Geometry of development refer to the spaces, shapes, and arrangements underlying the idea and practice of development. Similar to a classic definition of “geometry” as a physical arrangement of forms, discourses of development describe the arrangement of various actors within a global system. As used within development discourse, geometries of development describe the relationship among three elements: spaces, key points, and vectors. Boundaries demarcate the “edges” of various kinds of spatially based actors in a global system – such as nation-states, regions, and transnational configurations. Points refer to key institutional sites where development policies and programs are formulated and implemented, such as government ministries and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), but also where policy may be resignified and resisted (e.g., social movements, nongovernmental organizations [NGOs], local governing bodies). Vectors are linkages among institutional and spatial actors characterized by directions of the flow of resources and benefits and by the strengths of the exercise of power. These relationships help create divisions of various kinds among actors and determine the overall shape of the structure of development. Thus, in the geometry of development framework, structural shape is somewhat contingent and fluid, created by the spatial boundaries and coordinates of actors in a global system. Further, the structural shape is characterized by hierarchically arranged actors whose places are formed historically by the vectoral relationships among those actors.
Purpose and Origins of the Approach
The geometry of development approach offers a flexible analytical tool for analyzing development processes (see Shah & Wilkins 2005). The abstract concepts within the geometry of development framework are not bound by nation-states as the key unit of analysis, though they are recognized as important actors. Also, the geometry of development approach is not limited to viewing the flow of development aid in a “Westto-Rest” fashion. The nomenclature involving space, points, and vectors allows not only critique of various arrangements of development geometry, but also consideration of alternative development arrangements that are open to incorporating a wide range of actors and in which there are no predetermined roles.
The contemporary, neo-liberal geometry of development has been dominant in global development relations since the end of World War II. Grounded in a Cold War context, this geometry of development created spatial distinctions between west and east, rich and poor, and first and third worlds. The underlying principle of the Cold War-era development approach involved the transfer of financial, technical, and human resources (vectors) among spatial and institutional actors and functioned within a set of categories that distinguished, with each transaction, donors from recipients. The current global geometry of development articulates a vision of development that compartmentalizes communities divided along various types of boundaries. The Cold War-era development thinkers divided the world neatly along political (communism in the east vs democracy in the west), economic (industrialized north vs agricultural south), cultural (modern vs traditional), and hierarchical (first = west, second = east, and third = south) lines.
The emergence of the dominant geometry of development can be traced to the late 1940s. While preparing his 1949 inaugural address, US President Harry Truman’s staff agreed upon three central points regarding foreign policy: to continue support for the United Nations organization; to maintain commitment to the Marshall Plan; and to create a joint US–European defense organization. Almost as an afterthought, a mid-level civil servant suggested a fourth point: to expand existing Latin American technical assistance programs to the poor countries of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, thereby expanding an existing vector between the United States and countries of the “south.” Point Four received massive attention from the press and policymakers around the world. As a result, government efforts in this area were intensified and over the course of several decades, new international actors were created, such as the forerunners to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), regional development banks, and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Consequently, Point Four established in a very public, very global way the idea of underdevelopment as a synonym for what had been called “economic backwardness,” and demonstrated in a dramatic way the position of power held by the United States in defining the status of other nations.
At the time this framework emerged, the idea that development could be strategically planned and stimulated was notable for shifting away from the idea of intransitive social change. Importantly, the Point Four configuration of international relations eliminated (at least rhetorically) the colonizer–colonized relationship by erasing discussions of unequal relations of power among nations. Underdevelopment was now a stage in an inevitable, linear process toward development that all nations went through. This development–underdevelopment continuum created the possibility of recognizing intervention as a humanitarian mission rather than one of colonization or imperialism. Finally, mass media were assumed to operate as an appropriate and relevant means toward inspiring people in the “underdeveloped” world to emulate those in the “developed” west (see Lerner 1958). Many of these basic principles still serve as the foundations for development practice today, as international development institutions allocate resources to transfer knowledge and technologies to communities in nations with few material resources.
Critique of the Dominant Geometry of Development
The dominant geometry of development has been criticized from several directions. As has been suggested in many other reviews of dominant development models, the approach inappropriately justifies the positioning of wealthier states as a normative model and therefore legitimizes their intervention in “underdeveloped” areas. The model has been critiqued also for its ethnocentric vision, collapsing diverse communities of the south with a wide range of cultural histories into a single monolithic space for development intervention. According to some scholars, even the seemingly innocuous assumption that technologies themselves are inherently “neutral” belies an ethnocentric approach.
The dominant geometry of development also implies a vectoral relationship whereby interventionist policies and programs, created at various institutional points in countries of the north, are posed as being in the best interests of their target communities in the south. Such views allowed many academics and policymakers in the north, without a trace of self-doubt or self-consciousness, to craft blueprints for “developing” the south in the image of the north. The dichotomization of the entire global structure of development into modern and traditional spaces (even with a transitional category in between, as evidenced in Lerner 1958) obscures the intersections between and within practices in historical contexts. These broad generalizations miss distinctions within countries, essentialize groups into homogeneous categories, typically at the level of nations rather than communities, and assume that experiences of poverty, gender, and other social conditions are similar across historical and cultural contexts. This kind of “spatial will to power,” as Escobar (1995) puts it, allowed domestic elites in southern countries in the postcolonial era to represent their specific self-interest as a class as equivalent to the general interest of the nation-state as a whole. More often than not, however, the interests of domestic elites in southern countries actually were identical to the interests of development policymakers in the north’s countries. As such, the south’s country elites replicated the dominant international geometry of development within the boundaries of southern nations. This process has, in many cases, resulted in the abuse of minority and indigenous rights.
Another problem with this dominant geometry of development is that it conceptualizes the development–underdevelopment continuum in a way that fetishizes geopolitical boundaries. Postdevelopment critiques have illustrated the processes through which the development industry constructs “third world” spaces through planning and implementing strategic intervention. The dominant bilateral and multilateral development institutions are premised on a notion of stable geopolitical boundaries, and the development “target” becomes operationalized as the “third world.” Even in participatory models of development, despite the best intentions and dedicated work of many practitioners and scholars, “participation” serves more often to fulfill administrative needs of the industry than as an alternative to dominant development approaches.
In the geometry of development created by Point Four, since the primary unit of analysis was the nation-state, five-year plans, data-gathering protocols, communication systems, infrastructure building, bureaucracy creation, and other activities were all conceived as national projects. While these data may have been useful for certain largescale planning and policy purposes, they missed recognizing the inequities in resource distribution among segments of a country’s population. A tremendous amount of energy was expended on mapping territories and constructing borders of newly independent states. Again, this information may have been valuable for building infrastructure, facilitating some forms of social interaction, and creating certain kinds of economic growth (all with unequally distributed benefits), but another purpose of these activities was to monitor and constrain the movement of minority and indigenous communities.
With regard to communication issues in the dominant geometry of development, the operative assumption was that nationally based media systems were necessary to distribute information efficiently and to mobilize people to become modem in the national interest.
Lerner and others assumed that identities fostered through national media systems would transcend other identifications within and across national boundaries, and that these larger media systems would be more efficient and sophisticated than other, smaller media systems. Even current development discourse, perpetuating this geometry, seems incapable of dealing with the contemporary vectoral realities of specialized transnational media networks created by diasporic communities.
Many writers are uneasy with the vocabulary of the dominant geometry of development, employing quotations and footnotes to signal their critical use of terms such as “third world” and “development.” These scholars and practitioners are attempting to distance themselves from an ethnocentric vision of a hierarchical distinction between the northern west as “first” and others as somehow “lagging” behind, in “third” or even “fourth” place. However, even these critical usages can evoke a more-or-less traditional understanding of geopolitics. For example, the term “third world” was first posed during the 1789 French Revolution as a way to refer to a “third estate,” or people in poverty lacking political power, and since then has been critically used to denote spatial actors, such as communities united through shared experiences of oppression based on race, ethnicity, class, or gender hierarchies; of economic distance from or dependency on the global capitalist economy; or of anti-colonial political struggles. The dominant, Point Four-inspired geometry of development typically essentialized diverse groups of donor and recipient nations into broad geopolitical categories. An alternative geometry of development framework can accommodate a variety of social groupings (i.e., new spatial and institutional actors), along local and regional lines, that resonate more clearly with cultural histories and contexts.
- Escobar, A. (1995). Encountering development: The making and unmaking of the Third World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Lerner, D. (1958). The passing of traditional society: Modernizing the Middle East. New York: Free Press.
- Shah, H., & Wilkins, K. (2005). Reconsidering geometries of development. Perspectives on Global Development and Technology, 3(4), 395–416.
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