and with greater effort because China has opted for a slower rate of growth, avoiding the shortcut of wholesale importation of factories and foreign technologies for the gradual evolutionary process of building those industries with their own resources and know-how.
One only need compare India and China to appreciate the difference between a society which has decided as a matter of policy to harness technology, but do it within the limits of the Mao teaching of self-reliance, and India in which there is the more fatalistic attitude of laissez-faire and the preservation of the status quo both technologically and socially.
As a result, whereas both countries entered the postwar era at about equal footing regarding per capita income, with a drastic shortage of food, medical care, and shelter, China has in a quarter of a century radically improved the quality of life of its inhabitants as compared with India.
It has done so with little of the type of disruption referred to in Ken Follett’s letter. In fact, the Chinese have succeeded in avoiding many of the pitfalls which we have come to associate as inevitable with the process of urbanization. They have effectively controlled the size of existing cities; they have shattered the preconceived notion that urban development and industry must be separated from rural and agricultural development; they have created agriculture in cities and industry in the countryside. They have gradually and systematically begun the mechanization of agriculture, and the introduction of technology to every aspect of Chinese life, including building.
While the reckless and ill-considered introduction of contemporary technology to the developing world can in fact create unemployment and greater dependency on imported resources, I believe that it is even more dangerous to accept the present situation by avoiding the kind of intervention proposed in my review. Though I am not an economist the formula appears to be simple: the less agricultural and industrial production is mechanized, the lower the productivity and hence the lower the standard of living will be. The greater productivity can be as a result of the introduction of technology, the greater the standard of living of the population will be. Let us not make the mistake of opting for keeping the societies of developing countries static, for fear of the short-term maladjustments that it will create, and doom them as a result to long-term poverty and no hope for the future.
March 18, 1976