| Evolutions in Development Thinking & the Rise of a New Politics

The Rise of Modern Development Thinking

Modern Development Thinking

I have argued that development can be seen occurring at two inter-related levels. The first is at the national level, where the question is of catching up, driven by competition between states. The second is within the nation.

We find examples from throughout history of individuals focused on development within a nation (or kingdom or empire) to improve the livelihoods of individuals. We have talked about Adam Smith, a direct precursor to our modern thinkers, reflecting on the role of development to remove poverty and improve society during the Industrial Revolution. As we are still in that epoch, though pushing towards a post-industrial world, Smith’s views on development remain relevant. This is easily seen in the Millennium Development Goal to eliminate extreme poverty (typically those living on less than $1-$2 a day). Squalor not only remains, but continues to be the most concrete example of the dislocations of progress. As I also pointed out, extreme poverty is not only a failure of progress, but a symptom of attempting to catch up; the price of being a participant in the modern world.

These are oft-competing imperatives. Must you pay the price of poverty and squalor to move up the competitive global ladder and avoid being oppressed by higher-up nations, or do you focus on addressing the problems of the people in the hopes of improving the livelihoods of the people within the nation? It is the interplay between these responses (for all nations have done a mix of each) which has led to a multiplicity of responses at all levels, from local to global.

The past 70+ years  have spawned a specific industry that is recognizable for doing work in “international development”. We explore that industry now.

The Birth of Modern Development Thinking & International Development

Modern development thinking arose from the ashes of WWII. Institutionally, it was born out of the Bretton Woods conference and system, which set up a system of rules, institutions, and procedures to regulate the international monetary system (see Wiki), including the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), which is now part of the World Bank.

This was a time dominated by Keynesian ideals. The world had learnt lessons from the depression and World War I. Leaving countries economically behind was a recipe for creating environments ripe for conflict (a lesson we soon forgot).

International Development was strengthened by the success of the Marshal Plan and the reconstruction of Europe (see Wiki), as well as Soviet industrialization. These early successes led development thinkers into imagining that these results could be replicated across the globe.

From the beginning, however, responses and plans were divided in purpose. One side of the coin was focused on providing economic convergence. Early economic development often focused on creating gross national income growth (over 5% per year) which would trickle down in the form of economic opportunities (so called Reaganomics has a long and unfruitful history).

Yet it was also the time of colonialism and the White Man’s burden. As I noted in my first post:

As Mario Blaser (2009) pointed out, with an active idea of progress the modern, industrial West represented a higher stage in a process of unending evolution, with the ‘traditional rest’ residing at various stages of earlier evolution (located closer to nature).  This linear, evolutionary trajectory, “…justified treatment of the Other, along with nature, as objects amenable to being disciplined and reformed according to the designs of the modern West” (Blaser, 2009 p. 439).

When one couples that idea of progress with the forms of domination, exploitation, underdevelopment and unequal development that arise from competition between states, one can rightly assume that local, organic development (immanent development–what people are doing anyway) was suppressed in favor of intentional development, proposed by Westerners.

International development interacted with forms of colonialism, cold war politics, and imperialism. It put in place institutions and forms which attempted to replicate the success of the West and promoted Western educated leaders who fit into the system.

What followed was, unfortunately, largely decades of corruption, white elephant projects (mal-investment) and local elites moving finances to overseas bank accounts (especially within SubSaharan Africa). When there was growth, it failed to trickle down.

For those concerned with economic convergence there was recognition that what mattered were quality investments and a certain type of growth (Todaro & Smith, 2010). As economic convergence failed to happen, the shift slowly became more towards development thinking within the state, the improvement of certain indicators.

In 1969 Dudley Seers argued, utilizing what he referred to as a Gandhian approach, that development has three essential elements: reducing poverty (the ability to purchase physical necessities), reducing unemployment (moving from idleness to activity) and reducing inequality. Thus to determine if a country is developing, one should not look at per-capita income, per se, but ask: What has been happening to poverty? What has been happening to unemployment? What has been happening to inequality? National income, he argued, is important only as a measure of development potential (Seers, 1969).

Let me quickly note that some 40+ years on, and still this idea, of merely showing development potential strikes me as a truth that remains far too hidden from most economists, behind all the reams of data piling in.

While international development began adding multiple elements beside economic growth as indicators of success, the focus remained on shifting production from agrarian to industrial society, as agricultural production garnered low profits and growth opportunities. Countries attempted to do so through import substitution industrialization (ISI) (see Wiki) and export oriented industrialization (EOI) (see Wiki). The majority of developing countries looked inward and chose ISI.

Currency crisis in the 80s due to ISI, coupled with the rise of first China then the other Asian Tigers has reordered views towards export oriented industrialization across all countries. Indeed the shock therapy applied to the emerging nations of Eastern Europe after the fall of the USSR represented an attempt to hasten the export process. Of course we are now dealing with the political fallout from those economic decisions, with the Russian economy still well below earlier levels.

The 90s bought a technocratic fix called the Washington Consensus (a set of economic policies), and subsequently to the neoliberal political distortion of the Consensus. This was coupled with the rise of monetarism and the transformation of capital flows. These flows of ‘hot money’ led to financial crises in Asia and helped guide China in its pick and choose approach to global integration. Indeed the rise of China through EOI and state intervention has forced a fundamental rethinking of development.

What is clear is that international development has evolved from a mix of failures and successes, with failures firmly predominant.

Current Formulations

The evolution of development thinking has led to (and will continue to lead to) a multiplicity of development approaches. Problems are addressed in multiple forms, at multi-scalar levels, and through different institutional lenses. Here are a few examples–


Movements From Below

The strongest movements from below, as Manoranjan Mohanty (2007) argues, are calls for Peoples Democratic Organizations (PDOs). These organizations call for rights to local self-determination. They are focused on finding local solutions to the local application of problems of global scale. PDOs struggle to find their place as the current analytical frame of development remains the nation state. According to Natural Justice, an international NGO, the State has taken on the role of parens patriae, making decisions on behalf of communities on the pretext that communities are unorganized and do not have effective decision-making structures.

Global Civil Society

There is also global civil society, a transnational network of non governmental organizations (NGOs) which operate within, across and above nation states. Global civil society acts as a global ‘watchdog’, critiquing both public and private responses to development needs. It also acts as a provider of services within the shrinking neoliberal state, as well as offering a potential third sector—a route for exploratory instruments of development (though this is increasingly critiqued—see Michael Edwards, Mary Kaldor).

International Government Organizations

Currently, international governmental organizations (IGOs) such as the UN, World Bank and IMF provide expertise, advice, rules and guidelines that have become more nuanced in their application and acceptance of local, national, regional and global needs. However, they remain top-down organizations which dictate institutional forms and the lenses through which development is often understood (think of structural adjustments or the Millennium Development Goals).

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

There is also a greater mix between national governments and business. The rise of public-private partnerships to fund programs and projects is increasing, as well as more projects and programs driven by CSR.


Organizations at all levels interact, creating a mixed, hybrid network of responses to meet development challenges. These approaches often seem contradictory at the implementation level and lead for greater calls for a cogent response through both global governance as well as more self-determination for local communities.

A fundamental debate continues: is development best approached through top-down or bottom-up approaches? Economists refer to this as the planners and seekers debate. Or, the Easterly and Sachs debate, individuals who have engaged in heated rhetoric and arguments on what development should look like.

This debate, however, unnecessarily creates a simple binary choice. Any complex system is difficult to reduce to a simple schematic. Top down? Bottom up? Why not both, and middle approaches? Especially as this is the reality in the field. Visit the rural town of Isiolo, Kenya and one will find organizations from the UN to NGOs to small local non-profits and businesses, all operating in the same environment, sometimes in cooperation, often in competition.

It is disingenuous to fail to take into account the various different multilateral, governmental, civil society and private sector actors that actually shape global conditions!

In the next post I provide an overview of Mainstream Development as well as exploring a basic post-development perspective. By the end of that post hopefully we will all be on the same page, so that we may begin to delve into a conceptualization of development that I find to be the most useful, and which helps point us towards that elusive goal of determining a definition of sustainable development that builds on the foundation of progress, but advances us further.

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