By Shalmali Guttal
Development theory is by no means a disinterested body of knowledge. It speaks both, from and to specific positions and interests that are determined by class and power. The massive corpus of development theory is made possible and fortified by the actual practice of development. While theories may not translate perfectly into praxis (we live in an imperfect world after all), imperfections and failures play an important role in strengthening the hegemony of theory over practice. Failures are absorbed into the world of theory and models with remarkable ease, and then reproduced as newer versions of the product.

Development theories–economic and otherwise—are generally created by academics and experts in universities, think tanks, private research foundations, and in institutions of the international development bureaucracy (such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and bilateral donor agencies). Creating and establishing theory is no small task. Lots of people have great ideas, which they put into practice with astounding results. But these do not become theories. Moving from idea to theory requires a tremendous investment of resources for thinking and research, institutional backing, support and legitimation, and opportunities for application, correction and refinement. Such investments come—at various times–from governments, private corporations, political and religious groups, wealthy individuals or families, philanthropic institutions, and the international aid bureaucracy. Each investor brings its own specific interests to the project of theory formulation, which academics then also become bound to.

Activists usually occupy the imperfect world of reality and practice that academics seek to make sense of through theories and models. Many activists engage in research and many are academics themselves. The divide between academics and activists has as much to do with their differing roles in the same system of knowledge, as with differences in the types of knowledge that they subscribe to and the realities that they perceive themselves to be grounded in. This divide can be bridged through greater dialectical engagement among activists and academics, as well as political and substantive collaborations on areas of common interest.

But bridging the activist-academic divide will not necessarily ensure that economic development theories will yield social change projects and policies that are indeed meaningful to the world outside theory. This would require a radical unpacking of the realm of development, its political economy and the forces that drive and control development along its present directions.

Making Sense of Development

Over the past fifty years, development has become the dominant imagination that defines acceptable and unacceptable standards of life for the world. Development found its early feet in the era of decolonisation and its initial impulse came from economic growth strategies: capital accumulation, division of labour, competition, technological progress, industrialisation, trade, increased savings and investments, and growth in incomes. Today, development is a discipline that extends across a range of physical and social environments, geographic and political contexts, social and cultural arenas, fields of expertise, and institutional practices. Although economics still forms the backbone of development theory, development now encompasses every possible issue, from democratisation to world peace.

The dominant image of the era of development is one of social and economic transformation through the exercise of economic, technical, technological, scientific, intellectual and institutional expertise. And certainly, such transformations are visible in physical infrastructure, medical science, industry, new technologies and sciences, information and knowledge, new products, legal, financial and administrative systems, and material well being for many.

At the same time, the development era has also resulted in the concentration of wealth and assets in the hands of a disproportionately small number of commercial entities; increased impoverishment and inequality; increased unemployment and underemployment; recurrent famines and hunger; accelerated environmental contamination and destruction; the dislocation of rural societies and economies; shattering debt and economic crises; the growth of unliveable urban environments; chronic health crises; and widespread alienation of millions of people from traditional lands and environments through involuntary displacement and migration. This has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in wars, social/ethnic conflicts and violence, decreased democratic and political space, and a renewed subservience of former colonies to the industrialised north through contemporary international agreements.

Despite the billions of dollars channelled into the development machinery, not only has development failed in its promise to deliver well being, prosperity and advancement to the majority of the world’s people, but on the contrary, it has exacerbated and entrenched the structural foundations of poverty, inequity and injustice. The economic prosperity of some has left disproportionately large numbers in the traditional south in dire poverty. Despite repeated promises of poverty reduction over the past twenty years, the actual number of people living in poverty has increased by almost 100 million. The richest 1 percent of the world’s population now receive as much income as the poorest 57 percent, while the income of the richest 25 million Americans is the equivalent of that of almost 2 billion of the world’s poorest people. At least 54 countries are poorer now than in the 1980-s; more than 800 million suffer from malnutrition; more than 13 million children have died because of diarrhoeal diseases; and every year, over half a million women die during pregnancy or childbirth. During this same time, total world income has actually increased by an average of 2.5 % annually.

How does one make sense of development? Is development a system of “neutral,” evolving multi-disciplinary solutions to the diverse challenges faced by nations and peoples? If so, what has gone wrong with its solutions and why? Or, is development a deeply politicised regime of “truths” that prescribes how the world’s wealth should be used? If so, how can it be challenged at its most fundamental level? And what other truths about life, well being, wealth, progress and prosperity has development marginalised or suppressed?

“The Anti-Politics Machine”

Perhaps the most confounding dimension of development is its disconnects between promise and reality, and between theory and praxis. The more lofty development’s promises and theories are, the more distanced they become from reality and praxis.

Despite declining aid flows and growing evidence of its failures, the field of development has continued to flourish financially, professionally, institutionally and epistemologically. Over its half-century history, development has moved inexorably from “technical” and economic” to “institutional”, “social” and “sustainable” (Lohmann, 1998). The development establishment has vastly expanded to include academics, professional practitioners (“experts”), planners, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), aid bureaucrats and financiers. Private businesses have also joined the team. Most major universities have numerous departments dedicated to creating development expertise, from economics—its founding parent—to sociology, anthropology, nutrition, governance, women’s studies, natural resource management and agriculture. Development has entire armies of experts in every possible field at its disposal, ready and waiting to carry out its bidding. And most important, development has behind it a massive corpus of knowledge which legitimises its existence and justifies its expansion.

There may not be enough money available to support clean water systems, basic education, primary health care, workers’ compensation and family-farm based agriculture. But there is always money available for research on specific forms of water management, agricultural extension, cost-recovery systems for health and education, and labour mobility. It would appear that the abundance of theory on the various subjects that come under development’s purview are far in excess of the problems it claims to tackle. But even this abundance of knowledge has not resulted in addressing development’s foundational challenges: long term and sustained poverty reduction, and economic progress and well being for all.

Many theorists themselves point out that the interface between tidy development theory and the anarchy of reality is problematic. This is particularly so in the case of economic development theories, which are formulated around assumptions about markets and the supposedly “rational” behaviour of human beings, who would—in theory– seek to maximise their gains and opportunities through specific types of economic behaviour. If these assumptions are faulty or inaccurate, so also will the theories and solutions they give rise to be faulty, unworkable and all too often, harmful.

For example, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) attempt to apply universal economic “laws” to the problems of economic development in their borrowing countries. Whether under the rubric of structural adjustment programmes, debt relief, or the more recent poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSP), Bank-Fund solutions to the development challenges faced by their client countries has been non-negotiable market openness and stringent policy prescriptions for macroeconomic, sectoral and institutional reforms. These reforms have sought to remove government intervention in the economy and catapult domestic economies into globalised markets regardless of their specific conditions, characteristics or constraints. This includes unilateral trade and investment liberalisation, privatisation of property rights, commercialisation of agriculture, privatisation of public enterprises–including those that have actually been profitable to the state or serve critical public interest functions—public expenditure cuts and deregulation across sectors. The rationale behind these prescriptions is a well-worn story that need not be visited here. What is remarkable and scary is the Bank and Fund’s inability to tailor their model to the specificities of their client countries.

By any measure of economic or social performance, the last two decades have shown rigid applications of Bank-Fund orthodox economic theory to be a failure (Weisbrot et al, 2001). Most country’s at the receiving end of Bank-Fund programmes have not registered the promised economic growth; nor have they been able to come out of their debt crises; and nor have they experienced significant reductions in absolute or relative poverty. Instead, the opposite has happened. No pain no gain, say the Bank and the Fund. Well, many in these countries certainly have gained, but at the cost of tremendous pain among the rising number of unemployed, displaced and poor.

Equally alarming are how failures are explained, and how these explanations then give rise to yet more theories of how a country, society and economy should be run. When finally compelled to accept the overwhelming evidence of harm that their policies were wreaking, the Bank and Fund concluded that the problem lay not in their own theories, but in corrupt, inefficient, non-transparent, institutionally weak and capacity-poor governments. The problem was not too much market openness, but too little. And the solution lay not in correcting their own theories, but in prescribing even more reforms based on the same assumptions that created the problems to begin with. Thus came a new lot of policies on good governance, capacity building, institutional strengthening, administrative and legal reforms, more privatisation and deregulation, and a virtual laundry list of measures to fast track trade and investment liberalisation. Similarly, when accused of secrecy and non-transparency in its own operations, the World Bank came up with another gem: public consultation and participation.

With each failure come new prerequisites to re-apply the old model and make it work. And not surprisingly, every requirement or solution that the Bank and Fund have come up with—and which the larger development establishment has endorsed with little protest—has given rise to yet more disciplines of research, expertise and theory building.

For low-income countries today, getting loans from the Bank, Fund, regional development banks and even bilateral donors is a virtual circus act. Governments have to jump through so many hoops that a significant portion of their “capacity” goes towards propping up the assumptions of the development establishment. At the very minimum, governments must prepare “participatory” PRSPs that adhere to the Bank’s Comprehensive Development Framework, Medium Term Expenditure Frameworks, debt sustainability analyses and Financial Information Management Systems reports (Easterly, 2002). For each sector to which loans are applicable, there must also be sectoral analyses, and of course, all countries must support greater democratisation, which usually means laying the ground for national NGOs and engaging in “public consultations” on selected projects. And in case borrowing governments have difficulty meeting these requirements, the banks and donors are more than willing to provide professional development experts to “build national institutional capacity,” who more or less write these “nationally owned” reports, studies, laws and policies.

An important outcome of these trends—contradictorily—is the depoliticisation of development. Problems of poverty, inequality and dislocation that have structural and political roots such as land-grabbing by traditional elites, factory closures and the debilitation of subsistence agriculture systems are re-framed as technical problems arising from inefficient land markets, lack of competitive capacity, and weak agricultural markets. The failure of international debt relief programmes is attributed to national constraints of capacity and institutional weakness rather than the imposition of excessive conditionalities. The destruction of traditional coping mechanisms in times of droughts and food crises are attributed to the lack of “social capital” rather than properly recognised as the breakdown of the social fabric resulting from hardships caused by misguided and misdirected policy prescriptions. Different class interests that are likely to have divergent views on a proposed project become “stake-holders,” who can be neatly seated at the same table and exhorted to reach a compromise about such contentions issues as loss of lands and livelihood for one group versus higher profit margins for another.

Although the imposition–or willing adoption, as the case might be– of a specific economic development model is an overtly political act, the outcomes of the application of the model are not viewed through the lens of politics. Development then, becomes a self-referential system of assumptions, theories and models, which carries within its humungous body of knowledge the capacity to provide explanations and corrections for faults, while ignoring and thus entrenching the structural flaws in both, the system, as well as the ground of reality on which it is imposed. There is simply no place for references from outside the system.

The dam building sector illustrates this well. Large dam projects are notorious for exorbitantly high capital investment costs, displacement of local populations and ecological devastation. In order to make large dams more acceptable to the public at large and attract the required financing, dam projects are usually accompanied by ambitious resettlement and conservation programmes, schemes for substitute livelihoods and sophisticated financing mechanisms. The fundamental logic or rationale of the project, however, is off bounds for questioning. As more and more negative impacts come to light, new components are added to the project, all of which require new project capacities and more financing, and so on. And this entire drama feeds back into the large body of knowledge that props up the dam industry. Further, from years of bitter battles over watersheds and loan guarantees, dam backers have learned how to engage with their detractors. By maintaining a strict border between “technique” and “politics” dam builders and financiers are able to appear effective within their respective fields of expertise such as turbine engineering or repayment schedules (“technique”), and yet not be responsible for anything that goes wrong with resettlement programmes, watershed protection or the diversion of project funds by implementing partners (“politics”) (Lohmann, 1998).

The distinction between “technique” and “politics” is central to act of depoliticisation. It provides another window to understand the point of the numerous prerequisites demanded by the aid bureaucracy of aid recipient countries: to provide easy cover for eventual failure. Disappointing growth performance, increased poverty or a financial crisis can be conveniently blamed on “slippage” in the implementation of complementary reforms rather than on a poorly designed liberalisation programme (Rodrik, 2001).

The depoliticisation of development is not the precinct of professionals, experts and aid bureaucrats alone. NGOs and academics can also fall into the trap. For example, many detractors of the World Bank-IMF development model become so immersed in understanding the minutiae of Bank-Fund policies and operations that they are unable to step outside the Bank-Fund determined framework either in their critique, or in advancing alternatives. Rather than question the larger political system that gives international financial and trade institutions the power to impose externally driven models of development on borrowing countries, they argue for “tailoring” the PRSP to country contexts and tinkering with growth strategies and international trade policies to make them “pro-poor.” And of course, almost none will challenge the sacred concepts of economic growth, efficiency and free trade.

Regimes of Truths–And Falsehoods

In order for development to sustain itself as a discipline, it must create an all- encompassing—hegemonic—discourse that precludes challenges to its mission, assumptions, knowledge and theories. The practice of development can be challenged, but only within its own framework and on the condition that development itself is not undermined by the challenge.

Development’s discourse is blind and deaf to realities outside of what it creates. The world must be composed as a picture that justifies the preferred economic and social models of those that control the discourse and benefit from it. This entails creating and sustaining regimes of truth–or falsehoods, depending on where one is situated. These regimes are backed by research and the establishment of new fields of expertise, and “normalised” in popular imagination through conferences, publications, lectures and of course, development projects, programmes and policies.

Again, the case of large dams is illustrative. While the actual physical fact of a dam remains the same, its rationale can change depending on the nature of opposition or resistance to the project. Irrigation, protection against floods, electricity for export earnings, tourism, poverty reduction, all have been used to justify the same project at various times. Dam builders, promoters and financiers have learned to project themselves on demand as conservationists, populists, human rights buffs, and specialists in participation or local knowledge. Dam construction firms have poured huge amounts of money into scientific research on environmental and social impacts, flora and fauna census, conservation options, resettlement plans, reconstructing livelihoods, etc.

In response to persistent pressure from social movements around the world, the World Bank–one of the largest institutional backers of large dams—has formulated a wide-ranging set of operational directives (ODs) and research requirements to ensure rigorous scientific support for Bank funded infrastructure projects. These include social, cultural, environmental, financial and economic dimensions of the proposed project, and often entail financing for additional project components for the mitigation of negative impacts. Although the principle aim of all this activity is to establish the Bank’s legitimacy in the eyes of increasingly visible and influential transnational social movements, it has also served to develop a World Bank version of environmentalism and sustainable development, which is becoming hegemonic in the world.

Michael Goldman (Goldman, 2001) has documented the Bank’s re-making through the production of “authoritative green knowledge” in relation to a large hydropower project in the Lao PDR, the Nam Theun 2 (NT2). According to Goldman, over the past 10 years, the Bank has carved out a “green agenda,” produced policies, financing, tools and data for an applied global environmental science and trained thousands of professionals in borrowing countries to conduct “green science” for development. The NT2 is the Bank’s flagship green development project, which can showcase its efforts of past years and serve as a model for future infrastructure projects.

But in order for the project to be successfully field-tested, it must have institutional, administrative and policy support. This in turn has triggered a series of policy reforms in sectors such as forestry, the judiciary and commerce. The Bank and Northern aid agencies have financed numerous “capacity building” initiatives among state agencies on subjects such as Environmental-Impact Assessments (EIA), Social Impact Assessments (SIA), Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA), bio-diversity conservation, Participatory Rural Assessment (PRA), public consultation and participation, etc. This research and training has two main dimensions: first, laying the ground for institutional and popular acceptance of the Bank’s “green science” (who after all would argue against the findings of scientific research?); and second, re-producing the Lao PDR and its people as social and environmental “facts” in the Bank’s regime of green science, through a programme of largely extractive research.

Extremely important in the construction of such regimes is the ability of both discourse and practice to absorb failures and reproduce them as successes. In the new realm of green development, dam backers are increasingly willing to meet their detractors, but only on the condition that the critics are willing to submit to some degree of expert manipulation. In the words of Larry Lohmann, “Fair is fair: if technocrats are to go all green and democratic, then greenery and democracy must become technical. This is why, in the hands of the development establishment, ‘self-reliance’ becomes something to be gained through increased dependence on official institutions and distant markets; why ‘community forestry’ and ‘common property’ become matters for Washington-based banks to plan; and why ‘facilitating participation’ is well on its way to becoming a technical specialty like nuclear physics, out of reach of ordinary slobs.” (Lohmann, 1998).

In this way, the most powerful institutions of the international aid bureaucracy continue to impose failed and flawed policies repeatedly, without either their competence, or the policies themselves being called into question.

For millions of people across the world, development’s regimes of truth are based on falsehoods. These regimes fail to recognise the realities of their lives on their own terms and instead seek to re-construct these realities through the narrow lens of capitalist development. Resource dependant communities in the highlands of the Lao PDR and elsewhere are judged in terms of their “value” to proposed investment projects rather than as active, thinking actors with evolved and specific knowledge systems and visions. The projected benefits of a large hydroelectric project or agro-forestry plantation are not necessarily development “truths” for many of these communities. More likely, the “truth” for them is forced relocation, the flooding of lands, homes and entire villages, loss of forests and common pool resources, and alienation from livelihood systems that they have nurtured and depended on for generations. Since they do not fit the model’s stereotype of “rational” economic beings (e.g., successful sedentary farmers, rural and forest-product entrepreneurs and modern-day buyers and sellers of goods), they are routinely described as slash-and-burn cultivators, poachers, illegal loggers and failed rice farmers, and deemed absolutely in need of development (Goldman, 2001).

Making Space for Alternative Imaginations

The untruths generated by development are neither theoretical errors nor technical mistakes, but rather a structural feature of development at all levels. To suppose that unmasking them will lead toward their being corrected is to take up the same academic pretence of nonsituated power and knowledge that high-level development officials themselves are obliged to adopt. (Lohmann, 1998)

Economic, social or environmental development models are not indisputable, objective truths about the world. They are constructions of the world, which appropriate some facts and suppress others. However, the application of these models has material effects on people that unfortunately produce the realities that models claim to be true. Poverty reduction programmes based on neo-liberal policy prescriptions actually create the type of impoverishment that these programmes claim to alleviate. Indiscriminate logging of dam reservoir sites and the forced relocation of communities who have tended these areas for generations actually result in the degradation of natural resource bases and dire poverty that project revenues are ostensibly supposed to alleviate.

The field of development—economic and otherwise—is a field of contestation of ideas. The ideas that win and gain dominance are not necessarily qualitatively better; but rather, are those that are backed by the power of finance and politics, and specific class and institutional interests.

If economic development theories and models were limited to the arena of research, they would not have the ability to wreak the kind of havoc that we witness today. But this is not the case. The world has become the testing ground for these models and theories, with damaging results that cannot be reversed as easily or efficiently as models are applied.

The capacity to generate “facts” and “truths” about the world are captured by powerful actors in the development establishment such as the World Bank, the IMF, regional development banks, and myriad other think-tanks and academic institutions that serve as ancillary units to the larger industry of knowledge production. Backed as they are by immense financial resources, this entire network of institutions operates as a giant “knowledge monopoly,” edging out competition from alternative perspectives, analyses and ideas. Traditional farming systems and methods for harvesting water are neutralised as “local knowledge.” Proposals by workers and small-scale producers to manage the economy are set aside as “useful at the micro-level” but not viable to “scale up.”

A good starting point for translating economic development theory into meaningful social programmes and policies would be for academics and activists to come together and unravel the dominant economic development models of our times, critically examine their truths or falsehoods, and most important, challenge the social and institutional mechanisms by which these truths or falsehoods are produced. This is a political project, not an academic one. The monopoly must be broken. And to do this, we must develop a strategic awareness of the political economy of knowledge creation. Providing evidence against the falsehoods generated by development is not enough. Equally important is building new structures for policies and practice that are grounded in the specific situations of peoples and communities, and that support the emergence of theory from the ground of diverse realities, rather than forcing these realities to fit into rigid, monotheistic theories.

In a sense, development policies are the bridge between discourse and institutional practice. New policies will not yield anything new unless the body of discourse from which they are drawn is fundamentally rethought. The world of theory and models must be tested against the realities they purport to represent. Theories and models that fail the test must be discarded and new thinking be allowed to emerge and be nurtured.

When faced with criticisms about the policies they promote, many well-meaning development bureaucrats complain that there are no alternatives. But there are alternatives, in both ideas and practice. They have simply not been permitted to enter the exalted world of “high theory” controlled by the development establishment. To move towards social change that is meaningful for the majority of the people of the world, it is imperative that we turn our attention to that entire body of discontinuous and dispersed knowledge that is systematically suppressed and marginalised from dominant development discourse. It is in this body of knowledge that we will find new directions for social change that are shaped and guided by the aspirations and priorities of peoples, communities and nations.

* This paper was presented at the First Annual Conference on Development and Change, organised by the Initiative for Policy Dialogue and Ford Foundation, and held in Antigua, Guatemala from July 28-30, 2003. The author can be reached at [email protected]


Selected References

Escobar, Arturo. Encountering Development, The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton University Press. 1995

Ferguson, J. The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development”, Depoliti-cization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Easterly, William. The Cartel of Good Intentions. Foreign Policy. July-August, 2002.

Goldman, Michael. The Birth of a Discipline, Producing authoritative green knowledge, World Bank-style. Ethnography. Sage Publications. 2001.

Lohmann, Larry. Missing the Point of Development Talk: Reflections for Activists. Corner House Briefing No.9. August, 1998.
Lohmann, Larry. Unpublished discussion paper. 1998.

Rodrik, Dani. Trading In Illusions. Foreign Policy. March-April, 2001.

Stiglitz, Joseph E. Globalization and its Discontents. W.W. Norton and Company. 2002.

Weisbrot, Mark, Dean Baker, Robert Naiman, and Gila Neta. Growth May Be Good for the Poor – But are IMF and World Bank Policies Good for Growth? A Closer Look at the World Bank’s Recent Defense of Its Policies. Center for Economic and Policy Research. May, 2001.