Rethinking Development

Today, a single set of ideas and values predominates worldwide. They guide the policies of governments, serve as the foundation for modern schooling, and lie beneath the surface of news reports, advertising, and media entertainment. The pedigree of these ideas is decidedly European and American, supporting sociologist Ashis Nandy's proposition that “The West is now everywhere, within the West and outside; in structures and in minds.”

Central to the western worldview are the twin notions of ‘development’ and ‘progress’. These are seen as linear evolutionary processes, defined largely in terms of technological advance and economic growth. Although they reflect the values of one particular society, they are perceived as universal truths. What’s more, the commonly used terms ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ imply that western industrial societies are the benchmark by which non-Western, non-industrialized cultures should be measured. As the cultural critic Ziauddin Sardar puts it: “The present of the non-West is the past of the West .... The future of the developing countries is the present of the West”.

This endless treadmill is what the scholar Maria Mies calls “catching-up development”. Its implicit assumption is that “the model of ‘the good life’ is that prevailing in the affluent societies of the North: the USA, Europe and Japan”. For the rest of the world, attempting to catch up means devaluing one’s own culture and all it contains, leading to feelings of inferiority that are expressed in hundreds of ways – from elite technocrats’ plans for industrialization to the use of skin-whitening cream by young people in remote villages. In many ways, this ‘psychological colonialism’ – deliberately imposed in both the colonial and development eras – continues unabated today.

Misleading assumptions about traditional societies make it easier to justify policies and actions that result in their breakdown. Similar biases and assumptions undergird both the concept and application of ‘development’, and account for some of its real costs. Although development is portrayed as an act of altruism that is ‘needed’ by the target population, development has generally led to a decline in the overall quality of life in the South, continuing the process of breakdown that began with conquest and colonialism. And while the costs of development are borne by the peoples and ecosystems of the South, the benefits most often flow to the nations and corporations of the North, along with a few elites in the South.

Implicit in the ideology of development is a strong dose of ethnocentrism, the assumption that the way one’s own culture does things is the ‘right’ way. Ethnocentrism is an inherent feature of any stable culture, including traditional cultures (without it there would be no such thing as tradition). But the immense technological and economic power of Western industrial society, coupled with the ethnocentric view that the way we do things is ‘natural’ and ‘right’, is enabling the West to re-make diverse cultures around the world in our own image, and treat the whole process as though it is inevitable and evolutionary. The resultant human suffering and environmental breakdown are then viewed as the unfortunate but unavoidable side effects of an inexorable historical process.

For more on this issue, please see the following online articles:

Beyond the Monoculture, The Pressure to Modernize, The March of the Monoculture