Deconstructing Development

Before moving on to a discussion on the what a human rights approach means for development, I think it is important to reflect on what development means, where it comes from and some of the implications associated with this very political and politicized term.

In the book The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Power as Knowledge, Gustavo Esteva (2001:8) warns that “development occupies the centre of an incredible powerful semantic constellation.” Esteva is suggesting that our application and use of the term necessitates careful reflection because in saying “development”, most people end up saying the opposite of what they intend to convey (Esteva 2001:6).

For Esteva (2001) the “era of development” was ushered in by US President Truman (1949) who, on the day he took office stated:

We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. The old imperialism – exploitation for foreign profit – has no place in our plans.  What we envisage is a program of development based on the concepts of democratic fair dealing (in Esteva 2001:6).

Esteva (2001:7) argues that through this speech, two billion people became underdeveloped.  That is, “[i]n a very real sense, from that time on, they ceased being what they were, in all their diversity, and were transmogrified into an inverted mirror of others’ reality: a mirror that belittles them and sends them off to the end of the queue, a mirror that defines their identity, which is really that of a heterogeneous and diverse majority, simply in terms of a homogenizing and narrow minority.”

Many have sought to remedy, redefine or add caveats to definitions of development. Nyerere forwarded that development should be the political mobilization of a people towards the achievement of their own objectives. Rodolfo Stavenhagen argued we need to search for one’s own culture and “look within” instead of applying foreign views. Orlando Fals Borda and Anisur Rahman proposed participatory development that is conscious of exclusions made or enforced through development.

However, Esteva (2001) argues that development means at least one thing: to escape underdevelopment. Therefore to use or to try to qualify development and engage with it in a reflexive manner remains counterproductive as it reinforces the colonial notion of an undignified group of underdeveloped peoples.

To begin to consider the possibility of escaping a particular condition, one must first believe that they have fallen into such a condition.  This means that for two-thirds of the world’s population, to begin to “develop” they must first start to see themselves as “underdeveloped” and in doing so take on the burden of what this label bears. At the same time, for those commonly (and carelessly) labeled underdeveloped, “underdevelopment is a threat that has already been carried out; a life experience of subordination and of being led astray, of discrimination and subjugation” (Estava 2001:7) Estava (2001:7-8) continues “[g]iven that precondition, the simple fact of associating with development, one’s own intention tends to annul the intention, to contradict it, to enslave it. It impedes thinking of one’s own objectives…”.

Estava usefully outlines the evolution of the term development, from its beginnings as a natural process through which organisms reach their complete form, to the uptake of the term by Wolff, and a century later Darwin, to reflect transformation towards a more appropriate form. This constitutes through to Hegle’s notion of history and later Marx’s understanding of historical processes unfolding in alignment with nature’s laws.  In the hands of the powerful, the term development converted history into a political programme. Through this approach, the industrial mode of production emerged as the necessary and inevitable way forward in our social evolution. This is our path of development.

Development facilitates dichotomy-type thinking: developed versus underdeveloped. This approach stifles imagination, creativity, alternatives.  The metaphor of development grounded in a strictly Western history emerged as hegemonic and limited peoples of opportunities to define, or create the forms of their history and social life (Estava 2001). Development is unable to escape the implication of the words and connotations which formed and defined it: growth, evolution, maturation. And while upon first glance and consideration, the word can be seen to be positive and linked to progressive changes, for the majority of the world’s people, the positive connotations of the word, which are rooted in centuries of colonial construction, acts as a reminder or index of what they are not and to escape from their undesirable and undignified existence “they need to be enslaved to others’ experiences and dreams” (Estava:2010:10).

All of this is not intended to glorify poverty, or to suggest that conditions facing the majority of the world’s people are acceptable. It is a call to reflect on the implications and impact of the term development and the way in which work done in the name of “development” impacts people on the receiving end. Yes, aid and development work is important but often it promotes western hegemony, imposes western systems of land, property and capitalism and entrenches colonial relations and unjust relations of power. We need to do a better job reflecting on the broader implications and ideologies behind this work. One can think of the conflict between food aid and dumping as a simplified but telling example.

Far from apathy, Estava (2001:22) ends his deconstruction of development with a call for political action that celebrates the commons after the failure of developer’s strategies to “transform traditional men and women into economic men”. Estava concludes his paper by arguing that to recover serenity and a sense of reality, people must walk on their own feet, along their own path, to dream their own dreams, not those borrowed from development. And indeed, as the West jumps from crisis to crisis while monopolizing the majority of the world’s resources and upholding a lifestyle and ideology that forwards hyper consumption and hyper waste and entrenches poverty and power relations, our notion of “developed” and our ability to develop others seems shaky and misguided, at best.

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