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Time to change international development, and uproot its colonial legacy

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A member blog post by

Dr Ben Wilson

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In the context of Black Lives Matter, decolonisation movements and the threat to international aid in the recent DFID / FCO merger, is now the time for “development” to change?

The threats to the development project appear to stem from a failure to win over the public, a failure to align with contemporary politics, and an enduring paternalistic tendency that puts off the young generation who are more concerned about justice than charity.

This is the first of a three part blog series by Dr Ben Wilson, exploring some of these issues through the theory of “post-development”. Each blog unpacks contemporary debates and attempts to make sense of them, before offering some reflections about how our practice and our ideas of development need to change. The series is based on the author’s 2019 PhD Scotland, Malawi and the Post-Development Critique.

Post-Development and Coloniality

Post-development is a theory that calls into question the very concept of “development”. It suggests that this concept originated as a euphemism for westernisation, that it masks global structural inequalities, and that the idea of one “developing world” homogenises vastly diverse countries and cultures. For many post-development writers, the concept is used by international institutions to extend their power into strategically valuable areas, it is used by “developed” countries to maintain authority and promote business overseas, and is used by governments of “developing” countries to influence elections and capture revenue from informal economies.

The theory is not unfamiliar to most development practitioners globally. It is part of the curriculum in most development studies courses, and some of its key theorists are prominent critics of the contemporary global economic structure. However, many practitioners regard it as a fundamentally academic pursuit, and critique the theory for extending relativism too far; in effect calling into question the fundamentals of the development industry. Since the theory first made traction in the early 90s it has lost a lot of its ground-breaking momentum, and many of its key texts gather dust in development practitioners’ bookshelves. Yet despite the theories misgivings and drawbacks, I believe the time is now for a post-development revival, and that the concept offers a huge amount to contemporary development debates and practice.

Who has the power?

Key to all of this is how our way of seeing “developing” countries both mirrors and perpetuates inequalities. Referring to large parts of the world and billions of people either “developed” or “developing” is wholly inadequate, yet this terminology still shapes the way that many people understand how the world is structured. Not only that, but it can also lead to highly insulting and problematic forms of interaction between people from each of these two broad camps.

In this way, the idea of “development” perpetuates the power imbalances of the colonial era. Even when we think we are acting in a neutral way, often that legacy of colonialism still shapes our interactions: it shapes the power in the room when projects are being developed, the flows of finance, our advocacy narratives, and whose voice is heard loudest.

Crucially, this power usually operates under the surface. When a project is genuinely designed with the aim of meeting the needs of the poorest or leaving no-one behind, it can in effect still perpetuate global power relations. This is because the power of design and definition usually remains with the NGOs in “developed” countries. It is not a democratic process, because democratic processes rely on equal voice. Definitions and designs are determined by the development industry, which is dominated by usually white and usually privileged practitioners from “developed” countries.

Poverty Porn and Development Communications

The basis for the post-development critique of the industry comes from the post-modern turn in the social sciences, which views systems of knowledge as deeply connected to power relations.  Post-development theorists argue that when the development industry characterises aspects of life, it is essentially defining particular forms of being: the landless peasant, the slum-dweller, the peri-urban poor. The power of definition is the power to then intervene upon, and to define an other as an object for external support, pity or control.

We see this particularly in international development imagery, especially in the much maligned and heavily critiqued “poverty porn” advertising which somehow endures in these times despite robust critique. This material is highly problematic from a post-development perspective; it privileges the viewer and patronises the subject; simplifies the causes of extreme poverty; and ultimately reproduces the othering of countries that receive aid.

The reason this imagery endures is itself another great contribution of post-development to contemporary debates. It exists based on a functional justification by communication professionals that shock imagery and appeals to emotion are more effective in generating large sums for fundraising campaigns, and essentially therefore that “the end justifies the means”. Such imagery is problematic for several reasons, not least because it perpetuates racist imagery of people in countries that receive aid, and in doing so feeds an enduring neo-colonial discourse. But fundamentally, the argument itself that “the end justifies the means” indicates how unequal power relations shape our thought processes.

Challenging ourselves

Post-development invites us to reflect on this: to call into question our taken-for-granted assumptions about the way the world is structured, critique our preconceptions, and call-out the legacy of colonialism that underpins the development imaginary. It also encourages us to peer into  our internal monologues and way of seeing, to call-out the parts of ourselves that want to see the world one way, when deep down we know it’s another way.

Most development practitioners agree that the industry is imperfect, challenged, and occasionally fundamentally oppressive. Most operate with a form of cognitive dissonance that puts aside our misgivings as part of the fundamental belief that this industry must work in order to fight global injustice and improve livelihoods. Post development can be a tool in helping us to do this more effectively, more democratically, to challenge the normal way of doing things, and breakdown the mental constructions which keep things the way they are.

This is the first of a three-part blog series by Dr Ben Wilson exploring the concept of post-development, and reflecting on what it means for international development in 2020. The next part will explore the Scotland-Malawi relationship through a post-development lens.

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