Posted by: davidjmarlow | 11/09/2012

The unbearable lightness of being….a development economist in the time of public austerity

1984 and 1985 were good years for young existential development professionals. As one of only two or three government economists in a newly independent Belize in which television had barely arrived, one looked for inspiration far and wide. Certainly the ‘guidance’ of the donor community and government colleagues played their role. But motivation also came from experiencing life and work in Central America – from the long evenings or weekends digesting the offerings of the best of mail-order world literature, with a Belikin beer or local rum in one hand, and such other local traditions as were available in the other!

The ‘Unbearable Lightness of Being’ was first published in 1984. Kundera’s classic explores the impact of the 1968 Prague Spring, swiftly crushed by the Soviet invasion, on four individuals. The ‘lightness’ of linear human existence is founded on the uniqueness of the choices we make each day – none of which will recur precisely in the same way ever again. But this lightness can be ‘unbearable’, because human existence needs the ‘heaviness’ of learning from eternal recurrences to make positive and deep (social) progress. The optimistic lightness of post-independence Belize was countered by the cycles and circles of underdevelopment and dependence that underpinned a hemisphere in the shadow of Reagan’s US to the north.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘Love in the time of cholera’, published in 1985, uses seemingly very different (to Kundera) Latin American ‘magic realism’, to make equally profound observations on love, life and death. The basic counterpoint of positive ‘love’ (in its many forms) as a key driver of human existence, and its unintended choleric impact and manifestations, can serve as a meditation on how our best intentions are so often undone by traditions, context and complexity.

All of which, arguably, has nothing to do with the past few days of the agenda facing development professionals in the UK…..So, what has the last 24 hours brought for the development professional?

Yesterday evening I listened by audio link to Richard Florida’s RSA President’s lecture on ‘why creativity is the new economy’. He articulated the case for the creative economy as the major driver of future economic and social success, and that ‘no national leaders get this’. Florida’s answer was in the Mayoral leadership of great cities (including Livingstone and Boris in London, and particularly Bloomberg in New York) – which ought to give those British cities that have just so thoroughly rejected mayoral leadership some pause for thought.

This morning the new QS World University rankings were published in the UK press with four British institutions in the top six globally – Cambridge, Oxford, UCL, and Imperial; and a further 15 (including six of the core cities) in the top 100. Perhaps, as interesting, England provides nine of the QS global ‘top 50 (universities) under 50’ (years old). Taken together the two global rankings provide globally significant HE in London, seven of the core cities and a reasonable breadth of other locations across a further 11 LEP geographies.

Also this morning, came the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report of what can only now be described as government’s Regional Growth Fund (RGF) fiasco. With £2.4bn of government grant available, and Nick Clegg still claiming the creating and saving of over 330,000 jobs, the PAC conclude only 2,442 jobs have been created (and this accepting unaudited, un-evaluated monitoring reports at face value). £60m has been disbursed to business – 18 months after the RGF launch – and almost eight times as much money is ‘parked’ with council and banking intermediaries over which government departments have little control. Interestingly, the two departments concerned – DCLG and DBIS – did not have their Secretary of State(s) moved during last week’s reshuffle.

With no doubt unintended irony, Vince Cable also chose today to outline his vision for Britain’s future industrial strategy. This included a ‘business bank’ whose role, remit and funding was being ‘discussed with the chancellor’; a commitment to sector strategies with a remarkable similarity to the sector footprints of Mandelson’s New Industries New Jobs of 2008, and, to be fair, of government’s own growth plan in the 2010 spending review. Perhaps the most interesting (and the only specified) initiative is the £67m for the Employer Ownership Pilot which will support some of our blue-chip corporates develop business-led skills training.

And finally, in the last 24 hours, we have had the wonderful sporting news of Andy Murray’s triumph at Flushing Meadows, alongside the rather bizarre political soap opera of Boris supposedly upstaging his school chum – Dave – at the Olympic Parade..

Reflecting on these six events, this morning – and very much in the traditions of both existential and magic realism literature – for no very good reason, my mind wandered back to those two classic 1980’s novels. I felt Milan Kundera’s ‘unbearable lightness of being’ in the platitudes of Cable’s industrial strategy and the Boris/Cameron soap opera. I felt the diseased pain of Garcia Marquez’s ‘Love in the time of cholera’ at the scandal of RGF implementation, and perhaps even more so in the public austerity of ideas in the coalition’s preference for PR over serious economic growth strategies.

But both Kundera and Garcia Marquez’s novels can ultimately be read as works of insight and hope. One can criticise Florida’s advocacy of the creative economy and the strengths of city leadership, and indeed any university ranking system, as ‘unbearably light’. But strong local leadership championing the creative economy and engaging deeply with our HE institutions does have the heaviness on which we can construct robust long-term growth and development. Similarly, the pain of having to engage with a choleric coalition is deeply frustrating, but, if we stay true to the essence of our cities and communities, perhaps we can find success and fulfilment amidst the setbacks and complexities.

In a way, Murray said it all beautifully with his own story this year. From the despair of losing the Wimbledon Final, he came back to be the first person ever to get Olympic Gold and now US Open Championship back-to-back. It is evident that much of this turnaround has been influenced by Kundera’s countryman – Ivan Lendl – as Murray’s new coach and mentor.

For the development economist, so much of 2012 to date has had a feel of unbearable lightness and of disease. But the depth is still there if we can grasp it – in the creative economy, our HEIs, in many other opportunities distinctive to the places where, and the communities with whom, we work…and in the single-minded determination epitomised by Murray to turn things around….


  1. […] are times when this constant cynical hypocrisy weighs heavily on my demeanour. But, as with the ‘unbearable lightness’ and ‘waiting for sunrise’ blogs, I try to be resilient and to travel positively. It is not […]

  2. […] blog has written before about the influence of ‘Gabo’ and magic realism on the formative years of my career. The ability to describe and juxtapose the […]

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