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The Post-Development Debate

Is there any good in development?

Source : dearferdo

In the fields of Development Studies, there are currently two major schools.

The modernization scholars argue that the mechanisms of development, although imperfect, are contributing to improving the living conditions in the South countries (in Africa, Latin America and Asia). The key issue for them is to find the right models and policies at the World Bank (WB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the regional banks (AfDP, ADP, CAF), …

Since international organizations have been invested the task of developing the world, economists conceived plenty of big development theories. To mention the most important ones, there were Rostow’s five stages of growth linear model in the 1960s, the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) from the 1980s, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000, Jeffrey Sach’s Millenium Villages Project in 2005 and now the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) since 2015.

So far, all of these policies have been relative failures, failing at least to achieve their goals, or complete failures in the case of the SAP, which actually weakened the nations in which they were implemented. The 1990 is often called the “lost decade” in development studies for that reason.

But economists learn from the mistakes of the past. They invent new models, create new theories and measure new indicators in order to supervise a more and more holistic development. Let’s remember that behind the SDGs 17 goals (the MDGs had 8) there are 169 targets, each evaluated with an indicator either already existing or being conceived for that purpose. The Sustainable Development Goals are mobilizing A LOT of economists, statisticians, demographers, global leaders and local actors from all around the world in order to see the implementation of its goals.

On the opposite side, the post-development scholars argue that creating better great theories is not the solution. To quote the synthetic work of Michael Goldman Imperial Nature, such scholars see development “as both a set of institutions (e.g., capitalist markets, global organizations) and discourses (i.e., fighting poverty through capital investment) that combine to engender and legitimatize the highly exploitative social relations between the world’s wealthy and the poor”. Development, for them, has to be overcome.

For nearly a century now, development has been evolving from a mostly economic field to a multidisciplinary one that includes social and political sciences.

Let us mention a few name of this global movement: “Arturo Escobar, Majid Rahnema, Gustavo Esteva, Vandana Shiva, Wolfgang Sachs” and Gilbert Rist. Their thoughts are built on the diverse waves of critics of development that preceded them, from the 1950s Third-Worldism, the 1960s-1970s dependentistas and other neo-marxist critics, the 1980s postcolonial and subaltern studies thinkers, the 2000–2010s alterglobalists of the World Social Forum… For nearly a century now, development has been evolving from a mostly economic field to a multidisciplinary one that includes social and political sciences.

Which such history of criticism, no wonder why critics of development come from all around the academic and political spectra. The Tyranny of Experts author for example, the economist William Easterly, strongly opposes the idea that experts from the IMF and the World Bank could legitimately dictate the policies of a government, notably through conditional loans. Development, for him, is a dangerous ideology that must stop for two reasons:

  • Development theories have so far failed again and again when put into practice.
  • Developing countries can and must find their own diverse means to develop.

Easterly’s argument is clear: he is for “the freedom of individuals and societies to choose their destinies.” He advocates indeed for economic freedom, insured by strong institutions taking care of the rule of law, as well as political freedom, without foreign experts imposing their ideas. His original reading of classical economists and views on the importance of governments made the New York Times call him an “odd conservative”.

What will be the next big idea in development studies? Source : Rodion Kutsaev

At the end of his book The history of development, critical thinker Gilbert Rist offers three alternatives to today’s development.

First, we can accept that development is flawed, but remain convinced of its legitimacy and work towards a radical transformation of development: North to South technological transfers, economic integration, renegotiation of international accords, promotion of cooperation and solidarity… These ideas are borrowed from Comeliau’s 1991 book.

Second, to avoid the material and cultural expropriation, marginalized societies could restore their political, economical and social autonomy. Rist mentions a multitude of local movements around the globe aiming to create new lifestyles “despite development”.

Third, we could question not merely development, but the economic imaginary itself. Perpetual growth, the universality of theories, the scientificness of economy, the unconditional belief in development… All of those concepts can be tackled theoretically, in order to open up new realities beyond their limitations.

This last proposition echoes the views of degrowth theorists and political activists. Imbued with strong ecological beliefs, they argue that we should, or must, stop aiming for growth, to build instead lifestyles of “frugal abundance” centered on welfare, not economic success. This movement, recently summed up by Serge Latouche, is also very diverse, from welfare economy to the pluriverse theory, from the Ecuadorean/Bolivian buen vivir (Living Well), to the Indian Earth Democracy

The Post-Development debate thus confronts two sides: the modernists and the post-development thinkers. On one side, development is assessed and criticized to be improved; on the other it is done so to be overcome.

The different views on ecology today is a good illustration of the tensions between the two groups. The key word on the modernist side is Sustainable Development: a “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It is the kind of action put forward by the UN with its SDGs, and in fact by most international and national development organisations.

For some of the post-development critics like Serge Latouche, the word Sustainable Development is an oxymoron: development means growth, sustainable means protecting the nature; however, we are already exploiting the Earth at an excessive rate at the current level, so thinking that we can continue to grow while preserving the nature is hypocritical. Such neo-Malthusian thinking is the core of some of their ideas.

To develop or not to develop, the debate goes on.

The modernists assess and criticize development to improve the way it is done; the post-development thinkers do so to overcome development.

Source : Bailey Zindel




We are Master students in Development Studies at the University of Paris 1. We deconstruct the world and its ideologies, we study social and economic changes and we think of solutions for a better tomorrow. This is our platform to share our discoveries, thoughts and creations.

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Amaël Cognacq

Amaël Cognacq

Website : amaelcognacq.wordpress.com — I write my small answers to the big issues that obsess me in politics, development, literature, art, LGBTQ, …

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