Waylaid Dialectic

November 28, 2010

Post Development, Post Caring About it?

Filed under: Aid,Development Philosophy — terence @ 5:19 pm
Tags: , ,

“The main strength of the book is that it reasserts the importance of economic growth for improving people’s lives and pulling households out of poverty. Proponents of anti- or post-development would do well to read part 1.”

~ Stuart Corbridge from his review [gated] of William Easterly’s Elusive Quest for Growth.

“If for no other reason, it is worth commending post-development for the kick up the backside it delivers to the cosy and complacent worlds of the Washington Consensus.”

~ Stuart Corbridge from his review [gated] of books by Rist, Esteva and Prakash,  Ranema and Bawtree, and Cooper and Packard.

If he reads William Easterly’s blog, Professor Corbridge might be spluttering into his muesli right about now. Easterly has recently discovered Post Development, in the form of Gilbert Rist’s book, and yet, first contact between the Professor (who for all his iconoclastic thought in some areas, is basically in agreement with the core tenets of the Washington Consensus) and Monsieur Rist hasn’t been some form of fission reaction. Not at all. Easterly, loves the book, referring to it as ‘wonderful’.

Possibly, this is just another case of Easterly never having met a critique of aid he didn’t like. Or possibly there’s something more substantive and interesting going on here. James C Scott writes essays for Cato magazine that don’t seem too out of place. And if you read Hayek and Oakeshott in the right light and they start to sound a bit like Foucault. Is it possible that (some forms of) post-structuralism and libertarianism, despite having travelled distinctly different paths, have ended up in a very similar place?


Beats me. But the mention of Rist got me wondering about post-development as I walked to university this morning. Looking at the programme for this year’s DevNet conference [pdf], post-development and its variants remains pretty popular back home.

I have to confess I’m not entirely sure what all the fuss is all about. Indeed, despite having read a reasonable amount on post-development I’m not still not sure what it actually is, or what it might have to offer.

I’ve a few ideas of what it might be — but post-development in each of these forms strikes me as either wrong-headed, un-worthy of the title “post”, or not particularly important.

If that ‘post’ means anything then presumably it either signifies a school of thought which is set against ”development’ and which wishes us to move beyond the concept, or it signifies a school of thought that is applying the tools of post-structuralism to development discourse (and, of course, it could be both).

If it’s the former (beyond and opposed to development), then the next question is what does the word ‘development’ mean in the title. It could simply mean ‘the practices of the development industry’. These are certainly eminently critiqueable. But if that’s all you’re critiquing do you really need a separate school of thought to do this. You could join the libertarians (Bauer, Lal, Easterly), or situate yourself somewhere amongst left-leaning critics (Stiglitz, Wade, the New Internationalist).

Surely, the issue must be more  profound — concern with the concept of development itself. A belief that beliefs in human rights, development and progress are Western creations being imposed on a reluctant ‘developing world’ by Western hegemons, and in the process causing immense suffering to people and planet.

The trouble with this belief is that on aggregate it is wrong. Wrong in it’s attribution of human suffering to development. In reality suffering has been with us as long as we have. And long before ideas of development. Moreover, development’s track record really doesn’t seem that bad when you actually look at it. According to the best available evidence people are better educated, healthier and happier now than at any time in human history — and this is the case primarily thanks to development (material progress coupled with investment in social services and advocacy for human rights). That still leaves a lot of suffering in the world – far, far, far too much. But where you look at where this suffering is most prevalent, it is in the least developed areas. It’s true that development has been extremely environmentally damaging; but it’s also true that lots of traditional societies were very damaging to their environments as well – traditional life wasn’t all harmony with the soil. What’s more, it’s possible that we might actually be able to use technology, legislation and collective action to reconcile a reasonable standard of living (of development) with our planet’s limits. Sure it’s not guaranteed, but it certainly seems more likely to me than the only obvious alternative: mass movement back to hunter gatherer lifestyles.

Above and beyond the merits of development, the idea that it has been imposed by the West on the rest is wrong too. If all you did in your life was visit development projects you might feel this way, but the real story of development over the last 3 decades is not these projects. Instead it’s the decisions made by millions of workers, entrepreneurs, voters and activists in countries such as China, India, and much of South East Asia. People seeking better lives — migrants to the coastal cities of China, African businessmen, parents sending their kids to school, women’s rights campaigners. That’s what’s driven development.  Aid, when it’s been given well, has played a role, both in fostering development and in mitigating the impacts of under-development, but it hasn’t been the lead actor. That role’s been filled by the people of developing countries.

Perhaps all these people are wrong. Perhaps they’re labouring under MTV induced false-consciousness. But I’m optimistic enough about the human condition to think they aren’t. Humans get it wrong a lot, but enough of the time, when confronted with choices relating to their welfare people make the right ones.

So – if that’s what post-development is (a school of thought that sees development as bad and imposed) it’s simply wrong.

Which leaves us with one more possible meaning. That, influenced by post-structuralism, post-development is the study of how discourses form and shape decisions in development. As I said, this isn’t incompatible with the other meanings, but it’s certainly more interesting. The way ideas and beliefs spawn, migrate, propagate, and colonise aid agencies, universities, countries, and the role of language in all of this, seems like an interesting and worthy form of study.

But even this, I think, can be oversold. For if discourse is to be everything, reality needs to be nothing. If reality really was shaped by words and beliefs, then these are all we would need to study. But if you think reality is at least somewhat independent of the mind, if you believe in physical reality, and if you believe that there is some shared essence to human nature that is independent of social belief (and it doesn’t have to be much — just, for example, aversion amongst most people to suffering, and the ability to reason and choose) then the need to understand discourse becomes confined to the space not occupied by nature and human nature. And I don’t think that space is actually that big. Worth studying, sure. But also less important, in my mind, than many other aspects of development.

I may be missing something of course. Quite a few smart and considered people who I know are interested in post development thinking. Maybe they’re right and I’m wrong. But for now, for the reasons I’ve just outlined, I’m post caring too much about post-development.

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