New Internationalist

Development: a guide to the ruins

June 1992

World development is like apple pie - nobody can be against it. Or can they? After three decades of development it is time to ask whether it has done much more than impose Westernization on the whole world. Wolfgang Sachs begins his seven-chapter excavation of the development idea by explaining how, even at its birth, it was designed to remake the world in the image of the United States of America.

Illustration by P J POLYP

Ruined buildings hide their secrets under piles of earth and rubble. Archaeologists, shovel in hand, work through layer upon layer to reveal underpinnings and thus discover the origins of a dilapidated monument. But ideas can also turn out to be ruins with their foundations covered by years or even centuries of sand.

I believe that the idea of development stands today like a ruin in the intellectual landscape, its shadows obscuring our vision. It is high time we tackled the archaeology of this towering conceit, that we uncovered its foundations to see it for what it is: the outdated monument to an immodest era.

A world power in search of a mission
Wind and snow stormed over Pennsylvania Avenue on 20 January 1949 when, in his inauguration speech before Congress, US President Harry Truman defined the largest part of the world as 'underdeveloped areas'. There it was, suddenly, a permanent feature of the landscape, a pivotal concept which crammed the immeasurable diversity of the globe's South into a single category - underdeveloped. For the first time, the new worldview was thus announced: all the peoples of the earth were to move along the same track and aspire to only one goal - development.

And the road to follow lay clearly before the President's eyes: 'Greater production is the key to prosperity and peace'. After all, was it not the US which had already come closest to this utopia? According to that yardstick, nations fall into place as stragglers or lead runners. And 'the United States is pre-eminent among nations in the development of industrial and scientific techniques Clothing self-interest in generosity, Truman outlined a program of technical assistance designed to 'relieve the suffering of these peoples' through 'industrial activities' and 'a higher standard of living'.

Looking back after 40 years, we recognize Truman's speech as the starting gun in the race for the South to catch up with the North. But we also see that the field of runners has been dispersed, as some competitors have fallen by the wayside and others have begun to suspect that they are running in the wrong direction.

The idea of defining the world as an economic arena originated in Truman's time; it would have been completely alien to colonialism. True, colonial powers saw themselves as participating in an economic race, with their overseas territories as a source of raw materials. But it was only after the Second World War that they had to stand on their own and compete in a global economic arena.

For Britain and France during the colonial period, dominion over their colonies was first of all a cultural obligation which stemmed from their vocation to a civilizing mission. British imperial administrator Lord Lugard had formulated the doctrine of the 'double mandate': economic profit of course, but above all the responsibility to elevate the 'coloured races' to a higher level of civilization. The colonialists came as .masters to rule over the natives; they did not come as planners to start the spiral of supply and demand.

Development as imperative
According to Truman's vision, the two commandments of the double mandate converge under the imperative of 'economic development'. A change in world-view had thus taken place, allowing the concept of development to rise to a standard of universal rule. In the US's Development Act of 1929, still influenced by colonial frameworks, 'development applied only to the first duty of the double mandate - the economic exploitation of resources such as land, minerals and wood products; the second duty was defined as 'progress' or 'welfare'. At this time it was thought that only resources could be developed, not people or societies.

It was in the corridors of the State Department during World War Two that 'cultural progress' was absorbed by 'economic mobilization' and development was enthroned as the crowning concept. A new worldview had found its succinct definition: the degree of civilization in a country could be measured by the level of its production. There was no longer any reason to limit the domain of development to resources only. From now on, people and idea of development once a towering monument inspiring international enthusiasm. Today the structure is falling apart and in danger of total collapse. whole societies could, or even should, be seen as the object of development.

Truman's imperative to develop meant that societies of the Third World were no longer seen as diverse and incomparable possibilities of human living arrangements but were rather placed on a single 'progressive' track, judged more or less advanced according to the criteria of the Western industrial nations.

Such a reinterpretation of global history was not only politically flattering but also unavoidable, since underdevelopment can only be recognized in looking back from a state of maturity. Development without predominance is like a race without direction. So the pervasive power and influence of the West was logically included in the proclama tion of development. It is no coincidence that the preamble of the UN Charter ('We, the peoples of the United Nations...') echoes the Constitution of the US ('We, the peoples of the United States...'). Development meant nothing more than projecting the American model of society onto the rest of the world.

Truman really needed such a reconceptualization of the world. The old colonial world had fallen apart. The United States, the strongest nation to emerge from the War, was obliged to act as the new world power. For this it needed a vision of a new global order.

The concept of development provided the answer because it presented the world as a collection of homogeneous entities, held together not through the political dominion of colonial times, but through economic interdependence. It meant the independence process of young countries could be allowed to proceed because they automatically fell under the wing of the US anyway when they proclaimed themselves to be subjects of economic development.

Development was the conceptual vehicle which allowed the US to behave as the herald of national self-determination while at the same time founding a new type of worldwide domination - an anti-colonial imperialism.

Regimes in search of a raison d'être
The leaders of the newly founded nations - from Nehru to Nkrumah, Nasser to Sukarno - accepted the image that the North had of the South, and internalized it as their self-image. Underdevelopment became the cognitive foundation for the establishment of nations throughout the Third World.

The Indian leader Nehru (incidentally, in opposition to Gandhi) made the point in 1949: 'It is not a question of theory; be it communism, socialism or capitalism, whatever method is most successful, brings the necessary changes and gives satisfaction to the masses, will establish itself on its own... Our problem today is to raise the standard of the masses... Economic development as the primary aim of the state; the mobilization of the country to increase output: this beautifully suited the Western concept of the world as an economic arena.

As in all types of competition, this one rapidly produced its professional coaching staff. The World Bank sent off the first of its innumerable missions in July 1949. Upon their return from Colombia, the 14 experts wrote: 'Short-term and sporadic efforts can hardly improve the overall picture. The vicious circle.., can only be broken seriously through a global relaunching of the whole economy, along with education, health and food sectors.'

These Vietnamese people might have been struck by the irony of Robert McNamara, President of the World Bank in the 1970's, showing concern for the rural poor. He was previously US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War.
E.BOUBAT / CAMERA PRESS

To increase production at a constant level entire societies had to be overhauled. Had there ever existed a more zealous state objective? From then on, an unprecedented flowering of agencies and administrations came forth to address all aspects of life - to count, organize, mindlessly intervene and sacrifice, all in the name of 'development'. Today, the scene appears more like collective hallucination. Traditions, hierarchies, mental habits - the whole texture of societies - have all been dissolved in the planner's mechanistic models.

But in this way the experts were able to apply the same blueprint for institutional reform throughout the world, the outline of which was most often patterned on the American Way of Life. There was no longer any question of letting things mature for centuries', as in the colonial period. After the Second World War, engineers set out to develop whole societies - and to accomplish the job in a few years or, at the most, a couple of decades.

Shocks and erosion
In the late 1960s, deep cracks began to appear in the building - the trumpeted promises of the development idea were built on sand! The international elite, which had been busy piling one development plan on another, knitted its collective brow. At the International Labour Office and the World Bank, experts suddenly realized that growth policies were not working. Poverty increased precisely in the shadow of wealth, unemployment proved resistant to growth, and the food situation could not be helped through building steel factories. It became clear that the identification of social progress with economic growth was pure fiction.

In 1973, Robert McNamara, the President of the World Bank, summed up the state of affairs: 'Despite a decade of unprecedented increase in the gross national product... the poorest segments of the population have received relatively little benefit... The upper 40 per cent of the population typically receive 75 per cent of all income.' No sooner had he admitted the failure of Truman's strategy, than he immediately proclaimed another development strategy with its new target group - rural development and small farmers. The logic of this conceptual operation is obvious enough: it meant the idea of development did not have to be abandoned; indeed, its field of application was enlarged. Similarly, in rapid succession during the 1970s and 1980s unemployment, injustice, the eradication of poverty, basic needs, women and the environment were turned into problems and became the object of special strategies.

The meaning of development exploded, increasingly covering a host of contradictory practices. The development business became self-propelling: whatever new crisis arose, a new strategy to resolve it could be devised. Furthermore, the background motive for development slowly shifted. A rising environmental chorus noted that development was not meant to promote growth, but to protect against it. Thus the semantic chaos was complete, and the concept torn to shreds.

A concept full of emptiness
So development has become a shapeless amoeba-like word. It cannot express anything because its outlines are blurred. But it remains ineradicable because it appears so benign. They who pronounce the word denote nothing but claim the best of intentions.

Development thus has no content but it does possess a function: it allows any intervention to be sanctified in the name of a higher, evolutionary goal. Watch out! Truman's assumptions travel like blind passengers under its cover. However applied, the development idea always implies that there are lead runners who show the way to latecomers; it suggests that advancement is the result of planned action. Even without having economic growth in mind, whoever talks of development evokes notions of universality, progress and feasibility, showing that they are unable to escape Truman's influence.

This heritage is like a weight which keeps one treading in the same spot. It prevents people in Michoacan, Gujarat or Zanzibar from recognizing their own right to refuse to classify themselves as 'under-developed'; it stops them rejoicing in their own diversity and wit. Development always entails looking at other worlds in terms of what they lack, and obstructs the wealth of indigenous alternatives.

Yet the contrary of development is not stagnation. From Gandhi's swaraj to Zapata's ejidos1, we see that there are striking examples of change in every culture. Distinctions such as backward/ advanced or traditional/modern have in any case become ridiculous given the dead end of progress in the North, from poisoned soils to the greenhouse effect. Truman's vision will thus fall in the face of history, not because the race was fought unfairly, but because it leads to the abyss.

The idea of development was once a towering monument inspiring international enthusiasm. Today, the structure is falling apart and in danger of total collapse. But its imposing ruins still linger over everything and block the way out. The task, then, is to push the rubble aside to open up new ground.

1 For an explanation of Gandhi's beliefs see article. Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata advocated a return to the ancient Indian tradition of community rather than individual land ownership. This ejidos idea was to some extent implemented in the Mexican land reform of the 1930s.

This special report appeared in the development - a guide to the ruins issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.

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