Development as delusion
“Marvellous falsehood, most pleasant”
Shastri Ramachandaran

The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith
by Gilbert Rist
Translated by Patrick Camiller
Academic Foundation, New Delhi
Pages 286 Rs 695

Medha Patkar
Medha Patkar at a rally; Development means different things to different people 

Perhaps, no other term is used with such certitude as the term ‘development’. The undisputed currency and implied clarity the word has acquired across the world, among the poor and the prosperous, the deprived and the “developed”, belies its loaded and conflicting meanings.

Development should mean different things to different societies and peoples. It can be concept, cause, process, effect, aspiration, structure, verb, noun et al. It is, or ought to be, one of the most controversial terms in a world teeming with diverse disparities and divides. In fact, the crisis in development studies and research stems from the controversies over the D-word - what it means, whether it is achievable and through what strategies. Yet, the word commands a certain universal acceptance and awe across countries, cultures, religions, ideologies and political systems.

In his richly fascinating story - The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith - Gilbert Rist takes a hard look at the concept, its rise to the mythic status of a modern religion and the consequences of the paradigm. The publishers - Academic Foundation - have rendered a service in bringing here the first book in English of the leading Swiss scholar of development. First published in (French) 1996, Rist’s challenging enquiry is not easy to review or summarise within the confines of this space. It is easier to introduce the work with some impressions.

Rist begins with a provocative invitation to scrutinise the record of development. “The strength of ‘development’ comes of its power to seduce, in every sense of the term: to charm, to please, to fascinate, to set dreaming, but also to abuse, to turn away from the truth, to deceive. How dare one think, at the same time, that the cure might worsen the ill which one wishes to combat?”

He then proceeds by defining what is understood by the word ‘development’. With a short and digestible narrative of its long journey from its origins in Ancient Greece, through the Enlightenment and colonial period to its arriving moment in modern history: US President Harry Truman’s “inspired” or “accidental” use of the word “underdeveloped” in his 1949 inaugural address, which propelled the “invention of development” and the engine of development as recognised today.

He compels you to put on your rethink cap with his definition of ‘Development’ (p. 13): “A set of practices, sometimes appearing to conflict with one another, which require - for the reproduction of society - the general transformation and destruction of national environment and of social relations. Its aim is to increase the production of commodities (goods and services) geared, by way of exchange, to effective demand.”

Rist does not add to the maze of development theories. Instead, he takes apart the theories the world is stuck with, pricks the bubbles of self-validating evidence on which development thrives as dogma, belief, delusion and religion.

The book may be called a mind-map of development detailing its ideological evolution, processes and progress; how it separates the North and the South but at the same time unites them in a system of self-belief. He traces the origins of development in western thought to underscore that its definition is specific to a culture, though it has been embraced by the world as a faith. He details the fervour and messianism that drives development and makes millions internalise it unquestioningly.

The approach is that of an anthropologist unravelling the exotic. He strips away the layers of illusion and rhetoric with surgical precision to expose the conceptual fallacies and flaws on which development is founded. His perspective offers a history of the various economic and developmental prescriptions and initiatives, all of which have failed to eliminate poverty; but have reinforced inequalities and exclusion, consigning the world’s majority to be dominated by an opulent minority.

He covers the entire ground of the global strategies premised on the universal desirability of development: the Bandung Conference, the creation of UNCTAD, the ‘Development Age’ and the role of the UN and the UNDP, the impulses leading to the pursuit of the New Interntional Economic Order, the Gandhian vision that informed Julius Nyerere’s Arusha Declaration of 1967, structural adjustments, all of which have culminated in the “generalised apartheid of globalisation”.

The study recalls the intellectual activism of the internationalists, especially ‘Third Worlders’, who were actuated by an alternative vision of a humanistic socialism. The ‘alternative elite’, as they were known, were liberal social democrats opposed to the hegemony of an order imposed by the czars of either capitalism or communism. Marc Nerfin, Rajni Kothari, Samir Amin, Johan Galtung and Bjorn Hettne are just a few names in the alternative network that may jog the memory of Indian readers.

It is deeply pessimistic of actually existing development, which Rist shows has been “drained of content so that it is now a mere residue used to justify the process of globalisation”. In a world where discourse is dominated by simplistic arguments for and against globalisation between market cheerleaders and protesting demonstrators, Rist compels critical reflection, to liberate the mind from a single all-consuming delusion.

The profound truth of Rist’s conclusions is undeniable, though it might be unlivable in a globalising world. For all that, it is an intellectual antidote that should be prescribed reading for those interested in economics, development and the unequal and unjust global order. The historic sweep of his study of the philosophy, principles and practices of development serves one important purpose: To awaken us to the futility and folly of blind faith in a single paradigm. Even the world needs a Plan B.

The Gandhian way

Rist reminds us that Mahatma Gandhi was the first to break new ground with a critique of the international development doctrine. As he notes (p. 87): “The only real debate on Western ‘development’ had taken place in India in 1947, when Nehru’s first development plan (which had the support of both industrialists and Communists) was opposed by Gandhi. Too often it has been thought that Gandhi was bent on turning the clock back and reducing Indian industry to use the craftsman’s wheel. It is true that his economic system was largely based upon principles of justice and self-sufficiency, but he offered an original ‘bottom-up’ approach that proceeded via concentric circles, so that the largest circle did not lay down the law for the smallest. Consciously opting for simplicity, Gandhi sought to limit accumulation, the job-destroying division of labour and the dependence resulting from foreign trade”.