Written by Anna Wangen //
Who writes the story of what “development” is? In a sphere that includes everything from high-level international governing bodies to the smallest local NGOs, as well as academics, humanitarian organizations, aid workers and more, the sheer diversity of actors and institutions renders conflicting ideologies, goals, and interests in “doing development” as inherent and unavoidable. Despite the presence of defined parameters for development work such as the UN’s Agenda 2030 and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as the preceding Millennium Development Goals and similarly multilateral agreements, these frameworks are largely dictated through mechanisms over-representative of the Global North — either through nationality, educational background, or a combination thereof. Simultaneously, participatory development and “grassroots” methods have gained popularity as development approaches in recent decades, allegedly taking into account the perspectives of individuals and local communities in the development process in light of the repeated failures of top-down, neoliberal, and Western-centric approaches spearheaded by institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and others in the postwar era.
In this mix of perspectives and methods, what then are we, as development practitioners, working for and striving towards? The ideological conflict between the top-down and bottom-up approaches used by international institutions and governments arising from economic determinism — a fixation on economic growth as the sole driver of, what is in this case, considered “development” — and the increased politicization of aid and development programs are just a few of the concerns that current approaches to development work raise, revealing practices that largely perpetuate traditional donor-recipient relationships, despite recent emphasis on collective action.
A critical approach to analyzing the problematic nature of development objectives is rooted in themes of ideology and power — defining elements of development both historically and as of late. Though the definition of ideology can differ across disciplines, its true force is present in its ability to shape discourse and wield epistemic hegemony — thus having power over the creation of what we know to be true, or the creation of “knowledge.” In his authoritative work on this subject, Terry Eagleton writes, “The force of the term ideology lies in its capacity to discriminate between those power struggles that are somehow central to the whole form of social life and those which are not.” It is essential for development practitioners to question systems of knowledge and widely held truths about what development is and should be, particularly regarding discourses of modernization, growth and the unsustainable spread of an economic system based on the proliferation of increased inequality, readily apparent in the neoliberal agenda pursued by international institutions and governments since the 1980s. Despite certain advantages of financial openness, the pursuit of increased competition combined with austerity in the developing world has jeopardized sustainable economic growth due what the IMF calls an “adverse loop,” where the inequality growth resulting from these policies actually undermines progress toward development objectives.
As a product of the subjectivities shaped by ideology and power over knowledge creation, the psychoanalytic and historic construction of the “other” is central to how conceptions of development take form. In his essential postcolonial text Orientalism, Edward Said defines the imperialistic and pervasive West-Other dichotomy present in research, literature, and culture as orientalism, or the “style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.'” Orientalism manifests itself as the “Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient.” Though historic examples of orientalism are manifold across culture and literature, development policy makers and practitioners are equally complicit in the perpetuation of path-dependent, one-size-fits-all development programs — despite evidence of repeated failure.
Although the “other” exists only as a construct, cultural theorist Raymond Williams additionally highlights how this practice of “othering” facilitates a space where “cultural and socioeconomic differences are taken up, projected and generalized,” thus enabling the creation of a culturally imperialistic, Western “master narrative” to which all “others” are compared. In development work, this translates to the prevalence of an idealized, “modern” Western society as the end goal of development and consequently, a hegemonic vision driven by states and organizations working towards goals such as industrialization, marketization, building stronger institutions, and duplicating patterns of economic growth found throughout history. However, as discussed by postcolonial theorist Ilan Kapoor, the way development practitioners conceptualize, visualize, and consequently, “other” people in the developing world a) says more about the aggrandized and savior-like Western sense of “self” than the “other,” and b) actually undermines work towards alleged “participatory development” methods through complicit exclusion and orientalism-driven conceptions of what beneficiaries want or need.
Amidst the known dominance of Western ideals in development discourse and the problematization of so-called “participatory development,” scholar Gayatri Spivak poses the seminal question, “Can the subaltern speak?” Moreover, in what capacity are they allowed to speak, and what power structures and epistemological hegemonies influence what both we and they say and think about what development is? Finally, how is this reflected and represented in culture and media? Violent histories of colonialism, and more currently, economic and cultural hegemony manifest themselves in imagery and texts that perpetuate a narrative of the powerlessness of the Global South, populations that require “saving” through Western intervention. This practice robs individuals and communities of their agency and supports the spread of Western superiority through a continued, but evolved, subordination of others. As Marx & Engels poignantly remind us — whether well-intending aid worker, government policy maker, or student, society is not immune to this phenomenon.
Moving forward, it is therefore vital to consider our positioning as development practitioners, questioning how and why we believe that certain types of development interventions, parameters, and goals are effective, as well as the systems and structures of power we may be perpetuating through our work. Most importantly, we must radically rethink the ideological underpinnings of development objectives and methods and consequently, shape a new understanding of what participation truly means in development — all in order to equip the development community for representing individuals and communities justly and inclusively when communicating and mediating development work. This approach challenges us to think beyond the parameters of the SDGs, an economic growth-dominated discourse, or how we think development should be, and is ultimately one of the key changes that must take place in order to address the global challenges that “development” so steadfastly tries to do.