GDP: Greatly Disillusioned Progress

It was a Friday in Kigali, Rwanda’s fast-growing capital city, when I decided to get myself a table for one at Bamboo Rooftop Restaurant. Great reviews on TripAdvisor, the hot new Chinese spot in Rwanda, some live music— sounded like an ideal way to kickoff my first weekend in the city.

I ordered Kung Pao Tofu and Fried Rice from servers dressed in neatly-pressed white shirts and black slacks. I asked for the bill and requested to pay with card. The server returned with the card machine, inserted my card, and pressed that green button but no receipt showed. He attempts to put my card in again, I stopped to ask whether it had been charged already and he was sure that it hasn’t. Repeating the same action expecting a new outcome, it goes the same the second time around as it does the first time. As he’s doing this, I log into my Chase bank account online and see that in fact the charge was made twice.

I showed this to him; embarrassed by the slip-up, he concluded that he’d have to get his manager. It took 40 minutes for the manager to finally come, he resolved it by giving me the equivalent of the extra charge in cash. So now I’ve got to leave this fine-dining establishment with 40 minutes of time down the drain, excess Rwandan Francs, and an embarrassed waiter.

As I walked home that night, I sensed frustration and it wasn’t with the staff at all; I’m well aware that I’m in a completely different cultural context. But that’s exactly it, I am in a completely different cultural context and the root of my frustration was that this restaurant was clearly modeled after very western standards of fine-dining. When you scale this idea up, it’s alarming that the rest of the world is following Western standards of development. Is an upscale rooftop Chinese restaurant in Kigali an example of globalization or an early indicator of nations making similar mistakes as the West?

We measure the success of a country by Gross Domestic Product, or GDP most of us know it. We determine the progress of a country by the market value of how much it can produce as a whole. And Keynesian economics (simplified) has two core functions, production and consumption. So while we call it ‘work’, economists call it ‘production’, and while we work, we make money to then consume the goods that were produced. And this cycle continues. Is there anyone else who finds its problematic that production is the most important metric for a country?

The modern concept of GDP was first developed by Simon Kuznets for a US Congress report in 1934. Now in 2018, we assume the right to measure all countries in the world by a U.S.-constructed metric. And the mass adoption of free-market capitalism perpetuates this production and consumption cycle. Between free-market economies and GDP as a metric, it seems that we’ve really simplified our collective success to a series of digits used to represent our production capacity. Nice going.

I’m not saying I have the answers but let’s at least ask the questions. Has our free-market, views of development, and measure of success worked well for the greater good over here? Then the next question becomes why is almost every country on the planet unquestionably willing to adopt a western style of development? Perhaps its because our modern world doesn’t know anything else. It’s hard to conceptualize what more locally-led (or at least not Western-dominated) forms of progress look like in the modern world. And is development as we know it actually progress? And who is defining it?

Have you ever heard someone say, “All I want in life is to produce more.”? I haven’t. Now have you ever heard someone say, “All I want in life is to be happy.” Probably. The nation of Bhutan measures their country’s progress through a Gross National Happiness Index. It was adopted in their 2008 constitution with the intent to measure the collective happiness and well-being of the population. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have a nation that is healthy and happy than one that is simply looking to produce more and become more convenient.

We have far more than we need, there isn’t a need for more over here. More leaves us with having 8 cars at our MTV Crib even though we can only drive one at a time. More leaves us in a scenario where one in every three people suffer from obesity. More has college tuition rising faster than most other industries, heightening barriers to our right to education (but don’t worry the government will lend you all the money you need and then make sure you pay it back with unforgiving interest). But without proper assessment of needs, how can we begin to think about alternatives?

I was taking a stroll through an American mall in Southern California for the first time in a while, and seeing these types of settings anew is quite an experience. Our excessivism is a sociological illness of sorts; living far beyond our needs, and not in a very good way. Before we’re too deep in the game of globally adopting Western assumptions of human progress, it would make a lot of sense to assess what we need as communities, societies, and countries. What are our needs, wants, and desires underneath the surface? How do we prioritize them? How can we learn from the successes and failures of the West and build better approaches to determining the well-being of a nation?

Once our basic needs (according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) are met as a society, then we should put energy towards figuring out what collective self-actualization can look like. Again, I don’t have the answers but these are the questions we’re going to have to start asking at scale. Given available tools and resources, how should we go about defining what human progress is? We can either ask these questions or just stick to more and convenience, which I must say I don’t have much confidence in. Even with all this said though, we can take it further and question whether this unfazed pursuit for more convenience is a Western assumption of progress or whether it is innately human?

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Eli Johnston

Eli Johnston

Designing modern experiments that inspire new thinking, organizing, and doing. Strategy, design and web development are my change-making abilities @changeinit.