Journal Issue

Some Thoughts on a Drama

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
March 1969
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K. S. Krishnaswamy

GUNNAR MYRDAL’S book, Asian Drama1 has appeared at a time when the prevailing mood in rich countries, as in the poor, is one of deep concern at the growing gap between aspirations and achievements in the developing world. In many of the less developed countries, what had been achieved by way of improvement in levels of living was so far below expectations that the prospects of ever winning the battle against poverty seemed bleak. Equally, the scale and content of development assistance provided by the richer countries were nowhere near what the trends in their national income warranted. There was a sense of mutual disenchantment among aid-giving and aid-receiving countries. From the viewpoint of donor countries, the causes of failure lay in the lack of effort and will to develop on the part of the less developed countries. The latter, on the other hand, blamed their difficulties on the unhelpful aid and trade policies of the developed countries. Where the truth lay nobody knew for sure, and it almost seemed as if Myrdal’s book was just the thing for which everybody was waiting.

Many other factors served to heighten the initial impact of Asian Drama—the reputation of Myrdal and the Twentieth Century Fund, the brilliance of scholars who collaborated in this effort, the magnitude of the countries he surveyed, and the magnificence of his theme. Even the title and subtitle added to the avidity with which scholars, men of affairs, journalists, and others pounced upon it. In the last few months it has come to be viewed as a document which no serious student of development economics or of South Asia can afford to ignore. The magnitude of Myrdal’s undertaking is breathtaking and if he had succeeded in finding the answer to the poverty of nations, his work would indeed have been a turning point in the history of mankind. Asian Drama is replete with new insights, perceptive analyses of policies and relationships, and clarification of facts and concepts; it brings out the inadequacies of some of the theoretical constructs used in the past for planning in South Asia. Even so, one is left with the feeling that it is unlikely to spark a major revolution in the theory of development.

To say this is not to belittle Myrdal’s contribution or purpose but rather to draw attention to the problems inherent in finding a total explanation of the poverty of nations. As will be explained later, Myrdal holds that development is not a mechanical process of adding to capital stock, human skills, technological knowledge and artifices but a matter of institutional change, of attitudes and behavior patterns, of all those intangible elements that distinguish a human society from a field of particles or a colony of ants. Changes in these intangibles can be brought about by an understanding of the springs of human action in the less developed countries. And equally with the observable, measurable economic facts, the values governing the behavior and attitudes of individuals as well as groups become the subjects for analysis and policy. To leave these out for reasons of exigency or analytical neatness is, according to Myrdal, tantamount to evading the issue. “… the factors abstracted from in the economic analysis—attitudes, institutions, modes and levels of living, and, broadly, culture—are so much more difficult to grasp in systematic analysis than are the so-called economic factors. They undoubtedly are. But if the view propounded in this book is correct, it simply follows that the problems of underdevelopment, development, and planning for development in South Asia are themselves exceedingly difficult and that they have yet to be mastered (p. 28). … If the present study, by placing the economic problems in their wider setting, can stimulate researchers in other disciplines to focus their work more directly on issues relevant to economic research, planning, and development, it will have made a contribution” (p. 29). It is in this spirit that Myrdal offers a “theory” or a set of generalizations which are regarded by the author as highly tentative, even conjectural.

Since every society creates its institutions to suit the “values” it cherishes, Myrdal’s institutional approach to the problems of underdevelopment and development in Asian countries necessitates an examination of their value premises. The set of value premises—which Myrdal has grouped under the title of “modernization ideals”—includes the quest for rationality, leading directly in the economic field to the desire for planned development; improvements in modes of production and levels of living; promotion of equality in status, opportunities, wealth, incomes, and levels of living; improvement or modernization of institutions and attitudes to increase labor efficiency, effective competition, mobility, enterprise, and greater social equality; national consolidation and national independence; decentralization and democratic planning for basing action on popular cooperation and joint responsibility. It is not contended that these value premises are accepted by all sections of the community in every one of the South Asian countries, or that the modernization ideals do not have to compete with conflicting valuations. The principal reason for selecting them is that since they apparently are the ideology of the politically alert, articulate, and active part of the population, much of developmental policy in the recent past has been based on them.

In the thirty-three, chapters and six long appendices that constitute Asian Drama, Myrdal applies this total approach to analyze the cultural background and religious beliefs; political structures and social institutions; value systems and administrative arrangements; economic trends, educational policies, demographic variations, foreign trade, and capital flows; questions of fact, concepts, and terminology; analytical models and normative judgments—all this and more, not in respect of one country but of Pakistan, India, Ceylon, Burma, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and to some extent South Viet-Nam, Cambodia, and Laos as well. Though the coverage is uneven as between topics and countries—with discussions on India being the most detailed and most extensive—there is enough said about each of them to stimulate both the generalists and the specialists. Despite Myrdal’s easy style and the aids he has provided to the reader, the immense size of the study compels selectivity in what one probes deeply and what one glosses over. In consequence, the many reviews that have appeared have usually concentrated on one or a few aspects of his work. In this article, the focus is essentially on the “theory” he propounds; this is so, not because the rest is unimportant, but because one cannot possibly say all that one wants to without writing, if not a whole drama, at least a long one-act play!


In basic terms, Myrdal’s thesis is that the problem of development in South Asia is one of inducing major changes in a social and institutional structure which, unlike that existing in advanced Western countries, hinders economic development. He holds further that this structure does not change spontaneously or to any large extent in response to policies restricted to the economic sphere. Given these “incontrovertible” facts, he finds little justification for the use of “Western” development theories of the Keynesian or Marxian type in the South Asian context, and attributes both the distortions in research and faults in planning to the preoccupations of economists and political leaders with Western-oriented solutions to questions of poverty, underdevelopment, and development policy. “What is needed is a different framework of theories and concepts that is more realistic for these societies” (p. 27), characterized by an institutional approach.

The approach and the framework he recommends are most clearly set down in the long appendix on the mechanism of underdevelopment and development (pp. 1843-1940). The basic concept he uses is that of a “social system” consisting of a great number of causally interrelated “conditions” grouped under six broad categories: (1) output and incomes; (2) conditions of production; (3) levels of living; (4) attitudes toward life and work; (5) institutions; and (6) policies. The causal relationships between these various conditions are, in the first instance, assumed to be unidirectional—that is to say, a change in one condition will be assumed to tend to change the others in the same direction. This assumption carries with it the corollary that the various conditions in South Asia, as they presently exist, are “undesirable because a one-way change in them is deemed desirable for engendering and sustaining development” (p. 1860).

An upward change in any of these conditions is considered as having both an independent and an instrumental value for development. Thus an increase in output and incomes is in itself an indicator of development; but it also has the instrumental value of moving the levels of living upward. Likewise, improved attitudes and patterns of social behavior have a value in themselves and as a means to greater efficiency in production, therefore higher incomes and so on. With such circular relationships between the conditions, a cumulative upward movement in all of them can in theory be initiated by an upward movement in any one of them. It follows therefore that Myrdal’s sixth condition, viz., policies, covers a gamut of measures, not all of which need be “economic” in the narrow sense of the word. Random or spontaneous changes in the first five conditions could conceivably occur and spark off a cumulative process; but rational inquiry has to focus on the deliberate steps taken to generate significant alterations in the conditions, individually or jointly. Given the mutual interrelationships between these categories of conditions, “the movement of the whole social system upwards is what all of us in fact mean by development. There is no escape from this, if we want to be ‘realistic’” (p. 1868) and by implication, “planning means coordination of policies in order to attain or speed up development” (p. 1864).

When development is so comprehensively defined, it is obviously misleading to use any one index of change as the measure of development. That the change in per capita national income is commonly used for this purpose is an indication not so much of its adequacy as of its relative ease of quantitative assessment. Notwithstanding Myrdal’s strictures, there are at present few economists or planners in South Asia or elsewhere who consider development to be solely a matter of changes in the average social product. Even those using such a measure for designating quantitative targets recognize the need for assessing the underlying changes in economic relationships while judging actual performance. That apart, Myrdal’s special contribution is to emphasize that people’s desire for development covers many other elements besides the measurable product or income; and the realization of these desires depends on responses that do not always, or necessarily, emanate from increases in incomes.

Put differently, while it is true that low output and incomes, unfavorable conditions of production, and low levels of living have tended to perpetuate one another in the social systems of South Asia, concentration on this set of conditions plus “economic” policy per se will not evoke the responses necessary for sustaining the development desired by the people. In Myrdal’s view, economists and planners nurtured in the Western tradition have done a disservice by concentrating unduly on the economic conditions and assuming that “desirable” changes in attitudes and institutions automatically occur with a rise in income per capita. They have failed to recognize the forces of stagnation that exist in the form of received attitudes and institutions, “which are not easily or rapidly moved in either direction” (p. 1873). In South Asia, the crucial factor—even more than a lack of opportunities—is the lack of will to seize them as they arise, a tendency to “strive for nothing other than to preserve their customary low levels of living!” (p. 1872). He goes on so say: “The very notion of a supply curve of effort is inappropriate, for it presupposes a calculation and a weighing of alternatives, which is alien to a mentality whose aspirations are limited by custom and tradition, and it presupposes an institutional system in which efforts are matched by rewards” (p. 1872). There is, in other words, a psychological barrier to economic change, and this barrier is not broken by the type of technological—and technocratic—approaches adopted in the recent past by South Asian countries. Since the sensitivity of custom-bound attitudes and institutions to income changes is low, and the spread effects take a long time to permeate all elements of society even under favorable conditions, it is not surprising that the primary changes in economic conditions have proved inadequate for pushing the social system into a cumulative process. If the forces of inertia represented by “undesirable” attitudes and institutions are to be overcome, there is in reality no escape from a direct assault on conditions (4) and (5) in his list—attitudes toward life and work, and institutions; and the biggest failure of analysts and policymakers is in respect of devising an adequate program for this purpose.

Myrdal returns time and again to this theme in the analysis of facts and policies in South Asia to show how planning based on simple economic models has served as an “opportune rationalization” (p. 1909) of the lack of willingness and effort to alter the traditional attitudes and institutions. He does not accept that a rapid and large change in these conditions is more difficult than a series of small and gradual changes; if the latter approach has in fact been chosen by the governments of the developing countries of South Asia, it is because these states are “soft states.” They suffer from a “very serious lack of determination and ability to apply compulsion in order to enforce existing laws and regulations and to enact and enforce new ones” (p. 1909). Gradualism in social reform, adherence to vague concepts of “voluntariness” in promoting socially beneficial action, choice of “democratic planning” as the means to development, insistence on the obligation of rich countries to provide massive aid—all these and more have served to distract attention from, and indeed strengthen, the feudal and prefeudal traditions choking social progress. The intelligentsia and the elite have done little to change the “soft state”—partly because of their neglect of noneconomic factors and partly for the reason that they have no particular desire to change the traditions which have molded them.

In terms of this theory, Myrdal believes that the key to development in South Asia lies in a determined attack on the attitudes and institutions which have been hallowed by tradition and buttressed in the recent past by the misguided policies of “soft states.” The strategy of such a policy cannot be derived by analogy with existing or past conditions in the advanced societies of the West. Required for each country is a thorough, objective re-examination of the material and sociological base of individual or group action; a fashioning of appropriate tools and policies for dealing with the social system as a whole; and a determination to implement the policies encompassing economic, social, and political institutions, no matter where the chips fall. The following excerpt is indicative of Myrdal’s assessment “… the prospects of breaking down the barriers to development in the South Asian countries would be quite different if in a country like India, for example, the government were really determined to change the prevailing attitudes and institutions and had the courage to take the necessary steps and accept the consequences. These would include the effective abolition of caste, prescribed by the constitution, and measures, accepted in principle, that would increase mobility and equality, such as effective land reform and tenancy legislation; a rational policy for husbandry, even if it required the killing of many half-starved cows; eradication of corruption at all levels; enforcement of tax laws; effective taxation on income from land; a forceful attack on the problem of the “educated unemployed” and their refusal to do manual work—in general, enactment and enforcement, not only of fiscal, but also of all other obligations on people that are required for development. It would mean mobilizing the underutilized agricultural labor for permanent improvements in agricultural production and creation of social capital; a large-scale and effectively carried out campaign to spread birth control; and so on” (pp. 1909-10).


In more senses than one, this passage illustrates both the strength and weakness of Myrdal’s inquiry into the poverty of South Asian nations. It serves to bring out the trite but important fact that good intentions and noble objectives are not in themselves capable of moving a poor society out of its stagnation. Nearly all the things he lists for India have been the subject of legislation, political exhortations, presidential messages, plan documents, administrative circulars, and newspaper editorials. Nearly everybody is agreed that caste should be abolished, corruption eradicated, birth control popularized, laws enforced, and so on. But on the means of achieving each of these objectives there is, as could be expected, no agreement among different sections of society. It then becomes the primary responsibility of the government both to decide on what needs to be done, and to get, by persuasion or by compulsion, adequate support for the chosen course of action. In the past, the tendency has often been to search for the compromise solution or the consensus, even when this results in complete emasculation of the legislative and administrative apparatus. A case in point is the endless debate that has gone on in India on the articulation and implementation of a nation-wide food distribution policy—with the result of inaction showing up inevitably in tension between the central and state governments, a big increase in food prices, large food imports, and popular dissatisfaction with government. Few who are conversant with the history of this policy will disagree that the desideratum was a change in attitudes and institutions much more than mechanical plans for warehouses and transportation facilities. Plans and programs, in other words, are of no use unless they are effectively implemented; and there will be no effective implementation if the human factor remains resistant to change. Myrdal makes this point forcefully in his diagnosis of the failures of South Asian countries in the last two decades; and despite the changes in these countries which have occurred subsequent to the period covered by him, the point is well taken and deserved emphasis.

This having been said, it is necessary to ask: What follows from Myrdal’s assessment? In spite of his many insights and acute observations, the positive thesis of his book is singularly vague. This arises in part from the composite nature of his study and in part from an unwillingness to go where his logic seems to take him. While analyzing the poor developmental achievements of South Asia, he has addressed himself with equal fervor to matters of history, religion and philosophy, semantics, political science, and economic dynamics. Given his postulate that all the conditions in a social system are interconnected, and nothing can change without altering in one way or another all the other aspects of human thought and action, it was inevitable that he should wander into all these areas. But having established the multiplicity of premises of human action and inaction, what is one required to do for pushing the social system into a cumulative process upward?

The nearest he comes to answering this question is when he says that the prevailing attitudes and institutions which are undesirable should be changed in a desirable direction. This is unexceptionable, but not very illuminating. What, with regard to attitudes and institutions, constitutes change in a desirable direction? Is the criterion for judgment the “independent” value of such a change or its “instrumental” value? If it is the latter, how does one order the proximate and ultimate effects of an attitudinal change in terms of their desirability? Indeed, who does this ordering—the government, the elite, the masses, the urban community, the young, or the old? These are not rhetorical questions; it needs only a moment of reflection to see that a prescription for India of “effective abolition of caste” has no more logical or operational clarity than the recommendation that “capital should be effectively used.” Both may in a general sense be deemed desirable; but the crucial problems in practice are those related to the choice of instruments to be utilized for achieving these ends. In respect of the former, because of the many ways in which caste consciousness and caste affiliations affect the behavior of individuals, the policies that can be adopted for reducing their influence include everything from legal prohibition to the removal of illiteracy and of economic inequalities. Again at the level of generality, it is easy to say that steps should be taken in all these directions; but the mixture of compulsion and persuasion in the set of measures chosen will materially affect the nature of social transformation achieved. The caste system may disappear from Indian society because of the fear that severe punishment can and will be imposed by the State on those who believe in and practice caste differentiations; or it may disappear for the reason that the mass of the people realize through education, precept, or propaganda that caste practices serve no moral or social purpose. Which of these is emphasized as the means to transformation will inevitably influence people’s attitudes to whatever else the government may plan to do.

Much the same questions arise in respect of tax evasion, corruption, aversion to manual work, and all the other things which constitute the complex of attitudes and inhibitions in South Asia. Myrdal is critical of the “soft” policies of South Asian governments and comes very near to suggesting recourse to greater compulsion in dealing with these noneconomic factors. If adequate compulsion has not been attempted in the name of democratic planning, peaceful cooperation, nonviolence, voluntary participation, and so forth, it is these concepts which ought to be changed to enforce social discipline. Myrdal is convinced that “there is little hope in South Asia for rapid development without greater social discipline” (p. 895)—and rapid improvement in social discipline “will not appear without regulations backed by compulsion” (p. 895). But what kind of regulations? In his chapters on the practice of democratic planning and operational controls over the private sector, Myrdal recognizes in the South Asian countries, “the unsuitability of the market mechanism as an instrument for automatic and non-discretionary controls of the price-policy type” (p. 913); he also recognizes the special reasons for adoption of discretionary controls over the organized private sector. But when the negative and positive discretionary controls multiply without proper planning and coordination, they become not just useless but counterproductive. It is, in other words, a matter of consistency—consistency between different controls on the one hand, and, on the other, between the control system as a whole and the rest of the socio-economic structure. Given the serious lack of administrative competence and integrity, the proper thing to do, in Myrdal’s view, is to reduce the role of administrative discretion and provide enough nondiscretionary restraints to achieve the desired objectives. If this is true in the area of economic “conditions,” does it follow by analogy that for the regulation of noneconomic conditions also, reliance should be placed by and large on the nondiscretionary type of retraints? And apart from legislative enactments, what are the nondiscretionary restraints in the area of attitudes and institutions which can be backed by the compulsive powers of the State?

There are perhaps no answers to questions of this type, and it may be unfair to criticize Myrdal for not providing them. But the reason for raising them is his insistence that in the planning and development strategy of poor nations, the direct policies for changing attitudes and institutions should be the centerpiece. If past efforts have been devoted more to devising economic instruments, educational policy, and social welfare legislation to change attitudes and institutions, it is not, as Myrdal holds, because of bias or denial of their importance. The reason for this atitude of economists, planners, and policymakers was put admirably by Professor W. Arthur Lewis many years ago:

The most difficult problem in consistency is to explain why people hold the beliefs they do. Economic growth depends on attitudes to work, to wealth, to thrift, to having children, to invention, to strangers, to adventure, and so on, and all these attitudes flow from deep springs in the human mind. There have been attempts to explain why these attitudes vary from one community to another. One can look to differences in religion, but this is merely to restate the problem, since it raises the question why the particular religion holds these particular tenets, and why it has been accepted in this particular place and not elsewhere. Or one can look to differences in natural environment, in climate, in race, or, failing all else, in the accidents of history. The experienced sociologist knows that these questions are unanswerable, certainly in our present state of knowledge, and probably for all time…. We can say a fair amount about consistency between institutions and economic growth, and a fair amount about the relationship between attitudes and institutions; but when we come to explore the attitudes themselves, how they emerge and why they change, we reach sooner or later to the limits of our understanding of human history.2

Much research and experimentation will be required to push these limits beyond where they presently are, and maybe a new body of knowledge and a new type of social scientist are required for this purpose. But if these gaps in human knowledge become an excuse for governments and individuals in South Asian countries as well as outside to let things drift, the Asian drama will truly turn out to be an immense tragedy.


Gunnar Myrdal, Asian Drama: An Inquiry Into the Poverty of Nations, Volumes I, II, and III, New York, Pantheon, 1968, xxx + 2284 pp., $8.50 set (paperbound), $25.00 (hardbound). All page references in this review are to the three-volume paperbound edition.


W. Arthur Lewis, The Theory of Economic Growth, London, (1955), pp. 14-15.

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