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A Bright, Shiny Future

A traffic jam in Kabul, Afghanistan, in October.

A traffic jam in Kabul, Afghanistan, in October.

According to the International Monetary Fund, all of the 21 countries that RFE/RL broadcasts to and about are classified as “developing and emerging economies.”

On top of the seemingly endless litany of ethnic conflicts, border disputes, tolerance issues, and other problems, these diverse lands must also confront issues of development in a world of climate change and dwindling resources. And they must do so at a time when the development model that worked in much of the world has proven unrealistic and unsustainable.

Nonetheless, they – out of inertia or for other reasons – are doggedly pursuing development that looks a lot like the West when they can. They measure success by the numbers of cars on the roads or the numbers of cell phones and computers in use. Afghanistan, for instance, had more than 400,000 registered cars in 2004, up 18 percent over 2003 and 129 percent from 2002, according to the Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities. It would be hard to imagine another indicator of “development” that is rising with such vigor in that war-torn country.

Already, suburbs in post-Soviet bloc countries like the Czech Republic look hauntingly like the urban sprawl of the United States – and the people living in them are increasingly feeling the same discontents that many in the West are feeling. Do countries like Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Armenia have to follow the same path?

That’s why RFE/RL is launching a new blog devoted to development issues in the broadest sense. A Tree With Roots will look at ways of defining and measuring progress and prosperity. It will look at unintended consequences and at the costs of undermining indigenous cultures and languages, of promoting rampant urbanization, of global consumerism.

Just recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that his government will “start measuring people’s psychological and environmental well-being” in determining policies. He is following in the footsteps of countries like France, Canada, and Costa Rica. Perhaps predictably, conservatives have attacked the initiative, and Frank Furedi even cited ominous examples from RFE/RL’s part of the world:

Happiness has become the latest ‘big idea’ to capture the attention of a political class which is otherwise running on empty. Of course, the idea is not so new. The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who affectionately referred to himself as the ‘constructor of happiness,’ also took a great interest in imaginatively inventing statistics to prove it. Pictures of smiling peasants attending to their chores, or sitting on their tractors with beaming faces, were frequently displayed by the propaganda machines of Nazi Germany and Enver Hoxha’s Albania, respectively.

But these cynical dictators had no real interest in the wellbeing of their citizens. And if they had ruled over open societies, their lies would have been instantly exposed. What they did only shows the crucial importance of open, accountable government. One of the key findings of the recently released Legatum Institute 2010 Prosperity Index was that “prosperity is found in entrepreneurial democracies that have strong social fabrics.”

Furedi goes on to say that “the mere fact that happiness has become an object of official policymaking alters the relationship between government and public.” But in a world where the most successful development models are increasingly discredited and precious few real alternatives are on offer, isn’t it possible that changing the relationship between government and public is both necessary and desirable?

A Tree With Roots aims to be a permanent discussion forum for all of these issues. We invite you to share your perspectives.