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The Western way isn’t always the best way

Development (Aid)
Indigenous man, Guatemala

Indigenous groups in Guatemala have been accused of being 'backward' for opposing 'development' projects such as mines. David Amsler under a Creative Commons Licence

Development has become a buzzword in recent decades. No longer do we have the ‘first’ and ‘third’ world. We have the ‘developed’ and the ‘underdeveloped’ world. Typically the developed world is understood to be Western countries, while the underdeveloped world comprises former colonies in the Global South in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

We tend to consider development in purely Western and monetary terms, without consideration for local cultural norms and cultural differences. Development has become a doctrine that is aggressively spread by Western states and NGOs, often at the expense of local communities and their standard of living.

Developing states are presented in negative terms in the media and, at times, by NGOs themselves. They are presented as backward, inferior and in need of ‘rescuing’. The assumption is that the developing world needs to be pulled into modernity, its ‘tribal’ culture banished. Poor countries should be made to resemble Western states with highways and sprawling cities. NGOs, of course, tend to take their agenda from Western governments and the transnational corporations that fund them.

White, Western-educated consultants trot across the globe, providing their ‘expertise’ on how best to develop a given community. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank set structural adjustment programmes that swept across Africa in the Cold-War era. These programmes served only to distort problems and in some circumstances contributed to political violence and unrest. The World Bank continues to contribute to the misery of those living in the ‘underdeveloped’ world.

At times it is difficult to see who is benefiting from development, but one thing is clear: it is a huge industry. Of course, many development practitioners are hardworking people trying to make the world more just and equal. But development often benefits the rich one per cent rather than the poor it is supposed to be helping. NGOs may become complicit, facilitating the neoliberal agenda that is promoted by Western states. Such NGOs often played a key role in privatizing what were previously public goods, such as access to healthcare, roads or education.

The idea that everyone should be Westernized and have access to Western goods, medicine, education and global capitalist markets means that local education systems, for example, are deemed to be redundant and outdated. The use of indigenous medicine is also undermined because it doesn’t fit into ‘modern’ Western medicinal norms. Yet indigenous medicinal knowledge is often rooted in history and proven to be successful at curing ailments.

On a recent visit to Guatemala I held a consultation with several indigenous leaders representing their Mayan communities, at which the theme of development came up. The Mayan communities, which are often staunchly anti-extraction (because of the huge impact mining projects have on their lives and the aggressive nature of the transnational corporations that run them) have been accused by foreign diplomatic missions of being anti-development and backward. But the Mayan communities I met have spiritual links to their land that cannot be accounted for by financial compensation. Their worldview is not compatible with a Western capitalist ideology that pushes development, in terms of mines and hydroelectric plants. The communities see themselves as being part of a wider eco-system, rather than being better than it. The concept of living a sustainable life is alien to us in the West, given how inherently consumerist our culture has become.

The arrogance of Western diplomatic missions labelling indigenous communities as ‘anti-development’ and even ‘backward’ is indicative of the racism engrained in development discourse. Major infrastructural works like the creation of mines have untold negative environmental consequences for local communities and contribute to growing income inequality within a region.

India is often lauded for its ‘development’, but huge increases in GDP are misleading. They don’t tell the true story – of growing inequality and social unrest in a country that is servicing the capitalist West. The rich are getting richer, but nobody else is.

Through development, we are pushing our own agenda on the rest of the world, without true consultation of what is required. Development is becoming a dangerous and loaded term, with increasingly neocolonial tendencies. Those who work in the field must be careful not to push their own ideas and prejudices onto other people, and must realize that the Western way isn’t always the right way.

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