The Obituary of the Development Era

Abinaswar Das




The Development Dictionary is a book that arouses the reader’s interest at every juncture because of its blunt statements backed by the immense knowledge and varied ethnic, socio-political and cultural origins and experiences of its seventeen contributing authors. This group claims to have observed and studied the development discourse and through their studies have arrived at the controversial conclusion that the end of development, as we know it has arrived. In a bold yet nonchalant manner, Wolfgang Sachs, the editor of the book and contributor of two chapters, concludes his introduction to the book, declaring that it is in fact time to write the obituary of the development process. The introduction of the book begins with the following sentences: “The last forty years can be called the age of development. This epoch is coming to an end. The time is ripe to write its obituary.”

Each of the chapters comprises an essay by the concerned contributor about a concept attached to the development discourse and/or process. The Chapters are alphabetically arranged; therefore justifying the name of the book as a dictionary. The first Chapter is on the idea of development, where Esteva talks about how although development was earlier discussed in intellectual circles for a long time, it only became part of mainstream ideology when it was sold to the world through Truman’s speech in 1949, which suddenly created two worlds from one. This speech was so powerful that it divided the world into the developed and the underdeveloped world. The contributors to The Development Dictionary trace the beginning of the “Age of Development” to this speech of Truman’s. Development theorists believed their prescription would lift the world’s population out of perceived poverty and misery by turning peasants and subsistence farmers into wage-earners and consumers. Development was marketed as the ideal to achieve through any means necessary.

In the second Chapter, Sachs addresses the issues related to the environment, which he argues have taken a back seat in the development process. He says that environmental concerns were not part of the initial idea or plan of development. The environment began to matter only when a significant increase in pollution and environmental degradation caused by excessive harnessing and exploitation of resources came to the forefront in both developed as well as developing countries. The damage done to the environment through depletion of nonrenewable resources led to the era of sustainable development, which he also critiques. The idea of equality is explored in the subsequent chapter by Lummis, wherein he begins by making clear distinctions between the idea of equality, equity and equitability. He argues that the proponents of the development process have successfully managed to make people believe that development creates more opportunities and therefore mitigates the problem of socio-economic inequalities. Lummis, however, backs with research, data that developing countries have instead much larger income and spending inequalities than they had before they joined the bandwagon with their development programmes. He, therefore, finds a great paradox in what development claims to have achieved and what the ground realities have been.

In “Helping”, Gronemeyer attempts to expose the patriarchal dominance of developed countries over developing nations through financial aid. She explains how developed countries enter the economy and even influence governments as a result of aid provided to developing countries and attempt to induce socio-political and cultural changes in that country. She argues that this is not only an extremely unethical way to economically invade a nation, but also violates the principle of sovereignty of an independent nation. Berthoud explains and explores the role of the market in the development process, which he admits is the most significant aspect of the development discourse. His essay is about the establishment of economies through the setting up of markets and the resultant discriminatory practices by international financial organisations and trade regulatory bodies that allow for a nascent economy to be exploited rendering it helpless and entirely dependent on the biggest players in the market, who are often powerful enough to overthrow governments.

Subsequent chapters by Illich, Sachs, Rahnema and Escobar focus on the creation of the idea of ‘Needs’ by the development discourse, as well as the One World theory, participation in the development process as well as planning as an integral part of any country’s development. All of these notions call for policies that are a result of existing models of the West. They assert that it is time for a new era of development where every nation is given the space and opportunity to keep its national interests before interests of the market and the Western economic powers.

Current use of “development” simplifies the term to the point where the end purpose of the process becomes nothing more than the achievement of the U.S. model of an industrial money economy. The traditional meaning of the word, evolved from biology and philosophy, from Darwin, Hegel and Marx, was all but wiped out when the term was co-opted by Truman.

Gustavo Esteva writes, “Two hundred years of social construction of the historical-political meaning of the term, development, were successfully usurped and transmogrified. A political and philosophical proposition of Marx, packaged American style as a struggle against communism and at the service of the hegemonic design of the United States, succeeded in permeating both the popular and intellectual mind for the rest of the century.”

Contributors blast the idea that the U.S. (and European) model represents the ideal goal of the historical process. Wolfgang Sachs writes, “If all countries successfully followed the industrial example, five or six planets would be needed to serve as mines and waste dumps. It is thus obvious that the advanced societies are no model; rather they are most likely to be seen in the end as an aberration in the course of history.”

The contributors argue that there is an inherent bias against cultural diversity in the development project; if there is only one mode of ideal existence (the U.S.-European industrial model) then other cultures are somehow backwards or behind or “underdeveloped.” As Sachs writes, “In this view, Tuaregs, Zapotecos or Rajasthanis are not seen as living diverse and non-comparable ways of human existence, but as somehow lacking in terms of what has been achieved by the advanced countries. Consequently, catching up was declared to be their historical task. From the start, development’s hidden agenda was nothing else than the Westernization of the world.”

Development has failed on less theoretical and more concrete grounds as well: in 1960, Northern countries were 20 times richer than Southern countries; they are now 46 times richer. More devastating perhaps is the destruction of traditional ways of life and the simultaneous failure to provide a viable alternative to historic lifestyles. Sachs writes, “People are caught in the deadlock of development: the peasant who is dependent on buying seeds, yet finds no cash to do so; the mother who benefits neither from the care of her fellow women in the community nor from the assistance of a hospital. … Shunned by the advanced sector and cut off from the old ways … they are forced to get by in the no-man’s-land between tradition and modernity.”

In ‘Poverty’, ‘Production’, ‘Progress’, ‘Resources’ and ‘Science’ written by Rahnema, Robert, Sbert, Shiva and Alvares respectively, the authors argue that although scientific knowledge sharing and education has been a positive outcome of the development process,   they have also resulted in severe exploitation of resources both human and natural non-renewable in nature. The lack of respect for resources by economically developed countries has led to a complete depletion in their countries which triggers them to exploit the riches of developing countries, who in the process of growth and development more than willingly let their resources sell for cheap prices in exchange for greater revenue and better GDP figures every year in their race with other developing nations to become fully developed. This exploitation has, as can be logically deduced, led to greater economic and social inequalities, reducing the absolute numbers of poverty and increasing poverty in the relative sense. Latouche elaborates upon these inequalities in his Chapter on the standards of living of people in developing countries in comparison to an average person’s standard of living in a developed country. Technology is also an area of interest to the development process and is adequately explored by Ullrich in the final chapter of the book.’

The academic style of the book may frustrate some readers who question the importance of tracing the history of certain words and concepts. As Sachs writes in his introduction, “Our essays on the central concepts in the development discourse intend to expose some of the unconscious structures that set boundaries on the thinking of our epoch. We believe that any imaginative effort to conceive a post-development era will have to overcome these constraints.”

Two chapters of particular interest are those on Socialism and the State, written by Harry Cleaver and Ashis Nandy respectively. Cleaver analyses the role of socialism in the development process. He specifically focuses on states which had previously taken up the Left ideology and had consolidated resources for themselves and had resisted the vices of the market, despite participating in it. Here he also looks at Latin American countries which are still socialist, unlike European socialism which has already disintegrated. Nandy, on the other hand, analyses the role that the State has played across all political ideologies in implementing developmental plans around the world. He critiques the oppressive nature of developed economies and urges both them and developing countries to take up a more rational approach in promoting the idea that they believe is already lost anyway.

The essays set out to challenge not only policymakers but activists of both the North and South who have fallen into using this type of language – Multinational Monitor, for example, which often refers to “developing countries.” The Development Dictionary demands that activists question their own biases and ways in which their analysis may be tainted or limited. It paves the way for a discussion in which non-Western ways of life are not seen as aberrations, but as viable alternatives.

(Abinaswar Das is a graduate student of Master of Public Policy in the National Law School of India University. He can be reached at

One Comment Add yours

  1. This book seems very interesting! Unlike conventional book reviews, this one has actually opened up almost every chapter for the reader. At the same time, it has kept certain things shielded so that we actually read the book. There are a lot of quotations, which could be avoided or provided differently. Also, this review doesn’t look at the subtitle, ‘a guide to knowledge as power’. Is it like the book holds no relevant content to talk about it?

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