Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Schumacher’s Burma visit and the birth of Buddhist Economics

Professionally, Fritz Schumacher’s Burma (now Myanmar) visit in 1955 was a failure. Hardly anyone from Burmese Government paid any attention to his advice. However, on a personal front, it was one of the most insightful projects in his life. It resulted in arguably the most influential essay Schumacher wrote viz. Buddhist Economics – which redefined the concept of progress. What happened in Burma? What did Schumacher learn? Let’s see in brief.

Fritz Schumacher got an invitation to visit Burma as an Economic Advisor in 1955. By this time, Schumacher was trying to synthesize various seemingly disparate strands – Gandhi, Buddhism, energy supplies of the future, industrial development and “war on poverty”. The visit provided a great opportunity to experience the East and feel some of these elements first-hand – especially Buddhism. One of the core questions Fritz carried with him was, “Can one really help Burmese without harming them?”

After a few days in Rangoon, Schumacher wrote to his wife Muschi, “There is an innocence here which I have never seen before”. Pretty soon he realized that poverty and backwardness weren’t the real issues Burma was facing. It was the way the West was altering the aspirations and concepts of “development” of Burmese people which he found scary. Burmese people had few wants and they were happy. He realized that the wants make a man poor and that made the role of the West very dangerous. He urged Burmese government not to pay excessive attention to industrial development as advised by the Western experts. He felt that focus on self-sufficiency especially rural development was crucial. Nobody paid any attention to this.

What might have been a discouraging experience was more than compensated when Schumacher got an opportunity to learn meditation in a highly respected Buddhist monastery of Burma. His first exercise was only to watch the rising and falling of his abdomen sitting in a monk’s cell. The monks taught him how to cope with the distractions; merely to note them but not to follow them. The next stage was to walk up and down the monastery garden concentrating on each movement of his body as he walked. The stillness he experienced towards the end of the course was something he had never felt before. He wrote, “I came to Burma as a thirsty wanderer, and there I found living water.”

Schumacher felt that the economics as defined in the West was based on materialistic progress. It encouraged expansion of wants. In fact, big car, big house, big salary were indicators of progress. He felt economic progress is good only to the point of sufficiency, beyond that it is evil, destructive, uneconomic. Secondly, he felt there is a need to make a distinction between “renewable” and “non-renewable” resources. He looked at development activity robbing earth of its non-renewable resources as regressive.

It has been over forty years since Buddhist Economics was proposed. The GDPs of India and China have soared since then. The wants of the countrymen represented especially by the scale of scams in India have soared too. Robbery of non-renewable resources is progressing well. Net-net, have these countries become richer or poorer?

Photo source: , A severely burnt Buddhist monk receives treatment after clashing with police while protesting against Chinese backed copper mines in Northern Myanmar (Nov, 2012)

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