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VIEW: Rethinking development —Syed Mohammad Ali

It is time for policymakers to realise that they cannot successfully implement imported policies that have no legitimacy and that the only way to invigorate development processes is to democratise them. The hopes, aspiration and concerns of the people have to be given due weight

Development policies are guided and directly influenced by theories. It is thus necessary to consider what development means, how it takes place, and what could be done ensure that efforts undertaken in this regard yield better results.

Development is so entrenched as a body of institutions, a form of knowledge and expertise — even as a way of managing international relations — that no country can ignore it any longer. The phenomenon requires particular attention in parts of the world like our own.

To understand how a developing country is so categorised, and the sort of aid and advice given to it for supposedly facilitating the process of its development, let us first consider how the various ideas concerned with it originated. Edward Said had used the term ‘Orientalism’ to identify a process by which the West imposed on non-Western peoples its knowledge structures about their indigenous circumstances. It is not hard to imagine how this ability to construct knowledge also enables manipulation of facts to suit self-interests.

But why and how were imported ideas about local circumstances accepted by non-Western countries? Salient theories formulated in the West concerning other parts of the world were not created in a vacuum. They evolved during a period when European countries were in direct contact with vast areas of the developing world due to colonialism. What are now developing countries, and formerly the colonies of European countries, also played some part in forming what is accepted as Western knowledge of the developing world. This is also the case for more contemporary development interventions. These may be supported and endorsed by rich donor countries, yet people from developing countries are actively involved in both their formulation and implementation. The colonial period remains the inevitable starting point for understanding the current complexes afflicting the developing world. Yet in thinking about development, it is best to avoid shifting the blame onto others. It is not very productive to view development theory as a conspiracy of domination. This is not to say, however, that the status of a developing country is the sole consequence of that country’s domestic policies. Unfortunately, neo-liberal orthodox development theories mostly assume that the internal dynamics of a country are the obstacle in its own development. Developing countries are therefore considered to be in a state of underdevelopment largely due to specific, internal factors that can then be measured and ‘fixed’.

Countries do not operate as separate, autonomous units. There is plenty of evidence in colonial history and the current state of global interdependence to back this claim. But if underdevelopment is not merely the result of bad governance, or of hegemony in its various forms, what is it?

Many development scholars have begun to argue that it is futile to separate developing or developed countries in trying to understand the status of any country in either category. It is equally difficult in practice to draw a line between policies geared towards development and those that are not. In effect, all development policies are created as a reaction to, and intermingle with other policies, within a particular country’s socio-economic and political compulsions. This makes identification of fix-all development prescriptions nearly impossible.

While one realises the difficulty of translating development policies into tangible on-ground benefits, it is disappointing to note how development efforts often fail to provide workable solutions to the ills plaguing vast parts of the world. To provide such solutions, development must be treated as a global problem involving developed and developing countries as equals. For development efforts to be tailored to the needs and context of developed countries, policies concerning issues like poverty alleviation must be more reflective and directly address the worries of the poor. Since this does not happen very often in practice and instead preordained policy frameworks are imposed, most development plans suffer from ineffective implementation and fail to achieve stated goals.

It is important to realise that while local people are often involved in making development policies, they are seldom the intended beneficiaries of development plans. It is time for policymakers to realise that they cannot successfully implement imported policies that have no legitimacy and that the only way to invigorate development processes is to democratise them. The hopes, aspiration and concerns of the people at the grassroots have to be given due weight not only for the purpose of seeking their participation in execution of given policies but also in the very process of formulating them.

Doing this is not easy and would require ceding more control at all stages of policy making to those in whose names development efforts are justified. It may mean precluding conventional austerity measures which directly hurt the poor such as public spending cuts and revenue generation schemes like broadening the base of taxation. Even more ‘disturbing’ suggestions could emerge if the proponents of development actually start listening to those who are supposed to be developed, instead of relying solely on what Escobar had so aptly termed ‘rightness of the actions of the harbinger of modernity’, the so-called native elite.

At least, developed countries will not be the only ones facing the burden of empowering the poor, since the developed segment within the developing countries too will need to let go of the leverage it now enjoys.

The author is a development consultant and an international fellow of the Open Society Institutes network. He can be reached at syedmohdali555@yahoo.com

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