Lessons from the failure of Third World development

While the phrase ‘sustainable development’ is very familiar at the moment, since the end of the Second World War the term ‘development’ has been far more often applied in the context of ‘modernisation’ and ‘Third World development’. In mainstream Western debate at least, the appropriateness of such development for the Third World has usually been uncontested. The standard argument in favour of development in this sense goes that growing the pie allows those who have less to have more without taking from the affluent. One present example of rapid development, the economy of India, has business writers in raptures as they peruse the latest economic growth data.

In his book, The history of development, Gilbert Rist patiently takes apart this conceptualisation of development and identifies any number of flaws in it, the growth obsession being just one of them.

Essentially, Rist argues that development has largely failed in practice throughout the last 50 years, and that those who are already affluent have expropriated most of the growth that has occurred in this period of time (both in the West and in ‘developing’ countries). If this view is correct, development rhetoric can only be seen as a pretext for the commercialisation of more of the world and more aspects of our lives; however, the humanitarian dimension that it encompasses (feeding the poor of Africa) effectively shuts down any criticism. Who can say it is wrong to help the poor?

Nevertheless, by Rist’s analysis, development is merely a fervent belief which is held on to because western society cannot psychologically afford to admit defeat, ie admit that the promise of post war capitalism has been an illusion and that it will not feed and maintain the health of 1 billion people or more in absolute poverty.

Having admitted this crisis of development, we would naturally ask: what is to be done? Rist suggests three broad possibilities:

1. The reform of capitalism, essentially towards less market and more intervention, on the basis that the market has no sense of long term direction – and that direction must be consciously supplied by human agents. Some immediate measures could substantially raise living conditions of the poor … but straightaway we would run into national and international political constraints. Despite this being the case, Rist makes a really important observation that applies to all social change advocacy: this is so important that we do not need to hope it will work before beginning to try.

2. Self-reliance, inventing new social linkages and new ways of securing our existence that are appropriate to our locations – consciously inventing and organising new ways of life. These efforts must place no hope in international trade or the state (save that the state doesn’t intervene to stop them); they fall between ‘modernisation’, with its sufferings but some advantages, and ‘tradition’ which provides inspiration but can never be revived. One western example is the LETS – Local Exchange Trading System – which is an attempt to escape the market by restoring a collective gift economy.

3. A radical reappraisal of the ideas underlying development (especially economic theory and scientism) and the proposal of new ideas in their place. To which I would respond: “Green Economics, Come On Down!”

One final nagging thought occurs to me. If Rist’s thoroughgoing criticism of development in its more traditional sense is broadly accurate, what does that mean for our current love affair with ‘sustainable development’?

The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith, by Gilbert Rist. Zed Books (2004).


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