Alternative Development or Alternatives to Development – III

The specific discourse of development emerged in the era of national liberation struggles as a containment strategy to appropriate and normalize challenges to colonialism and neo-colonialism. Development policies and projects proliferated in an attempts to mange the evident poverty and inequality in post-colonial settings by isolating the causes of these conditions within these settings, thereby rendering invisible the role of global forces in producing poverty and inequality. “National” development was scripted by this new discourse. It did so by positing an underdeveloped and unproductive subject to be named, located, studied, theorized, and ultimately policed through development agencies and projects. Once defined, located and policed, this subject was to be the ostensible beneficiary of development projects imparted from above by governments under the direction of international development agencies. This teleology of progress not only provided yet another alibi for colonialism’s role in forging the conditions of post-coloniality, but also furnished the rationale for continued surveillance and disciplining of post-colonial societies and subjects.

Development, then, can be conceptualized as an institutional apparatus that links forms of knowledge about the Global South with the deployment of particular forms of power and intervention. Once societies become targets of these new mechanisms of assertion of power – embodied in endless strategies and programs – their economies and cultures are offered up as new subjects of knowledge that, in turn, create new possibilities of assertion of power.

The imaginary of development imprisons even its critique. This is the primary effect of a meta-theory of history, the foundation of the development project, which holds hegemonic sway even over the critics. This meta-theory is one that posits all human history as an unidirectional and linear movement from primitive to modern. Forges in the context of the colonial encounter, this meta-history assigned colonized societies to the pre-history of the West and served to legitimize domination and subjugation. This meta-theory of history trained on the difference the colonized native presented to the colonizer, and explicitly empowered certain cultures while suppressing others. In this meta-history all surviving cultures in the Rest have to rewrite their own history and live up to that of the West. In this schema post-colonials have a noxious past, a degraded present, and some others enviable present as their future.

Rabindranath Tagore, writing almost a century ago, stated the matter well when he said: “The entire East is attempting to take into itself a history which is not the outcome of its own living.”

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2 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    “The specific discourse of development emerged in the era of national liberation struggles as a containment strategy to appropriate and normalize challenges to colonialism and neo-colonialism.” A better argument might be that the specific discourse of development emerged as a containment strategy against feared Soviet expansion. The first use of the word “development” in its current context was in Harry Truman’s 1949 inaugural (, which began with a long contrast between communism and democracy, and then announced a “bold new program” for “the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.” In his memoirs, Truman explained that this part of the speech “was a practical expression of our attitude toward the countries threatened by Communist domination.” This doesn’t seem so much as seeking to “normalize” a “challenge to colonialism” as to try to make sure that new countries emerging from colonialism were aligned with the West rather than with the Soviets. Whether this attitude was itself “colonialist” is somewhat in the eye of the beholder, and, one could argue, not how the protagonists conceived it.

  2. I suspect Tagore would would have been a bit more discriminating in his conceptualization and critique of “development” and its connection to colonial and post-colonial ideologies. For it was this same Tagore who was, as Amartya Sen reminds us, “proud of the fact that his family background reflected ‘a confluence of three cultures, Hindu, Mohammedan [‘Islamic’] and British’….”

    It was this same Tagore who “thought that the ‘idea of India’ itself militates ‘against the intense consciousness of the separatenss of one’s own people from others.'”

    It was this same Tagore who “made a special effort to dissociate his criticism of the Raj from any denigration of British or Western people and culture,” as he was capable of distinguishing between Western imperialism and Western civilization.

    It was this same Tagore who cited the benefits of the ‘large-hearted liberalism of nineteenth-century English politics.’

    It was this same Tagore who critiqued patriotism in the name of seeking spiritual refuge in ‘humanity.’

    It was this same Tagore who, upon visiting the Soviet Union in 1930, “was much impressed by its development efforts and by what he saw as a real commitment to eliminate poverty and economic inequality.” Tagore was especially impressed by the education of peasants and the working classes in Russia, noting that ‘nothing comparable has happened even to our highest classes in the course of the last hundred and fifty years.’ (Incidentally, while Tagore may have been a bit naive about the Soviet Union, he did criticize the lack of freedom in the country.)

    It was this same Tagore, who unlike Gandhi, according to Sen, “would not resent the development of modern industries or the acceleration of technical progress.”

    It was this same Tagore who adamantly opposed “an exaggerated fear of the influence of the West, who said that ‘it hurts me deeply when the cry of rejection rings loud agains the West in my country with the clamour that Western education can only injure us.'”