Exploring power, agency, scale and history (PASH) this essay will examine different understandings of development with a particular emphasis on the evolution of post-development thinking and its reflection in people centered approaches and the future of development theories. Although development is generally understood as ‘progress, a positive change from an original position’ one must be critical of the concept itself and examine who has the power to determine what positive change entails and acknowledge who the winners and losers of that change are.
The history of development theory can be underpinned by two ideas: development as modernization and development as poverty reduction. The two theories have dominated development discourse arguing that development occurs when states move from agricultural societies to industrial societies aided by technological advances and high mass consumption. (Rostow, 1960) One criticism of these approaches is that they were formulated from a Western view point following the successes and dominance of the United States and Britain after World War 2. The thought process follows logically that if the Western states were able to achieve dominance by following similar paths, then developing nations should also follow the same pathway to achieve similar outcomes. Those outcomes being presumed to be the ideal state-of-being for every nation. This presumption has been challenged and the associated criticisms can be seen to have formed the development of post development thinking that arguably led to more people-centred development approaches.
Firstly, born from the theory of development as modernization is the idea of neoliberalism – an approach that is focused on economic growth as the main indicator for success. Neoliberalism is concerned with free markets driving competition, increasing efficiency by limiting government control and ultimately resulting in universal wealth via trickle down economics. One can see the criticisms of the neoliberalism approach through the words of Warren Buffet (2018), the world’s third richest person who has undoubtedly benefited from capitalism.
Let’s think again about 1930. Imagine someone then predicting that real per capital GDP would increase six fold in my lifetime […]. If somehow, though, they could have imagined it actually transpiring, they would concurrently have predicted something close to universal prosperity […] the wealth of the [Forbes] 400 increased 29-fold-from $93 billion to $2.7 trillion – while many millions of hardworking citizens remained stuck on an economic treadmill. During this period, the tsunami of wealth didn’t trickle down. It surged upward.
The impact of neoliberal approaches can be seen on a global scale, impacting developing nations through structural adjustment policies. The World Bank and IMF implemented policies for financial assistance that dictated how involved a state’s government should be on the economy. Stiglitz (2002) argues that these policies have seriously compromised development in terms of social outcomes such as housing, food, healthcare and education for poor people.
The phrase ‘poor people’ serves as the basis for the idea of development as poverty reduction. This theory has been and remains a mainstay in development practices. Perhaps the most obvious and influential is the development of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (United Nations, 2010). The first MDG is to eradicate extreme poverty & hunger with a target of halving, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 per day. In the time since the goals were set, extreme poverty rates have halved with more than 1 billion people having been lifted out of extreme poverty.
However, Escobar (1995 p. 22) points out in essence that development of modernization begat the need for development as poverty reduction. Massive poverty in the modern sense appeared only when the spread of the market economy broke down community ties and deprived millions of people from access to land, water, and other resources. With the consolidation of capitalism, systemic pauperization became inevitable.
This paradox forms the basis of post development thinking that the idea of development is ‘a hoax, an ideological export designed to tie people in developing countries into an inequitable, unjust global system.’ (Hulme, 2009) This criticism can be seen to have influenced the development of people-centred approaches. While ‘poor people’ may not have been at the table when the ideals of development were created at Bretton Woods and other early conferences following World War 2, the people-centered approach argues that ‘people should be in charge of their own development, so such approaches advocate localized action, participatory processes and local ownership of development projects.’ (Hulme, 2009) Participatory processes mark a shift in power and agency. Participation gives all stakeholders a level of influence and is an approach that is used widely today.
It is important to note that two thought leaders in the area of post development thinking and people-centered development, Arturo Escobar and Amartya Sen, have had their views and perspectives shaped by the virtue that each of these theorists were born and raised in developing nations, Columbia and India respectively.
One of the major criticisms of people-centred development is that while the vision of the approach is much more inclusive, actual strategies to address the viewpoints of this theory remain wanting. Additionally, Cleaver (1995) argues that participation itself should be examined further. Cleaver argues that participation can sometimes be a matter of necessity as opposed to choice. She uses the example of communities where water is scarce so therefore community participation in water supply projects is not an expression of agency, but more a way to address a basic and essential human need.
The criticisms of neoliberalism and other economic growth based approaches as well as post-development and people-centered approaches perhaps can be addressed by Big Data. The United Nations established Global Pulse as its flagship innovation initiative to explore real-time feedback from a range of sources including online sources such as Twitter, private-sector partnerships such as online searches, physical sensors such as satellite imagery and crowd-sourced reports. Big Data has the power to give a voice to actors in development not previously considered in a more inclusive and non-anecdotal way. (United Nations Global Pulse, 2018) However, it is important to consider the privacy implications of this approach and acknowledge that while data itself can be unbiased, the individual evaluating the data will always have some level of interpretation influenced by his or her individual life experiences and perspectives.
In summary, while the idea of development was brought forth by countries in power after World War 2, it has since evolved to encompass and consider multiple viewpoints. With new agents of change, particularly from developing nations, development has transformed to become more inclusive, addressing some of the concerns of that brought about the people-centred approach.
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