Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

Global Politics

Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

A glimpse of the post-development approach

Development is often accepted as an unquestioned goal of our societies. We just want to be developed. Critical discussion on this topic is almost entirely absent from the public debate in the Czech Republic. Global Politics hopes to draw your attention to an approach that does not fit the mainstream thinking. Promising young scholars from the Vienna University treat topics such as sustainable development, colonial continuities, microfinance or the Zapatista movement in Chiapas. Their unorthodox ideas are worth a thought for students who seek more than just the usual „aid or trade“ question.


„The last 40 years can be called the age of development. This epoch is coming to an end. The time is to write its obituary… The idea stands like a ruin in the intellectual landscape. Nevertheless, the ruin stands there and still dominates the scenery like a landmark“ (Sachs 1992, 1). Wolfgang Sachs’ famous dictum has become the basis for what was later to be known as the post-development approach. He identified four founding premises that should have led to abandonment of this mindframe, which took hold of us long before Truman’s famous speech on 20 January 1949. First, the planet runs towards its ecological limits and the reproduction of the industrial (or imperial) mode of living is impossible. Secondly, with the end of the Cold war, ‘development’ lost its political impetus. As we may see today the East-West confrontation has disappeared, but ‘development’ lost nothing of its attraction. Thirdly, the ever growing gap between the rich and poor defined in terms of monetary income makes the concept seem less persuasive. One look at the Millenium Development Goals shows how ‘development’ switched from modernization to poverty reduction. The neoliberal economic panacea ruling the world at least since the beginning of the 1980s remains nonetheless. Fourthly, the single ‘development’ track indeed seems to be obsolete in the postmodern age of cultural relativism.

Twenty years later, in the preface to the new edition of The Development Dictionary, Sachs did not change too much of his analysis. He admitted that the ‘development’ has been replaced by ‘globalisation’ and stressed how the pursuit of ‘development’ has become part of the desire for universal justice. It is the South today that is the staunchest defender of development.

Even if the ‘development’ agenda has been changing throughout the last 60 years in an ever accelerating pace, we still may agree with James Ferguson that “[i]t seems to us today almost non-sensical to deny that there is such a thing as ‘development,’ or to dismiss it as a meaningless concept, just as it must have been virtually impossible to reject the concept ‘civilization’ in the nineteenth century, or the concept ‘God’ in the twelfth” (Ferguson 1994, xiii). This “interpretive grid” (ibid) stays with us regardless of whether we speak of emerging markets, good governance or failed states.

Ferguson brings one more and much more serious insight into the usual evolutionary thinking of ‘development’ (Ferguson 2006, 176–193). The racist theories that culminated during the Second World War have been discredited by the horrors of Nazism. The cultural centrism that allowed for the colonial constellation of forces to continue after the war made other cultures capable of achieving the same status as those considered ‘developed’. The nodal point of the ‘development’ discourse changed from the white man to the nation of white men. Inferior cultures only needed to work hard enough like those Asians whom supposedly helped the Asian values, but these too were to become a problem as soon as the financial crisis in 1997 set in only to be the source of success for renewed growth. However, we are in a very different situation today than we were in the 1950s. The emerging markets are much unlike the so called fourth world and as globalization picks its enclaves full of resources or people with purchasing power, the rest is abandoned to its own fate of destitution. Culture does not play the role in the broken promise of ‘development’ anymore. We are back to good old racism (which we never really abandoned) with the hierarchical axis of modernity remaining and the temporal axis disappearing from the usual evolutionary diagram. There are people on this planet who are not ‘less developed’ anymore, they are just ‘less’. The difficult connection between racism and cultural centrism easily visible in an everyday practice of ‘development’, but the more difficult to decipher within the reports of the governmental and non-governmental ‘development’ institutions is replaced by an outright racism of the humanitarian zeal for those who naturally cannot catch up if they have not done so until now.

‘Development’ thus not only contains authoritarian implications as Cowen and Shenton have shown for the era long before Truman (Cowen and Shenton 1996), but its lack results in an equally if not more dangerous forms of disdain.

What is to be made of this ‘development’ era with all its transformations, (slowly) shifting power relations and human misery? While on the one hand, there are scholars such as David Simon or Stuart Corbridge who caution us against post-structuralist, postmodern and post-colonial disengagement from practising ‘development’ at all, on the other hand there are scholars such as James Ferguson, Lakshman Yapa and Gilbert Rist who do not dismiss any engagement entirely, but try to rethink thoroughly various concepts connected to ‘development’ (Matthews 2008). Ferguson warns that there might be no need for what we do or know.

It is strange that Sally Matthews stresses the intellectual work, we ‘the privileged’ can engage in and reserves only one sentence for the change of our consumer practices. But this is a very important part of the misery on a planet that makes our game to be zero-sum. While trying to highlight the importance of our consuming habits I try to engage in the intellectual work praised by Matthews as well. This is the case when I am teaching and this is the case when the students publish their papers.

The set of six texts written for the seminar Post-Development Theory and Practice are just a tiny bit of the intellectual solidarity with distant others here at home. The first paper by Katrin Köhler engages with the continuities between the colonial and ‘development’ discourses. It demonstrates how basic colonial concepts prevail despite changes at the rhetorical level.

The second paper by Eric Pfeifer deals with the discourse of ‘sustainable development’ and shows how the consumption in the North is excluded from the picture this discourse depicts. Additionally, only those solution that are “imaginable” in Žižekian sense, i.e. those de-politicized ones, are suggested preventing radical post-politics from taking place.

The third article by Andrea Visotchnig treats the practice of ‘development’ in the form of microfinance. While it is possible to criticize microfinance on its own merits, as well as from a discursive perspective, it is also possible to consider it to be part of an alternative, post-capitalist, diverse economy. The goal then should not be to call for its complete abolishment but to embed it in non-capitalist relations.

Post-development has been fiercely criticized from various perspectives. Christiane Löper tries to define what could be understood under the term and offers answers to the main points of the critique. In her concluding section she offers an interesting insight into her personal view on post-development which she considers to be a “summary of [her] whole study of International Development.”

The fifth paper by Josefine Bingemer tries to answer whether the Zapatista movement in Chiapas could be considered a case of post-development. Using secondary sources, concrete practices in politics, education, healthcare, truth and knowledge are analyzed in relation to the post-development body of theory.

Lastly, another personal encounter is presented by Alexandra Heis, a young mother, in relation to her study and experience with the vaccination here in Europe. Not part of ‘development’ at first sight, the article shows how the notions of citizenship, trust and knowledge are treated in a very similar way by the proponents and opponents of vaccination. The layman is thus excluded from this particular knowledge-power nexus, just as is so often the case in the ‘development’ practice.

These six articles may serve yet another purpose. Their quality puts the seminar papers of students in Brno into a different perspective. I can only hope that the readers of Global Politics will use the insights offered by these talented young authors to inform their own papers and consumer practices.


  • Cowen, Michael P., and Robert W. Shenton. 1996. Doctrines of development. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Ferguson, James. 2006. Global shadows: Africa in the neoliberal world order. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
  • Ferguson, James. 1994. The anti-politics machine: “development,” depoliticization, and bureaucratic power in Lesotho. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Matthews, Sally. 2008. “The Role of the Privileged in Responding to Poverty: perspectives emerging from the post-development debate.” Third World Quarterly 29(6): 1035–1049.
  • Sachs, Wolfgang. 1992. “Introduction.” In The Development Dictionary, ed. Wolfgang Sachs. London and New Jersey: Zed Books, p. 1–5.

Tomáš Profant is a PhD student at the University of Vienna. His area of research includes international development and North-South relations.

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Tomáš Profant
9. 7. 2011