A right to develop?

The “East Asian Miracle” was the title of a 1993 World Bank report which attributed the rapid economic growth and development of Asian countries post-World War II to the success of neoliberalism. While the neo-liberal theory of development is widely held in the West, the developmental state theory poses a challenge to the Anglo-American analysis, providing an alternate explanation for the rise of economies within East Asian following World War II. 

Critics of the neo-liberal consensus argued that Asian economies rapidly developed due to the strong, centralised roles assumed by governments in economic planning. Regional leaders such as Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Yuan Yew also reacted to the atmosphere of neoliberal triumphalism that was conveyed in the World Bank report and advocated for others to “look East” toward countries like Japan for models of economic development rather than West.

Developmental state theory argues that late industrialising nations need to take measures to catch up with advanced capitalist economies. Protection and oversight from central governments can help to created a dynamic environment for countries to develop evenly and strengthen their industrial capabilities prior to integrating into the neo-liberal global market. 

While developmental state theory provides a plausible alternate explanation for the rise of East Asian economies, the model is not superior to a democratic capitalist system. The strong role of the government in developmental states gives rise to authoritarianism. In the interests of pursuing drastic economic development, states subordinate political objectives. This means that citizens are not free to criticise their government or actively have a voice in policy development. 

The process of industrialisation enables developing states to drastically improve living standards and reduce abject poverty. Such needs are arguably more pressing than the actualisation of civil liberties in countries where access to food, water, shelter and sanitation are not ubiquitous. 

Given these considerations, it is reasonable to offer developing states a grace period in which they can prioritise national economic development above the civil rights of citizens. However, when has a state sufficiently developed to a stage where the international community can pressure them to uphold the human rights of their citizens?

In practice, the international community has had difficulty in grappling with such questions. Most notably, China lays claim to the second most powerful economy in the world while also holding developing-state status which allows it to maintain the need for international concessions and time to adequately develop. 

The right to develop is an internationally recognised right at the United Nations and has also been ratified in a number of international instruments and national declarations.

  • 1991 China published a White Paper on its right to prioritise economic stability over Western priorities of civil and political freedoms (essentially China published the view that individual freedoms, while important should not come before the interests of the collective)  
  • Right to Develop is recognised at the UN (since 1986) and this resolution and way of thinking continues to be a prominent issue cited by developing countries when discussing international issues (UN- Res. 41/128) 
  • This right is also recognised in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Arab Charter on Human Rights
  • Reaffirmed in in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the 1993 Vienna Programme of Action and  2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Though the international community has found consensus on the existence of an international right to develop, a lack of clarity remains on when this right expires.

So long as China continues to argue its status as a developing state and the leader of the developing world, the right to develop will increasingly be used as a tool for countries to argue that authoritarian governance and centralised economies are not merely temporary but rather provide a strong alternate model to democratic/capitalist governance. This reality will result in a world that is less free, and more divided between East and West.

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