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[Editor's Note: The following essay was written by Allan Froilan B Mendoza, an independent scholar based in Cavite, Philippines. His interests include contemporary political theories on globalization and the state. His present concern focuses on the possibility of deriving practical political, social and literary implications from the writings of contemporary thinkers such as Rorty, Derrida, and Foucault among others. You may send him comments to allan_froilan.mendoza@up.edu.ph. I thank Mr. Mendoza for submitting the essay to the Political Theory Daily Review.  I would also like to take this opportunity to remind visitors that they are welcome to submit articles or essays to be considered for linking or providing space on our site.]

The Disquietude of Development: Narratives, Palliatives, and Alternatives
Allan Froilan B Mendoza

"The idea of development stands like a ruin in the intellectual landscape. Delusion and disappointment, failures and crime have been the steady companions of development and they tell a common story: it did not work..”
--Jan Nederveen Pieterse, My Paradigm or Yours?

"I worked my way up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.”
--Groucho Marx (1895 – 1977),
Comedian, Libertarian Provocateur

When the insurgent energy exploded in Seattle during the week of November 30, 1999, in what was earlier celebrated as the ‘millennium round’ of meetings of the World Trade Organization, the illusion that the corporate-driven globalization was inevitable and its opponents disorganized and insignificant was shattered. The engagement between those who favored the neo-liberal project of opening up greater economic space and the broad tendencies that contest the economic, cultural and political imperatives of the global market challenged the triumphalist position of many mainstream theorists that was largely hinged on the post-Cold War American geo-political hegemony and the supposed supremacy of Anglo-American free market liberalism, as exemplified by Fukuyama’s “The End of History”.

Increasingly, the intellectual discontent nurtured by the various anti-globalist movements lends itself to the once-marginalized clamor that questions the necessity of globalization as, first and foremost, a consumerist blueprint that patterns social relationships according to a particular consciousness, and its attendant set of disciplines and ethos conducive to capitalist mode of accumulation. Not only are the critiques intended to interrogate the visible institutional manifestations of the globalizing forces at work, like the WTO and IMF, but as well as to engage the fundamental logic upon which the whole neo-liberal globalization project is predicated.

The convivial atmosphere that the free marketeers conjure through their cornucopian imagery of bounty and wealth is clearly overtaken by the facts. According to the 1996 United Nations Development Report, the income share of the richest 20% of the world’s population has risen from 70% of the total world income to 85% between 1960 to 1991, while that of the poorest has plummeted from 2.3% to 1.4% of the global economic pie (Nederveen Pieterse, 2002: 1023). At present, an estimated 1.3 billion people live on less than one dollar per day, while almost half of the world’s 6 billion population receive a 2-dollar daily income. Jan Nederveen Pieterse (2002: 1023-24) states rather despairingly:

Overall discrepancies in income and wealth are now vast to the point of being grotesque. The discrepancies in livelihoods across the world are so large that they are without historical precedent and without conceivable justification – economic, moral or otherwise.

As if to put malice to the deep economic injuries put forth by market-driven growth, observes the Nobel laureate and former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz, the United States and the EU countries subsidize their cows at two dollars per day more than the average daily income of the majority of the people in the developing countries (David, 2003: 11). Amidst the magnitude of this social inequity, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins is proven right in stating that the great tragedy of our time resides on the fact that those who embrace scarcity as the fundamental proposition of economic relations are the world’s wealthiest people.

In a world where development is one of the most mesmerizing buzzword, received even by contending ideological colors, global poverty and inequality proliferate in an almost inconceivable pace. To counteract the engulfing onslaught of global poverty, development efforts usually expressed in terms of the dominant neo-liberal programs is automatically pressed as the automatic response. Conventional economic wisdom holds that the market and policies that encourage capital activity benefit the poor by providing opportunities to escape the poverty trap. This yardstick of economic growth constitutes the gauge that measures development.

For more than half a century of various schemas of development intervention, however, few positive effects, if any, have been produced. While there is little question on the capacity of free-market capitalism to initiate formation of economic opportunities, what is being disputed is the skewed concentration of wealth and the marginalizing tendency of this form of wealth creation that ultimately undermine social cohesion.

On the other hand, critics point to the variety of social frictions that the development project has generated. Much of the world’s societal anomalies, they advance, are traceable to the concomitant situation of poverty and inequality. Such observations are largely well-founded. In fact, in no other time in history has the socio-economic disparity of peoples been so great and so vivid than it is today. Recent figures suggest that in the age of free trade, fluid financial markets and global integration the prospering minority has secured greater access to farther its place in the economic food chain, while drastically eliminating whatever chances the poor can utilize to barter for a better future.

Furthermore, such ocean of economic inequality flows to others streams of social divide. The deepening gap between the haves and have-nots inevitably breeds other crucial deprivation that has indispensable impact on the way we undertake our politics and economics, both in the identification of social problems and the means we administer remedies to solve such contradictions. Such divides exist in many aspects such as in food or calorie intake, environmental condition, education and technological know-how. The latter two, for instance, register direct resonance to the ever-complex process of democratization and its debates that subject much of Third World countries and intellectuals. These areas are often complicated by economic categories such as class, without disregarding, of course, the social intricacies produced by such subjective orders as race and gender. Clearly, much is at stake in discussing and demystifying the notion of ‘development’, and the variety of social implications it has manufactured through the years. Perhaps, only through the close scrutiny of the genealogy of the term can we fully grasp why the idea of development commands such powerful appropriation of social purpose.

Recently, a powerful set of debates has emerged and questioned not only the viability of development as a social paradigm but also the embedded assumptions implied within its discourse. Under the loose label of post-development, many of these theorists contest the clear ideological baggage carried by the development discourse and praxis, and the implicit regulative tendencies embodied within the concept. Such diffuse and subtle operation of power opens up spaces for cultural and symbolic domination, which could ossify and lead to patterns of economic and political acquiescence.

Adopting the post-development critique, this paper would provide a possible explanation for the privileged status of ‘development’ and its persuasive hegemony in securing the distinct position as one of the ultimate articulations of the purpose not only of the state and other actors, but all human collectivities. Secondly, this paper would also attempt to scrutinize the discourse of development to reveal the underlying biases and the subjugating tropes and mechanisms deployed in the Third World to enforce an inconspicuous and dispersed form of domination. This task also requires investigating ‘development’ through the relevant vocabulary of postcolonial theory, while at the same time re-considering other debates that have pertinent application in the investigation of the development discourse. The primary problematique of this paper centers on the question: how does ‘development’ get internalized in the Third World as the most compelling, purposive and central paradigm?

Only through an earnest examination of the wide-ranging and subterranean dynamics of domination, co-optation and contestation in these erstwhile colonial subjects set against the backdrop of what Ellen Meiksins Wood calls “the universalization of capitalism” can we fully appreciate why the conditions that enabled the exploitative relationships to occur in the past manage to persist in the present both in familiar and unfamiliar terms. It is thus important, in properly engaging development as a discourse, to consider the colonial legacy of these former colonies, for the historical experiences of the Third World provide the appropriate context from where we can draw, to a large extent, intelligibility of the complex processes that subject the great majority of humanity.

Development: Shangri-la of servitude?

Development is to modern capitalism what la mission civilisatrice is to colonialism. Beneath the panoply of humanizing metaphors of progress and civilization are the exploitative structures and patterns of oppression that the discourse and praxis of development are so able to mask. The critical position that challenges development, therefore, sees such critique as the logical extension of the resistance to capitalism, but without conceiving such critical outlook in purely economic terms.

Björne Hettne (1995: 21), for instance, argues that the notion of development cannot escape its Eurocentric origin. He adds that development thinking is “rooted in Western economic history and consequently structured by that experience.” Its central, most irresistible articulation is expressed by the notion of ‘growth’, which echoes a somewhat organistic view of social progress. Hettne extends that this process corresponds to the “structural differentiation and increasing complexity” that all societies under capitalism experience. In its most basic form, development is the duplication of the modernization process of the West. Received as the general pattern that all human collectivities will follow and, by extension, ought to follow, the economic evolution of the Europe, observes Robert Nisbet, has given rise to the conception that the material destiny of all human communities is inherently similar, making ‘development’ one of the most powerful Western ideas.

Hettne summarizes the basic attributes of development as follows:

(1) development is spontaneous, irreversible process inherent in every society;

(2) development implies structural differentiation and functional specialization;

(3) the development process has discrete stages that can be identified showing the level of development achieved by each society; and

(4) development can be stimulated by external competition or military threat and by internal measures that support modern sectors and encourage the modernization of the traditional economy.

Clearly, as Osvaldo Sunkel posits, the goal of all development is to achieve a mature capitalist economy through a reliance on technical knowledge and planning. In addition, development, as Arturo Escobar states, carries with it an urban bias nurtured by the increasing dependence on positivist science, which is seen as “neutral, desirable and universally applicable” (Escobar, 1992: 68; Nederveen Pieterse, 1998: 361).

However, the application of development methodologies is not without friction. In fact, earlier on, Durkheim and Marx have warned of the negative impact of industrial transformation through their respective notions of “anomie” and “alienation”. The social, economic, political and, indeed, psychological tremors induced by the shifting ideological and material scaffoldings of capitalist wealth creation result in the formation of new disciplines and exploitation. As Escobar (1995: 65) succinctly argues, “people did not become accustomed to factory work or to living in crowded and inhospitable cities gladly and of their own volition; they had to be disciplined into it!”

Escobar, the most profiled critic of the development project, sees development as the re-affirmation of old power relations distilled into new forms. Like the Orientalist discourse that permeates many social commentaries on Asia and its culture, as debunked by Said, development has been a channel for the production and management of poor countries under the Third World category (Pieterse, 1998: 361-362). It is, therefore, indispensable to probe the ‘archeology of Development’ to uncover the nucleus of domination hidden within its discursive shell. Development, Escobar argues, originates in the 19th century and is the result of three important social changes that have occurred in Europe (1992: 64-67):

(1) the development of town planning as a mechanism to address the negative consequences of the growing industrial cities;

(2) the rise of social planning, and the increasing intervention by professionals and the state in society, in the name of promoting notions such as people’s welfare; and

(3) the invention of the modern, “disembedded” (Karl Polanyi) economy, which crystallizes the institutionalization of the market, and the formulation of classical political economy.

Escobar clarifies that the tension between the natural movement of capitalist development towards social exclusion and alienation, and the vast concentration of wealth to particular sectors create a space where detailed scientific knowledge about society thrives. As a result, a specific body of scientific techniques, and laws and regulations emerge to ensure that the population adheres to the imperatives of capitalism, in the belief that such social problems are deviation from the pattern. Such regulations are clearly specified to deal with old age, women employment, education and others.

Likewise, factories, schools, hospitals and prisons become the privileged sites where experiences and modes of thinking are shaped accordingly to the existing order. These changes have not occurred naturally. On the contrary, they have required an elaborate use of coercion. Meanwhile, as people become increasingly socialized and subjected under the dominant norms and practices, and familiarized with what is perceived as the most meaningful discourse, development experts attach social problems into particular groups. Hence, traditional groups such as subsistent farmers, hunter-gatherers, and nomads are personified as forces that impede the modernization process. In the case of subsistence farming, small farmers should either technify their methods and adopt entrepreneurial skills, or be expelled in the production process altogether. From a Foucauldian perspective, the process of normalization that draws distinction between “modern” and “primitive”, First World and Third World, and, by extension, normal and abnormal encourages the perpetuation of the subterranean and, sometimes, latent domination.

In effect, therefore, power and the skewed social relations favorably tilt not only towards the apparatus of those in control, but also towards those who have specialist knowledge, those who can produce and understand a particular body of discourse, which, in this case, concerns with development. For post-structuralist thinkers like Foucault, knowledge is used and produced in the service of a special power that perpetuates and thrives in modern institutions. They also acknowledge that all sciences, including development planning, are not neutral reflections on society. On the contrary, this body of knowledge advances certain interests, values, and ethos, which are closely associated with a particular mode of accumulation and with the disciplinary society in which, as Foucault maintains, we live in.

In his various, short and often polemical works dissecting the adverse impact of modern institutions on society, Ivan Illich has also commented on the same damaging control of such modern constructs on humanity. Illich sets out to argue that institutions provide the conditions for the same misery they are supposed to address. In his examination of modern educational system, hospitals, technology and work, he explores the disabling effects of the formation of an ‘expert culture’ where experts monopolize power by creating ‘institutional barricades’ that decide, in a fairly Foucauldian manner, which knowledge is valid and legitimate. This then provides the opportunity to commodify and trade learning, resulting in the same kind of exploitation as in the material realm.

It is made clear that the science-oriented focus of development and its bid to sustain the conditions for capitalist society to propagate are inseparable. Through the realization of the nexus between development as an expression and image of social purpose and the technologies of domination that reside in the interstices of its praxis can we expose the microphysics of subjugation and the various strategies of political rule and economic exploitation. While some advocates admit to the cost that entails social change, they still defend development as the most effective way to temper or civilize the frenzied and inherently “barbaric” capitalist economy.

However, this analysis masks the deeper, less-obvious and dispersed operations of power that are usually underplayed, if not obscured, when development is simply conceived as a method to make capitalism docile. In his work on discipline, Foucault repeatedly advances that capitalism requires fundamental alteration of human habit and perspective. In other words, capitalism tames its master to a degree of inconceivable docility, rather than the other way around. Reading Foucault, Thomas Lemke specifies the crucial re-alignment, even at the level of the individual, that is required by capitalist accumulation: “life must be synthesized into labor time, individuals must be subjugated to the production cycle, habits must be formed, and time and space must be organized according to a scheme” (Lemke, 2000: 10-11).

Indeed, Foucault rightly re-orients and enlarges Marx’s critique of political economy into a “critique of political anatomy”. Even at its inception, capitalism has not only played its forces and contradictions within the realm of politics and economics, but as well as in the domain of physiology and psychology, in the very domain of the human body. And this has tremendous bearing on the way development is socially framed and practiced.

Post-development and the misfortunes of a failed project

The label “post-development” refers to a set of productive critiques that maintains development “orders and creates the object that it pertains to address” (Nustad, 2001: 480). Although not possessing a homogenous intellectual strand, post-development writers agree that the development project reproduces and sustains the diffuse patterns of domination and exploitation, as earlier discussed. By creating a veneer of neutrality and singular purposiveness, and fostering a chimera that the consumption level of affluent countries is globally desirable, development discourse is received as the only legitimate trajectory every human collectivity should follow, thereby displacing alternative conceptions of social purpose.

According to Gustavo Esteva, US President Truman’s inauguration speech marks the start when development came to be known as, first, an alternative to communism, then later, after the fall of the Eastern bloc, the universal prescription to all (Nustad, ibid). From this period onwards, the Third World is essentialized as a homogenous category that requires the same formulaic approach. Through this one-size-fits-all remedy, crucial aspects of Third World societies are overlooked. Wolfgang Sachs (Nederveen Pieterse, 2002: 1026) argues that poverty, for instance, requires further prolematization through the distinction between frugality, which characterizes subsistence economies; destitution, which arises when growth strategies interfere with these economies; and scarcity, which results when the structures of capitalist accumulation becomes the general logic of economic relations.

For Escobar, the development project is a general theme that has surfaced in the aftermath of the Second World War, the dismantling of the colonial powers and the emergence of the USA as the new world hegemon (Robinson, 2002: 1054). Crucial in this analysis is the constituent role of signs and cultural codes that manufacture development’s desirability. Clearly, other social discontent through class antagonism and/or other forms of struggles are glossed over by the supposed universality of infatuation to achieve middle class lifestyle. Notions such as consumerism, modernization, investment, and others become the undeniable indices of progress, which, upon closer examination, reveals the clear signature of capitalist modernity.

While development has taken varied and fresh forms in an attempt to regain much of its lost credibility through the reconstitution of its concept, like in sustainable development, social development, human development, and local development, the endorsement of consumerist mindset and grand, universalizing prescription for economic growth remains largely untouched. Such redefinition of the development discourse, as it shallowly incorporates mirage of justice, humanity and environment, testifies to the co-optative behavior of the discourse.

In response to this, the declaration of the International Networks for Cultural Alternatives to Development, which later on provides the material for the vision of the Post-development Manifesto, advances rallying for more pluralistic ways to seek social fulfillment. To undertake this task, advocates reiterate the necessity of “de-colonization of imagination” and “de-economization of the mind”. This vision, often termed in congruence with more traditional notions such as umran (fulfillment, a term by Ibn Khaldun) or swadeshi-sardovaya (Gandhi), requires growth reduction as one of the global objectives. Post-development crtitics term this ungrowth, which calls for the reduction of capitalist expansion. Ultimately, this program envisions a social life organized around leisure and less labor hours. From Marxism, post-development draws much of its critical points for its struggle against capitalism. In contrast to Marxism, however, post-development no longer considers class interests as a meaningful analytical starting point for its critique, while it gives importance to the discursive dimension of domination.

Postcolonial debates: exorcising the specter of the past

The actual operation of the development ideology is deployed like a loose army of signs and symbols that blends perfectly well with the cacophony of social practices on the ground, especially in the Third World. Recognizing the fluidity of its movement, as its suggestive images and organizing principles penetrate and co-opt resistance to the fold of its discourse, a set of pertinent debates has emerged to re-affirm the necessity of bringing back the conception of history, power and identity in the engagement of the idea of development. Grouped under the name ‘postcolonial’, these commentaries are, describes Ella Shohat, “a designation for the discourses which thematize issues emerging from colonial relations and their aftermath, covering a long historical span (including the present)” (Hoogvelt, 1997: 156).

Postcolonial studies are more than just an intellectual celebration of “coming after”. More importantly, it is, as Jorge Klor de Alva insists, “a subjectivity which opposes colonial and all other (sic) subordinating practices” (Biccum, 2002: 36). This acknowledgement of the various tactics of subordination during and after the colonial episode can then serve as a strategy of resistance to all forms of authoritarianism. The label ‘postcolonial’, therefore, does not only signify a ‘departure from’ but, as April Biccum proposes, also a continuation of the various resistance projects undertaken by all oppressed and dominated cultures. However, Biccum underplays the centrality of departure in purely conceiving that the critical outpourings under the genre of ‘postmodernity’ as an appeal for continuity. It should be noted that most the ‘post’ literature recognizes the objectifying potential of knowledge, as conceptualized by Foucault’s power/knowledge nexus. This is crucial in the final analysis for the postmodern desertion of grand purpose, and the inescapable web of interest and power that has a potential for co-optation. Therefore, whether the present intellectual mooring is an appeal to uphold modernity and its values, or a nostalgic call to re-live the past, the prefix ‘post’ signifies, more critically, a departure and a demarcation against the co-optative tendencies of its predecessor.

The necessity of theorizing on the specificities of colonial relations, as they condition the present power configuration, means that development cannot erase the variety of peoples’ conceptions of themselves, their language and their experiences. As Edward Said (2003: 1) wisely remarks, “history cannot be swept clean like a blackboard, so the “we” might inscribe our own future there and impose our own forms of life for lesser (emphasis mine) people to follow.”

The need to develop, therefore, from a post-colonial perspective, is a logical tendency of the West to reproduce itself to the rest of the World to substantiate its claim of the universality of Western values. This process is replicated not only in the colonial societies through economic and political predation, but also through manipulation of colonial mindset. Pablo Gonzales Casanova calls this internal colonialism, where the intellectual production and articulation of the subjects are controlled and directed by the structures of domination. Thus, postcolonial thinkers see development as a continuation of the same historical tale told in a different vocabulary.


As with all literatures under the ‘post’ genre, the project for grand emancipation has been substituted by a more open-ended program of resistance. From one that is certain of its end, political action is increasingly relying on aggregates of struggles that give space for human agency. Because the operation of power is believed to be more diffuse, more fluid and subtler, domination can no longer be adequately grasped through the analysis of class dynamics or gender identity. No aspect of the discourse is too sacred to go unquestioned. Knowledge is, then, demystified as necessarily political, in that it is always produced and transmitted to advance and support particular worldviews.

Against these irritating yet necessary intellectual grain, the development project is exposed as a menagerie of various structures of exploitation and patterns of domination. Beneath the velvet costume of humanist appeal to progress and civilization, the core of consumerism and capitalist accumulation form the core logic of the development project. The mythical purpose of attaining bourgeois lifestyle for the rest of humanity carries with it clear ideological inclination recast into desirable cultural codes and metaphors. Crucial is that those who aim to critique development project must be able to uncover the nexus between knowledge and the various interests that have stake in the propagation of the development ideology.

In contrast to the liberating yet apocalyptic visions of orthodox Marxians, the inherently exploitative capitalist accumulation does not collapse regardless of its contradiction because of its capacity to shift the loci and foci of resistance and oppression from the material domain to symbolic and to other dimensions of social existence. The capacity of capitalist regime to co-opt dissident voices has never been more crucial considering the myriad channels through which capitalist values are transmitted. Those who choose to “de-link”, on the other hand, remain largely marginalized in the struggle for liberation.

The development narrative clearly tells the various tactical maneuvers employed by the dominant discourse to incorporate potential challenges within its fold. Whether environmentalism, gender sensitivity or spiritual renewal, capitalism’s uncanny way to humanize its dynamics requires thorough and multi-dimensional examination. And surely, development is one of the most powerful articulations that ensure capital reproduction is maintained and transmitted.

Post-development provides some of the most glaring critiques of the development project. As a tactical move that celebrates local knowledge, grassroots movement and localized resistance, post-development offers an armory of discursive criticisms that can be adopted in opposition to the grand development design. While many writers including those within the genre see the lack of concrete agenda, the lack of instrumentality of the position does not belie or invalidate its counterpoints against the development project (Nustad, 2001: 479). Moreover, such critical position strengthens the call to advance for more varied and multiple forms of action against capitalist exploitation.

Considering the necessity of various alternatives, postcolonial theory provides the intellectual ammunition to strengthen the need of bringing back identity and history in the debate. The urgency to move away from generalizing labels, such as class, gender and others, calls for the re-imagination of sources and movement of social tension and antagonism. Furthermore, the discursive and sometimes literary bend of the debate should not be discouraged, for, as I have mentioned, the foci and loci of contestation cannot be simply grasped in the unilinear direction provided for by politics or economics. Although this assessment does not in any way nullify the rich contributions of Marxism and other critical positions, such view forces the discussion to be more interdisciplinary and inclusive; in short, interesting and realistic.


Biccum, A. 2002, "Interrupting the Discourse of Development: On a Collision Course with Postcolonial Theory", Culture, Theory and Critique 43:1, pp. 33-50.

David, R. 2003, "Global Trade and Poverty", Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 14, A15

Escobar, A. 1992, "Development Planning", in S. Corbridge, ed., Development Studies: A Reader, London: Edward Arnold, pp. 64-77.

Foucault, M. 1995, Discipline and Punish, trans. A. Sherman, New York: Vintage, 2nd Edition.

Hettne, B. 1995, Development Theory and the Three Worlds, Essex: Longman Group, Ltd.

Hoogvelt, A. 1997, Globalization and the Postcolonial World, Hampshire: Macmillan Press.

Lemke, T. 2000. Foucault, Governmentality, and Critique, a paper presented at the Rethinking Marxism Conference, University of Amherst, Massachusetts, September.

Manifesto of the Post-development Network, 1992, Extracts from the declaration of INCAD (International Network for Cultural Alternatives to Development) at "End of the era of development and the task of regeneration" Oxford, Quebec, Canada, 4 May 1992, viewed 25 August 2003,

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Nederveen Pieterse, J. 2002. "Global Inequality: bringing politics back in", Third World Quarterly 23: 6, pp.1023-1046.

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Robinson, W. 2002. "Remapping development in the light of globalisation: from a territorial to a Social cartography", Third World Quarterly 23: 6, pp. 1047-1072.

Sahlins, M. 1972, Stone age economics, Chicago: Aldine de Gruyter.

Sahlins, M n.d., The Original Affluent Society, viewed 25 August 2003,

Said, E. 2003, "A window on the world", The Guardian, 2 August, viewed 2 September 2003,

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