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Review: Asian Drama- An inquiry into the poverty of Nations

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Asian Drama- An inquiry into the poverty of Nations

‘Asian Drama- An inquiry into the poverty of Nations’, by Gunnar Myrdal, is one of the most detailed research ventures ever undertaken into the region of South Asia. Even today there are few works that are at par with it in terms of depth of research into South Asia. Considered a classic by many, the book offers readers a different perspective into the economy of the region; one of more clarity and objectiveness.

The author sets out to make an honest, unbiased and unsympathetic study into the economics of the region, but it turned out to be a slightly pessimistic outlook into the same. He claims economists of the region had a tendency to be highly optimistic and that western economists relied too heavily on the use of theories and practices drawn from the growth of western countries into ‘developed nations’. He felt the circumstances were so different for western countries in the pre-industrialization era that no similarities could be drawn from them in making conclusions and inferences. So strong was his belief that he abundantly clarifies the difference in circumstances, by citing examples of inconsistency, frequently throughout the book; more times than one can keep track of. Although, in his endeavor to establish differences between the circumstances I did feel that, in some instances he stretched too far just to add volume to his argument and in some occasions these inferences turned out to be fallacious. That being said, these instances are far and few in between, but evident enough to draw attention to the fact that he is an outsider, and that some of his assumptions tend to be affected by the fact that he isn’t from South Asia.

An excerpt from the book goes on like this, “Extremes of heat and humidity in most South Asian countries contribute to a deterioration of soil and many kinds of material goods; and not only cause discomfort to workers but also impair their health and decrease the participation in, and duration and efficiency of, work”. I felt that the author resorted to nitpicking in certain occasions, like the one mentioned above. The effect of a hot and humid climate on the soil and “material goods” is not purely detrimental and like in this instance, there are several others where the author conveniently omits certain facts to prove a point. He also goes on to say that the climate adversely affects labour productivity. Although it may affect the productivity of foreign labourers, alien to the climate; people born and raised in South Asia are accustomed to the climate and the damaging effect of the climate on labour productivity is minimal, if not none at all.

His inference that the people of South Asia are, in general, lax and merely survival minded is something I strongly disagree with. From the years that have gone by, since the release of the book, it can be realized that this generalization was in fact fallacious. Another aspect that the author touched upon was religion and its effect on economic and social development. As said in the book: “Religion should be studied for what it really is among the people: a ritualized and stratified complex of highly emotional beliefs and valuations that give the sanction of sacredness, taboo, and immutability to inherited institutional arrangements, modes of living, and attitudes.” Most of what the author said about religion remains to be true but, what I disagree with is the notion that religion hinders change. “Religion acts as a tremendous force for social inertia and irrationality”, he says. He also goes on to explain how religion, in his view, cannot induce social change. ‘The abolition of Sati’, the role played by religion in eradicating the ‘caste system’ and ‘racism’, the reduced stance of the Vatican against contraception and same sex marriage are just a few examples to prove that religion is fact susceptible to change. Religion has helped in alleviating poverty and in providing aid to the needy, so to say that religion is merely a source of social inertia and irrationality is wide of the mark.

Apart from a few instances the book did prove to be a valuable source of information for governments of South Asian countries in planning and in other academic areas. Myrdal’s views on poverty and, how it affected the development of ‘developing countries’ was particularly interesting. He was of the view that low income adversely affected productivity of labour and that this was because of low levels of living caused by low income. “Low incomes probably hamper development more by keeping down consumption than by limiting savings needed to fuel crucial investments”, as mentioned in his book showed us that it wasn’t just lack of investment that was an obstacle, but more so lack of consumption. According to this view, policy makers had to balance rise in investment with rise in consumption. His theory of ‘circular causation’ provided further insight on how different factors like levels of living, labour productivity and investment were inter-related to a higher extent in South Asia than it was in Western countries.

In every aspect of his study he mentions how the circumstances in South Asia were different from the case of pre-industrialization Western countries. An exploding export market helped western countries in getting foreign currency, but South Asian countries could not depend on exports; this was because during post war era the international trade was, in essence controlled by the developed Western countries and there was no infrastructure in place to trade amongst South Asian countries themselves. He also glances on, how advancements in technology actually hampered development in South Asian countries.

The field of agriculture was the biggest source of income for South Asian countries. There were quite a few problems that made agriculture inefficient. It was necessary to intensify agriculture because the status quo turned out to be the worst of both worlds. There were a large number of people devoted to a small piece of land, but the output from it was very low. This in turn meant that the agricultural output per person was very low. The lack of proper incentives in the system didn’t help either. The colonial era had left South Asian countries, especially India with sharecropping practices. Sharecroppers had no incentive to execute output raising improvements because of their insecure tenures. The land owners never did any of the cultivation and they were happy with the profit they were making because these profits were not their primary source of income, so they had no incentive to execute output raising improvements either. Social segregation in the form of the caste system exacerbated these problems.

South Asian countries are, in essence ‘functioning anarchies- a term coined by John Kenneth Galbraith. Myrdal recognized that the plethora of discretionary controls (implemented due to necessity, considering that, lack of organized markets make non-discretionary markets ineffective) had cut through morality and had made a haven for widespread corruption which exists in colossal proportions even today. His views on education and population control were enlightening as well. His thoughts were contrary to the norms and practices of the day, which were highly influenced by the history of western countries. The author thought of South Asian countries as part of a third world and his views reflect the same.

“The South Asian peoples are not merely being insufficiently educated; they are being miseducated on a huge scale” noted the author. The importance of adult education, especially in shaping the attitudes of their children was heavily stressed. According to him, it was the attitudes and institutions of the people that were holding them back and changing them was of prime importance. Development had to overcome the exploding population as well. To put it bluntly, the people of South Asia had it all to do and the odds were stacked against them.


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