Asia's "diswelfare" woes

By William Wetherall

A review of
John Dixon and Hyung Shik Kim (editors)
Social Welfare in Asia
London: Croom Helm, London,1985, xiv, 411 pp

A version of this article appeared in
Mainichi Daily News, 10 April 1988, page 17

For anyone interested in a general guide to the social welfare systems in each of ten Asian countries, this book is the only one available. Those looking for a cogent comparison and critique of welfare in Asia as a whole must wait.

Editor Hyung Shik Kim, of the International Fellowship for Social and Economic Development Incorporated, in Melborne, contributed Chapter 1: Social Welfare and the Development Process. Co-editor John Dixon, Academic Director of the Management and Policy Studies Centre, Canberra College of Advanced Education, wrote Chapter 2: China. Nine other chapters on Hong Kong, India, Japan, Korea (South), Malaysia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Thailand clearly sketch the ideological, historical, political, social and economic environment of each country. The chapters clearly describe and assess each country's welfare system and list books and articles for further reading.

Social security refers to "services in cash" in the form of income transfers, social insurance, and other financial benefits. Personal social services means "services in kind" in response to personal needs which may require the help of trained personnel like social workers or probation officers.

A 21-page appendix summarizes the welfare systems of all ten countries in a convenient table divided into two parts, "social security" and "personal social services". Both parts have, for each country, columns of non-statistical information on benefit providers, target groups (aged, disabled and handicapped, children and youth, needy families, sick and injured, unemployed), method of financing, and responsible government administrative agencies. The index equally facilitates comparison by listing under each kind of service the countries which provide it and the pages in the book where more details can be found.

Editor Kim believes that "The desire to build the Welfare State . . . must go beyond the task of nation-building, in the sense of promoting nationalism, and must reflect the determination of a nation to guarantee greater human dignity, to enhance human creativity and to provide greater personal freedom, social justice and a higher standard of living." But his introductory essay is problematical.

Kim begins with a quote of an observation by British economic historian Richard H. Tawney (1880-1962): "Civilisation is a matter, not of quantity of possessions, but of quality of life. It is to be judged, not by the output of goods and services per head, but by the use which is made of them." He then argues that if economic development is supposed to enhance the quality of life for all people, then it is failing in many countries and even internationally. This view is supported by UN, World Bank, and other studies which have concluded that wealth is transferred from poor countries to rich countries, and that the wealth which is left in the developing countries accrues mainly to the rich and power elites.


Why has development created more problems than it has solved? Kim cites an authority who argues that "development" has been introduced in the former colonies of the Third World to raise their living standards, while "welfare" has been the method of mitigating human misery in the developed First World. Development had failed because it has benefited only a handful, thus creating relative poverty, in which the poor end up bearing burdens of industrial progress like pollution and ill-health. Such inequalities breed tension, unrest, aggression, violence, and confrontation within (and between) societies. And welfare has failed because people who go on welfare often become dependent on it.

Kim favorably cites another authority who attributes the poverty of developing countries to "the existence of a system of international social stratification, a hierarchy of societies with vastly different resources in which the wealth of some is linked historically and contemporaneously to the poverty of others . . . . A wealthy society which deprives a poor country of resources may simultaneously deprive its own poor classes through maldistribution of those additional resources."

Kim concludes that such exploitation of the poor by the rich, both within and across nations, must be ended by rethinking the meaning of "development"--and that a formal redefinition of the term "might begin with the consideration of variations between nations in Asia." And he proposes that the focus of development change from "economic" to "social"--from concern with "things" to concern for "people" in groups and as individuals.

Kim's "exploitation" thesis is abstract, vague and ideologically muddled. He claims that "the model of economic development that has been imposed upon the people of Asia has aggravated the social imbalance between the rich and the poor, between the powerful and the powerless." All this implies an external (non-Asian?) force behind the industrial progress that "brings its own train of diswelfare" to Asia, in the form of threats to human dignity and welfare, by "proliferating new forms of dependencies, frustrations, tensions, aggressiveness, violence and inequalities."

Kim fails to describe the alleged "variations between nations in Asia" in terms of any model, "imposed" or otherwise. Nor does he apply "diswelfare" criteria to the real world to determine whether in fact progress has actually worsened human conditions in any Asian country.

A more concrete, real-world analysis would have shown as much historical variation within Asia as in Europe and the Americas. It would also have invalidated the reductionist East/West dichotomy implicit in Kim's views. Modernization was not "imposed" on Japan, "black ships" theories notwithstanding. Nor does it seem to have made life worse for people in Japan, Japanese majorities or minorities, or foreigners. But Kim makes no mention of Japan, much less its own exploitation of Asia, or to what extent its welfare system could serve as a model for the still developing Asian countries.

The chapter on Japan, by Takeshi Takahashi and Yoshiko Someya, both in the Department of Social Welfare at the University of Kagoshima, shows Japan's welfare system to be one of the most comprehensive in Asia. Japan "still functions within the boundaries of the traditional value (sic) and human relationships characterised by the spirit of self-help and the solidarity of the family, primary groups and the immediate neighbourhood." And so Japanese welfare practices make the family primarily responsible for the care of its poor and handicapped members, and they stress the obligation of able healthy people to work rather than live on relief.