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Aram Ziai

Post-Development as a project of radical democracy

1) Post-Development ...

‘The idea of development stands like a ruin in the intellectual landscape. ... The time is ripe to write its obituary.’ (Sachs 1992b: 1) In the eraly nineties, this was the rallying call for a group of scholars - referring to themselves as ‘de-professionalized intellectuals’ - who founded an approach to development theory which has been since become known as ‘post-development’. They bluntly rejected ‘development’ simultaneously as a eurocentric discourse, an imperialist project, and a meaningless concept. One of its leading proponents describes the hallmarks of post-development as follows:

- an interest not in development alternatives but in alternatives to development, thus a rejection of the entire paradigm;
- an interest in local culture and knowledge;
- a critical stance towards established scientific discourses;
- the defence and promotion of localized, pluralistic grassroots movements (Escobar 1995: 215).

This description is fairly accurate but far from exhaustive, furthermore it leads to questions like: What do they actually mean by ‘rejection of the entire paradigm’? What exactly are ‘alternatives to development’? And what’s their problem with science?

To begin answering these questions, it may be helpful to start with what post-development describes as the ‘invention of development’. The authors are reffering to Truman’s point IV in his inaugural address in 1949, in which he declared the people in Africa, Asia and Latin America to be underdeveloped and in need of financial and technical assistance, and thus founded the post-World-War-II discourse of ‘development’. (The concept of discourse merely refers to a way of speaking which is bound up with relations of power and gives rise to political practices; it is thus based on a remotely Foucauldian, or rather pseudo-Foucauldian, idea.) In this declaration, all the diverse non-Western cultures were characterised by what they were lacking: ‘development’. Implicitly, the conditions in North America and Western Europe were defined as a higher stage in the evolution of humanity, and the ‘Other’ in the South was defined as some deficient, incomplete version of the standard model, the ‘developed’ society.  ‘The metaphor of development gave global hegemony to a purely Western genalogy of history, robbing peoples of different cultures of the opportunity to define the forms of their social life.’ (Esteva 1992: 9)

On top of this Eurocentrism, post-development asserts, ‘development’ was also an ideological weapon in the Cold War, a legitimation of neo-colonial economic relations, and, last but not least, a project whose ‘hidden agenda was nothing else than the Westernization of the world.’ (Sachs 1992b: 3f) Market, state and science are seen as the great universalizing powers aimed at reshaping the world according to the image of the West.

In the following decades, the post-development authors claim, the concept of development has been modified and redefined so many times, that there is no longer any fixed meaning attached to the term: it has become an ‘amoeba word’ (Esteva 1985: 79). ‘The term is hailed by the IMF and the Vatican alike, by revolutionaries carrying their guns as well as field experts carrying their Samsonites. Though development has no content, it does possess one function: it allows any intervention to be sanctified in the name of a higher goal.’ (Sachs 1992b: 4)

However, the ‘development era’ has come to an end in the eyes of the post-development protagonists. They give several reasons: the realization that the industrialized societies were steering the planet towards ecological disaster (and thus could no longer claim to be a successful model), the rapidly diminishing necessity for development aid after the end of the Cold War, the fact that ‘development’ in its attempt to transform the less developed into developed societies failed miserably, and finally that the single track along which countries were claimed to be advancing towards some state of maturity implied in the idea of ‘development’ seemed increasingly untenable in view of the cultural diversity of the world. The project has failed, and its promises seem worthless today in the post-development perspective.

Nevertheless, this failure is not bemoaned, but seen as an opportunity to create ‘alternatives to development’: ways of living which are based on different values, aims and practices. The central thesis of the post-development authors is that in countless urban and rural communities in the South, especially in grass-roots organisations and self-help movements, new social structures are in the making which can be described as being ‘post-development’ in the sense that they are a reaction on or reflection of the failure of ‘development’. The structures are, generally speaking, based on reclaiming the economy from the market, reclaiming politics from the state, and reclaiming knowledge from science. They consist of decentralized forms of decision-making (often in the form of direct democracy); of gaining autonomy from the market through subsistence agriculture, activities in the informal sector and establishing a ‘new commons’ at the local level; and of forms of knowledge based on tradition and / or systematized experience, both of which are often dismissed as unscientific by Western experts. These alternatives are thus not only respectful of cultural differences, they also give the people far more control over their lives, argue the protagonists of post-development.

2) ... and its critics

Among the diverse commentators on the post-development authors (Corbridge 1998, Kiely 1999, Nederveen Pieterse 1998 and 2000, Storey 2000, Nanda 1999, Knippenberg / Schuurmann 1994, to name but a few), there is a surprising unanimity that their ideas have to be dismissed - perhaps not that surprising given the radical nature of their claims. In most cases, post-Development texts have been interpreted as a cynical legitimation of neo-liberalism or a futile romanticization of pre-modern times, more sympathetic critics have at least acknowledged its potential to criticize the shortcomings of development theory and policy, but argue that post-development offers no constructive alternatives.

According to the first interpretation, the proponents of neo-liberal capitalism would welcome the post-development perspective because it has said good-bye to the idea of universalizing Western standards of living, because it rejects the idea of development aid, because it relies not on a strong state, but on ‘civil society’ and the self-help powers of the people, and because it questions the materialist view on prosperity and by implication the necessity of redistributive policies. Post-Development would thus allow the unhindered expansion of global capitalism while providing some cheap remedy for those regions irrelevant to the world market for lack of competitiveness, resources and skilled labour. However, what is overlooked by the critics is that the creation of alternatives to the world market could on the other hand also function as a threat to neo-liberal capitalism and lead to the withdrawal of urgently needed labour and goods from the world system.

Other widespread points of criticism are the following:

1. In post-development, there is an uncritical stance towards local communities and cultural tradition. The post-development texts seem to constitute ‘the last refuge of the noble savage’ (Kiely 1999), hopelessly idealising life in pre-modern communities and projecting romantic images onto the grim reality in these ‘alternatives to development’.

2. On the other hand, the complete rejection of modernity and development ignores the numerous positive aspects undoubtedly closely related to them: starting from the rights of the individual and ranging towards the achievements of modern medicine in lowering child mortality.

3. Post-development authors, in their celebration of cultural difference and their rejection of universalism, conceal or willingly accept the oppression legitimised by these notions. Female genital mutilation is only one among countless examples.

4. After all, post-development is only another blueprint for a better society to be established which is based on reversed, anti-Western values and practices, but still tells the people how they ought to live and is thus as authoritarian as the concept of development itself (Cowen / Shenton 1996).

5. Almost the opposite reproach is articulated by other commentators: although post-development may be useful in attacking mainstream development theory and policy, there is merely ‘critique but no construction’ (Nederveen Pieterse 2000), the post-development proponents refuse to lay out alternative ways of social change. In restricting themselves to promoting whatever alternatives are favoured by the social movements and grassroot-organisations in question, they fall back to some kind of ‘pontius-pilate politics’ (Kiely 1999).

Summing up the points of the critics, one gets the impression that post-development neatly fits Hettne’s description of neo-populism: ‘Traditional populism was essentially a defence of the territorial community against the functional system created by modern economic growth, both in its original capitalist form and in its derivative socialist form. Neo-populism, similarly, is an attempt to re-create community as an offensive against the industrial system... It negates mainstream development and in this negation lies the essence of the Utopian vision, historically expressed by the counterpoint tradition in Western politics, as well as in resistance against the imposition of the non-indigenous nation state on the peoples of the non-European world. ... Neo-populism resembles classical populism in several respects: the urge for community, the stress on primary production, the distaste of industrial civilization. However, there are significant new elements of relevance in this context: an environmental consciousness, encompassing the global ecological system, and a strong commitment to a just world order.’ (Hettne 1995: 117f) However, a closer look reveals that this description is only partially accurate.

3) Evaluating the criticisms

All of the criticisms mentioned are not entirely unfounded, neither is the charge of neo-populism. Nevertheless, it is possible to find examples indicating that not all of the post-development texts are justifiably attacked.

1. Uncritical stance towards local communitities and cultural tradition

Although it is true that many post-development authors are overly enthusiastic about their ‘local alternatives and traditions’, some maintain a more nuanced view: In discussing the communities and movements in question, Escobar emphasizes the necessity to avoid both extremes: ‘to embrace them uncritically as alternatives; or to dismiss them as romantic expositions...’ (Escobar 1995: 170)

2. Complete rejection of modernity and development

The possibility, or even the necessity and desirability of scavenging positive elements of modernity from the ruins of development, is stressed by some authors. Escobar points to the processes of cultural hybridization and mentions that ‘many ‘traditional cultures’ survive through their transformative engagement with modernity.’ (1995: 218) Rist characterizes the post-development essentials as follows: ‘The idea, then, in spite of ‘development’, is to organize and invent new ways of life - between modernization, with its sufferings but also some advantages, and a tradition from which people may derive inspiration while knowing it can never be revived.’ (Rist 1997: 244)

3. Cultural difference as instrument of oppression

In Escobar’s warning that ‘one must be careful not to naturalize ‘traditional’ worlds, that is, valorize as innocent and ‘natural’ an order produced by history...  The ‘local’... is neither unconnected nor unconstructed...’ (Escobar 1995: 170), he indicates that ‘local, traditional culture’ is a construct derived from the actual practices of the people - and not a rigid set of customs which can be defined by some autocratic ruler.

4. Another blueprint for a better society

At least to some of the authors it is clear that if the post-development principles are to be taken seriously, if no outside expert can legitimately define the goal according to which social change is evaluated within a certain culture, then the people have of course also the right to pursue Western-style development. Banuri admits: ‘this may entail a prior emphasis on such conventional objectives as economic growth, consumption, industrialization, equity, or basic needs. On other occasions, other goals may assume greater importance, such as political participation, social harmony, ecological conservation, or the maintenance of social and cultural values. It is not for the outside expert to insist that the goals which he or she thinks worth pursuing are the ones which should be pursued by all societies.’ (Banuri 1990: 96) Marglin also stresses this point: ‘Whatever one’s reservations may be about the necessity or utility of radios, televisions, motorcycles, and the like, the division between the necessary, the merely useful, and the wastefully luxurious is not ours to make; it is not our place to argue the virtues of simplicity and abstinence to those for whom material abundance is a distant dream.’ (Marglin 1990: 27)

5. Critique but no construction

Consequently, the opposite criticism, that post-development does not present any blueprints for social change, cannot be denied in the cases of the authors mentioned. However, this appears less as a flaw but as a merit in the view taken here. If the authoritarian and ethnocentric elements of development theory and policy are to be avoided, it is impossible to to define ‘development’ in normative terms (as the state of a ‘good society’ or the process approaching this state). This definition can legitimately only be reached by the people concerned through a democratic discussion leading ideally to a consensus.

4) Sceptical and neo-populist post-development

Obviously, it seems easy to disprove the majority of the criticisms by citing examples from some authors. Nevertheless, this does not mean that these criticisms were utterly unjustified, rather, it seems that under the heading post-development, certain significant differences exist between the texts. A systematic examination of these differences yields that post-development texts are divided on four specific points which correlate to the first four points of criticism.

1. While some texts engage in unhelpful romanticization of traditional culture and local communities, others are more sceptical and do not promote them uncritically.

2. While some texts reject development and modernity in toto, others find some positive elements that can be used in the post-development age.

3. While some texts see cultures as static and rigid, others promote a constructivist perspective which sees culture as unstable and changing practice.

4. While some texts preach the return to subsistence agriculture and formulate blueprints for a better society, others explicitly avoid doing so.

The important point is that these differences do not occur according to some random pattern: the texts romanticizing traditional culture usually see cultures as static and rigid, are based on a complete rejection of modernity, etc. A dividing line becomes visible along these points, and it appears adequate to divide the post-development school into a neo-populist and a sceptical variant.[1] This division matches Hoogvelts separation between post- and anti-development: ‘Postdevelopment theory and practice is different from anti-development sentiments in that it does not deny globalization or modernity, but wants to find some ways of living with it and imaginatively transcending it.’ (Hoogvelt 2001: 172) The critics of post-development have so far focussed mainly on the neo-populist variant, and have more or less ignored the sceptical elements within the school.

The sceptical elements, this view is put forward in this paper, are based on an implied metatheory which can be loosely described as postmodern. The impossibility to ascribe any characteristics to ‘development’, ‘modernity’, ‘traditional culture’, etc. and the postulate to regard them as constructs reveals a constructivist and anti-essentialist perspective. The unwillingness to define ‘development’ in a normative sense is typical for the rejection of the principle of representation, the principle of ‘speaking for others’. The consequence of adopting this perspective is, however, rarely reflected upon in post-development literature: it becomes impossible to reject ‘development’, because the signifier cannot be fixed to a specific signified. Nederveen Pieterse comments: ‘Apparently this kind of essentializing of ‘development’ is necessary in order to arrive at the radical repudiation of development, and without this anti-development pathos, the post-development perspective loses its foundation.’ (2001: 106). The first part of the statement can be readily agreed with, but it is possible to find a post-development perspective in the sceptical texts which is based on the radical repudiation of the concept of development without necessarily condemning anything that has been given the name of development.

5) Post-development as a project of radical democracy

On this basis, post-development can be interpreted not as a neo-populist nor as a neo-liberal project, but as a project of radical democracy in the sense of Lummis on the one and Laclau and Mouffe on the other hand. The criticisms and demands of sceptical post-development are quite in line with those of radical democracy:

1. The Marxist critique of capitalism is seen as important, but other relations of oppression and exploitation (e.g. in the fields of culture and knowledge or ecology) are as significant.[2] Furthermore, any philosophy of history and any essentialism leading to objective interests, universal blueprints and thus to new domination are to be rejected.[3]

2. The existing democratic structures seen as inadequate, as curtailing the right of self-determination and not democratic enough.

3. Existing power structures have to be radically decentralized, power has to remain at the local level. This includes not only polity and politics, but also epistemological and economic structures (Laclau/ Mouffe 2001: 178, 184; Lummis 1996: 18, 25, 135).

4. Claims for universal models and truths have to be rejected (Laclau / Mouffe: 191). However, this requires a universal right to self-determination (Lummis: 138). The plural character of democracy reveals impositions of such models as antidemocratic (Laclau / Mouffe: 183; Lummis: 76).

The main achievement of post-development can be described in the terminology of Laclau and Mouffe as follows: it extends social conflictuality to the area of development policy and development aid through reformulating relations of subordination implicit in development discourse as relations of oppression (Laclau / Mouffe 193). In contrast to earlier theories of imperialism and dependency, the critique is not restricted to economic issues and questions the whole perception of some countries being ‘developed’ and others less so. If progress is defined, as in one of the sceptical post-development texts, as ‘growing awareness of oppression’ (Banuri 1990: 95f), this achievement is not an insignificant one.

Works cited:

Alvares, Claude 1992: Science, Development and Violence. The revolt against modernity. Delhi, Oxford University Press

Apffel-Marglin, Frédérique / Marglin, Stephen (ed.) 1990: Dominating Knowledge: Development, Culture and Resistance. UNU, Oxford, Clarendon

Banuri, Tariq 1990: “Modernization and its Discontents: A Critical Perspective on the Theories of Development”, in: Apffel-Marglin / Marglin 1990, 73-101

Bauman, Zygmunt 1992: Intimations of Postmodernity. London, Routledge

Corbridge, Stuart 1998: “‘Beneath the Pavement only Soil’: The Poverty of Post-Development”, in: Journal of Development Studies, Vol.34, No.6, 138-148

Cowen, M.P. / Shenton, R. W. 1996: Doctrines of Development, London, Routledge

Escobar, Arturo 1995: Encountering Development. The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton, Princeton University Press

Esteva, Gustavo 1987: “Regenerating People’s Space”, in: Alternatives, Vol.12, 125-152

Esteva, Gustavo / Prakash, Madhu Suri 1998: Grassroots Post-Modernism. Remaking the Soil of Cultures. London, Zed Books

Ferguson, James 1994 (1990): The Anti-Politics Machine. “Development”, Depoliticization and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press

Hettne, Björn 1995: Development Theory and the Three Worlds: Towards an international political economy of development. Second edition, Harlow, Longman

Hoogvelt, Ankie 2001: Globalization and the Postcolonial World. The New Political Economy of Development. Second edition, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press

Kiely, Ray 1999: “The Last Refuge of the Noble Savage? A critical assessment of Post-Development Theory”, in: The European Journal of Development Research, Vol.11, No.1,30-55

Knippenberg, Luuk / Schuurmann, Frans 1994 : “Blinded by Rainbows: Anti-modernist and modernist deconstructions of development”, in: Schuurman, Frans J. (ed.) 1994: Current Issues in Development Studies. Global aspects of agency and structure, Nimegen Studies in Development and social change Vol.21, Saarbruecken, Verlag fuer Entwicklungspolitik Breitenbach, 90-106

Laclau, Ernesto / Mouffe, Chantal 2001 (1985): Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London, Verso

Latouche, Serge 1993 (1991): In the wake of the affluent society: Explorations in Post-Development. London, Zed Books (orig. 1991: La planète des naufragés. Paris, La Découverte)

Lummis, C. Douglas 1996: Radical Democracy. Ithaca, Cornell University Press

Marglin, Stephen A. 1990: “Towards the Decolonization of the Mind”, in: Apffel-Marglin / Marglin 1990, 1-28

Nanda, Meera 1999: “Who needs Post-Development? Discourses of Difference, Green Revolution and Agrarian Populism in India”, in: Journal of Developing Societies, Vol.15, No.1, 5-31

Nandy, Ashis (ed.) 1988: Science, Hegemony and Violence. A Requiem for Modernity. UNU, Tokyo, Oxford University Press

Nederveen Pieterse, Jan 1998: “My Paradigm or Yours? Alternative Development, Post-Develpoment, Reflexive Development”, in: Development and Change, Vol.29, 343-373

Nederveen Pieterse, Jan 2001: Development Theory. Deconstructions/Reconstructions. London, Sage

Rahnema, Majid with Bawtree, Victoria (ed.) 1997: The Post-Development Reader. London, Zed Books

Rist, Gilbert 1997: The History of Development. From Western Origins to Global Faith, London, Zed (orig. 1996: Lé développement. Histoire d’une croyance occidentale. Paris, Presses de Sciences Po)

Sachs, Wolfgang (ed.) 1992: The Development Dictionary. A Guide to Knowledge as Power. London, Zed Books

Shiva, Vandana 1989: Staying Alive. Women, Ecology and Development, London, Zed

Storey, Andy 2000: “Post-Development Theory: Romanticism and Pontius Pilate Politics”, in: Development (SID) Vol.43, No.4, 40-46

[1] In this vein, the works of Banuri, Marglin, Rist, Nandy and Escobar constitute the sceptical variant, while those of Esteva, Rahnema, Alvares, Shiva, Latouche and others tend towards the neo-populist pole.
However, it has to be remarked that gender and the relations of oppression related with it are something of a blind spot in post-development.
Post-development thus displays a healthy distrust towards any ‘foundational’ knowledge and any ‘foundational’ politics (cf. Bauman 1992).