Still a future for development discourse?

By James Copestake

Has the word development been rendered meaningless through over-use, or does it still provide a useful discursive space within which to explore ideas about how our well-being can be improved? A short recent book by Esteva et al. (2013) reasserts the case for confining the term to history as a failed Western project. While they may struggle to predict the precise date of its demise, the authors do offer one for its birth: 20 January 1949, or the day of Harry Truman’s inaugural address as 33rd President of the USA, when he declared the country “pre-eminent among nations in the development of industrial and scientific techniques” and proposed a “bold new program for sharing these benefits “for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas” and for the people living there “…in conditions approaching misery.” The book argues that this project has mostly promoted Western interests, and perpetuated underdevelopment elsewhere. In so doing, it updates the ideas put forward in the Development Dictionary edited by Wolfgang Sachs in 1992, to which Esteva also contributed. It attacks advocates of the “social cancer” of neo-liberalism, and of state-led provision of basic needs with equal gusto; and adds global “ecological overshoot” to the catalogue of things that Truman’s vision of development can be blamed for.

More positively the authors also offer a radical manifesto for a global future free from Euro-centrism, market fundamentalism, unsustainable consumerism, and a fixation with American culture.  They advocate instead a “radical judicial pluralism” that affirms local over national and international sovereignty, and the primacy of context-specific and culturally-embedded ideas about wellbeing over those of outsiders, no matter how well intentioned. They refer to political struggles for indigenous and aboriginal rights in Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, Canada, USA and Australia, and make common cause with participants in the so-called informal sector more widely. Their alternative vision is one of locally grounded satisficing cultures based on simple acts of “eating, learning, healing and settling” that are dis-embedded from more elaborate, expensive and exploitative cultures of consumption, education, healthcare and housing development mediated by globalised markets and state planning.

Chapter 6 extends their account of failed development to include incorporation of “the commons” (shared goods and resources) by both progressive states and capitalist firms in the name of economic efficiency and economies of scale. Scale, they suggest, was achieved by undermining local circuits of governance, accentuating inequality and fostering social alienation; hence they call for popular social movements to reclaim the commons, and to build new ones, through economic delinking and the (re)invention of collective forms of exchange and self-government.  This, they argue, can lead to a simpler and more holistic level of collective wellbeing, aided by new digital and communication technology, but rendering obsolete much of the rigmarole, conspicuous excess and waste that has accrued around the current global system. The final chapter of the book reiterates how far this departs from what the development industry currently does. Many development professionals, the authors suggest, undermine autonomous political processes and visions of development through their claims to superior global technical expertise, and by facilitating intrusive state centralisation and global commercialisation; but they can rehabilitate themselves by acquiring greater sensitivity to local visions of wellbeing, accepting a more subordinate role, and fighting global centralisation and consumerist excess in rich and poor countries alike.

Overall, perhaps the biggest merit of this book – and one that is very much in the tradition of development studies – is to sum up a global vision for a radically different future, and to do so in little more than 150 very readable pages supported by a useful glossary and with passing references to the ideas of David Harvey, Ivan Illich, Leopold Kohr, Serge Latouche, Eleanor Ostrom, Raimon Pannikar, Karl Polanyi and many others. However, precision, balance, consistency and scholarly use of empirical evidence are all sacrificed in pursuit of ideological consistency and rhetorical flourish. Other views of development are too readily conflated, the informal economy is romanticised, and discussion of clientelism, violence and waste within local communities and social movements is conspicuously absent. Blanket criticisms of development assistance too often build on anecdote and hearsay, and there is disappointingly little detailed or practical discussion of how to go about realising their vision. South and East Asia is also surprisingly lacking from the discussion, particularly given the global scope of the argument. This contrasts interestingly with a recent article by Henderson et al. (2013) who also reject current development discourse for being overly laden with Western ideas, and advocate instead a focus on “critical transformations” and the uncertain trajectory of globalisation, increasingly influenced by Chinese and other rising powers.

Notwithstanding these weaknesses, a post-development manifesto resonates with many people. Ziai (2013), for example, provides a more scholarly attack on the bias of the ‘international community’ towards a technocratic and centralising approach to development, with its tendency to strengthen big business and government bureaucracies at the expense of civil society. A plurality of visions based on  autonomous local and national political processes of agenda setting, decision making and public action is sharply at odds with an ideology of development based on global target-setting led by ‘high-level panels’ of ‘eminent persons.’ While deconstructing the term development is an important part of this, but it is too restrictive to espouse only local communitarian solutions to complex and inter-connected local, national and global challenges. We need more debate about what development is, should be and could be. Not less.


Esteva, G., S. Babones, P. Babcicky (2013) The future of development: a radical manifesto. Bristol: Policy Press.

Henderson, J., R.P. Appelbaum, S. Ying Ho (2013) Globalization with Chinese characteristics: externalization, dynamics and transformations. Development and Change, 44(6):1221-53.

Ziai, A (2013) The discourse of “development” and why the concept should be abandoned. Development in Practice, 23(1):123-136.

2 thoughts on “Still a future for development discourse?

  1. Thanks James for this thoughtful piece. I too found Esteva’s book lacking academic depth. Zaia’s article in contrast is rigorous and constructive in its destruction of the idea of development. The question about what constitutes ‘development’ and starting talking about ‘human flourishing’ instead of the broad-encompassing concept of development can sometimes be costly, as Tony Bebbington has found out when talking about the impact of what the Peruvian government understands as ‘development’ on human wellbeing and the environment. See Bebbington, A. (2009), ‘Please Mr Bebbington, Don’t come here and tell us what to do’, Antipode, 41(1): 199-202.

  2. Dear James, I didn’t read the book but my impression from your comments is that it maintains the main flaws of post-development theory: the idealization of social movements and communities, and the lack of a feasible economic and political project.

    From my point of view, the problem is not necessarily the word “development”, but the ideas that usually are connected to this word in public policies (economic growth, individual well being, participation). As Cornwall and Brock argue, a good strategy would be to connect development to other ideas that usually are marginalized, such as solidarity and social justice. Indeed, indigenous peoples many times appropriate the word “development” and reconfigure it according to their specific cosmology and political agenda.

    Finally, I think that the debates around the notion of the “commons” are very important, but as you said, it must be taken into account that there are national and global challenges. In that respect, the works of BS Santos are really promissory in analyzing and promoting global connections among social movements. I consider that Santos projects and the theoretical and practical developments of Buen Vivir in Latin America are steps forward beyond the deconstructive critique of post-development.

    Kind regards,


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