Along with “anti-development,” postdevelopment is a radical reaction to the dilemmas of development. Perplexity and extreme dissatisfaction with business-as-usual and conventional development rhetoric and practice are keynotes of this perspective. This perspective emerges out of frustration with the seeming inability of development intervention to improve the lives of those in need. As a critical response to the development industry, this approach raises concerns with the imposition of science as power, cultural imperialism, and environmental destruction.
Resistance to development involves the realization that attaining a middle-class lifestyle for the majority of the world population is impossible. There are different strands to resistance to development. “Anti-development” is inspired by anger with development business-as-usual. “Beyond development” combines this aversion with scanning the horizon. “Postdevelopment” adopts a methodology of discourse analysis. These positions overlap with critiques of modernity and technoscientific progress as in ecological movements.
Development intervention requires the management of a promise – and what if the promise does not deliver? Living in Chiapas or other oppressed and poor areas, chances are that development is a bad joke. Postdevelopment is not alone in looking at the shadow of development; all critical approaches to development deal with its dark sides. Dependency theory raises the question of global inequality. Alternative development focuses on the lack of popular participation. Human development addresses the need to invest in people. Postdevelopment focuses on the underlying premises of development, and what sets it apart from other critical approaches is its rejection of development. Since the 1980s activists and intellectuals in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Europe have taken up these views. They typically problematize poverty, view development as westernization, and critique modernism.
Economists in the field of development focus on issues of poverty. Yet one can distinguish between “frugality,” as in subsistence economies, “destitution,” which arises when subsistence economies are weakened through growth strategies, and “scarcity,” when the need for commodities takes over. Often development policies encourage the implementation of growth strategies with caution, building on frugal lifestyles with appropriate technology and maximum use of local resources. “Poverty” may be seen as more than an economic deficit, though, as engaged through Frierean approaches such as conscientization and human-scale development.
The Anti-Development Paradigm
Anti-development thinkers object to development as a form of westernization. With decolonization came critiques of cultural imperialism and “Coca-Colonization.” Yet, this may deny the agency of the global south and the extent to which the south also owns development. Development perspectives such as dependency theory, alternative development, and human development originate to a significant extent in the south. A more appropriate rejoinder to Eurocentrism is recognizing that multiple centers, also in the global south, shape development discourse.
Part of anti-western sentiments is anti-modernism. No doubt development suffers from “psychological modernism,” through its focus on technological progress over human development. Social movement groups in the west have joined others in the south in their resistance to the privileging of science as power. “Science” here means Enlightenment thinking, positivism, and achieving mastery over nature. Yet the utility of science is more complex. Ecological movements use scientific methods to monitor energy use, pollution, and climate changes.
Like Orientalism, analyzed by Edward Said, development discourse serves to produce and manage developing countries. Discourse analysis, scrutinizing language as a framework of structures of thought, has become a critical tool in development studies.
This type of analysis permits broad critique of the development industry as a whole.
Peculiarities of The Postdevelopment
Postdevelopment critique differs from other alternative approaches in its rejection of the system of development, whereas some alternative strategies advocate working within the system. However, postdevelopment critics are not interested in alternative development, but in alternatives to development. Postdevelopment challenges the managerialist nature of development, when it attempts to shape and control economies and societies. So what to do? One response is nothing. However, doing nothing comes down to endorsing the status quo.
Postdevelopment thinking is uneven. In proposing to do away with development, postdevelopment essentializes “development.” Essentializing “development” is necessary to arrive at the repudiation of development, and without the anti-development pathos, postdevelopment loses its foundation. Some postdevelopment claims misrepresent the history of development. The Development dictionary refers to the 1940s as the beginning of the development era (Sachs 1992). But the application of development to the south started with colonial economics and besides, development has an older history in the latecomers to industrialization in central and eastern Europe and in Soviet economic planning. Dichotomic thinking, pro- and anti-development, underrates the complexity of motives and motions in modernity and development. Postdevelopment’s take on real existing development is narrow. Many reflections are general and do not discuss cases.
When cases are described, the experience of East Asia is ignored, despite its economic achievements.
In response to these concerns, postdevelopment opts for Gandhian frugality, grassroots movements, and indigenous knowledge. But none of these necessarily add up to rejecting development. If we read neo-liberal critiques of the developmental state side by side with postdevelopment critiques of development power, the parallels are striking. Both agree on state failure, though for different reasons. According to neo-liberal critics, states fail because of rent seeking; postdevelopment critics object to authoritarian social engineering and the faith in progress. Yet the net political effect is much the same and there is an elective affinity between the development agnosticism of neo-liberalism and postdevelopment. Some argue that many social movements in the global south resist development. However, social movements in the south are too diverse to be captured under a single heading. Some are concerned with access to and inclusion in development programs, while others attempt alternative political action.
Criticism of Postdevelopment
The politics of resistance to development is one of local struggles in the limited sense of Michel Foucault, rather than emancipation. Foucault’s imagination of power is an imagination without exit. Accordingly, postdevelopment takes critique of development to the point of retreat. The imaginary of power that inspires postdevelopment leaves little room for forward politics. Instead, what postdevelopment offers is a cultural critique of development in which development is a substitute for modernity.
Postdevelopment is caught in rhetorical gridlock. Using discourse analysis as an ideological platform invites political quietism. In the end, postdevelopment offers no politics besides the self-organizing capacity of the poor, which lets the development responsibility of states and international institutions off the hook. Since most insights in postdevelopment sources are not specific to postdevelopment, what is distinctive is the rejection of development. Yet the rejection of development does not arise from postdevelopment insights as a necessary conclusion. Postdevelopment parallels postmodernism both in its acute intuitions and in being directionless in the end, because of the refusal to translate, or lack of interest in translating, critique into construction. It also matches the neo-traditionalist reaction to modernity with romantic and nostalgic strands.
Social movements, north and south, engage not merely in resistance but also in transformation and cannot be simply captured under the label “anti.” Postdevelopment’s strength is a hermeneutics of suspicion and an anti-authoritarian sensibility. But since it fails to translate this into a constructive position what remains is whistling in the dark. Postdevelopment adopts a wide angle in looking at development through the lens of modernity. Yet its optics is not sophisticated and its focus is blurred. Resistance to development and postdevelopment are based on flawed premises, flawed not as sensibilities but as positions.
The problem is not the critiques, but the accompanying rhetoric. “Alternatives to development” is a misnomer because no alternatives to development are offered. There is critique but no construction, resistance but no transformation. “Postdevelopment” is misconceived because it attributes to “development” a single and consistent meaning that does not match either theory or policy, and thus replicates the rhetoric of development rather than penetrating its polysemic realities. It echoes the “myth of development” rather than leaving it behind. Postdevelopment makes engaging contributions to collective reflexivity about development and as such contributes to philosophies of change, but its contribution to politics of change is meager. (General sources are in Sachs 1992; Rahnema & Bawtree 1997; a wider treatment is in Nederveen Pieterse 2001.)
- Nederveen Pieterse, J. (2001). Development theory: Deconstructions/reconstructions. London, Sage.
- Rahnema, M., & Bawtree, V. (eds.) (1997). The post-development reader. London, Zed.
- Sachs, W. (ed.) (1992). The development dictionary: A guide to knowledge as power. London: Zed.
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