Post development critiques: the scare-crows of development sector


Use of ‘post-‘ as a prefix to established paradigm like ‘modern’ and in our case ‘development’ is often used as an entry point into advancing an alternative and in most cases a polemical theory. I argue that post-development critiques of development operate in this mode – where they take a polar opposite position on what development as a practice means as well as by advancing arguments which discounts the realities and challenges that a large number of developing and under-developed nations face. In essence, what post development theories does is that it functions as a ‘scare-crow’ in the farm of development, much like the way a scare-crow works in a paddy field – scaring or preventing birds from picking on the paddy seeds by pretending that there are people working in the field.

In the following I examine some of the critiques and offer explanation as to how it does not imply an end of ‘development’ phase so as to ascribe a ‘post’ label. It is perhaps too soon to write it off in this post developmentalist fashion.

Conflating the traditional and underdeveloped: A critique of development is that it conflates ideas of ‘traditional’ and ‘underdeveloped’ and that this is a misrepresentation of reality. In alleging this it is not noted that the object of concern for the nations in pursuit of economic growth is not traditional but adopting ‘modernization’. Interpreting development in terms of tradition is the handiwork of post development theorists and not the doing of development. Development as a loss of tradition can then be seen as a scare-crow which in effect is not a real threat present in the field but is an impression. Traditions are a set of practices that a society continues to practice over a period of time which have yielded a certain social, ethical or moral deliverance. When seen from a larger time frame one may find that traditions too have changed over time. They too are in a state of flux.

So when a development oriented state aspires to modernize its ways of functioning and pushes further the society’s social aspirations, traditions too tend to change. They are after all a set of practices with a collective sanction of the society. They do not necessarily possess a timeless quality and have to be checked for consistency. For instance, the more a society industrializes the more professionalization of traditional family systems of care take place – like child care. In the earlier order child care in Indian society was offered by the grandparents who existed as a part of a larger joint family. But with emergence of nuclear families and urbanization child care is now a form of professional service offered by the market. This has usurped the traditional form of child care.

Development as a ‘surrender’ of social consciousness and autonomy: By stretching this thought backwards it could as well be said that the existence of ‘society’ itself is a surrender leave alone development. Social contract and a sovereign state which are the core units of human existence are themselves a surrender of autonomy. From such purist position and linear thinking many other social phenomenon could be labeled surrender. This criticism is inconsistent because social systems are complex and are a consequence of several types of interactions. Surrender from one perspective could be an informed choice from another. For instance, a predominant role of markets in shaping public choice is seen as a surrender of the people to markets and corporations. In another way of reading, it can also be said with equal fervor and perhaps with greater reason that it is a conscious choice of people aspiring for better lives for themselves. If markets are capable of delivering such aspirations then that is the direction where society will align. Reading this as surrender is a hasty thought.

Karl Polanyi notes that ‘the economic system is embedded as a component of human culture and like culture it is in a constant state of evolution. This relationship between economic system and human culture is of significance to the argument. Social consciousness is a subset of human culture. It is only when human culture and economy are seem as disjoint can one make such a comparison and then infer surrender or cooperation, whereas the argument is that one is a subset of the other. Also, it is not necessary that change in social consciousness can be automatically inferred as surrender. If it means that society now is willingly submitting and the market manipulates the individual then one should ask if market is an altogether a new creature different and out of control of man. It is governed by the people themselves and this indicates that they are surrendering to their own choices.

Professionalization and ‘expertization’ of development: Elsewhere, Vijay Mahajan notes that in India new NGOs came to be established by people with higher educational and professional backgrounds, who were concerned about the problems of the mainstream institutions and wished to explore alternatives in social action. If the mode of operation of development sector is considered to be voluntary action alone then the criticism is of value. However, with mainstreaming of development as a state concern and a national aspirational path development becomes embedded into the state’s agenda. When the state begins framing its work in terms of development it acts upon it in a mission mode. Professionalization then becomes a necessity in order to achieve the goals set by the state. While this can contradict the notion of pure form development (which is seen as pareto efficient), in practice there are costs- social and economic. The magnitude of these costs is dependent on the state’s strategy as well as the society’s collective aspiration. Often they are in consonance as can be seen from the rise of the ‘Asian tigers’ – Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong. As citizens of a ‘developed’ state Singaporeans, Taiwanese etc often take pride in their country’s prosperity and might differ in their view of the costs they incurred in the journey of their country to this stage.

The arguments forwarded here are to suggest that post development critiques themselves do not account for the current realities of the world when they state that development is surrender or is problematic. While there are problems it is still one of the reasonable ways of moving ahead towards realizing basic levels of prosperity to humanity at large. Therefore, the simile that these critiques are much like the scare-crows in farms which give an impression of reality (of people working in the farm) but are actually dummies. However, they do serve the purpose of ensuring that the debates on development are enriched by such polemical positions.

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