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Development as a world religion

Semantically, development is to go through a process of natural growth, differentiation, or evolution by successive changes. But this is insufficient, as it is debatable how to grow in a “natural” manner and if growth is ‘natural’ at all.
The resolution 41/128 adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in its 97th plenary meeting, as of the December 4th, 1986, states that the right to development is an inalienable human right, and defines development as “a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting therefrom”.

The concept appears again in the United Nations Millennium Declaration, which states in Chapter 3, paragraph 1.1, “we are committed to making the right to development a reality for everyone and to freeing the entire human race from want.” Even though, as some commentators show, the aforementioned Declaration on the Right to Development “(…) takes the scope of duties a step further in seeking to provide a juridical framework for oft-repeated claims against the public international order, for the failure of our international economic arrangements to allow for an environment conducive to human-centered development for all”, it still does not conceptualises development.

What kind of want shall be, then, fulfilled through the comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process of development? According to the United Nations Development Program, there are currently eight goals which tackle the issues that prevent regions of the world from developing, i.e. extreme poverty and hunger, universal primary education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health, diseases such as AIDS and malaria, environmental sustainability, and global partnership for development.

As part of this approach, the United Nations Development Program uses the Human Development Index (HDI), which measures life expectancy, literacy, educational attainment, and GDP per capita for countries worldwide. As it is explained by the United Nations Development Program itself, the current understanding of what human development is arose in part as a result of growing criticism to the leading development approach of the 1980s, which presumed a close link between national economic growth and the expansion of individual choices. The target is, then, enlarging people’s choices and enhancing human capabilities and freedoms. However, this definition fails to capture the essence of the thing, as it provides a mere glimpse of our uses of the word rather than a real definition. According to Rist, in order for a definition to be operational “(…) it must first of all eliminate all preconceptions, the fallacious ideas that dominate the mind of the layman”. And mainstream development texts point out at the idea of qualitative transformation of a whole society, a shift to new ways of thinking, new relations and new methods of production, and improvement in the quality of life of people while empowering them with more control over their destinies.

These are subjective thoughts, and “the principal defect of most pseudo-definitions of development is that they are based upon the way in which one person (or set of persons) pictures the ideal conditions of social existence”. It is difficult to build an idea of development based on concepts such as “well-being” or “new ways of thinking”, adjectives such as “meaningful”, and the aspiration of control over one’s destiny.
For authors like Preston, at the core of development is the idea of social change and the most familiar ethical term associated with it is progress, though he rejects that it is formulaic; rather, he insists that it is an ethic-political notion and what it is depends on circumstances and specific analysis since it must be locally determined. Sen, in concordance with the latter, opts to see development as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy through removal of sources of unfreedom, i.e. poverty, tyranny, lack of opportunities, social deprivation, and neglect of public facilities, intolerance, and repression.

It can be seen, then, that it is far simpler to determine which countries are wealthier than others and then analyse if economic growth is nourished by the results of human development. That is why the critical views on development are worth of consideration, because, unlike mainstream scholarship, they do offer a definition, e.g. Rist’s “development consists of a set of practices, sometimes appearing to conflict with one another, which require -for the reproduction of society- the general transformation and destruction of the natural environment and of social relations. Its aim is to increase the production of commodities (goods and services) geared, by way of exchange, to effective demand.”

The reasoning behind the elements of Rist’s definition can be summarised as: (i) some practices tested as formulas for development contradict others, e.g. border liberalisation to foster international trade and import restrictions as part of a restructuring; (ii) the practices enable the world system to reproduce itself by expanding its area of influence; (iii) focuses on increased production of goods and production generally involves destruction; (iv) it destroys social relations since the market makes object of a contract matters which used to be within the private sphere; (v) it is geared towards production of the maximum rather than the optimum -hence it exists solely through spreading geographically or into new natural or social domains; and (vi) it is based on demand, regardless of the social, environmental, and cultural costs involved.

The above view is gloomy, indeed. However, it forces the reader to ask if development may be an ideological concept. Authors like Preston take off from the idea that all the main, meaningful theories of development are imbued by Western ethics, and, as such, the two main versions of what is progress can be identified during the XVIII and XIX centuries as the liberal democratic idea, which sustains the idea of ‘man as consumer’, and the radical democratic position, which invokes a historical materialist approach and takes off from the idea of ‘man as doer’. While the first idea is evolutionary, for it perceives mankind as acting selfishly, the second sees humankind as acting in the light of social goals which advance over time.

These conceptions are the basis of the current theories of development: liberal market and social market and, still in the fringes of mainstream scholarship, radical democratic. The first one equates progress with economic growth and, as Preston affirms, “the ideological function of this scheme is quite clear: a relationship of super- and sub-ordination is legitimated whereby the development of the presently underdeveloped is ordered by the experts of the developed countries and their agents”. Since “aggregate trends (e.g. Gross Domestic Product) may correspond little or not at all to actual changes in people’s living conditions”, the liberal market view is about how humans can accumulate and maximize their economic output while best satisfying their consumptive desires, hence it provides an “impoverished theory of human agency and implies a flatness of human life, attributing to the individual no capacity to reflect on the nature of the goods he or she will pursuit, and suggesting a passivity in making life choices”.

As a consequence, progress is starting to be increasingly seen through the eyes of the second school, i.e. social market theory. Nevertheless, the latter still relies on income levels and economic growth as important factors, albeit in a less emphasised way.

All in all, the current view of development is, indeed, importantly permeated by economic growth, with the exception of fringe positions which concentrate on the purely social. So, is it desirable to reach the state of the developed West? In view of the critical positions within development theory, the latter seems to be the appropriate question to ask, for the model used by the international and multijurisdictional institutions to illustrate what is considered developed is primarily the Western one. If such assertion holds true, then the obvious prior question is: Does the Western culture hold the paternity of the current idea of development?
Development as an idea can be traced back to Aristotle, who thought of ‘nature’ as the genesis of growing things, and translated as physis, which literally means ‘development’. Moreover, for Aristotle every being has a physis, i.e. its own principle of development. Aristotle, then, considered every being in terms of a cycle where all that is born and grows finally declines and perpetually begins again. Saint Augustine’s theology of history took from Aristotle the cycle of birth-growth-decay, though he had to reconcile it with God’s intervention in history according to his plan, hence rejected the eternal return of Aristotle and replaced Aristotle’s view of nature (development) as spontaneous with divine omnipotence; i.e. “the historical succession of cycles in Aristotle is replaced in Augustine by a history constructed as a single cycle. But this adjustment was not exactly unimportant, given that it opened the way to a linear view of history”.

What occurred later on during the Enlightenment is a defining moment for what and how we consider development today. The Aristotelian and Augustinian idea of decay (for a cycle of birth, growth and fall imply a continuous decay) was contested by the mid and end of the XVII Century, while keeping the sense of development (growth) as something natural and positive no longer obstructed by the barrier of “a kind of optimum level after which the curve necessarily moved downward to comply with the laws of nature and God’s plan”. Over the course of the next two centuries social evolutionism consolidates its triumph, one in which, according to authors like Rist, “”there was general agreement on three essential points: that progress has the same substance (or nature) as history; that all nations travel the same road; and that all do not advance at the same speed as Western society, which therefore has an indisputable ‘lead’ because of the greater size of its production, the dominant role that reason plays within it, and the scale of its scientific and technological discoveries.” Under this logic, development necessarily (not optionally) has to be extended to the whole planet through endless growth.

As a consequence, colonization, the League of Nations’ mandate system, and Truman’s Point Four took place, according to Rist’s view, naturally. Same goes for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), which were created for different purposes though evolved into lenders and therefore definers of Third World countries’ policy under the paradigm of development. At this point in history, then, there seems to be some consensus among scholars on the idea that development means that the Third World should follow the footsteps of the West in a linear Rostow-esque fashion. However, countries cannot achieve the same level of the developed countries or, if they can, then it is not through the same path and without some sacrifices from the part of the developed countries. This is due to the fact that the latter already had their chance of growing while destroying the environment and the former cannot go the same path due to environmental awareness. There seems to be consensus regarding how undesirable is for the environment for the Third World to replicate Western consumption patterns. Indeed, “it is clear that the development of the South cannot follow the same path of industrialization created by the North; it is essential that continuous growth is throughput, consumption and resource use in per-capita terms no longer be viewed as constituent elements of ‘development’. Instead, the focus must on qualitative improvement in the first instance.”

Development then, it seems, cannot be based any longer on a social evolutionist, individualist and economist logic, for “broad-based development on a global scale is economically and ecologically impossible within the world economy as currently constituted.” Faced with such a somber scenario, in which the evolutionist logic seems to be “little more than a celebration of the history of the West, and the USA in particular”, the question is: What, then, are the alternatives?

Recommended readings.

RIST, Gilbert. The History of Development: from Western Origins to Global Myth. 1st Edition. Zed Books. New York, 1997.

SUOBBOTINA, Tatyana. Beyond Economic Growth: An Introduction to Sustainable Development. World Bank, 2nd Edition. Washington, 2004.

PRESTON, Peter Wallace. Development Theory: An Introduction. Blackwell Publishers, 1st Edition. Oxford, 1997.

ANDREASSON, Stefan. Accumulation and Growth to What End? (December 2005) Capitalism Nature Socialism, Vol. 16, Number 4. Page 59. ISSN 1045-5752. Available for a fee at <http://www.cnsjournal.org>

RIHANI, Samir. Complex Systems Theory and Development Practice: Understanding Non-Linear Realities. Zed Books Ltd., 2002.

GORDON, Ruth E. and SYLVESTER, Jon H. Deconstructing Development. Wisconsin International Law Journal, Page 16. Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=555402

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