The Blog

'Frayedness', Or, Why We All Must Get Used to a Bit More Uncertainty

Eight thousand kilometres from home, I was struck by how familiar the scene was. Day-trippers, holding up their Saris and dipping their toes into the sea. A beach-front promenade. Tatty changing rooms last cleaned in the late-1970s. Ice creams. Vendors selling plastic buckets and spades. Ignore the palm trees, squint to pretend the cow is a donkey, and it could be Blackpool.

I write this post from the southern-most part of Tamil Nadu, the very tip of India. Visiting Cape Comorin, where the great dagger of peninsular India meets the Ocean, the vastness of this country becomes apparent. Cape Comorin is closer to Arabia than it is to the Himalayas.

Yet, eight thousand kilometres from home, I was struck by how familiar the scene was. Day-trippers, holding up their Saris and dipping their toes into the sea. A beach-front promenade. Tatty changing rooms last cleaned in the late-1970s. Ice creams. Vendors selling plastic buckets and spades. Ignore the palm trees, squint to pretend the cow is a donkey, and it could be Blackpool.

Cape Comorin has an air of finality, and to mark the place where India ends and the rest of the world begins the Thiruvalluvar Memorial, a latter-day Colossus of Rhodes taller than the Statue of Liberty, seems to announce the arrival of a new superpower, now an economy as large as that of her former Imperial master Britain. Welcome to India: we're pretty big.

Having grown up in the UK, but having travelled in several African countries including dirt-poor DR Congo, 'Middle-Income' Kenya and South Africa, and rapidly growing Senegal, Rwanda and Uganda, I was interested in the comparison with India, a power that often gets described as 'emerging' (which seems to describe everything from strategically-important Turkey, to actual superpower China, to former but now confusingly future superpower Russia.) Perhaps a better term is 'emergent', which describes not only a rising power but one where the various aspects of power - cultural, economic, political - will be redefined by the very manner of India's rise.

The whole range of what we parochially call 'development', but that should really just be termed getting by, can be seen on the road to Kanyakumari, the southern 'toe' of India. Large towns with swish 4x4s and neon-and glass shopping malls. Rice-paddies and small holding farms that haven't changed much in generations. Large commercial farms growing fruit for export. But it struck me that nothing illustrated what was going on so much as the road itself.

Before this descends into another tale of a bemused Englishman abroad, let me state quite clearly that I am not going to give you hair-raising tales of high-speed high-jinks, the ubiquitous use of the horn as a weapon of assault, or having to share the highway with cattle, although each of these is true.

It is not that the roads are chaotic because there is no sense of order, it is because there is just a little bit. A small, anecdotal, example: at a few, urban, intersections are traffic lights, and not just any traffic lights but ones with timers ticking down until they turned green. What a good idea, and how forward thinking. The trouble is many intersections don't have traffic lights at all, and even fewer have timers. As such, nobody obeys the ones that do exist. It seems that traffic lights are an either/or thing. You either make sure that every intersection has them in order to keep traffic moving and safe, or you cut your losses and let the users set the rules of the road.

When we think of the state of roads, we think about the tarmac, the quality of the structures. But with a system as complex and dynamic as a road network, you need the rules to be as plain as possible and enforced well in order for them to work at all. Anything below this minimum, and you honestly might produce a safer and more efficient system by letting chaos reign.

The concept that is in play here is what I can only describe (for want of a better phrase) as 'frayedness', as in a material that has become frayed. It is still useful, but is clearly less efficient and aesthetically pleasing than intended. Something that is worn around the edges. Careworn. You know that it is less likely to be treated well because it has been bashed about a bit, and so will probably get bashed around a bit more.

There are two elements here that I want to flesh out. Firstly, things seem frayed because development is not a linear thing. People don't go to sleep one day poor and wake up the next day rich, with cars and widescreen TVs and washing machines. People with Facebook accounts still die from malaria. Rural farmers may get a mobile phone before they get electricity to their house. A booming trade can be seen in any African or Asian town of small traders charging mobiles for a small fee on the street.

Things often seem to be both developing and disintegrating at the same time. This is what I mean by frayedness, and it is not the narrative that ActionAid or DFID likes to give you where progress is unidirectional and contingent only on the amount of money given as aid. The most reliable way to speed up the former and slow the latter is education, as the report of the UN High Level Panel on the MDGs seems to acknowledge, and even more fundamentally than this by extending not just freedom but what Amartya Sen calls the ability to be free.

Secondly, when viewed through the prism of bargaining - development as a series of bargains between groups - we see that this frayedness is not so much society coming apart as the on-going process of compromise and collaboration. Viewed from this angle, what looks like a mess is actually a dynamic process of getting the house in order. And although it might be difficult to watch, the vitality with which this is happening is literally awesome. De Gaulle asked of France how to govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese. How are you supposed to govern a country that has 1.2 billion people and 22 official languages? That India remains democratic - however fragilely so - with so many divisions of race, creed, language, class and culture, has to be one of the modern wonders of the world.

This is what I mean by frayedness. A parliamentary democracy approaching 70 years old that still remains resilient in a country that suffers regular bouts of extreme political violence, and where 400 million citizens count amongst the poorest on earth. A superpower that produces more engineers than any other country, a significant portion of the world's electronics, and that has forced vast quantities of life-saving generic drugs onto the market, changing the terms of trade permanently in favour of the poor and sick. A country that looks so confidently out to the world, yet seems to have been at war at one time or another with each of its neighbours.

It quickly becomes apparent that maintaining the literal and figurative fabric of society becomes an almost never-ending task. It is an exhausting work, and at the risk of being a cultural chauvinist (assuming that one people's development is better than another's) I can't help feeling that in Britain we have lost touch with how much nervous, and productive, energy must be created by being torn between developed and developing worlds. I have to be careful now not to sound like some Oxfam blog. There is no dignity in struggle. I haven't heard anyone telling me 'we are poor but we are happy', that is the narrative of the bleeding-heart.

Maybe it seems that Britain is less dynamic because the institutions, the customs and the environment are judged to have matured, and we focus too readily on maintenance rather than developing them (although often we don't even seem very good at that). At some point, a point I can't begin to identify, we thought we had arrived and could just keep managing our gains. We were no longer in the perpetual game of playing off past successes for future promise.

This visible and invisible frayedness that can be seen in developing countries, especially those in rapid transition, is the result not just of development that has yet to happen, but development that has happened and needs renewing, development that has been tried and has failed, or development that has just not been built upon. As we struggle in Britain to come to terms with an austerity that will last until 2018 if we believe George Osborne, and into mid-century if we don't, it is worth a reminder that uncertainty seems to be the default human condition. We have never arrived, we are always developing. Complacently thinking that history has come to an end, or that boom and bust have been abolished, or that the poor are always poor and the rich are always rich, is just asking for trouble.

With those thoughts we headed back for the car. Just like Blackpool, it had started to rain.