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Development: A Failed Project

It’s time to abandon development and think about postdevelopment instead.

Deforestation in the name of development. (Photo: crustmania, CC by 2.0)

Deforestation in the name of development. (Photo: crustmania, CC by 2.0)

"They talk to me about progress, about 'achievements,' diseases cured, improved standards of living. I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out. They throw facts at my head, statistics, mileages of roads, canals, and railroad tracks. […] I am talking about natural economies that have been disrupted – harmonious and viable economies adapted to the indigenous population – about food crops destroyed, malnutrition permanently introduced, agricultural development oriented solely toward the benefit of the metropolitan countries, about the looting of products, the looting of raw materials."

- Aime Césaire (1950): ‘Discourse on Colonialism’

Let’s not beat around the bush: to understand the problems with current ‘development’ discourse and practice there is no alternative other than situating ‘development’ as a construct that has resulted from colonialism and that continues to perpetuate itself within this legacy. Nothing illustrates this better than the above quote from Aime Césaire’s powerful essay on the ‘Discourse on Colonialism’. It almost reads like a contemporary critique of failed development interventions, sharply dissecting extractivism, fetishism of economic growth, the global division of labour and the marginalisation of non-Western worldviews, cosmovisions, imaginaries. The text is almost 70 years old, yet its relevance today could not be clearer.

What are the problems with ‘development’?

I only write about ‘development’ in inverted commas. The word, the concept, the practice has been (ab)used for such a broad variety of specific agendas, all of them structured by power hierarchies and asymmetries. Depending on fashionable fads, ‘development’ has come to be conceptualised as development-as-growth, development-as-progress, development-as-empowerment and many more. Fundamentally, ‘development’ has become what Gustavo Esteva calls an ‘amoeba’ term – one lacking any real meaning.

The commonality of all of these definitions is that they rest on an intrinsic dichotomy of the ‘West’ and the ‘Rest’, the developed and the underdeveloped. There is in inherent assumption that there are those in possession of the solutions and those that need to be helped. That ‘development’ can be directed by intervention. As is clear in the formulation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, economic growth remains central in any definition, despite obvious contradictions with ecology.

Irritatingly, ‘development’, despite of fuzziness and many failures, continues to be considered something good in itself, the only viable means to achieve a positive outcome. Critiques that point out an ever increasing gap between those owning most and those that try to make ends meet with less and less are dismissed. The conviction remains: if only ‘development’ would be practiced more participatorily, more inclusively, more empoweringly. If only ‘development’ would implement the better, the more efficient, the more technologically advanced solutions. Then, poverty would be easily abolished.

What is postdevelopment about?

In this context, a new strand of thinking is gaining traction. Postdevelopment critique strongly objects against the belief that ‘development’ simply needs to be fixed. Quite in contrast, postdevelopment proponents proclaim ‘development’ has failed.

Despite being a heterogeneous pool of critiques, there are a number of common points essential to postdevelopment arguments:

  • Neither economic, nor methodological issues are the root causes of persistent and increasing global inequalities, but rather asymmetries of power, ideology, representation.
  • ‘Development’ is understood as a historically produced discourse that serves to establish, stabilize and reproduce hegemony and control.
  • The ‘Development apparatus’, i.e. actors and institutions, establishes rules that must be followed and defines who can speak, with what authority and according to what criteria of expertise.
  • ‘Development’ depoliticizes questions of resource allocation, merely seeking technical solutions to technical problems.

What is postdevelopment proposing instead?

  • A fundamental questioning of core features of the prevalent ‘development’ discourse which continues to be focused on economic growth, productivism, connected with a rhetoric of progress, anthropocentrism, capitalism, rationalism, individualism.
  • Alternatives to the Western homogenizing model and the dominance of a framing of development-as-progress, especially within solely economic terms.
  • A counter-term that involves a multiplicity of systemic critiques and suggests different ways of living.

Alternatives to Development?

A fundamental questioning of the whole ‘development’ idea as such is uncomfortable and inconvenient. Yet, especially in light of the fact that the finiteness of our planet becomes more and more difficult to overlook, it is time to not only look for, but to practice alternatives to development. These alternatives do not need to be thought up by those that have claimed ‘development expertise’ for so long, but are practised widely in the non-Western peripheries. So far, these other cosmovisions or worldviews have been easily dismissed as backward or underdeveloped, simply because they fail to measure up to the yardstick of Eurocentric modernity.

This is not to romanticize poverty, an allegation often made against postdevelopment. Rather it means that neither can we formulate development critique, nor speak about postdevelopment, without taking a decolonial lens. Decolonial works (e.g. Icaza, Lugones,Quijano) have one commonality: they challenge historical narratives placing Europe at the centre and formulate the necessity of considering the globalized world as we know it in the broader histories of colonialism, empire, enslavement. Postdevelopment stands in this tradition. So how is it practicable?

With postdevelopment as a ‘tool’, we are not asking HOW can we make development better, but: ‘WHY, through what historical processes, and with what consequences did Asia, Africa and Latin America come to be ‘invented’ as the ‘Third World’ through discourses and practices of ‘development’ (Escobar 1992)? It proposes contestations to the current world order, simultaneously from the top and from the bottom.

What do I mean by contestations from the top and from the bottom?

First, postdevelopment serves as a basis for systemic critiques. Much Overseas Development Aid is targeted at promoting industrial growth. Jason Hickel makes important arguments in writing about the contradiction of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in terms of growth and ecology. He argues against the implicit assumption that industrial growth is necessary for human development. Rather, Hickel proposes to rethink the aggregation of global economic growth as development strategy and instead focus on protection from land grabbing, protection of seeds, the regulation of financial speculation on food commodities, debt canceling, tax justice and the democratizing of key institutions of global economic governance (WB, IMF) so that Global South countries have a stronger voice.

Secondly, postdevelopment demands us to value a pluriverse’ of ways of seeing the world and to acknowledge a multiplicity of ways of living, well-being, good life, which does not take the West as the standard. Especially for policy makers, practitioners, and activists located in the Global North, it is vital to acknowledge their own privileges, to be aware of their own positions, to reflect on how they contribute to perpetuating certain conceptions of ‘development’. It is essential to take a critical and reflexive approach to the assumptions that underpin perceptions of what constitutes a ‘good life’ in opposition to the Eurocentric frames of ‘development’. How we capture and communicate that knowledge and who gets to both shape and present ideas as relevant expert knowledge.

Making postdevelopment practical

Action needs to be taken on both sides, both from the top as well as from the bottom. I have argued for transnational solidarity networks elsewhere, but this microlevel cannot be the only point of action.

There is also a need for action on state level, starting in the so-called Global North. Radical changes in what Brand and Wissen have called the ‘imperial mode of living’ cannot be achieved through market mechanisms, but through regulations and policies. At EU level that might mean, as one of the strongest trade actors in the world, the EU taking the lead in structural reforms that make the global trading system truly fair. In the context of ongoing negotiations on a post-Cotonou ACP-EU Partnership after 2020, there is momentum for concrete action. The same applies to the issues of tax justice and climate justice, where the EU as a union has an important role to play on the global level.

Here we are coming full circle. By acknowledging the colonial legacy of ‘development’ as a project, as a discourse, as a concept, the Global North needs to confront itself. A ‘practical postdevelopment’ first of all must mean to ‘undevelop’ the North. Postdevelopment starts ‘at home’.

Julia Schöneberg

Julia Schöneberg

Julia Schöneberg is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Kassel. Her research focusses on post-development in practice, social movements and resistances, as well as decolonial approaches to knowledge production and pedagogy. She is the co-founder of www.convivialthinking.org, a platform seeking to surpass boundaries of origin, ethnicity, professional affiliation and academic discipline in order to give space to inclusive, interdisciplinary and alternative approaches towards mainstream methods of knowledge production, especially in the context of “development”.

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