Over the last two weeks, I have had a few interesting discussions on ‘development,’ both in the context of local community development and international development. One can see conflation of security discourses, humanitarian and related concerns in each of these debates. The dominant narrative about ‘development,’ in the context of Asia and Africa seems to also stem from the need to ‘contain’ problems arising from lack of development. People are violent, anti-government etc. because they are poor, the theory goes. Only if we give them ‘goods,’ or wealth will they behave better, seems to be the governing logic. But is this true? Is poverty and lack of development really causing the ‘chaos’ that we see around us. Or is it ignorance, lack of dialogue or wrong geo-strategic decisions, by the powers that are involved – including the local actors?
While it is easy to brand someone we don’t agree with as ‘anti-national’ or ‘against our interest,’ I suggest that we must pay particular attention to the power dynamics involved on who gets to legitimize what sort of ‘development,’ a country needs and how it will be carried out. In the absence of this awareness, we may be led into arguments that are faulty at best.
A recent example of ‘anti-development’ rhetoric being used as a platform to shut down a civil society organization is the case of Green Peace in India. While the specifics of the case can be found here and here, the point at stake is the vision of what sort of ‘development,’ does the government of India want. While it is the right of every Indian to know and question the policies being formulated, it is a deeply anti-democratic measure to shut down a reputed NGO just because the government disagrees with its position. By this account, most (if not all) media outlets in India should be shut down, as they regularly print articles that are critical of the government. In fact, it is the job of civil society and media to hold elected officials accountable. This very crux of a pluralist democracy – which India is – by all means. Democratic pluralism demands that dissenting views be heard, incorporated in the planning processes. To want the goods of globalization and not want the criticism that comes from it, both from local and global organizations is not exactly an ‘open’ way to do business.
The context of international development also brings up questions of how ‘development’ is defined. Who are we ‘developing’ and why? What is at stake? Who gains and who loses and also, fundamentally; development at what cost? These are some questions that need to be asked, suggests Bent Flyvbjerg (2001) speaking of the role of social scientists, in uncovering and understanding human action in a social context.
A recent conversation I was part of, involved an expert, who spoke of ‘fixing Africa,’ with his technical expertise. While to a trained social scientist / development expert, this may sound like the worst nightmare come true; in his mind, this idea of ‘fixing Africa’ was as natural as having one’s breakfast – you just do it because you can – there was absolutely no consciousness of the power dynamics involved, with the ‘American’ expert and the ‘poor, African,’ at the receiving end. The politics of what I just have pointed out notwithstanding, there are real power differentials here that need to be acknowledged. This often means that the ‘best solution,’ for the African context may end up not being what they actually need, but perhaps what the American or European (or Chinese) may think they need. This is one big problem in the discourse of development. The one with the dollars often get to decide how the discourse of development is shaped.
Similar critiques of development have come from other scholars. Arturo Escobar (1995) places the discussion of development in his book Encountering Development, this in the context of the ‘Truman doctrine’ of the late 1940s and early 50s. The ‘discovery’ of poverty and ‘lack’ of material goods in Africa and Asia was made then, which completely ignored the way that the natives understood community, frugality, he further points out. He argues that it is with the massive onslaught of marketization that led to the pauperization of people and eventual creation of massive levels of poverty.
This idea of ‘developing’ the world by infusing capital, industrializing the poorer countries and measuring their progress by the standards became the standard operating procedure, he argues. This ‘Orientalism, Africanism and Developmentalism,’ continues, unabated and relies mainly on the standards, metrics and systems devised as part of the discourse of creating a representation of the ‘underdeveloped’. At stake are issues of representation, autonomy of those who are at the receiving end of this development. (Escobar, 1995; Mitchell, 1988). While the critique of development that Escobar offers is valid in the context of the discourses of development, what it ignores are the local, indigenous formulations of how this development impacts the receivers of ‘aid.’
Flyvbjerg (1998) argues in his book Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice that we must pay special attention to power dynamics in the ‘rational’ planning processes. What passes for ‘scientific’ and ‘expert’ knowledge can often be deeply dogmatic and convoluted, that reinforces certain ideological ideas. This aspect of focusing on power dynamics, relations of how the parties being ‘developed’ and those doing the ‘development,’ need to be kept in mind simply because without this awareness; we cannot have a mature and critical look at ‘who gains and who loses.’ Intended development projects may end up causing more harm, than actual benefit.
So, are International NGOs working against India’s interest when they try to stop a mining project, or do all Western ‘experts,’ have Africa’s best interest , when they plan projects in Africa? I don’t think the answer to this is straight-forward. While donor relations normally dictate what gets done in a target country, I suggest, following scholars such as Escobar and others, which we need to radically re-think development. Asking some basic questions such as the ones outlined above may be a good start.
Critical questioning and thinking are the bedrocks of any democratic order, and I would argue that media, civil society organizations and active citizenry should be the ones ensuring that this function takes place, on a regular basis. In the absence of this, we would end up with massive levels of propaganda posing as actual knowledge, with media becoming the mouth-piece of those in power – both politically and other wise- and a plutocracy that serves only those in power.