“Development” – says who?

I’ve been meaning to write a post about the ‘language’ of development for some time now (you might remember I mentioned it in my last post), but this article on the Guardian Poverty Matters blog this week brought it to the forefront of my mind. 

“Development” is dead. There, I said it. And i’m not the first to either. Tonight will forever stick in my mind as the night that I truly discovered Post-development theory. I might be a bit late coming to the party, but boy am I sure glad that I’ve arrived.

A large part of me feels like squirrelling myself away for the next couple of months to digest and read as much about it as possible, and I will do. But another part of me is interested to see how my opinion evolves and changes as I learn about it, so I’ve decided to get down my own thoughts about the language of development here first so that I can revisit it in a few weeks/months time and see if there are any similarities/differences between the two.

I personally have a problem with the discourse of “development” for two main reasons. Firstly, because, in its current form, its a Western construction; a yardstick definition created for the rest of the world to measure up to, a measure that creates division and wrongly elevates the West as the hegemonic power. Secondly, the discourse that has commonly come to be associated with ‘development’, is, in my opinion, doing more harm than good.

Addressing this is important. Language constructs our reality and the specific way it does do has consequences for all of us.

So, what is ‘development’?

The World Bank states that a developing country:

is one in which the majority lives on far less money—with far fewer basic public services—than the population in highly industrialized countries. Five million of the world’s 6 billion people live in developing countries where incomes are usually under $2 per day and a significant portion of the population lives in extreme poverty (under $1.25 per day).

It’s probably worth noting here, for those who aren’t in the know, that the World Bank president has historically been a US citizen nominated by the United States (the largest shareholders in the bank)… and despite a revision to voting powers in 2010 intended to increase the voice of developing countries (notably China), the countries with the most voting power are now the US (15.85%), Japan (6.84%), China (4.42%), Germany (4.00%), the UK (3.75%), France (3.75%), India (2.91%), Russia (2.77%), Saudi Arabia (2.77%) and Italy (2.64%). Are you starting to see a pattern emerging? I am…

So the rules of “development” are set and refereed by the “developed”, and according to them, an overall progress in “development” can be associated with economic growth, a vibrant private sector, empowerment (people having the ability to invest in their health and education and to shape their own lives by being able to participate in the opportunities provided by economic growth and have their voices heard about decisions that affect their lives), good governance (where contracts are enforced and markets can operate efficiently) and ownership (countries owning their development agenda). I know you might not expect anything less from a bank, but it’s all about money, money, money. To this day, “development” is largely synonymous with economic growth.

First and foremost, how can a collection of countries that are beholden to big banks and business; that suffer from financial collapse and who are beholden to investor-state, be in a position to talk about development? However, my main problem with the economic focus is that IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT MONEY. I’m not going to pretend it’s not important in the current system, and that a lack of it doesn’t cause very real and life-threatening problems for millions of people, but the fact that what this system, imposed by the West, values economics and finance above all else, is a true symptom of what’s wrong with the world.

Valuing economics above everything else ignores the many other essential parts needed for a flourishing country. What happened to everything else that’s important in the world? Like society, and humanity, and caring for the environment? How is it possible that we live in a world where ‘developed’ countries spend more money on arms and war than their people; where consuming ‘stuff’ is more important than protecting and nurturing the environment; where we put up borders and boundaries to protect ourselves from each other; where women are still valued more for what they look like than for who they are; where giant corporations tell us what to do and think and how to live; where the elderly are tolerated and feared rather than respected and cherished? How can a system that values the pursuit of wealth and power be considered developed?

This system ignores the fact that there is so much to value in countries beyond their economic status. Many of the financially poorest countries have the richest societies and communities. The ‘developed’ could certainly learn a thing or two from the ‘developing’ in this respect.

Secondly, why is it apparently assumed that the whole world wants to emulate the West and that it can decide what is universally ‘good’? Rather than exporting our ideas, values and norms with the belief that people living in other countries must be dissatisfied with their country and culture in general, rather than the hugely unfair and Western-dominated system we live in, is misguided. I have no right to tell other countries not to follow the West’s example, but “[t]here are numerous ways of living a ‘good life’, and it is up to each society to invent its own.” (Rist 1997) Who put ‘us’ in charge?

Setting this Western standard elevates us to a position in the world that we do not deserve. It gives us power over the narrative and that we hold the cards and make the rules. It’s a powerful discourse that permeates all levels of politics, society and the development sector.

Harmful development

Moving on now to my second point, that even within the current context of “development”, the discourse used within the field causes more harm than good. A discourse that creates ‘poor’, ‘desperate’, ‘primitive’, ‘uncivilised’ nations has a huge and powerful affect on how the ‘rest of the world’ sees ‘developing’ countries. The language groups, homogenises and dehumanises and creates stereotypes that perpetuate a paradigm of dependency and inequality between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries.

Countries that have been linguistically described as lacking, backward and inferior are seen as ‘unacceptable’, lesser versions of one’s own society in a system where the standards of what makes a good society are assumed to be both universal and in line with Western standards. It is this type of thinking, where poorer societies are deemed as too traditional and require modernisation, that was used to justify colonial expansion.

The idea that non-Western societies are historically backward and can be compared to earlier periods of European history has been described as the “transformation of geo-cultural differences into historical stages” (Nandy 1992: 146), as the “chronification of spatial co-existence” (Melber 1992: 32) or simply as the “colonizer’s model of the world” (Blaut 1993) because it justified the colonial expansion of the most advanced states. (Development in Practice, Volume 23, Number 1, February 2013, Aram Zaia)

Apart from the fact that this is patriarchal and authoritarian, it also ignores the fact that historical processes cannot be reproduced in other countries that have completely different economic, political and social environments and histories. It also makes the normative assumption that these processes have led to better, ‘developed’ societies in the first place (as mentioned earlier in the post).

It’s now widely recognised that the traditional tools of development benchmarking: GDP and per capita income are ineffective measures of poverty reduction. They ignore factors like wealth distribution and provision of public services, and wrongly assume that boosting income is the only way to reduce poverty.

As Ziai notes in his essay, this general assumption that ‘development’ refers to the situation of a group of people living in one country and which improves the life of all members of this group, means that the

“classical paradigm of development constructs social problems (whose existence is not called into question) in peripheral countries as “development problems”, as problems liked to a lack of capital, knowledge, technology, productivity, institutions, etc. which can be solved by projects or programmes of development which deal with these shortcomings.” (Development in Practice, Volume 23, Number 1, February 2013, Aram Zaia)

This again, fails to recognise the difference between supposed beneficiaries and assumes that social problems can be solved with ‘rational’ and ‘unobjectionable’ technocratic solutions. In reality, the problems of social inequality can rarely be dealt with successfully in this manner. Zaia quotes James Ferguson, who writes:

“By uncompromisingly reducing poverty to a technical problem, and by promising technical solutions to the sufferings of powerless and oppressed people, the hegemonic problematic of “development” is the principal means through which the question of poverty is de-politicized in the world today”. (1994)

Ferguson goes on to say that this technocratic bias in development discourse is often reproduced by the institutional interest of development organisations.

It’s clear that the implementation of what is often defined as the ‘common good’, is a structural feature of development, despite attempts to introduce the principles of participation, ownership and empowerment into development policy since the 1980s. Case in point here.

Despite some improvements in the sector, the language and imagery used by charities to fundraise for international development is another primary example of how the language of ‘development’ can often do more harm than good. For me, a lot of the sentiment of Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay: “How to write about Africa” can be applied to the development sector and to society in general – a lot of the language used to describe developing countries and those living in them serves to conjure up images and assumptions of poverty stricken villages, violence, malaria and misery. This reinforces ideas that ‘they’ are inferior, uncivilised, victims to be saved. Aside from being completely unfair and disrespectful, it’s also wrong. I’d like to write (or invite someone else to write) a post about this in particular at some point.

Jina Moore, a journalist previously based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, describes the single-mindedness of these portrayals when applied to Africa (often seen as synonymous with ‘development’). In 2012 in the Boston Review she wrote:

“We [writers] blame our editors, who (we like to say) oversimplify our copy and cut out context. They also introduce clichéd shorthand, such as “Arab north versus Christian and animist south” (Sudan), or boilerplate background, such as “the 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed” (Rwanda). Virtually any story can be sold more easily if set in a “war-torn country.”

For these tendencies, our editors in turn often blame readers, whom they assume can’t or won’t follow us through villages with difficult-to-pronounce names or narratives with nuanced conclusions or moral ambiguities.

Ultimately, the problem with journalism from Africa isn’t about professional conventions. It’s about all of us—writers and readers, producers and viewers. We continue a storytelling tradition that hasn’t fundamentally changed since Joseph Conrad slapped Congo with “the heart of darkness” label.”

Rusty radiator does a great job at calling this out!

What’s the answer?

L. Frank remarks that development:

“…is an empty word which can be filled by any used to conceal any hidden intention, a Trojan horse of a word. It implies that what is done to people by those more powerful than themselves is their fate, their potential, their fault.” (1997)

So what can ‘development’ be replaced with? Academics aware of the criticisms of the term have made numerous attempts to redefine it and there is an increasing awareness of indigenous concepts which might replace the notion. But should it be replaced or simply cease to exist at all? Can and should we arrive at a unequivocal or progressive definition? Wouldn’t any replacement still reinforce the same classical paradigm that ‘we’ are developed and ‘they’ are the developing and there is some universal acceptance of one common good? Even if you disagree with these criticisms, it’s difficult to deny the fact that the term ‘development’ is often used ambiguously without a definitive understanding (i.e some see it as referring to higher income, others refer to better healthcare etc…). It means different things to different people.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I do like the way Zaia concludes his essay:

“In the words of Rahnema (1997: 391): “The end of development should not be seen as an end to the search for new possibilities of change”. It should be seen as the beginning of less Eurocentric and vague notions of change. (Of course, alternative concepts of social change and improvement also need to be questioned concerning their implications or their instrumentalisation)” (Development in Practice, Volume 23, Number 1, February 2013, Aram Zaia)

In my mind, it’s the system that needs to change, not the term. To give ‘development’ another name, without changing the global structure of inequality and interdependence that goes with it, you might just as well call it ‘maintenance’.

What do you think? Is ‘development’ dead? Should and could it be replaced? Is there a better term or should it cease to be used at all? Thoughts as usual gratefully received…

P.S Thanks for bearing with me in this post. I sometimes struggle to get my words in the same place as my brain and heart so I know I can ramble/waffle/make mistakes/miss things out/tie myself in knots. I’m working on it!

P.P.S I’d like to put together a glossary of words that have made it into the “development” discourse that are ridiculous, ambiguous, harmful or wrong, that perpetuate stereotypes or have questionable intentions. Heres a start from me, please send me your own suggestions.

Globalisation – the belief that the state must stay out of development other than to ensure contract law and accounting procedures etc and that the rest will be taken care of by the market on a so-called ‘level playing field’. In reality, this is a ideology forced upon poorer countries by wealthier ones and the taking down of trade barriers and the opening up of economies to foreign direct investment and outside enterprises has largely proven to serve multinationals and their home country governments. Hypocritically, wealthy countries are actually in effect selling our own manufactured goods while closing our markets to many of the products developing countries can sell.

Democracy – Something the West likes to export. However, although the terms democracy and human rights are often claimed to be European inventions, the underlying concepts of political self-determination and moral standards and individual rights are definitely not, as many tribal societies with consensual democratic decision-making procedures have proven (Sigrist, 2005).


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