Progress is not a popular concept these days. We have become sharply aware of the costs of change, particularly of the damage to our planet and to our traditional beliefs and values that occurs as modern society changes with dizzying velocity and seemingly unpredictable consequences. 

            The costs, damages, and dangers are very real. So is the inevitability of continued change, spurred on inexorably by earth’s still expanding population, and by the needs and wants of people. The dangers to our environment and our values are greater than need be because of our failure to define where we want change to lead us. We need a new definition of progress, a new exploration of human aspirations and goals, if we are ever going to control our headlong plunge into change.   


 Hama, Syria 1973

          Progress is desirable change. Change is desirable when it contributes to improving the quality of the habitat, and the conditions of life on the planet. Progress occurs along three closely related vectors: individual human development;  technological development; and organizational development.

          Each of these vectors has been the focus of scholarly study, but the relationship between them remains muddy. Analytical frameworks for thinking about the individual and the collective at the same time are tenuous. I find Ken Wilbur’s quadrant model helpful. [1] His quadrants contain developmental stages of individuals and collectives, both internally and externally. Like the hall tree, it’s an ingenious device for hanging your ideas up and sorting them out.                             

·            Individual interior development encompasses the four stages of Piaget’s childhood development, plus additional adult stages. As noted by Piaget, not everyone progresses through all four stages, much less reaches more advanced levels. This is the quadrant of cognitive and emotional development.

·            Individual exterior development is the domain of behavior. It includes physical development, including the evolution of the human brain.

·            Collective interior development is the realm of culture, of shared values, of worldviews, of religions and ideologies.

·            Collective exterior development involves human behavior in systems: political systems, economic systems, social systems. It is behavior that can be studied and quantified, empirically examined. This domain also includes concrete and material forms of human interaction, including tools and technologies, architectural styles, and modes of production. It is the world of organization, management, and government. 

What makes this quadrant theory so powerful, for me, is Wilber’s observation that evolution (development) along each of the four vectors is intimately related to and indeed dependent upon the evolution of the others, although it cannot be reduced to the others. I had independently concluded that individual development and management systems were linked, but Wilber’s framework allows one to add worldview and technology to the mix without, one hopes, becoming hopelessly muddled. 

A corollary to Wilber’s view is that when progress along one vector is out of sync with the state of the other vectors, problems occur. A number of examples come to mind to illustrate this idea: 

·            Organizational development out of sync with individual development: Consider the fate of American Samoa, or St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. American administration, based upon systems evolved on the mainland, has been an embarrassment. Our governing systems have produced dysfunctional societies in both cases because the people governed were not at the stage of human development where they could take advantage of the freedoms, opportunities, and support systems offered to them. The result has been high unemployment, dependence upon food stamps, and disruption of traditional values without their replacement by a coherent modern worldview. Certainly, some members of both populations thrive, but the modal, or average, individual doesn’t find our systems conducive to their own development or well-being. 

·            Technological development out of sync with organizational and human development: In Indonesia, a technocratic minister, later president, B. J. Habibie, founded with state funds an aircraft industry and a modern shipbuilding industry. His idea was that Indonesians could leap-frog into modernity, by-passing the more usual path of utilizing the comparative advantage of low cost labor. He reasoned that Indonesians, if well trained, are just as capable as anyone else, and his own history of success in the German aircraft industry demonstrated the validity of this view.  

The problem is that he created a privileged, well paid, and advanced segment of Indonesian society that rested on the backs of the rest of the nation. The only customers for his planes and boats were other state-owned institutions, primarily the military, and they would gladly have shopped elsewhere for their equipment. The costs of these ventures into national pride rivaled those of the corruption in which the President’s family participated. 

·            Individual development out of sync with organizational and technological development: Hindu and Buddhist mystics have, perhaps, carried individual human development to the furthest extent we know about. At least so says Ken Wilber, and I’ll take his word for it, because it is well beyond me. They have done so, however, by consciously separating themselves from organization and technology. They have made a panzer attack on human development without trying to take the rest of us, with our organizations and technology, along. This is a case where human development is out of step with organizational and technological development without creating problems – it just ignores them.

            Now, we’ll wade out of the deeper waters of Wilber’s philosophical theories, and my attempts to relate them to the world I know. I'm more comfortable with concrete examples from experience than with abstract theories, but Wilber has helped clarify, for me, how the lessons of experience relate to one another. He has an engaging writing style, and I found reading A Brief History of Everything [2] and Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality [1] to be enjoyable as well as enlightening. 

            I mentioned that extensive scholarship was focused on all three of the critical dimensions of development: individual, organizational and technological. Of these, the field of individual human development has contributed least to development strategy. We international development professionals tend to think a lot about economic development, political development, and social development without reflecting much about what happens to the average, or modal, individual in the course of development. Oh, yes, we think about education, but, typically, in an instrumental context. The creation of a more productive work force pays economic returns, but the evolution of human beings to higher levels of consciousness may be thought of as creating problems for the status quo. We are concerned with literacy and training, but not with the progression of individuals up Piaget’s ladder to greater maturity. We are typically concerned with what has come to be called human resource development; the labor part of the basic economic factors of production: land, labor, and capital. 

            I think there are two main reasons for this. One is that only recently has human development psychology extended into post-adolescent development. Michael Commons and associates published Adult Development: A Descriptive Approach to Post-formal Thought [3] in1989 in an attempt to unify with a common language the diverse efforts of psychologists to examine models of cognitive, social and perceptual development that extend beyond the adolescent years where Piaget left off. The early stages, the magical, mythical, concrete operational and formal operational, were for a long time thought to contain the full deck. A person was thought to level off in adolescence at the highest stage he or she would achieve. Now, other stages are being examined, and advances throughout the lifetime are recognized as possible, although not inevitable. 

            The field of adult development has yet to reach out to other social sciences. This may be due to the need to consolidate the new field, and the difficulty of bridging the gap between the individual focus of adult psychology and the collective focus of other social sciences. For whatever reason, the absence of psychological stage reasoning in conventional analyses of social problems has serious consequences, in my view (see  "SRAD"). 

            In “Human Development Stages in Spirituality, Management and Education,” I review attempts by scholars from these fields to incorporate Piagetian stages into their work. In “Progress and Global Politics,” I critique Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations [4] from a human development perspective. These papers deal mostly with the intersection of human development with organizational development in two senses: organizations at the micro level (management) and at the macro level (governance). In both cases, as human and technological development proceed, there is or should be a flattening of the management and governmental hierarchy. Democracy and autonomy are collective and individual ideals, but they must be achieved rather than bestowed.  

I’m not sure any of these attempts by non-psychologists to incorporate human development thinking into other fields is wholly successful, but I feel certain that it is the right direction to go from here. I firmly believe that human development psychology is the missing element in most development strategies, and from the analyses of social problems, domestic and foreign. For example, it is difficult to understand individual Americans who would bomb the Oklahoma Federal Building, or murder abortion clinic workers in the name of a “just” cause, in other than human development terms. Those perpetrating such acts are functioning at the concrete operations level, and are frustrated by the feeling that their own society is moving away from them. Not all who believe abortions are wrong are at the concrete ops level, of course, but those who commit violence in the name of their religion in a country such as ours must be at that concrete, literal, dogmatic level of consciousness. 

Similarly, people growing up in the cultural wastelands of the inner city slums are likely to find it difficult to progress past the concrete level. They are intolerant of other racial or ethnic groups and often prone to violence as a function of a lack of empathy with others. Building prisons to house people who are unable to cope with the demands of modern society is one way to curtail violence, but one wonders if some way can’t be found to enhance the developmental quality of their home and neighborhood environments before they opt out of mainstream society. 

For a third example: it was not very long ago, in historical terms, that the average rural American was culturally deprived, and scored significantly lower than urban Americans on cognitive and other tests, such as those administered to draftees in World Wars I and II. Radio and television, combined with more schooling and advancing technology, has closed that developmental gap.  

But I don’t wish to get mired in domestic issues where my experience does not extend. I want to focus upon developing countries, and the strategies they adopt in order to make progress. The last point, that rural Americans have caught up with their citified cousins, is significant in this context. The possibility, and desirability, of a broad cultural shift in which the average person is able to achieve the formal operations level of personal development offers hope and a goal for the development effort.  

            The relationship between technology and human development is particularly intriguing. Wilber thinks that since the Enlightenment, scientists and technologists have so dominated our thinking that we have lost touch with interior human and cultural values. The result is what he calls the great “flatland” of modern society. I agree with him on this, but he and others go on to attack technology as symbolic of the distorted or warped nature of modern society.  

            The problem with this view is that technology is an indispensable element of any sensible strategy for dealing with the species crisis of overpopulation and habitat deterioration. Modern technology has its down sides, but it also offers our only hope for getting out of the crisis. Often overlooked is the fact that the technology we use daily forms a large part of our adult environment. It can be stultifying, but it can also be stimulating, empowering, and challenging. Used wisely, technology facilitates and makes possible the emergence of higher levels of consciousness for the average individual. It also facilitates the emergence of higher levels of organization and governance. By creating the environment in which we spend most of our waking hours, technology can be a powerful developmental force in our lives. 

            Let me pause here to give several examples of how technology can foster human development.  

·            In the 1930’s the British colonial government of the Sudan invested in a huge irrigation scheme between the Blue and the White Nile called the Gezeira. Its primary purpose was to produce cotton for export in order to reduce the foreign exchange costs of maintaining the British presence. Local semi-nomads were recruited to work the scheme. They were given tenancies and settled in villages well supplied with services including schools and clinics. They were required to perform agricultural tasks in accordance with the demands of irrigation technology. 

The Gezeira was very successful, and remains today a significant source of income for the Sudan and for the tenant farmers who settled there. What struck me most forcefully when I visited the scheme in the 1970s, however, was the fact that the tenant population, after just two generations, supplied over half the student body of the University College, Khartoum, then one of the best institutions of higher education in all of Africa. 

The onerous technology of irrigated agriculture, combined with education and health care, enabled a large group of semi-nomads to become effectively a cultural elite in one of the world’s most disadvantaged countries. 

·            In the early 1970s, when we lived in Beirut, my wife Penelope and a friend began silk-screen printing on fabric. They needed help in sewing the fabrics into garments so they could be marketed at the craft shop of the American Women’s Club that they had helped to organize. 

A group of young Muslim women organized by the local YMCA (I know there are contradictions here, but it was the Middle East) were interested in earning some money and improving their skills so they undertook to sew the garments. Penelope has very high standards, and she would not accept poorly sewn work. At first she rejected over half the garments sewn by the women. The pieces had to be ripped out and sewn again. After a year, however, the rejection rate declined to near zero and the productivity of the women increased substantially. These changes went well beyond the mere income effect, at least in her view. 

That was to be expected, but what was more surprising was the transformation that occurred in the women themselves. The person who ran the program at the YMCA observed that the sewers spontaneously changed their personal standards as their skills increased. They slimmed down, they washed their hair more often, they dressed better, and they even spent some of their own time and money to decorate the rooms they used at the Y. 

A similar transformation was observed by Pen’s friend Dale, who designed tapestries and had them woven by two sisters in the Bekaa Valley. Again, at first much of the work had to be unraveled, but as skill levels increased the weavers became more attentive to hygiene and appearances. 

This was a dimension of development that I, and other development professionals seldom encountered: the human development and transformation that occurs in individuals when they improve their skills and begin to take pride in their work, their appearance, and themselves. 

·            Singapore, since independence, has had one of the highest economic growth rates of any country in the world. Its people have also become some of the world’s best educated, outscoring US students and those of Europe on standardized international tests. The government’s policy towards multinational corporations played a major role in the country’s achievements. Multinationals were first invited to take advantage of Singapore’s industrious population and low wages. Then, as employment expanded, the minimum wage was raised, and companies were encouraged or required to train their workers at all levels. By ratcheting up the minimum wage and training the workers, Singapore accelerated the introduction of more and more advanced technologies by the companies, and upgraded the quality of the work force in a remarkably short time. 

Singapore’s investment in education and training has been impressive. Many critics fault the government’s paternalism or authoritarian nature, and lament the apparent decline in ethnic traditions among its Chinese, Indian and Malay people, but the state has achieved an unmatched rate of development. At the same time, the city is cleaner and less polluted than any city of comparable size that I have ever seen. And, despite being the first country in Asia to endorse family planning, the fertility rate has dropped so rapidly that the government has actually become pro-natalist. In terms of the long-term species crisis, Singapore has made enviable progress. 

In Singapore’s case, its multi-ethnic population and colonial history prompted the selection of English as its national language. The issue of whether modernization equates with Americanization, or the loss of cultural values, arises in virtually every developing country. In fact, the existence of a strong indigenous culture can be a boon for the modernization process in most cases. Japan, for example, is thoroughly modern but it should not be thought of as Americanized. Japanese management practices have been very different from those of America, especially in personnel practices. The traditional pattern of human relations was adapted to the requirements of modern technology and allowed the Japanese to design efficient modern systems consistent with their traditions. Chinese and Koreans have brought their traditional industriousness and discipline to the modernization process with impressive results. In Indonesia, the extreme deference expected of subordinates has hampered development recently, although through much of the Suharto era, the culture was conducive to rapid progress. In this case the deferential culture, like the irrigation scheme in the Sudan, provided a discipline that enabled production increases using relatively low levels of technology. The weakness of African tribal cultures relative to the requirements of modern technology has proven difficult to overcome, and so has the deferential nature of Javanese culture. (See “Administration and Economic Planning in Eastern Africa: A Ford Foundation Program Evaluation,” 1977.)

            Before attempting to summarize my core ideas, I want to deal briefly with an issue likely to trouble the reader, as it at first troubled me. The notion of levels or stages of human development in individuals seems contrary to our egalitarian beliefs. When used with respect to groups or societies, stage theories can smack of racism or eugenics. It may seem to imply innate superiority of one culture or people over another. 

            In fact, the evolutionary developmental approach outlined here is not only consistent with egalitarian thinking, it is the fundamental building block for it. If our outcomes are determined by genes and the environment, and genes are assumed to be of equal quality among ethnic and racial groups, then perceived differences in outcomes must be due to environmental factors. This is lucky, because those are the factors we can change if we understand them and are determined to improve. Only if we believe that it is possible for each and all of us to become improved individuals in improved societies will we be able to identify the sources of existing inequalities and to work to alleviate them. And alleviate them we must, not just for charitable motives, but because we need to do so if our species is to find an acceptable way out of the impending habitat crisis. In short, we must seek progress at home and abroad to save our planet from ourselves.   


            To summarize the core ideas, and to link them to background papers: 

·            We are in a long-term species crisis stemming largely from the transition period between high fertility/high mortality level of civilization to the low fertility/low mortality level.

·            We can’t go back to an earlier, simpler age because our increasing numbers require higher and higher levels of technology to satisfy our needs and wants.

·            Although change is inevitable, some change is more desirable than others. We have been slow to recognize the distinction. We retain some basic beliefs from an earlier age, e.g. that more is better, whether it be people or goods.

·            Desirable change occurs along three dimensions which are interconnected:

·         Individual development, leading to higher productivity, greater responsibility and resourcefulness, and lower fertility;

·         Technological development, to meet higher productivity requirements while at the same time creating a learning environment conducive to maturation and an information environment conducive to decreasing hierarchy;

·         Organizational development, leading to decreasing hierarchy, flatter organizations, higher productivity and democratic government.

            By understanding the nature of desirable change we can devise development strategies that are more effective, more rapid, and less environmentally destructive than those we now follow. 


1.        Wilber, K., Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The spirit of evolution. 1995, Boston: Shambhala. 831.

2.        Wilber, K., A Brief History of Everything. 1995, Boston: Shambhala. 339.

3.           Commons, M., F. Richards, and C. Armon, Beyond Formal Operations: Late Adolescent and Adult Cognitive Development. 1984, New York: Praeger. 460.

4.           Huntington, S.P., The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. 1996, New York: Touchstone. 367.     

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