Ryszard Kapuscinski’s works addressed leading development issues of the 1970s, 1980s, and (arguably to a lesser extent) the 1990s. Have the world’s development challenges changed since then? What was the biggest challenge then and what is it now?

The world’s development challenges have changed and not changed. We looked at development challenges in the 70s and 80s with an almost exclusively materialist lens, which in turn inclined us to look for ways in which developing countries could follow the trajectories that had been defined by the North. Put crudely, we said that people in developing countries did not have enough things, and we should find ways in which people could make more things and afford more things and we should design institutions and train leaders to get people more things. Kapuscinski, however, was the rare observer of development who looked at countries, communities, but most of all people, with a humanist lens that never lost sight of the fact that people were not just material consuming entities. Who else would note, “What of Herodotus himself, what sort of slaves did he have? … I think he was a kind-hearted man,” projecting his own expansive humanity to a long-dead classical historian. We are, I hope, coming around to the Kapuscinki view of both humanity and development, looking at development as not a race towards materialist goals–but as a march towards alleviating not only the enormous gap in material wants but towards alleviating gaps in dignity, justice, and empathy. And that addressing those gaps is not just the business of the state, but a responsibility of institutions and individuals outside the state.

Some people dismiss sustainable development as an aspirational vision, others an unattainable fantasy, and still others absolutely necessary to our future. In this age where few seem interested in working for the collective good of all, what’s your argument to convince others that it is necessary to change the way we develop? 

I might disagree that few seem interested in working for the collective good of all. There have been more protests all over the world in the past several years than I have ever seen in my lifetime, and they have continued well into the pandemic. And these protests cannot be characterized as individualist protests; the protesters in Yakutsk who braved -50C temperatures to protest the jailing of opposition politician Alexei Navalny were not expecting to derive personal benefit from the action, quite the contrary. There are people who are visibly defying pandemic guidelines, or espousing every-man-for-himself survivalist dogmas, but I believe they are in the minority. They simply are more visible and vocal perhaps than they used to be–perhaps because they feel like the world increasingly cannot sustain a go-it-alone philosophy. I have no arguments to persuade those who are convinced that man is an island; but I would tell those who fear that we are entering an era of autarky that any gains we have been able to make in conquering the pandemic have come as a result of cooperation. Take for example the unprecedented speed with which multiple COVID 19 vaccines have been developed–underlying that achievement has an extraordinary level of scientific collaboration and cooperation.

What is the biggest challenge/hindrance to successful development?

The biggest challenge to successful–which I take to mean sustainable–development lies in how we marry market economics to democracy for development. People vote with their dollars and votes. I have long believed–and still believe–in the power of markets in allocating resources and  allowing for voice and preference of the greatest number of people. Anyone who has seen the lived experience of planned economies would, I suspect, agree with me. But how markets are set up determine how well externalities–positive and negative–are priced in, which is where voting, as well as voluntary corporate action can come in. I do believe our greatest chances for successful development lie in a system that supports the inclusion of preferences of the greatest number of people, both in government and the economy. I am historian enough to believe that the particular mix and combination that will work for any given country will look quite different in each, so there is no optimal system, just a number of modalities that have to be muddled through by each electorate.

What area of development or Global Goal do you think sustainable development hinges on? Which one is at the core of all the others?

Which is to say that of all the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the lynchpin and foundation is number 16, the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provision of access to justice for all and building of effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. Without effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions–and I’ll go out on a limb and say such institutions are more likely to be democratic than not–whatever gains might be made on all other 16 SDGs, those gains remain contingent without goal number 16.

What’s the most striking thing you have personally witnessed in relation to development? i.e. a challenge, opportunity or just personal observation about a human story.

The most striking thing I have witnessed is the creativity and initiative of people who are born in circumstances that would defeat most of us who live and work and learn in the developed world. Not everyone rises to the challenge of community leadership, but in almost every community, someone steps up to do something, in spite of political corruption, natural disasters, and or unreliable infrastructure. That this happens, and that most development institutions or foundations, let alone individuals with means cannot reach out to support them, feels like the biggest missed opportunity in development.

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