Demystifying the Mythology of "Development"

I’ve always been uncomfortable using the words “developing” and “developed” when talking about countries.  At a certain intuitive level I felt that that very axis of valuation was wrong.  Should the United States be considered the apotheosis of “development” – an obvious ideal of human progress and satisfaction that the rest of the world should emulate? 

In light of the many unsustainable ecological and social pathologies that the neoliberal market order has spawned, that seems presumptuous, if not ridiculous.  Similarly, to call India or Brazil or Costa Rica a “developing” country is to imply that they are lagging behind the “developed” nations even though their cultures may be far healthier and happier than ours. 

So how did the whole discourse of “development” and its theory of value get going in the first place, and evolve into the international ideal of human aspiration?  I just had a crash course on that topic by reading a fantastic book, The History of Development:  From Western Origins to Global Faith, by Gilbert Rist, a Swiss scholar of development.  The book first appeared in French in 1996, and was translated into English only in 2008; the latest edition, the third, by Zed Books, came out in 2010.

What makes Rist’s history of the idea of development so illuminating is his deep perspective and insightful writing.  (A shout-out to the translator, Patrick Camiller, as well!)  Rist notes that “one of his principal intellectual interests has been to construct an anthropology of modernity in which he sees Western society as being every bit as traditional and indeed exotic as any other.”  That sentence in effect discloses his book’s purpose – to demonstrate how the West has spent the past sixty years trying to elevate ceaseless economic growth into a natural, universal myth that the entire world must embrace. 

Rist traces this mission back to the Enlightenment and its ideas of infinite progress based on rational, scientific initiatives.  Human well being is conceived as something that is just a little bit into the future.  If only a society will commit itself to “developing” its infrastructure and corporate sector, and exploit its natural resources and become a market-driven, consumer society, today’s “problems” will be solved and a utopian age will arrive.  As Rist puts it, “the present in banalized and only future growth counts.”  In this sense, “development” is essentially a theory of history.  “By dint of believing in ‘the meaning of history’,” he writes with characteristic bite, “one ends up conjuring history away.”

Yet Rist’s book is not just an anthropological or sociological account of development.  It is equally a political and economic story.  He brilliantly shows how colonization of Africa, Asia and Latin America was the precursor for a different mode of imperialism, market colonization, following World War II.  Bur rather than being a brute subjugation of people, the new discourse made dependency on “developed” countries a natural, universal fact – a way of thinking and seeing the world.  Through the lens of “development,” economic improvement and the national interest are yoked to the spread of civilization and the natural evolution of human societies.   

The formal inauguration development as a world vision can be traced to a famous speech that President Truman gave at his inauguration in 1949.  Turning his face to the poorer nations, he proposed that the United States “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.”  Truman cast this project as a high-minded endeavor, of course:  “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.” 

Thus was begun the “developed/underdeveloped” dichotomy that continues to this day.  The discourse shrewdly positioned the U.S. as an ally in dismantling the old colonial empires, which happily put it in a position to gain greater access to new markets – a new “anti-colonial imperialism,” as Rist puts it. 

With an impressive mastery of the historical record, Rist proceeds to explain how the development agenda unfolded in the postwar years and how it was facilitated by the U.S. Government and a new array of international institutions:  the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and others. 

This is the story of the internationalization of American capitalism and the various challenges that arose to challenge the “development” vision.  Some critiques were nationalistic, such as the daring effort by Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere to make his nation more self-reliant notwithstanding the benefits of international trade.  Then there was the non-aligned movement that sought to escape the influence of global capital, and also the “sustainable development” movement that has proved to be more of a clever evasion than a real solution to the ravages of global markets.

A recurring motif is the sly ways in which the champions of “development” have rebuffed and absorbed powerful criticisms.  At various points over the past six decades, movements have arisen to criticize development’s harm to the environment, its failure to alleviate poverty and improve human rights, and its worsening of inequality.  Invariably, international commissions or conferences were convened, with varying degrees of good faith, to study such criticisms and propose solutions. 

In the end, the utopian vision of “development” has always been rehabilitated with a fresh coat of paint:  the idea of globalization as a form of human progress, the idea of “sustainable development” as a way to protect the environment, the UN’s issuance of the Millennium Development Goals as a way to leverage markets to improve social well being.  Yet repeatedly these efforts fall far short.  A better, more effective path forward is never found…. it is confounded by the coinage of glittering oxymorons like “structural development with a human face,” “sustainable development” and “human development.”  The “solutions” end up being linguistic shams that link adversarial forces into an attractive, fashionable “new idea,” but one that inexorably fails to tame the savage market. 

One of the greatest insights that I drew from this book was how artful turns of phrase can effectively neutralize social criticism and enable mass self-delusions that something effective is being done.  Rist’s book is a major achievement by telling this story in one lucid, compelling arc that one begins to see how the patterns repeat.  For example, after a series of chapters on the numerous failed attempts to make “development” more socially constructive, Rist has a chapter devoted to “globalization as simulacrum of ‘development’.”  In short, the scam continues.  Rist, ever the anthropologist, calls the globalization movement a case of “secular messianism.” 

In the end, Rist believes that little progress can be made in overcoming the snares and deceits of “development” without somehow overthrowing the discourse of economics.  “The principles of ‘mainstream’ economics now fuel the common sense of the age and shape a certain way of seeing and behaving in the world,” writes Rist.  “Moreover, economics is coming to dominate all the human sciences by imposing methodological individualism as the only valid conception of social relations.”

Economics is an “obsolete paradigm,” Rist argues, noting that it deliberately severed its connections to ethics and politics in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and locked itself into a closed “vocabulary of mechanistic physics (force, flux, equilibrium, balance, mass, elasticity, etc.) to establish ‘laws’ comparable to those of nature:  that is, they naturalized social phenomena.” 

The problem is, this mechanistic vocabulary literally cannot understand ecosystems, social behaviors and morality.  It “excludes all sociability as a matter of principle,” Rist notes.  Modern economics fails to acknowledge that scarcity is as much a creation of markets (a social norm of deficiency that aims to spur consumption) as of nature itself.

After Rist’s bracing, thorough review of the history of development, one is left to wonder:  so what does Rist himself propose?  His concluding chapter on alternatives to development is short, but suggestive.  One paragraph puts it succinctly:

The aim should therefore be to regain political, economic and social autonomy for the marginalized regions, to break loose from monetary exchanges, to ask nothing of the State except that it refrain from crushing forms of self-organization, and to ensure that decisions are taken by the people directly concerned.  The idea is to invent new ways of living, between a modernization that cause suffering yet offers some advantages and a tradition that may be a source of inspiration even with the knowledge that it cannot be revived.”

Rist’s acknowledges that the real problem may be modernity itself – which helps explain why attempts to challenge the “development” paradigm have been so problematic:

What seems especially intolerable to the supporters of “development” is the way in which certain movements distance themselves from “modernity,” which is supposedly condensed in such values as progress, democracy, human rights and gender equality.  These principles are indeed closely bound up with the “development” project – and with Western culture.  So, it should come as no surprise that those who are trying to free themselves from “development” do not necessarily consider those principles to be priorities….

If respect for the values linked to modernity is the only criterion for judging the social order, what should be said of our own society, which amid general indifference is increasing the numbers of those excluded in the name of economic growth?  And what of the wars that cause countless victims, especially civilians, in the name of democracy or human rights?  What if the failure of “development” was not also the failure of Western civilization?

Most of those who are disillusioned with “development” and seek other ways to provide for their existence do not put forward any other theory.  In the eyes of “developers” this means that they remain “poor,” even if they themselves are not inclined to admit it.  Who should be believed?  Those who live frugally, by their own laws, and who get their reason for living and hoping from a worldview in which the aim is not to have enough money to stand out from others?  Or those who, from afar, evaluate the “standard of living” of others by comparing it with their own?