Narrowing a definition

“Economic development” is back in fashion.

I remember when I started in the economic development biz 15 years ago or so the term “economic development” was not widely recognized. The provinical government had just changed the name of its department from something weird like “commerce and technology” and replaced it with “economic development” and most of us had to describe what this term meant to just about everyone and ultimately its meaning become one of those in the “eye of the beholder” definitions.

In 2007, we find the term “economic development” used widely and in vain attached to just about everything. In today’s T&T, there is an editorial entitled Student debt hinders economic development. A couple of years back we had the Prosperity Plan II which was designed to accelerate New Brunswick’s “prosperity” (economic development) by fixing the Petitcodiac river and filling potholes in the road.

Yes, it seems now that everything we do is for “economic development”. It’s become one of those throw in phrases in every sentence like “eh” is used in the anthropological Canadian sense. Canada’s national animal is the beaver, eh? It goes to our collective need for affirmation.

So it is with economic development.

-Student debt hinders economic development.
-We need to build this skateboard park to foster economic development.
-We need to fix these potholes to encourage economic development.
-Ad nauseum

I guess, technically speaking, everything we do has a positive or negative effect on economic development – both micro – at the individual level – and macro – at the firm or government level. Spending on health care has an economic development implication and, yes, student debt could harm economic development in some fashion.

But when we water the term down such that economic development is everything, then it becomes essentially nothing.

The real fact is this. While the use of the term “economic development” has risen exponentially (used a gazillion times in the self sufficiency process for example as in the previous prosperity plan process) the spending on actual economic development (I define this as effort whose primary purpose is to stimulate economic growth in the community – not residual effects) has gone down significantly.

The amount of money the province of New Brunswick and the federal government spend directly on economic development in this province as a percentage of their annual budgets is well below the level of 1997 and even 1987. And, while some municipalities are spending more, as a percentage of annual budgets, I would wager virtually all municipalities of any size are spending less as well.

So to all those who have embedded the term “economic development” into their every day vernacular, I will make one little request.

The next time you say “pass the salt, as this supports economic development”, take time to stop and think of what you just said. Ask yourself if passing the salt is really the best way to support economic development in New Brunswick. As yourself if there is maybe a better way. Maybe making direct investments in sector development. In strategic R&D investments aligned with sector development investments. Educational investments designed to further growth sector objectives. Infrastructure investments designed to support the next wave of industry growth in New Brunswick.