Development or Underdevelopment: political implications and the wrong focus

Development scholarship, despite covering several disciplines, lacks diversity. Debates about what we mean by development, the way we measure it and the terms we apply are often simply posited and acceped, leaving the foundations of development scholarship virtually uncontested. This gap in the debate however, can have particular political implications.  Here, Jake Flavell explores some of these implications.

Taking certain definitions for granted sets the scope for analysis and limits conclusions or possibilities even prior to beginning the any research or action. Symbols, while being seemingly harmless, like ‘developed’ ‘developing’ and ‘underdevelopment’ and similarly uncontested terms hails states, international organisations, multinational corporations etc. as embodying particular characteristics which thus effect their future action, as well as others agents actions towards them.

As knowledge often translates to power, the method by which we communicate this knowledge and the way we subjectively interpret this knowledge is incredibly important. As such, one can argue for, as Slavoj Zizek does, The Reality of the Virtual. That is something that is not yet effective, not yet actualised, impactings and effecting the material, existing world. The language we use to convey certain ‘knowledge’, allows us to construct meaning in a particular way. The symbols we use, despite being virtual in the sense that they don’t directly objectively correspond to the material thing it is supposed to represent, frame knowledge in particular ways that affects the direction of development policy.

Nothing is innocent…

Take arguably the core of development scholarship, that is the distinction between developed, developing, and underdeveloped. The application of these symbols on a global level is problematic in the first case because it is surely far too simplistic. It paints over the subtle differences even within national borders and thus prevents development questions being asked on more local level.

The UK and the USA for instance are both labelled as ‘developed’ states, however on closer inspection, high poverty levels, poor life expectancy and illiteracy (often symptoms of underdevelopment) are increasingly prevalent. Glasgow for instance is a city of two halves. Whilst the rich side boasts ‘developed’ country life expectancy at around 80, the poor side’s average life expectancy is closer to 50. The drastic oversimplification at the core of development scholarship thus prevents us asking the question (one that has frequenlty eluded most development scholars) is the developed world really developed?

This development distinction becomes more problematic on closer inspection. The application of the term ‘developed’ suggests the finished article. Indeed, many influential thinkers like Francis Fukuyama, argue that with markets and liberal democracy we have finally reached the ‘end of history’. The modernization school of thought on development (which makes up the current consensus on development) is foundationally linked to W. Rostow’s influential book The Stages of Economic GrowthA Non-Communist Manifesto which mapped a very linear model of development. Technological innovation and the emancipation of the entrepreneurial class, he argued, took societies from underdeveloped agrarian societies to the developed world of high consumer societies like the USA and UK.

IMF /Creative Commons License

IMF/Creative Commons License

If we label certain states as developed, are we not creating a very clear picture of firstly what it means to be developed and secondly how to get there? Further as ‘developed’ is normally juxtaposed with ‘underdeveloped’ does this not recreate the unequal power relations between the so-called developed and underdeveloped worlds? Casting the ‘developed’ world as successful whereas the ‘underdeveloped’ world a failure legitimises the current development consensus –  the underdeveloped world’s only chance for salvation, to reach the holy grail of being ‘developed’ is to do what the now ‘developed’ countries previously did, or what they now prescribe.

Therefore, what appears innocent, an emission of a debate and a simply binary central to understanding development, has important political implications. It sets the foundations of the development debate and assigns different states (whether deemed, developed…) particular roles within the power relations of the global political economy which only goes to reproduce the existing imbalance of power between the ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ world.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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