What Is Left To Discover in Development Practice and Why Do Alternative Theories Rise and Fall So Quickly?

Neoliberalism has been the dominant ideology in development since World War Two. Luke Humphrey analyses the ideology and critiques its influence upon more modern development theories.

Ever since development theory became a popularised academic study after World War Two, there has been specific periods of varying development practices from the beginnings of Neoliberalism in the 50’s and 60’s to human rights based approaches in the 90’s. Every decade or so brings in a new wave of development thought, changing perceptions and ideologies on how to best develop. However as development becomes more and more contested with concepts of participatory development, gender mainstreaming and environmental development to name a few, why does neoliberalism still reign as common sense in economic development?

Strategies such as post-development, participatory development and gender mainstreaming have simply not been explored and implemented properly. Neoliberalism encapsulates so much economic development rhetoric because those who believe its ideology follow it so stubbornly and with so much conviction that in institutions such as the World Bank and IMF, it is unquestionable common sense. It has dominated the development paradigm for decades and every development theory which has tried to enter the mainframe since has been hampered by neoliberalist dominance. New alternatives to development such as post-development theory which is championed by Arturo Escobar and Wolfgang Sachs posed that the Western ideals of privatisation and market-led economic growth were specifically in line with their political ideologies of what it meant to be developed – material wealth, job security and property. Therefore most neoliberal development schemes have failed to achieve any support or backing from local indigenous people in countries like Bolivia, Ecuador or Peru. So the right course of action is to focus on development which is considerate of indigenous land rights and traditions, building on the societal systems they have already created and hold dear.

Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung / Creative Commons License

Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung / Creative Commons License. Photo of Wolfgang Sachs.

This new development theory could have revolutionised the practices that NGOs and INGOs conducted in developing nations in the 80s and 90s. However the most powerful development institutions continued the constant peddling of neoliberal development through Structural Adjustment Programmes and Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers which forced developing nations to completely restructure their economies in favour of market fundamentalism. The criticisms of post-development was that it was too generalized about the current development paradigm in that not all neoliberal development had been disastrous for the countries it had been implemented in, and that post-development was non-progressive and oppressive of values. But these ‘oppressed’ are the same values that have been tirelessly pushed into development theory until it is the only legitimate choice. What Escobar and Sachs tried to explain was whilst some developing nations such as India, South Africa and Brazil may embrace the materialistic value of neoliberalism (at high social and traditional costs), many South American states not only reject those values on a local level, but also at a state level.

This is one example of many. Whether it be Post-Development, Gender Mainstreaming, Participatory Development or Human-Rights based development, all have either been remoulded to fit the neoliberal development sphere (subsequently losing their objectives and meaning) or they have been rejected because they simply can’t fit into this neoliberal world. But the facts are that no other development method has been pushed further than neoliberalism, along with its materialistic Western values. So how is any other theory supposed to be implemented, when neoliberalism not only dominates development theory, but our core values and ideologies upheld in the majority of large international institutions which are actually capable of making a change on a big scale?

International Monetary Fund / Creative Commons License

International Monetary Fund / Creative Commons License

Ultimately this isn’t a case of neoliberalism vs the world, but a political and cultural battle of deregulated capitalism that is constantly sold as our only viable option in large scale development, against theories of local knowledge, protecting traditional rights and bringing gender into the forefront of development. Neoliberalism has created false hopes for many developing nations of deregulated, market-led growth which hasn’t really developed a single economy since World War 2. Any country which has developed in the past half century has followed their core economic beliefs with a mix of protectionism and deregulated capitalism (South Korea, China, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia – the list goes on). It is the countries that hold out against capitalism the longest, protecting their economies until they are strong enough to compete with the Western world, that have grown consistently and have lost the least from the seemingly consistent financial crises. To truly have a diverse and balanced field of development theory it is not neoliberalism that has to be tackled, but the whole framework and ideology of materialism and market fundamentalism that must be confronted powerfully.


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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