In pursuit of progress, every choice comes at a cost

Development should ultimately aim to improve the well-being of society

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 June, 2014, 4:48am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 September, 2016, 3:46pm

Every country has to make some choices in the course of development, and each choice comes at a cost. The ultimate aim should be the same: to enhance the well-being of the population.

Last month's Shanghai Forum discussed economic globalisation, with a focus on sustainable development and responsible governance.

Hong Kong has been moving away from maintaining high gross domestic product growth and aiming at responsible, sustainable development. Mainland scholars and government officials have also bought into the idea.

At the forum, keynote speaker Robert Shiller from Yale University, who won last year's Nobel Prize for economics, believes finance is the backbone of civilisation as it not only increases profit but also funds human activities. The accumulation of wealth should support human development.

Thus, effective regulation of the financial industry is needed to ensure it serves the majority rather than a privileged few.

Norwegian urban development expert Professor Jorgen Randers explained why urban development should not focus solely on GDP growth at the expense of the population's well-being. Urban development is only the means to an end; the ultimate aim is the good of the community.

Randers believes society should be prepared to pay for its choices. For example, to improve air quality, we might have to raise punitive taxes for polluting industries. These initiatives would increase operating costs and consumers might have to shoulder some of those costs.

But the gold standard of any social and public policy is whether it serves the wider public interest instead of considering only profits.

Hong Kong can learn from Norwegian immigration and labour policies. According to a European Union agreement, other Europeans can enter Norway freely to seek jobs, but the foreign labour force should draw the same wages as locals.

This raises operating costs and affects opportunities available to foreign workers. But the impact on the well-being of society is positive.

Countries cannot rely on cheap foreign labour without investing in human capital of their own. It has been disappointing seeing local manufacturers exploiting cheap Guangdong labour in the past few decades.

The famous philanthropist, Warren Buffett, says money will not necessarily make people happy. He reinvests into society what he has earned, so wealth can find its true meaning.

Hong Kong can choose to build a good society. But a collective effort from all stakeholders is needed to make this achievable.

Paul Yip Siu-fai is a professor from the social work and social administration department of the University of Hong Kong