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Poverty and Development

Poverty and Development (3rd edn)

Tim Allen and Alan Thomas
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p. 483. Meanings and Views of Developmentlocked

p. 483. Meanings and Views of Developmentlocked

  • Alan Thomas


This chapter investigates the different senses in which the term 'development' is used. 'Development' is used in three main senses: a vision or measure of a desirable society; a historical process of social change; and deliberate efforts at improvement by development agencies. The variety of competing overall views on development can be organized into three groups according to how they see development relating to capitalism: through, against, or in the context of capitalism. The first two of these groups of views are labelled Market economics and Structuralism. A third group of views, pragmatic rather than theoretical, is termed Interventionism and concentrates on how to achieve development. Finally, there are those who reject all these views as versions of 'mainstream' development. They seek alternatives, either an alternative form of development or rejecting the development concept entirely.

3.1 Introduction

Perhaps the simplest definition of development is by Chambers (1997), for whom it means just ‘good change’. However, the two words ‘good change’ combine quite different ideas. ‘Good’ implies a vision of desirable things and circumstances (‘well-being for all’); something to aim at, with certain positive attributes which can be measured so that one can talk of there being ‘more’ or ‘less’ of it. Meanwhile, change is not in itself a normative concept, and may apply to social processes that are far from benign, may entail disruption, and may not be possible to direct.

However, linking ‘good’ and ‘change’ together suggests social processes that are associated with positive effects, at least in the long term, even if there are negative short-term consequences. Over time, the concept ‘development’ implies increased living standards, improved health, and the achievement of whatever is regarded as beneficial for people in general. As such, ‘development’ in everyday parlance can be virtually synonymous with ‘progress’ (see Figure 3.1)—although it is important to distinguish the two concepts (see Box 3.1). The links between development and aspirations, assertions and theories of social progress are important, most significantly with respect to strongly conflicting views about the relationship of development to capitalism.

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Figure 3.1

Source: R.K.Laxman in The Times of India.

This chapter explores these points in more detail, and answers the following questions:

What are the different senses in which the term ‘development’ is used?

What are the implications of deploying the term in particular ways?

What are the main theories and views of development?

How do these conceptions of development relate to capitalism?

3.2 The ambiguity of development and its relation to capitalism

‘Development’ as an idea can apply to any field, from crop breeding and child psychology to aesthetics, with similar contradictory tendencies in each case. This book is primarily concerned with the development of societies, although within that the development of localities and of individuals (‘personal development’) is also important. The idea of development as ‘good change’ echoes other similar definitions. One of the most influential formulations is that development is about creating the conditions for ‘the realisation of the potential of human personality’ (Seers 1969). Others are more overtly practical, and usually applied in a particular context. Building projects may be called ‘developments’, and development as building is an important idea when considering how development occurs or may be brought about. The relationship between development at local and national or societal levels raises issues about inequalities between various localities or between different social groups or classes and addressing those inequalities may also be called development in some contexts. These differing approaches appear in various ways in the chapters of this book, but here the focus is on development as a process—or processes—of social and economic transformation, which—it is claimed or hoped—will alleviate poverty, deprivation, and social suffering, as well as set societies on a path to increased wellbeing and affluence.

There are several important general points about the idea of development at this level which go beyond simply ‘good change’ and show it to be inherently ambiguous. First, development implies an all-encompassing change, not just improvement in one aspect. Second, development is not just a one-off change to something better, but implies a process which builds on itself, where change is continuous, and improvements build on previous improvements—though there may be an implied end-point in terms of the eventual ‘realisation of potential’ or some similar idea. Third, development occurs at the levels of social change and of the individual human being at the same time. Changes in society have implications for those living in that society and, conversely, changes in how people think, interact, make their livings, and perceive themselves form the basis for changes in society. Finally, development is not always seen positively.

One intriguing metaphor comes from Marshall Berman, who writes of ‘The Tragedy of Development’ and of Goethe’s fictional Faust as ‘the first developer’ (the two parts of Goethe’s play were written in the first decades of the nineteenth century). He describes the ‘development’ that this Faust wants as follows:

Earlier incarnations of Faust have sold their souls in exchange for certain clearly defined and universally desired good things of life: money, sex, power over others, fame p. 50and glory … [but] what this Faust wants … is a dynamic process that will include every mode of human experience, joy and misery alike, and assimilate them all into his self’s unending growth …

[Faust] outlines great reclamation projects to harness the sea …; man-made harbours and canals that can move ships full of goods and men; dams for large-scale irrigation; green fields and forests, pastures and gardens, a vast and intensive agriculture; waterpower to attract and support emerging industries; thriving settlements, new towns and cities to come – and all this to be created out of a barren wasteland (Berman 1997: 73, 75).

Berman points out that this vision also entails the self-development of Faust himself; he is becoming a new kind of man: ‘the consummate wrecker and creator, the dark and deeply ambiguous figure that our age has come to call “the developer”’ (ibid: 75).

Although the story of Faust is a myth, there are lessons not least about the ambiguity of the notion of development. ‘Good change’ on a continuous basis may be impossible without destroying something previously held dear, such as traditional values and forms of livelihood, or a sense of control over day-to-day life. For some this may indeed amount to losing one’s soul.

The contradictions of development cannot be avoided by laying down a single, simple definition of one’s own. As Cowen and Shenton point out (1996: 4): ‘Development comes to be defined in a multiplicity of ways because there are a multiplicity of “developers” who are entrusted with the task of development.’ Notions of how to achieve development are often grounded in ideas about how development has been achieved in the past.

Capitalism and development

The growth of industrial capitalism as a global system from the first half of the nineteenth century provides a real example of a process of social change which has built on itself and entailed the creation of new kinds of human being—or at least new forms of livelihood and of motivation. This has also been the period of what Cowen and Shenton (1996) call the ‘modern doctrine of development’ in the sense of deliberate actions and policies aimed at comprehensive social improvement.

Here there is an immediate difficulty with different uses of the term ‘development’. Capitalism had already been ‘developing’ for several centuries (see Chapter 13), continues to ‘develop’, and can be expected to ‘develop’ into the future. (For example, capitalism’s adaptation to information technology may mark a new transformation to a distinct phase of ‘informational capitalism’, superseding ‘industrial capitalism’. See e.g. Castells and Himanen 2014.) Indeed, an absolutely crucial aspect of capitalism is its intrinsic dynamism; it tends to build on itself and grow or ‘develop’ from within. This is immanent development and should be clearly differentiated from the intentional development which forms the deliberate policy and actions of states and development agencies.

Development can also be conceptually differentiated from progress. Cowen and Shenton point out that in preceding centuries progress had been thought of as an immanent process, with human society moving inexorably to higher stages of civilisation. There had always been casualties of this ‘progress’, as with those agricultural producers dispossessed by the ‘enclosures’ of the early seventeenth century in Britain. Only when this ‘progress’ moved to the stage of industrial capitalism did the poverty, unemployment, and human misery caused threaten social disorder on a scale which necessitated ‘intentional constructive activity’. This was when intentional development was invented.

Industrial production and organisation was accepted … to be a historically given part of the movement towards an organic, positive or natural stage of society in Europe. The burden of development was to compensate for the negative propensities of capitalism through the reconstruction of social order. To develop, then, was to ameliorate the social misery which arose out of the immanent process of capitalist growth (Cowen and Shenton 1996: 116).

Progress, immanent development, and intentional development: Progress implies continual improvement reaching ever-increasing levels, whereas development, as an analogy from the development of living organisms, implies moving towards the fulfilment of a potential. Immanent development means a spontaneous and unconscious (‘natural’?) process of development from within, which may entail destruction of the old in order to achieve the new. Intentional development implies deliberate efforts to achieve higher levels in terms of set objectives.

By the nineteenth century, capitalism had ‘developed’ into what Polanyi (1957) described as a ‘market society’. In other words, not merely the economic p. 51aspects but the whole of human existence was governed by the principles of ‘a self-regulating system of markets’; ‘an industrial system [which] was in full swing over the major part of the planet’ (ibid: 43–4).

Markets have always been a part of all human societies, and all societies have been limited by economic factors. What was new in civilisation based on the self-regulating market, according to Polanyi, was that it:

… was economic in a different and distinctive sense, for it chose to base itself on a motive only rarely acknowledged as valid in the history of human societies, and certainly never before raised to the level of a justification of action and behaviour in everyday life, namely, gain (ibid: 30).

Markets by definition require what is produced to be bought and sold, i.e. to become a commodity. But, for the whole of life to be governed by self-regulating markets, the factors of production—land, labour power, and productive organisation itself—must become commodities as well. Indeed, one way of characterising capitalism is to call it a system of generalised commodity production (see Box 3.1; also Chapter 13). Polanyi argued that the movement towards commodification of the factors of production gave rise to ‘fictitious commodities’ of land, labour, and money, with tremendous negative consequences for ‘nature’, ‘man’, and productive organisation, and hence to movements to ‘protect’ each of these. Eventually the conflict between these movements and those promoting capitalism would lead to the latter’s downfall. Polanyi thought that the events of the first half of the twentieth century (two world wars, the Depression, the growth of fascism and authoritarian communism) showed that the capitalist market system was indeed self-destructing (see Figure 3.2), but in fact it has regained and increased its strength and become more fully a global system. However, Polanyi’s conflicting movements can still be recognised today (see Section 3.5; also Chapter 26).

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Figure 3.2 Self-regulating market.

Source: Donal Casey / Cartoon Movement.

In the meantime, intentional development has reached global proportions, the latest incarnation represented by the UN’s SDGs (see Chapter 1). Here a very useful distinction was made by Hart (2001). She used the term ‘big D’ Development to refer to the US-led ‘project of intervention’ inaugurated by US President Truman in 1949 (see Chapter 1). This occurs in the context of the broader historical process of the ‘little d’ development of capitalism. Hart notes the affinity of her D/d distinction with Cowen and Shenton’s differentiation of intentional from immanent development. However, she argues that the latter concept p. 53does not take sufficient account of capitalism’s inbuilt contradictions, containing as it does both creative and destructive tendencies. At the same time, she insists that her idea of ‘big D’ Development is specific to the modern era.

‘Big D’ Development

refers to the ‘post-second world war project of intervention in the “third world” that emerged in the context of decolonisation and the cold war’.

‘Little d’ development means ‘the development of capitalism as a geographically uneven, profoundly contradictory set of historical processes’ (Hart 2001: 650).

Box 3.1 The elements of global capitalism

Capitalism is based on the production of goods and services for market exchange in order to make a profit. It is characterised as a system of generalised commodity production (see Chapter 13), implying that land, labour power, means of production, and all goods and services are commoditised. It has certain basic elements which distinguish it from other systems: private ownership; regulation via self-regulating markets (commoditisation and competition); distribution of welfare through the market determination of wages; and enterprise management for profit and accumulation. These elements act together to promote development and growth in the system and to legitimate it as a whole.

Ownership. Capitalism means private ownership: the ownership of the means of production is private and individual. The archetypal capitalist owns his or her land, buildings, tools, and equipment, hires in labour and buys raw materials in order to produce goods and services for sale. Large corporations have many owners, but they hold shares as individuals. Of course, not all individuals own means of production, either directly or through holding shares. The important point is that the main form of ownership is not a collective form, and in particular is not state ownership.

Regulation. Capitalism means self-regulating markets, not state planning or intervention. Here, regulation refers to how decisions are made about what is produced, how much of each product, at what price and what quality, and so on. Under capitalism, such regulation is imposed through the impersonal mechanism of the self-regulating market, via commoditisation and competition. All goods and services are in principle turned into commodities for exchange rather than for the producer’s own use. Individual producers and firms can then produce what they like, decide on quality and set prices, but the assumption is that competition between firms, together with consumer choice, will force them to set the ‘right’ prices and produce what is actually required.

Distribution. Under capitalism the allocation of resources and the distribution of welfare are done through the market determination of wages. In principle, there is no universal provision or rationing even of basic goods or welfare services. How much a person gets depends entirely on personal income, or on how a household’s income is divided between income generators and dependants. For the majority, who work as wage labourers, this in turn depends on how much of the surplus derived from the sale of the products comes to them as wages, rather than being taken by the capitalist owners as profit. The level of wages is determined through the labour market, where competition for employment tends to keep wage rates down.

Wages are not the only source of income under capitalism. Those who are capitalists, large or small, get dividends on shares or take profit directly. Chapters 5, 8, and 13 discuss different forms of livelihood and ‘labour régime’. While the division into capitalists and workers is basic to capitalism, there are other groups only partially linked into the overall system whose welfare is still determined mainly through market mechanisms. Peasants and craft producers, for example, may combine petty commodity production, deriving income from the sale of their produce, with a certain amount of direct production for own use.

At an international level, markets determine general income levels through their effects on a country’s international earnings and liabilities. Markets set the interest rates and conditions on international debts and regulate the changes in world commodity prices (and the generally adverse movement of the terms of trade for less developed countries, as noted in Chapters 10 and 15).

Enterprise management. Under capitalism the aim of production is to make a profit in order to accumulate (see Section 3.4). In small-scale agriculture, this differs from a régime which attempts to safeguard livelihoods against risk. It implies a polarisation into a relatively small number of ‘rich peasant’ or capitalist farmer households and a larger number of landless wage labourers. More generally, management is undertaken by or on behalf of the capitalist owners and in their interests, rather than directed towards the interests of the workers in the enterprise, or of the local community or the state. Even if the state, or collective institutions such as pension funds, owns shares in productive enterprised, the management of such enterprised still treats these owners as individuals whose prime interest is to maximise the return on their investment.

Development and growth. Capitalism has an inbuilt dynamic tendency to grow and develop. Individual owners aim to accumulate profits and are led, through the necessity to compete, to invest these in technology which is ever more efficient, for example in its use of labour, and in product innovations which substitute for older products. Less efficient production units fail and are taken over by the more efficient and innovative.

Legitimation. All these elements fit together to form a global system that also functions in an ideological fashion to legitimate actions taken in particular ways. In this system gain has become a valid justification for actions and behaviour at all levels, from the individual’s dealings with others to the activities of transnational corporations. The idea that the system works as a whole to promote efficiency and wealth creation is very powerful and acts to legitimate actions which would otherwise appear simply to be favouring the interests of capitalists themselves.

3.3 Different senses and views of development

As noted at the start of this chapter, even the simple definition ‘good change’ combines two different meanings of development (as a vision and as a process). Taking the two together can often have the effect, as Cowen and Shenton point out, that ‘the question “What is intended by development?” is confused with the question “What is development?”’ (1996: viii).

Bearing this in mind, there are three main senses in which the term ‘development’ is used (the first of which is properly more about the intention of development than about development itself):


as a vision, description, or measure of the state of being of a desirable society;


as a historical process of social change in which societies are transformed over long periods (immanent development—applied to the development of capitalism this is ‘little d’ development);


as consisting of deliberate efforts aimed at improvement on the part of various agencies, including governments, all kinds of organisations, and social movements (intentional development—‘Big D’ development is the dominant form this has taken in the ‘era of development’ since World War II).

These three senses are of course related. The state of being a desirable society is supposedly the result of the historical process of development; and the vision of a desirable society may form an aim towards which to direct efforts at improvement. The idea of development as historical social change does not negate the importance of ‘doing development’. Historical processes incorporate millions of deliberate actions. Conversely, one’s view of what efforts for ‘improvement’ are likely to succeed is coloured by one’s view of history and of how social change occurs.

The three senses of ‘development’ are now each examined a little more closely.

Development as a state of being

Although development is essentially a process, the word often refers to the goal or end-point of the process (‘What is intended by development?’, in Cowen and Shenton’s terms), rather than the process itself. Thus the first sense of the word ‘development’ is as a vision or description of a desirable society. Usually the unit to which such ideals are applied is the nation state, although they can also be applied at global level. But different political ideals lead to different visions of what is desirable, and one person’s Utopia could be a nightmare for another. This leads to a number of questions. What aspects should be included when considering development, and how should it be measured? Is it primarily an economic concept? Or should social aspects be of equal or even of greater importance? Should questions about what is politically feasible constrain one’s vision of a desirable, ‘developed’ society? If, for example, ideals such as equity, political participation, and so on are in conflict with the achievement of development in an economic sense, should the former be included in a definition of development—or regarded as additional desirable elements?

Development as a vision can be translated into goals for development efforts (as with the SDGs—see Figure 1.6 in Chapter 1 and Section 3.6), while development as a state of being lends itself to measurement. Thus, one can speak of being more or less developed, and tables are drawn up showing how developed the countries of the world are on various criteria, and even ranking them on different development indicators.

One problem with trying to distinguish development as a vision or a (desirable) state of being from development as a process is that many visions of development include the idea of constant improvement or growth as part of what constitutes a desirable state. For example, for many proponents of development as economic wellbeing, a developed society is a modern p. 54industrial society, and this is not just one which has reached certain levels of wealth, but one which is continually growing in economic terms and thus ‘improving’ further. GNI per capita (see Chapter 1) should not just be high, but always increasing.

To some extent the same is true of visions based on social factors or human needs. For example, proponents of ‘human development’ may argue not that development means a state where everyone’s needs are met but one where conditions exist for all to ‘develop’ themselves to their full potential.

Development as historical process

Social change occurs over long periods. It may or may not be towards closer conformity with one or other of the visions which constitute development in the first sense. Indeed, many argue that the very processes which led to development in some parts of the world were also the cause of underdevelopment in other parts. These historical processes have to be seen in relation to the ‘development’ of industrial capitalism. Just as there are very different visions of the desirable ‘developed’ society, so there are different views of this historical relationship.

Here the distinction made between immanent and intentional development is of key importance. As already noted, capitalism includes an internal dynamic which tends to lead to a kind of immanent development. The vision of development characterised as ‘modern industrial society’, which is often argued to be possible only within liberal capitalism (see Section 3.4), includes within it the notion of continuous economic growth. Thus one explanation of development as an historical process emphasises the internal dynamics of capitalist economic growth as the engine of ‘development’.

There is also room for intentional development alongside the growth of capitalism. This means development agencies (both individuals and organisations) continually making efforts to promote their own vision of development (see Section 3.6 and Chapter 4).

However, others dispute the idea that the development of capitalism accords to some kind of natural historical law. Although they may accept that its internal dynamics tend towards growth, they argue that industrial capitalism cannot come about or spread to new areas through its own internal logic but instead has to be promoted by powerful forces against other interests in society. They also dispute the suggestion that the deliberate efforts of individuals and development organisations can produce lasting change. Instead they look to explanations involving shifts in social structures and clashes between large-scale interests: classes or ‘movements’ (see Section 3.5 for more on these ‘structuralists’).

This difference between explanations is largely based on how much emphasis is given to issues of agency rather than structure.

Structure: The pattern or framework of relationships between social institutions, such as markets, families, classes, and political factions. It includes rules of behaviour associated, for example, with moral norms and hierarchies.

Agency: The actions of individuals or groups, and their capacities to influence events.

In practice, social analysts combine both concepts, although some tend to favour one over the other.

‘Doing development’

In the third sense of the term, development means not a desired state or the process of social change which might achieve it, but whatever is done in the name of development. In this sense, in the twenty-first century, development has become less about the transformation of the economic and social basis of societies than in previous periods. What are visible as ‘development agencies’ are mostly engaged either in attempts to reduce poverty (and improve health, education, gender equality, environmental protection, etc. as with the examples of the MDGs and SDGs introduced in Chapter 1) or in humanitarian relief to mitigate the effects of internal wars and other disasters.

‘Development agencies’ are simply individuals, organisations, or groups whose actions aim at development. But whose development? Cowen and Shenton suggest a basic ‘problem of development’ arises because development as a process of improvement also causes destruction, and those adversely affected are generally powerless to help themselves. As a response to this problem, at the same time as the invention of ‘intentional development’ the concept of trusteeship was also brought into use. Trusteeship means that one agency is ‘entrusted’ with acting on behalf of another, sometimes without ‘the other’ asking to ‘be developed’ or even being aware of the intention to ‘develop’ them.

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Trusteeship: ‘the intent which is expressed, by one source of agency, to develop the capacities of another. It is what binds the process of development to the intent of development’ (Cowen and Shenton, 1996: x).

Originally trusteeship was generally exercised by states on behalf of their societies or by colonial states on behalf of the colonised (see Chapters 13 and 14). Since attaining independence, many ex-colonial states continued to assume trusteeship over the development of their peoples, and until the 1970s the idea of the state as the sole legitimate agency of development retained strong currency. The idea of the ‘developmental state’ (see Chapters 4 and 17) involved analysing the characteristics which allowed certain states to undertake this task successfully. More recently a variety of agencies can be seen as claiming trusteeship over the development of others, or even over the development of global society as a whole, including civil society organisations, national and international NGOs, as well as international bodies such as the World Bank, the IMF, and the UN and its agencies (see Chapter 4).

There are three important questions to ask about any agency which claims trusteeship for the development of others. Does it have legitimacy to act on their behalf? Does it have the power and capacity to do so? And which interests does it represent? There are those, particularly those seeking ‘alternative development’ or in the ‘post-development’ school, who see it as an impossibility for the interests of those being developed to be represented through the actions of an agency ‘entrusted’ with acting on their behalf. Banuri, for example writes that if development means ‘what “we” can do for “them”’ then it is just a ‘licence’ for imperial intervention (1990: 96). For these the answer is to reject the notion of trusteeship; people should be empowered to become the agents of their own development—though this is easier said than done (see Sections 3.6 and 3.7).

Different views of development: through, against, or in the context of capitalism

Cutting across the three senses of the term ‘development’ are a number of competing theories and approaches.

Table 3.1 lays out these views of development schematically. Sections 3.4–3.7 explore them further.

At one extreme are those in which the immanent development of capitalism is sufficient, and the good society comes through capitalism. This market economics view is epitomised by the neoliberalism which has been dominant since the 1980s and builds on the modernisation theories of the 1950s and 1960s.

A number of essentially different views, including Marxism and the dependency school, see development occurring by means of struggles against capitalism. They are concerned with underlying social and economic structures and see development as involving changes in these structures and can be grouped under the heading structuralism. These views tend to be associated with advocating centralised state planning or socialist development models, which since the demise of the Soviet Union have generally gone out of favour (but, see Chapter 16, especially on China). Nevertheless, they contain useful analytical insights. Here Polanyi is also included under the structuralist heading.

p. 56Then, what may be called interventionism sees the need for intentional development in the context of capitalism, accepting it without necessarily welcoming it. One might say this is intervention to ‘ameliorate the disordered faults of progress’ (Cowen and Shenton 1996: 7). There are a number of historical arguments for intervention. Today this view notably includes the UNDP’s ‘people-centred’ human development approach and the global development goals frameworks represented by the MDGs and the SDGs.

These are not the only possibilities, however. Many reject both capitalism and state socialism and look for an alternative development. There are searches for new forms of socialism which do not depend on the state and attempts to build ‘people-centred development’ without accepting global capitalism. Finally, the post-development school, mentioned in Chapter 1 (which includes Berman), rejects the whole notion of development.

It would be useful, and neat, if each of the rows in Table 3.1 constituted a coherent theory of development. In that case, like coherent views on any aspect of society, they would each have both analytical and normative aspects: i.e. attempt both to explain how development does occur and to suggest how it should occur. However, in practice things are less clear-cut. First, the dividing lines between the rows represent just one attempt to simplify and to bring out some basic differences between views. In fact some of the views identified overlap, labels are not agreed, and some of the protagonists might distinguish their views from others in quite different ways. Second, not all the views represented in Table 3.1 and in Sections 3.4–3.7 are complete theories of development. For example, ‘interventionism’ is more a collection of pragmatic approaches than a theory; both it and the ‘alternative development’ school are strong on vision (the normative aspect) but weak on any theory of social change for how this vision might be achieved (the analytic aspect). Conversely, certain structuralist views concentrate on explaining social change but fail to offer any clear prescriptions.

Table 3.1 The main views of development and how they relate to capitalism.

Development of capitalism

Market economics

Modernisation theory


Development against capitalism



Dependency school


‘Alternative development’

Development in the context of capitalism


Historical arguments for interventionism

Human development

Global Development Goals Frameworks

Rejection of development


Analytical: Such a view or theory attempts to explain or analyse some aspect of society, perhaps putting forward a conceptual framework for understanding.

Normative: Such a view or theory brings in value judgements and suggests how things should be rather than just explaining how they are and why.

In practice, any view or theory contains both analytical and normative aspects. The use of certain concepts rather than others implies certain values, while value judgements cannot be made without some view about how things work.

3.4 Development through capitalism

Market economics: the dynamics of capitalist growth

The term market economics is used here for the general view that the purest form of the system of capitalism outlined in Box 3.1 is the best. Its theoretical roots can be traced back through the proponents of ‘free enterprise’ in the 1950s and earlier to the classical economics of Adam Smith in the late eighteenth century. Capitalism is said to be both efficient and fair—and these two statements correspond to the analytical and normative aspects respectively of this theoretical view. It is through the development of capitalism that certain Western countries have undergone industrial revolutions which have led to economic development and hence economic growth. As a result, they now enjoy high per capita income.

Economic development: ‘raising the productive capacities of societies, in terms of their technologies (more efficient tools and machines), technical cultures (knowledge of nature, research and capacity to develop improved technologies), and the physical, technical and organisational capacities and skills of those engaged in production. This can also be expressed in terms of raising the productivity of labour: using the labour available to society in more productive and efficient ways to produce a greater quantity and a more diverse range of goods and services’ (Bernstein 1983: 59).

Economic growth: a continued increase in the sise of an economy (its GDP), i.e. a sustained increase in output over a period.

In this view the historical processes which lead to modern industrial society derive from the internal logic of the self-regulating market. They are driven by economic laws which are regarded almost as laws of nature.

Within this market logic, the owners of the means of production act rationally in accordance with their own material interests. This is assumed to mean maximising profit or return on investment. Here market competition is seen as the main force towards economic progress. David McClelland, a US modernisation theorist and psychologist who claimed to have isolated the vital motivational factor necessary for economic development (‘need for achievement’ or ‘n.ach.’), suggested the following metaphor: ‘The free enterprise system … may be compared to a garden in which all plants are allowed to grow until some crowd the others out’ (McClelland 1963: 90).

p. 57Faced with market competition, the best ways to ensure continued profits are to grow and innovate. These both lead to increased labour productivity: growth through economies of scale; and innovation through capital investment in improved production processes. Thus, successful capitalists are able to enter a positively reinforcing cycle: profit—accumulation—reinvestment—growth—innovation—increased productivity—increased profits; and then can use those increased profits to continue the cycle. This system is seen as progressive because it allows enterprising individuals to thrive, and their innovations and increased productivity will eventually be beneficial for all. To use the famous phrases of Adam Smith: the ‘hidden hand of the market’ converts individual interests into ‘the wealth of nations’.

However, it also depends on a particular kind of individualist motivation: a drive not only for personal gain but also to convert this gain into productive investment which may eventually benefit society generally. Some have argued that capitalism took root first in Western Europe and North America because of the individualist motivation found in a culture pervaded by ‘the Protestant ethic’. It has also been suggested (see e.g. Fukuyama 1995) that another crucial cultural factor is a propensity to associate, or social capital (see also Putnam 2000 and de Tocqueville). The winners in the competition need to be able to organise others into large corporations or networks and to have confidence that the others can be relied upon to play their organised role. Only then can the winners benefit from economies of scale while remaining flexible. Thus, without a combination of social capital and individual profit motive, the reinforcing cycle of reinvestment and increasing productivity will not get going to create economic development.

Social capital: An ‘aspect of social structures [which] is productive, making possible the achievement of certain ends’ (Coleman 1988: 98). If capital in general is thought of in terms of accumulated resources which allow for productive activity, then social capital is an aspect of human capital; that is, capital which is embodied less in land, factories, and buildings and more in human beings, their knowledge and skills. Part of that human capital is to do with the ability of human beings to associate, which in turn comes from shared values and the subordination of individual interests. Out of shared values comes trust, which has ‘a large and measurable economic value’ (Fukuyama 1995: 10).

To extend this argument to a national level, economic growth cannot take place without investment of capital to obtain additional means of production. This implies that a proportion of the total output must be set aside from consumption as savings, which can then be channelled into investment. The simplest model of economic growth shows that if a high rate of growth is to be achieved, either a high rate of savings (and thus of foregone consumption) is necessary, or else investment will have to be obtained from elsewhere, e.g. foreign investment or borrowing.

This means some social groups must be foregoing consumption—and may have no choice in the matter. The term ‘savings’ does not get at this so well as the notions of the appropriation of surplus and accumulation. Also, although there can be no economic growth without investment, by itself investment is not sufficient to guarantee growth. Chapter 8 explains how, in addition to social capital, some aspects of the organisation of production, both technical and social, will have a big effect on how productively any investment can be utilised.

Economic growth may simply keep pace with population growth, but where the growth in output is greater than that of population—that is, labour productivity (Chapter 8) has increased—then economic development in its simplest sense may be said to have occurred. However, for most economists, development is more than this. Whereas growth means more of the same type of output, development implies more thoroughgoing changes, changes in the social and technical relations of production (see Chapter 8). The productive capacity of a society as a whole has to increase, rather than just increasing productivity within its productive enterprised.

Thus, the dynamic for the ‘development’ of capitalism is provided by individual entrepreneurs linked through the market. The argument is that the best way to achieve significant growth is by increasing the scale of production and concentrating capital investment in the larger and more productive enterprised. This also means industrialising. In the short run at least, the savings required to increase industrial productivity and output may have to come from the agricultural sector; in other words, part of the agricultural surplus may have to be appropriated for accumulation in the industrial sector. Trying to spread investment equitably p. 58in improving productivity everywhere at once may mean its impact is so diluted as to have no real effect anywhere.

Surplus, appropriation, accumulation: That portion of what is produced at any given time that is not required for immediate consumption and continuation of the production process is called the surplus product or simply the surplus. It may be preserved as a store of produce or implements or converted through market relations into a sum of cash. There are three main possible uses for the surplus product. It can be kept as a reserve against future needs. It can be appropriated by dominant social groups or classes and used for ‘luxury’ or ‘conspicuous’ consumption and for maintaining their power (e.g. building palaces or temples, keeping armies). Or it can be used to invest in expanding production and/or increasing its efficiency by improving productivity. In this last case the surplus may also be appropriated by dominant groups; the difference is that they then use it for what is termed productive accumulation, or simply accumulation.

In the end, the immanent processes of capitalist growth brought about as the sum of gradual changes initiated by many enterprising individuals lead to a total change in social structure, political systems and culture; in other words, to modernisation.


In a world dominated by advanced capitalist economies, all aspects of modern industrial society are elevated to represent the ideal of what development is trying to achieve. This may be encapsulated in the idea of development as ‘following in the footsteps of the West’, which, in effect, is to say, ‘If you want what we have (and have achieved), then you must become like us, and do as we did (and continue to do)’ (Bernstein 1983: 67).

This view of development as modernisation comes particularly from the 1950s and 1960s. For example:

Historically, modernisation is the process of change toward those types of social, economic and political systems that have developed in Western Europe and North America from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth and have then spread to other European countries and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the South American, Asian and African continents (Eisenstadt 1966: 1).

Another modernisation theorist lists the following interrelated technical, economic, and ecological processes:


in the realm of technology, the change from simple and traditionalised techniques towards the application of scientific knowledge;


in agriculture, the evolution from subsistence farming towards commercial production of agricultural goods. This means specialisation in cash crops, purchase of non-agricultural products in the market, and often agricultural wage labour;


in industry, the transition from the use of human and animal power towards industrialisation proper, or ‘men aggregated at power-driven machines, working for monetary return with the products of the manufacturing process entering into a market based on a network of exchange relations’;


in ecological arrangements, the movement from farm and village towards urban centres (Smelser 1968: 126).

Thus, modernisation implies complete transformations in many aspects of life, brought about by economic development through industry and industrialisation. The industrial revolution in Britain has been described as a process of ‘total’ change: ‘a change of social structure, of ownership and economic power in society; as well as a change of scale’ (Kitching 1982: 11). In general, industrialisation means an increased percentage of GDP from industrial sector outputs, and, more fundamentally, a general change of social structure, organisation, scale, concentration, and ways of thinking towards giving primacy to productivity, efficiency, and instrumentality.

Industry: Can be defined in two different ways. The first divides all economic activity into sectors and defines industry as the production of all material goods not derived directly from the land. Industry thus comprised the mining, energy, and manufacturing sectors, and does not include agriculture or services. The second definition emphasises technical and social change: an industrial production process is one that uses advanced technology and a complex technical division of labour and is linked to other forms of production through combining a wide range of raw materials, skills, and sources of energy.

Industrialisation: The process by which production in the industrial sector becomes increasingly important compared with agricultural production; more fundamentally, it means a general change towards the use of advanced technology and a complex division of labour in production, with associated changes in social structure and organisation.

p. 59For Smelser, capitalism itself was an aspect of becoming modern and developed inseparable from industrialisation. But industrialisation and other aspects of modernisation do not in principle imply a capitalist system. Kitching (1982: 6) used the phrase ‘the old orthodoxy’ for the idea that ‘If you want to develop you must industrialise’, pointing out how both capitalist and state socialist ideas of development take it to mean industrialisation. However, in practice, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, modernisation, industrialisation, and capitalism have gone together. (China is arguably an important exception: see Chapter 16 for a discussion of whether it exemplifies an alternative path to industrialisation or whether its success comes from embracing capitalism.)

One further feature in common is that those Western countries which have industrialised are also liberal democracies. Their political institutions allow people to give voice to their new aspirations, and at least some of the wealth accumulated by the capitalist entrepreneurs trickles down to other sections of society. Liberal democracy as a political form allows for ‘freedom’ in electing representatives to match ‘freedom’ in the market.

In the last 60 years some East Asian countries have joined the ranks of ‘advanced capitalist economies’. This throws doubt on the cultural specificity of Bernstein’s emphasis on ‘the West’. They are not all clearly fully democratic, though this is argued to be the only direction in which they can travel, politically speaking.

The combination of capitalist industrialisation with liberal democracy is still seen by many as the only viable model for development (Chapter 17). This statement from Fukuyama (1995) still stands:

Today virtually all advanced countries have adopted, or are trying to adopt, liberal democratic political institutions, and a great number have simultaneously moved in the direction of market-oriented economics and integration into the global capitalist division of labour. … As modern technology unfolds, it shapes modern economies in a coherent fashion, interlocking them in a vast global economy. The increasing complexity and information intensity of modern life at the same time renders centralised economic planning extremely difficult. The enormous prosperity created by technology-driven capitalism, in turn, serves as an incubator for a liberal regime of universal and equal rights … [T]he world’s advanced countries have no alternative model of political and economic organisation other than democratic capitalism to which they can aspire.


In its latest incarnation as ‘neoliberalism’ (as defined in Chapter 1), market economics has been the dominant view of development since the 1980s, not only in the industrialised North and with the main international agencies such as the World Bank but also with many Southern governments.

Neoliberals view the process of capitalist ‘development’ as leading inexorably to the desired result of modernisation. Most kinds of intentional development are seen as creating ‘obstacles’ to the proper working of the market. Neoliberals look to three main kinds of obstacle to explain why not all parts of the world have developed to the same extent:


Tradition. The continuation of non-market social relations and systems of obligation prevent production from being fully commoditised.


Monopoly. If they can at least partly dominate a small market or market segment, protagonists can reduce the regulatory effects of the market as a whole. Two sorts of monopoly can act as obstacles to the self-regulation of the market: monopolies of capital, i.e. industrial monopolies; and monopolies of labour, i.e. trade unions.


State regulation. Any kind of collective or state action is seen as interfering with the proper working of the market. The role of the state should be a minimal one: guaranteeing political order, ensuring competitive conditions (keeping a ‘level playing field’), and ‘policing’ the casualties of the system.

There is a real dilemma here for neoliberals. While they favour ‘rolling back the state’ as far as possible, they also require its policing function, which in practice tends to be considerable. The dilemma is how to guarantee that this policing is done fairly, since it is necessarily done outside the market and hence outside the mechanism which this theory argues is the means of fair regulation.

Otherwise, for neoliberals, the only policies necessary for development are about removing obstacles, most importantly that of state intervention. State policies such as controlling exchange rates, food subsidies, imposing tariffs and quotas are all regarded p. 60as ‘distorting the price signals’ that allow competition to work. Such policies are seen as counter-productive; for example, it is argued that without food subsidies there would be more incentive for farmers to invest in greater productivity and to produce more, and more production would in turn lead to cheaper prices through competition and hence obviate the need for the subsidies. Thus the ‘structural adjustment’ programmes imposed on many developing countries in the 1980s and 1990s included scrapping such policies. Though softened a little with experience, similar neoliberal thinking is still dominant today in the prescriptions for how developed countries can achieve economic growth, as well as in the ‘austerity’ policies pursued by many Western governments at home.

3.5 Development against capitalism

Structuralist views: Marxism and the dependency school

Structuralism denotes several related but distinct strands of thought, in which development involves changes in underlying social and economic structures. They achieved widespread credence in the 1960s and 1970s, and the domination of neoliberalism since the 1980s has to a large extent been a reaction against them. Boxes 3.2 and 3.3 outline two of the most important of these strands (Marxism and the dependency school).

Box 3.2 Marxism

Karl Marx viewed capitalism as a particular type of class society, one constituted by antagonistic relations between different social classes, most importantly capitalists and workers.

Any class system is based on particular relations of production. In the capitalist system those who own the means of production have the power to appropriate surplus, while others have to sell their labour power. However, the contradictions inherent in capitalism bring about or accentuate other divisions as well, based on gender, ethnicity, nationality, and so on.

Marx believed that industrial capitalism represented a massive advance in the progress of society, particularly through the systematic application of science to methods of production. He also saw as very positive the way that capitalism brings people together in an ever-increasing scale of cooperation, with integrated production processes organised on the basis of socialised labour, as opposed to the small-scale ‘privatised’ labour of household production.

On the other hand, Marx saw class exploitation and oppression as essential features of capitalism. He vehemently condemned the conditions of life of the industrial working class in Victorian Britain and the Europe of the time, and the brutality perpetrated by British colonial rule in India.

In short, for Marx capitalism was profoundly contradictory, at two levels. First, the development of productive capacities under capitalism represents an enormous potential force for human emancipation and freedom from want, at the same time as the class relations through which the productive forces have developed deny their promise to the majority of people. Second, these class relations embody a contradiction between private ownership and control and increasingly socialised labour. Marx thought that in time private ownership would begin to obstruct the further development of productive capacities. Then conditions would be ripe for the overthrow of capitalism. This would not be automatic but result from class struggle between capitalists and workers. The latter would organise in a political movement to dispossess the former and then utilise the productive capacities made available by capitalism to go on and form a different kind of society, i.e. communism.

As for the state (Chapter 4), during the class struggle it could be seen as both an enabling structure for capitalist development and a structural obstacle to development that would benefit the workers. Then, once in the hands of the workers, the state could be used to promote socialist development (see Chapter 16) in the transition to communism.

Box 3.3 The dependency school

The dependency school was prominent in the 1970s (e.g. Rodney 1972, Amin 1976, Cardoso and Faletto 1979). As with Marxism, capitalism was still seen primarily as a system of exploitation (indeed, many dependency thinkers could be called neo-Marxists) but the important point was its international nature. In this view, the historical process which resulted in the development of the industrialised ‘core’ of the world was the same process in which the South became the ‘periphery’. Northern capitalist industrialisation created structures in which Southern economies were dependent and which led to and maintained underdevelopment.

Dependency thinking goes beyond simply substituting countries for classes and making capitalism not so much a system of class exploitation as one of exploitation of Southern countries by the North. It explains how the international capitalist class allies with ruling élites in Southern countries to exploit workers and peasants in the South, while ‘buying off’ its own working class with a mixture of material rewards and racist ideology.

As in classical Marxism, capitalism was viewed as having positive as well as negative aspects. For example, dependency thinkers tended to favour industrialisation and to note the dynamism of capitalism in raising productive capacities. However, it was not clear how the contradictions of capitalism as an international system might be overcome. Various development strategies were worked out, which either rejected or tried to work with international capitalism but were all deliberate efforts to improve living standards by changing the structural relationship with international capitalism. This generally meant development was to be achieved through the actions of Southern states.

For the government of a Southern country, the implication of dependency thinking could be to advocate withdrawal from the international capitalist system, or at least strong local state controls on it, in order to build up national capital or to institute some form of planned development, ‘socialist’ or otherwise. It might entail a kind of solo self-reliance or could be in solidarity with other countries of the South.

However, such thinking hardly offered solutions. For one thing, it tended to be uncritical of Southern states, making the unwarranted assumption that they are unified organisations with the power and the will to implement anti-capitalist policies. Again, without overseas involvement, where is the investment needed for economic development to come from (Figure 3.3)? The only possibility would seem to be from the savings of that country’s own people. In other words, by squeezing surplus out of the same already poor population that may supply the state’s political support base.

Figure 3.3

Source: R.K. Laxman in The Times of India.

In general, structuralist views differ fundamentally from neoliberalism both in their view of history and in their approach to capitalism. Thus, whereas to neoliberals history is the sum of individuals’ actions, and those of individual governments, firms, and other organisations, structuralists see history in terms of political and economic struggles between large social groups, particularly classes, as new structures and systems replace old ones across the globe.

There is in fact a structural aspect to some of the views on ‘neoliberalism’, particularly those of the modernisation theorists. However, much structuralist thinking on development, including the Marxist and dependency schools emphasised here, has in common a fundamentally critical view of capitalism. While recognising the dynamism of global capitalism as necessary for economic development, it is regarded mainly as a system of exploitation which should in the long run be revolutionised.

There are two important areas of commonality between the neoliberal and structuralist views. p. 61First, both see development mainly in terms of broad historical social change. As theories, though they have their normative aspects, they do not offer detailed prescriptions for development agencies to follow. Second, both look favourably on economic growth through industrialisation as the only realistic way to achieve massive improvements in the living standards of the poor—or any other aspect of development.

The main area of disagreement and conflict is between the neoliberal insistence on the materialist motivations of individuals and the self-regulating market, and the structuralist view of the importance of social solidarity, class, and collective forms of action. Since the only examples of large-scale collective action for development have occurred through the state, this opposition has tended to be represented as market versus state or profit versus planning.

In the 1990s, with the demise of the Soviet Union and the general discrediting of comprehensive state planning as a vehicle for development, both Marxism and dependency thinking went out of favour. However, there is no reason to reject the analytical insights which can come from structuralist thinking. Karl Polanyi, for example, belongs in the structuralist camp with his insistence that the ‘development’ of capitalism is better explained by reference to a p. 62struggle between ‘movements’ representing pro-market and protectionist interests than by its own internal dynamics.

Polanyi: a struggle between pro-market and protectionist movements

Polanyi opposed the suggestion of Adam Smith and others that the economic motive of personal gain is a basic human characteristic so that markets will tend to ‘develop’ as soon as they are free from outside regulation. On the contrary, Polanyi argued that while market exchange has generally been an element in the economic organisation of human societies, it has tended to be subordinated to other principles such as those of reciprocity and redistribution. Only with the coming of industrial capitalism in Europe has the principle of the self-regulating market become the organising feature of society as a whole, and this only because it has actively been promoted (see Figure 3.4).

[T]he emergence of national markets was in no way the result of the gradual and spontaneous emancipation of the economic sphere from government control. On the contrary, the market has been the outcome of a conscious and often violent intervention on the part of government which imposed the market organisation on society for non-economic ends (Polanyi 1957: 250).

Figure 3.4 Free Market.

Source: Fiestoforo / Cartoon Movement.

As noted in Section 3.2, Polanyi pointed out that the market could not be truly self-regulating unless not only the goods and services produced but also the factors of production—land, labour, and productive organisation—became commodities to be bought and sold. This could not happen ‘naturally’, not least because it would be so disruptive that powerful forces would arise to ‘protect’ society from its effects.

[T]he idea of a self-adjusting market implied a stark utopia. Such an institution could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness. Inevitably, society took measures to protect itself, but whatever measures it took impaired the self-regulation of the market, disorganised industrial life, and thus endangered society in yet another way (ibid: 3–4).

Thus Polanyi interpreted the history of the nineteenth century as a struggle between two ‘movements’: on the one hand, pro-market forces; on the other, protectionism. It was not a question of the ‘natural’ workings of the market against government, but two competing movements, representing capitalist interests and those adversely affected by capitalism respectively, struggling for influence within government.

Protectionism: In broad terms this refers to any of the movements to ‘protect’ the elements of production (land, labour, productive organisation) from what are seen as the destructive effects of capitalist ‘development’—in other words, from becoming fully commoditised and subject to the self-regulating market. It is also used in a more specific sense to refer to state policies to protect ‘infant industries’ from international competition through tax concessions, restrictions on imports, etc.

p. 63It is instructive to interpret the more recent history of development in similar terms. For example, trade unions have long been engaged in trying to protect the collective interests of workers and up to the 1960s and 1970s were increasingly successful in doing so. Up to that time also, in less developed countries (LDCs) there were a large number of state interventions regulating the relation between the national economy and the international. LDCs typically maintained exchange rate and credit controls, tariffs, and import controls. States commonly imposed direct price controls and quality standards; they also employed different types of incentives such as preferential tax treatment for reinvestment in certain areas of production. Not only in LDCs but in advanced capitalist countries as well, many public goods and especially public services were, and are, supplied directly by state agencies. Also, almost all countries have at least some services provided universally, as with the National Health Service and basic educational provision in the UK, and the basic food provisioning policies of the Sri Lankan governments after independence. These can all be seen as the result of interests outside and within governments restricting the force and scope of capitalism.

In contrast, particularly since the early 1980s, pro-market interests have made headway. Many Southern states compete to attract investment from transnational corporations by making a virtue of their tough anti-union legislation. In the 1980s and 1990s, structural adjustment programmes, promoted by the World Bank and the IMF, obliged many LDCs to become almost completely open to overseas ownership of enterprised. Under the so-called ‘Washington consensus’, both these multilateral agencies and others such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) agreed on policies such as minimising state intervention in the economy, privatisation of previously state-owned industries, and a reduction in state provision of services. These policies were not only followed at home but also pushed on to LDCs. Rather than being an inevitable consequence of global market forces, they can be seen as the result of a political movement advancing the conditions for capitalism to ‘develop’ further at the global level.

3.6 Development in the context of capitalism

In the twenty-first century, the world’s decision-makers and academics have mostly either regarded global industrial capitalism broadly positively, or at least recognise capitalism as the dominant organising feature of the world, while at the same time perceiving a need for non-market intervention.

Some historical arguments for intervention

Like structuralism, what is here called interventionism recognises the structural inequalities and contradictions inherent in capitalism and relies on the state to deal with them. However, instead of hoping to replace the market, this approach combines state and market.

In Cowen and Shenton’s terms, this is ‘intentional development’ to ‘ameliorate’ capitalism’s ‘disordered faults’. Inevitably, as a process which depends on winners, capitalism also creates losers. A typical example is agricultural producers who can no longer make a living and migrate to cities or overseas in search of productive opportunities for their labour. Cowen and Shenton (1996) say that intentional development was ‘invented’ to prevent their disaffection from endangering social order by harnessing their talents to increase the productive capacity of society. They give several detailed examples, from Australia and Canada in the mid-nineteenth century and Kenya in the 1950s. In each case:

The problem of development was the same – the emergence of a surplus population which was officially recognised to be a national problem because it prompted the fear of social disorder and the loss of a population with the potential for productive force (1996: 190).

Although the problem was the same, the solutions proposed could be very different, including the promotion of manufacturing industry via a flexible labour market, state promotion of agricultural colonisation and settlement, programmes of public works, and state banks making loans to the poor. Interestingly, policies aimed at making ‘surplus’ populations p. 64productive remain the substance of many development programmes to this day, including, for example, the recent preoccupation with ‘micro-finance’ among the poor (Chapter 8).

It is instructive to look at four historically important arguments for intervention. First, in the Keynesian view, developed in the Great Depression of the 1930s, periodic booms and slumps are inherent problems of capitalism, which has no inbuilt mechanism for ensuring a balance between supply and demand as economies grow. Keynes proposed state spending to create employment and increase incomes, thus stimulating demand and restoring business confidence.

Second, there is the case for protecting ‘infant industries’ from competition by well-established industries elsewhere. This was first propounded by the nineteenth-century German thinker List, who was concerned at the time with protecting German industries from British competition. His arguments for protectionism were taken up in the 1950s and 1960s by Asian countries such as South Korea and Taiwan, which have since become high-income. They are of great relevance for other newly industrialising countries (NICs) and contemporary Southern governments which hope to emulate them while facing competition in global markets from powerful transnational corporations whose resources and sales may be greater than the annual incomes of many countries. This kind of state ‘protection’ generally operates through tax concessions and other incentives, as well as restricting imports through the use of tariffs and quotas to ensure less foreign competition in the national market.

A third kind of argument may be labelled welfarism. Although capitalist ‘development’ increases economic output, policies are needed to ensure that this is used to meet basic human needs, particularly since these are not all well mirrored by market valuations. This requires planning to link investment with the creation of jobs, the eradication of poverty, improved health for all, an improved status for women, and so on. This type of thinking started in wealthy nation states but has broadened to the concept of human development at global level and led to the range of development objectives which formed the basis of the MDGs (Table 1.1 in Chapter 1).

Finally, there is global environmentalism. Concern for the environment is often a rather separate motivation for state intervention—and intervention via agreements between states, since managing the global commons necessarily requires concerted international action to regulate the excesses of global capitalism. Following the Rio ‘Earth Summit’ of 1992, this concern has more and more been brought together with those for economic and human development. International agreement on the SDGs (Figure 1.5 in Chapter 1) now provides an overarching global development framework under the rubric of sustainable development.

In today’s globalised world, capitalism and its contradictions are beyond the reach of even the largest and most powerful states. The interventionist approach at the global level runs up against the problem that there is no international state to coordinate the implementation of policies. In its absence, the MDGs and now the SDGs represent increasingly sophisticated attempts to coordinate the development activities of states and other development agencies through internationally agreed frameworks. However, their effectiveness is not proven, as seen in Box 1.2 of Chapter 1 for the MDGs.

This global approach to intervention is now explored further, looking first at the theoretical underpinnings of the idea of human development, and then at the mechanisms by which global development goals frameworks like the MDGs and SDGs are supposed to work.

Human development and the realisation of human potential

UNDP can claim to be the world’s pre-eminent development agency in terms of its global reach and universal mandate. Since 1990 it has championed the concept of human development, or ‘freedom to realise the full potential of every human life’ (Clark 2017). This is portrayed as a shift in focus from the purely economic, a vision of development starting not from production but from people and from human needs: ‘from pursuing material opulence to enhancing human well-being, from maximising income to expanding capabilities, from optimising growth to enlarging freedoms’ (UNDP 2016: 2).

Human development: ‘a process of enlarging people’s choices. But human development is also the objective, so it is both a process and an outcome. … economic growth is an important means to human development, but not the end. Human development is the development of the people through building human capabilities, by the people through active participation in the processes that shape their lives and for the people by improving their lives’ (UNDP 2016: 2, from the first Human Development Report, 1990).

p. 65While promoting freedom, enhancing potential, etc. sound rather abstract aspirations, the approach moves quickly to practical conditions without which people are unable to pursue meaningful choices: being able to live a long and healthy life, to acquire knowledge, and to achieve a decent material standard of living. These three conditions are used as basic dimensions of human development and measures of how far they are met are put together to form the UNDP’s HDI (introduced in Chapter 2).

Such an approach was partly foreshadowed in Dudley Seers’ (1969, 1979) article ‘The meaning of development’. Seers suggested that ‘the realisation of the potential of human personality … is a universally acceptable aim’, and development must therefore entail ensuring the conditions for achieving this aim. He later added further conditions recognising the political dimension, making a total of six conditions (1979: 10–12):


the capacity to obtain physical necessities (particularly food);


a job (not necessarily paid employment, but including studying, working on a family farm, or keeping house);


equality, which should be considered an objective in its own right;


participation in government;


belonging to a nation that is truly independent, both economically and politically (Figure 3.5);


adequate educational levels (especially literacy).

Figure 3.5 ‘True’ national independence: a condition for development?.

Source: Reproduced from Regan, C., Sinclair, S., and Turner, M. (1988) Thin Black Lines, Birmingham Education Centre.

Seers’ formulation challenged the economic basis of development as outlined in Section 3.4, with its emphasis on productivity, growth, and increasing GNI per capita. Economic development of this type does not necessarily reduce the numbers in poverty, let alone meet other human needs. However, Seers was an economist arguing for an emphasis on human needs and equity alongside economic growth; many others seek an alternative which would provide a clearer break from economistic development thinking.

More recently, a similar but more fully worked-out line of thinking which has influenced UNDP greatly has come from another economist, Amartya Sen, with his vision of development as freedom (Sen 1999, see Box 3.4). Sen’s capabilities approach was introduced in Chapter 2. In this approach a person’s ‘capability’ refers to their ‘substantive freedom’ to ‘achieve various lifestyles’ (1999: 77) and poverty is not only about poor material living standards but also means lack of choice or deprivation of capability and hence inability to take a full part in human society. Development then means not just combating or ameliorating poverty but also restoring or enhancing basic human capabilities and freedoms.

Box 3.4 Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom

In Sen’s approach, development means expanding human freedoms. These freedoms include ‘elementary capabilities like being able to avoid such deprivations as starvation, undernourishment, escapable morbidity and premature mortality’. These capabilities in turn allow people to do the things which they value (to achieve different ‘functionings’, as they choose), and to enjoy broader freedoms ‘associated with being literate and numerate, enjoying political participation and uncensored speech, and so on’ (ibid: 36). Such freedoms have a ‘constitutive role’ in development; in other words, they have intrinsic importance as part of the vision or the ‘primary end’ of development.

But enhanced freedoms also have an ‘instrumental role’ as the ‘principal means’ of development. According to Sen, enhancing freedoms is not only worthwhile in itself (in fact, progress towards development is to be assessed primarily in terms of whether people’s freedoms are enhanced), but is also a way of effecting development: ‘achievement of development is thoroughly dependent on the free agency of people’ (ibid: 4). Sen lists five types of freedoms that are particularly important as ‘instrumental freedoms’ which allow people to participate fully in the development process: political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security.

In terms of our three senses of development, it may at first appear that Sen’s idea of development as freedom is mostly about vision: a people-centred vision of what achieving development would mean. In other words, it is part of debates on what constitutes a good society, where other candidates for the most basic underlying principle are development as dignity (Castells and Himanen 2014), wellbeing, prosperity (Jackson 2009), and so on. However, Sen p. 66is insistent that development as freedom is also about the process of development, and this is a process which, like economic growth in the capitalist model, feeds on itself. The more people’s freedoms are enhanced, the more they can be the agents of their own development. Although not terms much used by Sen himself, this is often seen in terms of participation and empowerment, particularly by NGOs promoting participative development at a local level.

Empowerment: A desired process by which individuals, typically including the ‘poorest of the poor’, are to take direct control over their lives. Once ‘empowered’ to do so, poor people will then (hopefully) be able to be the agents of their own development.

Arguably, however, this begs some important questions. What are the institutional arrangements through which people can exercise their agency? An important feature of human development is universality: it is about enhancing the freedoms, enlarging the choices, or realising the potential of all. What mechanism ensures that once someone’s capabilities are expanded they will use their newfound agency to promote human development for all rather than consolidating what they have gained for themselves? The idea of individuals being agents of their own development can lead in different directions: they could become small entrepreneurs within a vision of capitalist growth; or join in class struggles or one side or other of Polanyi’s double movement for or against commoditisation; or they could be the vanguard of an ‘alternative’ participative grassroots development (see Section 3.7).

Global development goals frameworks: from the MDGs to the SDGs

For at least the past 20 years, there have been concerted efforts at international level to create increasingly comprehensive frameworks for intentional development. First the MDGs and now the SDGs resulted from UN resolutions and conferences and involved the major international development agencies (see Chapter 4) before being themselves agreed by the UN.

Human development formed the basis of the MDGs and one important part of the SDG framework. This uses sustainable development as a more comprehensive vision and a framework for action in terms of goals, targets, and indicators.

Sustainable development: ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ (WCED 1987) Sustainable development is often described as a balance between the ‘three Es’: economic growth, equity, and environmental protection—on the assumption that the apparent contradiction between the first and last of these can be overcome.

However, rather than being based on a unifying principle, the SDGs have been criticised as little more than a list of aspirations from different areas of concern, p. 67drawn widely enough to include ‘something for everyone’ and thus gain agreement, and put together on the assumption that any tensions or contradictions between them can be overcome. This can be seen first of all in the way the idea of sustainable development itself is defined in terms of a balance between economic, social, and environmental dimensions and then in the way the vision itself is set out as a list of features of the utopian world which is envisaged.

We will look briefly at three mechanisms by which such a framework can operate in practice: unifying motivation; providing leverage and accountability; and as a management tool, before considering the implications of the apparent lack of an underlying theory of change.

First, unifying motivation. Being one of a large number of signatories to an agreed framework does motivate both states and development agencies to work together towards common goals. Kenny (2015), for example, argues that the MDGs were very successful in this regard, and that their power to motivate came largely from their simplicity and clarity. He raises concerns that the SDG framework may be too large, complex, and unwieldy to do this, with their 17 goals and 169 targets (compared with 8 goals and 18 targets for the MDGs).

Second, leverage and accountability. If one large development agency puts resources into programmes aimed at achieving particular targets related to one of the SDGs, the legitimacy accorded by being part of an internationally agreed framework provides a strong lever for persuading states or other agencies to put their own resources into the same or complementary programmes. Then, having to demonstrate value-for-money in how resources have been spent on progress towards those targets provides a basis for accountability.

Finally, the SDG framework acts as a grand-level management tool. It allows for the coordination of a multiplicity of projects and programmes aimed at different parts of it. Each of these in turn can be organised using outcome-based management or management by results. This may work well for activities with simple, measurable outcomes and linear causality (a rural school-building programme, say), making them easier to plan and to evaluate. However, it is much more difficult to devise manageable programmes to help achieve the more complex goals, and to assess with any degree of certainty the effectiveness of such programmes, where there are inevitably many unintended outcomes and externalities.

The SDG framework can be criticised in a number of ways. For example, it appears to assume that a multiplicity of partially contradictory goals can be achieved by programmes aimed at each separately. Moreover, outcome-focused management of complex programmes can be not just ineffective but counter-productive. It leads to a preference for the simpler kind of activities with directly attributable outcomes, even when more comprehensive approaches may be more effective (for example, a preference for disease-specific mass drug administration over comprehensive primary health care—see Chapter 6). It also incentivises managers or whole organisations to demonstrate how their own efforts led directly to results rather than emphasise the importance of partnership or generating outside support (see Fowler 1997: 162–3 for how this can work in the case of NGOs).

Another critique comes from a broad assessment of the project-based approach and its limitations. Can even political goals like Gender Equality (SDG 5) or Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions (SDG 16) be subject to managerialist tools like this? According to the director of one Zimbabwean NGO: ‘No country in the world has ever developed itself through projects’ (quoted in Edwards 1989: 119). Edwards continues, ‘development results from a long process of experiment and innovation through which people build up the skills, knowledge and experience necessary to shape their environment in ways which foster progress’ (ibid: 119–20). There are few studies of development interventions over the long term, and few examples where there is evidence of long-term success. Uphoff, Esman, and Krishna (1998) provide one such analysis, based on evidence from 18 case studies of rural development from around the world. They argue that long-term success is not mainly about meeting specific targets, though that is necessary for maintaining funding and accountability, but is about generating increased human capacity.

The SDG framework can also be criticised for lacking any unifying theory. There are certainly volumes of management theory about the best ways of achieving project and programme goals, as well as literature specifically on development management (see e.g. Thomas 1996; Brinkerhoff and Brinkerhoff 2005; as well as a variety of handbooks from international NGOs and other development agencies). There is also the ‘theories of change’ approach for particular projects or programmes, especially those aimed at broader social change, based on community developp. 68ment practice and social movement theory especially in the USA. One of the early proponents of this approach described a theory of change as ‘a theory of how and why an initiative works’ (Weiss 1995), while Stein and Valters (2012) review its use in international development. As for how development interventions might lead to social change more generally, any general theoretical answer surely has to engage both with issues of complexity—how those interventions interact with each other and with other ongoing change processes—and with politics. One attempt at such a theory from a social activist perspective is by Green (2016) with his ‘power and systems approach’. However, when it comes to explaining how and why a global framework which potentially includes thousands or millions of interventions might lead to generalised and sustained improvements there is certainly a lack of a general theory.

3.7 ‘Alternative’ development and ‘post-development’

Virtually all the versions of interventionism, as well as neoliberalism and structuralism, envision accelerated economic growth, linked to capital accumulation and industrialisation, as the way to provide the resources to meet human needs or meet what is perceived as ‘global crisis’. The latter includes climate change, which, it is proposed, can best be managed by adjusting policies for promoting growth, for example, by switching towards new markets for renewable energy. The SDG framework mostly reflects this perspective and continues to see the state and other development agencies as undertaking intentional development that will make growth happen, ideally in ways that are suitably inclusive and will alleviate deprivation. There may be debates about state versus market or the form and degree of intervention, but these occur within what can be termed ‘mainstream’ views of development.

The sets of ideas grouped together under the labels ‘alternative development’ and ‘post-development’ are both reactions against this ‘mainstream’ development. In particular those propounding these ideas are reacting against the ‘alienation’ of large-scale industrialisation. They often align with environmentalists who do not see how it is possible to maintain economic growth and simultaneously protect the environment and mitigate catastrophic climate change. They also reject the notion of trusteeship by which others determine what is required for people’s development. In this they follow radical critics of intentional development such as Ferguson (1990) and Li (2007).

Ferguson’s (1990) title for his in-depth study of the failure of development projects, particularly in Lesotho, is The Anti-Politics Machine. He argues that in practice the main effect of intentional ‘development’ is to depoliticise issues such as poverty and inequality, turning them into the objects of managerial endeavours. As a result, when people’s livelihoods do not improve and productivity does not increase these are seen as technical failings rather than the results of power relations—the ‘oppression’ which keeps poor people in their place. However, ‘development’ does succeed in bureaucratising the lives it is meant to improve, thereby extending state control.

Li (2007) undertook a similar ethnographic study of development practice in the very different context of Indonesia. By defining problems as technical, Li concludes, development organisations leave out of consideration the structural conditions which marginalise poor populations. She concludes that it is impossible for outside intervention to improve people’s lives while promoting both market relations and conservation without addressing local political structures.

This current of thought leads some, such as those in the post-development school (introduced in Chapter 1—see also Box 3.5) to conclude that ‘development’ is too contaminated a term to be of use.

Box 3.5 Post-development

Post-development thinkers reject the project of development. They regard it as a ‘hoax’ or a ‘euphemism’ for US hegemony and argue that development has failed and the ‘era of development’ is over.

Post-development is closely related to post-colonial theory and post-modernism. It uses discourse analysis to make a lot of useful insights into the derivation of terms and the politics of the way they are used. It became influential in the 1990s, following the publication of The Development Dictionary (Sachs 1992), in which a number of writers deconstructed some of the basic concepts of mainstream development thinking. In defending its continuing relevance in the Preface to the second edition of The Development Dictionary, Sachs explains:

… the authors of this book have ventured to expose those key concepts that make up much of the mental furniture of ‘development’ … ‘poverty’ incorporates a materialistic prejudice, ‘equality’ is transmogrified into sameness, ‘standard of living’ reduces the diversity of happiness, ‘needs’ make the dependency trap snap, ‘production’ brings forth disvalue next to value, and ‘population’ is nothing but a statistical artefact (2010: xii).

Later, writings by a number of its most important protagonists were collected in The Post-Development Reader (Rahnema and Bawtree 1997). These included Ferguson, with his argument that development is a form of social control: ‘a machine for reinforcing and expanding the exercise of bureaucratic state power’ (1997: 232).

Post-development’s basic premise that the ‘era of development’ is over has clearly proved wrong (so far). Nevertheless, paradoxically perhaps, it has made a considerable impact on debates on development in different ways.

One can distinguish several related lines of criticism by post-development writers (Ziai 2017a), several of which overlap strongly with the theoretical contributions associated with post-colonialism (Chapter 14). One is that mainstream development treats Western ideals of modernity as universal and ‘natural’, although they are in fact culturally specific, based on an economic rationality and a capitalist logic of accumulation. One effect of this is ‘othering’, treating those who fail to live up to these ideals by having low scores on various measures as ‘deviant’ and their ways of life as ‘inferior’ and in need of ‘development’. This has only led to the ‘progressive modernisation of poverty’ (Esteva 1985: 79, quoted in Ziai 2017a).

A second line points out how the promise of a better life functions to legitimate interventions by ‘experts’ in the name of the common good, without challenging the conditions of exploitation which operate both locally and globally. This argument underlines the point that development discourse tends to depoliticise poverty and its causes (Escobar 1995: 45).

p. 69Alvares provides an extreme version of this line, arguing that ‘development’ is ‘a label for plunder and violence, a mechanism of triage’ (1994: 1). He suggests that industrial development is deliberate ‘triage’—with its implication of dividing a damaged population into those well enough to benefit from assistance and those to be left to their fate—in that it is known that only some can benefit (see Figure 3.6). Others have suggested development was a ‘hoax’, never designed to deal with humanitarian and environmental problems, but simply a way of allowing the industrialised North, particularly the USA, to continue its dominance and maintain its own high standards of living. This metaphor still has force even now that it is the globalised middle class who benefit rather than those in certain countries.

Figure 3.6

Source: South – The Third World Magazine.

Another criticism relates to how development interventions rely on evidence of what is supposed to work generated using a scientific paradigm. This creates another hierarchy, this time of knowledge. Scientific knowledge is superior and of universal validity, while local forms of knowledge appear to be secondary or inferior.

Finally, Ziai also notes the contribution of feminism within post-development. Shiva, for example, points out how images of mastery and domination over nature have replaced the image of the earth as a nurturing mother, and that the ‘treatment of nature as a resource which acquires value only in exploitation for economic growth has been central to the project of development’ (2010: 234).

A number of arguments have been put forward against post-development. Ziai (2017a: 2549) suggests these are best understood by distinguishing versions of post-development. Many are arguments against what he calls ‘neo-populist’ post-development, notably that p. 70it ignores the undoubted achievements of development while tending to a paternalistic and romanticised view of non-Western cultures, overlooking, for example, how traditional forms of public authority can be reactionary. This form of post-development can be used to bolster authoritarian populist regimes.

The alternative of ‘sceptical’ post-development recognises the applicability of the dominant development paradigm in its own terms, while critiquing particularly the notion that it has a universal validity. As well as triggering a search for new paradigms, criticisms in this vein by post-development writers have been taken very seriously by those involved in mainstream development and made a considerable impact on debates on development in different ways (Ziai 2017a). Ziai (2017b) uses the title ‘I am not a Post-Developmentalist, but … ’ for his discussion of how post-development is included in development studies textbooks (something this chapter is also doing!).

Indeed, development as an organising idea is by no means finished. In terms of practice, it appears to have a new lease of life with the SDGs, which continue to promote mainstream notions of development, while giving space to concerns raised by post-development analysts. As Sachs points out (2010: viii), although development was ‘an invention of the West’, it is ‘not just an imposition on the rest’, and indeed the SDGs have been taken on board by China and other countries of the global South. It could be argued that this is because their message of hope in the future is not just about increasing material affluence but allows for visions of a better life in terms of justice and self-fulfilment, at the national as well as individual level. The SDGs are also less obviously about the ‘West and the rest’ and reflect a widespread view among UN member states that development has to shed its association with imperialism and the Cold War politics.

Searching outside the mainstream

While mainstream development has been impacted and arguably enriched by post-development ideas, there are many who still argue that the multifaceted global ‘crisis’ of poverty, social disintegration, public health emergencies, and environmental destruction (Chapters 1 and 2) cannot be met without much more radical changes. Despite improvements in some development indicators, this crisis is becoming ever more serious—certainly as far as the last three elements are concerned. Global numbers of those forcibly displaced are at an all-time high (UNHCR 2018) and the combination of climate change, biodiversity loss, and other accumulating environmental damage means, as in the first line of The Uninhabitable Earth (Wallace-Wells 2019): ‘It’s worse, much worse, than you think.’ And this was before COVID-19! Given that development has been such a dominant concept during the very period when the crisis has been building up, there is a great deal of force to the suggestion that development has failed—or at least that it requires a major rethink.

In the context of the urgent imperative for new forms of action, the difference between those proposing alternative ways of doing development and those who reject development altogether as a label for new forms of progressive social change seems merely semantic. ‘Alternative’ development and ‘post-development’ have in common the search for practical answers to this imperative outside mainstream development thinking. Here are four of the most important directions this search has taken.

1 A call for personal political engagement

Ferguson, in the Epilogue to The Anti-Politics Machine, asks ‘What is to be done?’ and notes that ‘“development” is far from being the only available form of engagement with the great questions of poverty, hunger and oppression’ (1990: 279). His first answer to what those motivated by concern to right these great wrongs should do is political engagement in one’s own country. As to how to be involved in advancing the cause of those suffering from these wrongs and promoting progressive changes such as empowerment and equality, his answer is solidarity with ‘the typically non-state forces and organisations that challenge the existing dominant order’ (ibid: 286)—again, a political answer.

Many of those promoting both alternative and post-development have taken Ferguson’s advice, although there are different implications for those from Southern compared with those from Northern countries. For example, Arturo Escobar has been engaged for many years with indigenous activists in his native Colombia’s Pacific rainforest region and his most recent writings derive from anthropological analysis of their practices (Escobar 2008, 2018). David Korten, on the other hand, cited in Chapters 1 and 2, cut short his long career in development overseas to return home to the USA and engage in teaching and more recently p. 71Internet activism, explaining in an account of his ‘personal journey’:

Only when we in the United States are prepared to assume responsibility for changing ourselves will others be able to fully reclaim the social and environmental space we have appropriated from them and recover their ability to meet their own needs within a just, democratic and sustainable world of cooperative partnerships (2015: 8).

2 People as agents of social transformation

‘Alternative’ usually means ‘people-centred’ development emphasising people themselves as agents of their own development. Without using the same language, post-development also favours people solving their own problems individually or through local organisations and networks. Both also foreground the need to improve the quality of lives in a holistic way, without focusing on economic growth as the primary objective or increasing social inequalities.

This way of thinking derives largely from the mainly NGO-based movement for participatory approaches to development projects and research, associated with Chambers (e.g. 1983, 2002), with his ideas of ‘putting the last first’ and ‘handing over the stick’, and others. However, it goes beyond advocating for those in charge of such projects to allow the needs and perspectives of project ‘beneficiaries’ to shape how such projects are designed and implemented, to a vision in which people take direct action to meet their own needs. For many people, such a vision also accords with the need for alternative ways of life to be developed in response to climate change.

In material terms the vision is clear and simple. It accords, for example, with Schumacher’s comment in his famous book Small is Beautiful: ‘The really helpful things will not be done from the centre; they cannot be done by big organisations; but they can be done by the people themselves … [I]t is the most natural thing for every person born into this world to use his [sic] hands in a productive way and … it is not beyond the wit of man [sic] to make this possible’ (1973: 205–6).

This can be conceived in terms of localised or community-based production for material needs. Kitching, tracing the long history of similar ideas arising as a reaction to capitalist development and industrialisation, suggests that many have in common a ‘populist’ vision:

A world of ‘humanised’ production, based on a small scale but modern and scientific technology, a world of cooperation in villages and small towns, a world of enriched social relationships growing out of a process of production and exchange that is under human control rather than ‘alienated’ (1982: 179).

Politically it is much less clear how this vision can be brought about (see Figure 3.7). In fact, Kitching dismisses it as politically naïve and dangerously prone to takeover by authoritarian populist politics. For production and exchange to be brought ‘under human control’ without such a takeover would clearly require a successful process of empowerment, entailing redistributions of power structures both at local and at broader, national and international, levels. As Korten puts it: ‘It calls for an equality-led transformation of institutions and values to restore community, redistribute power, and reallocate earth’s natural wealth to uses that contribute to sustainable improvements in human well-being’ (1995: 178–9).

Figure 3.7 Social economy.

Source: Miguel Villalba Sánchez (Elchicotriste) / Cartoon Movement.

The notion of people developing themselves is in itself very attractive. Many conventional development agencies have sought to absorb (or coopt) it into their institutional thinking, with varied degree of success. Sen’s ideas of development as freedom are also based on people becoming agents of their own development. UNDP’s human development approach uses Sen’s ideas (see Section 3.5) and claims to be ‘people-centred’, though as part of a grand global framework of institutions working for development rather than the basis of an ‘alternative’. Chambers’ ideas have gained widespread credence, for example by the World Bank. He now claims that the process of formulating the SDGs was ‘inclusive, participatory and transparent to an unprecedented degree’, and ‘The SDGs reinforce the massive shift in thinking which has taken place, from the vertical to the horizontal, from the wealthier world thinking and acting in an “us”–“them” way towards new mindsets, behaviours and relationships in which we are “all of us equally together”’ (Chambers 2017: 152).

However, far from fully ‘handing over the stick’, this is arguably more a way of incorporating people into conventional development projects. Many will regard the idea that there has been a ‘massive shift’ as wishful thinking and remain unconvinced that there has been any basic change in mainstream development’s commitment to capitalist modernisation. They continue to look outside the mainstream for new ways of achieving social change, redistributing power, and transforming institutions towards facilitating empowerment and local control.

3p. 72 New, culturally diverse organising concepts

Third, there is a search for alternative organising concepts. Getting away from the imposition of a uniform Westernised notion of the modern society which is superior to all others implies accepting the validity of culturally different ideals of the good life and ways of achieving it that need not depend on material prosperity and economic growth.

This has led in the direction of cultural diversity. If people and communities are empowered to develop themselves, it follows that they will do so in distinctively different ways which will be affected by a whole variety of cultural variables: a ‘pluriverse’ (Demaria and Kothari 2017; Escobar 2018) of different visions about what it means to live well and how to achieve such visions. They are based on a variety of traditions of self-reliance and respect for nature from around the world, as well as different forms of indigenous knowledge based on lived experience which can be regarded as complementary to generalised scientific knowledge and contributing to understanding the likely consequences of interventions (see Chapter 25). Examples include buen vivir (from indigenous South American cultures—Acosta 2017 and Escobar 2018), de-growth (from radical environmentalism in the developed world—Latouche 2009 and Kallis 2015), and swaraj or ‘radical ecological democracy’ (from Indian civil society—Kothari 2014).

There is then a question of the relationship between specific cultural preferences and the presentation of the principles of human development as having universal validity. Thus, while these varied concepts may not form one specific cohesive whole, they certainly do form an alternative to the vision of modern, industrial society as the unique goal for the development of all human society.

4 New theory of social change

Finally, there is a groping towards a theory of social change conceived literally in different terms, which recognises a plurality of versions of the good society and the potential of non-Western as well as Western models for how to achieve it. Ziai (2017a: 2552) uses the idea of a ‘rearguard theory’ from Santos (2014) to argue that ‘such a theory would have to embrace the plurality of knowledges (being aware of its limits and of other ways of knowing) … theorising the practice of social movements rather than prescribing it like vanguard theories used to do’.

The theory required will incorporate micro and macro elements. At the micro level, it will seek to explain how local initiatives aimed at meeting needs p. 73directly can be successfully promoted and organised—a theory of empowerment and democratic social entrepreneurship. At the macro level, it will be about how local initiatives based on such alternative principles could be replicated on a large scale, as well as democratising larger enterprised, and how the kind of social change could be brought about that would safeguard such initiatives for the future.

Big questions are raised about the political feasibility of avoiding the notion of trusteeship by people acting for themselves. Although rarely stated bluntly, there is additionally the problem that an aspect of poverty is ignorance. Poor people often do not have access to information and are likely to have little formal education. Surely empowerment cannot be achieved without being promoted by some powerful agent allied with those to be empowered? Perhaps some form of people’s movement might fill the role of this agent, but even then, the leadership of that movement would be taking on a trusteeship role in a way. That may work with respect to particular campaigns, such as providing irrigation or giving a voice to marginalised populations. However, when turned into a mass movement, there is a danger of populist politics emerging, as certain individuals claim to speak for the people.

Thus an important part of this theory has to be about leadership and accountability. Whether leadership roles are carried out locally or outside one’s own society, it would have to be with full critical awareness of the contradictions of trusteeship. To close, here is Rahnema on the need for any ‘intervention’ to be done in a spirit of self-criticism and in the awareness that it is:

an adventure fraught with considerable danger. Such awareness makes it necessary for interveners to start examining the whys and wherefores of their actions. Exceptional personal qualities are needed to prevent ‘well intentioned’ interventions producing results contrary to those planned – as has been the case in most ‘developmental’ and many ‘humanitarian’ instances (1997: 397).


Development means not only ‘good change’ but also all-encompassing change, which builds on itself, occurs at both societal and individual levels, and may be destructive as well as creative.

Development as an ‘immanent’ process, as with the intrinsic dynamism of capitalism, needs to be distinguished from development as an intentional activity, often designed to ‘ameliorate the faults’ of capitalist growth.

‘Development’ is used in three main senses: a vision or measure of a desirable society; a historical process of social change; deliberate efforts at improvement by development agencies.

Consideration of development agencies brings in questions of trusteeship, whether agencies have legitimacy and capacity to ‘do development’, and what interests they represent.

There is a variety of competing overall views on development, each of which combines its own vision, version of history, and ideas on how to promote development. They can be organised into three groups according to how they see development relating to capitalism: through, against, or in the context of capitalism.

The first two of these groups of views are labelled Market economics and Structuralism. The former theorises how capitalism creates the engine of growth for development, resulting in modern industrial society, usually combined with liberal democracy. For the latter, development comes about through contestation between large-scale interests resulting in changes in underlying social and economic structures. For example, Polanyi points to a struggle between pro-market and protectionist movements.

A third group of views, pragmatic rather than theoretical, is termed Interventionism and concentrates on how to achieve development. This includes the UNDP’s human development approach, based on the vision of a society where every individual’s potential can be realised and Sen’s ideas of ‘development as freedom’, and the internationally agreed global frameworks for development of the Millennium Development Goals and now the Sustainable Development Goals.

Finally, there are those who reject all these views as versions of ‘mainstream’ development. They seek alternatives, either an alternative form of development or rejecting the development concept entirely. In both cases, what is being sought tends to be based on people acting as their own development agents, political activism, culturally diverse conceptions of living well, and new theories of social change involving social entrepreneurship, democratic accountability, and critical awareness.

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