“Alternatives to development” as a universal project?

by Julia Schöneberg

Thinking, reading and writing about “development” can be a daunting undertaking – and it gets worse the deeper you dig. Starting off as a student with the naïve desire to learn about development in order to acquire the tools and skills for making the world a better place, my occupation with the topic has turned into an intellectual struggle, disillusionment, much frustration and anger with those who for so long have shaped the concept and practice of “development.”

Critiques of development (Escobar 1992, 1995;  Ferguson 1990; Kothari 2005; Munck 1999; Rahnema and Bawtree 1997; Sachs 1992; Ziai 2007) stand in a long tradition of critical engagement with the capitalist growth paradigm, assumptions of Western universality, and the production of knowledges, but the inevitable question is: What then? It becomes even more pressing since much of the critique has been around for more than 25 years, most prominently in what has been termed the Post-Development school. However, thinking of alternatives to development, rather than conjuring up technical or technocratic fixes to the many pitfalls of development cooperation or aid practices, is quite difficult when the only point of reference are those concepts recognized as flawed.

Most recently there has been much engagement and initiative around “decolonizing development” (and “decolonizing geography”, “decolonizing education”, and many other disciplines or activities). Judith Krauss in a recent blog rightly asks “what, how, by whom and for whom” “we” (and the use of “we” is of course just another presumption of universality) are seeking to decolonize development. By failing to respond to these questions, well-intended efforts for “decolonizing xyz” are in danger of reproducing just the same cycle of assumed universality and of speaking for others, rather than truly undoing power asymmetries, hegemonic structures and institutions that continue to perpetuate those inequalities and injustices we understand as lack of “development.” Yet, Post-Development proponents and Post-/Decolonial theorists, while demanding alternatives to development, are too often falling prey to the same mechanism of claims to universality they criticize. Post-Development has become somewhat of a label (rather ironically, one might add) one can or must subscribe to. Tellingly, a colleague from Peru recently remarked: “People in my country are continuously practicing Post-Development and have done so for ages. They just don’t call it this way.” Elsewhere, I have argued that the biggest pitfall underlying and hampering all good intentions to imagine, and practice alternatives is the fact that “development” is such an amoeba-like container word refusing definition.

So, what is the solution, or, more like, the alternative?

We must realize that neither is there one truth nor one single story. Neither should we subscribe to the promises made by “development”, nor should we seek the universally applicable alternative to development, the grand theory, the one-alternative-that-fits-all. We must avoid, what Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie has termed “the danger of a single story” and acknowledge the validity of the many stories and of those who tell them.

The task is to acknowledge and give value to a multitude of knowledges and cosmovisions.  Space is needed for what the Zapatistas have termed a “world in which many worlds fit”, rather than obeying the endeavor of globalization to make all worlds fit into one, all oriented towards the deceitful promises of capitalism, and the related obsessions with growth and consumerism. This has nothing to do with cultural relativism, but rather with accepting the interconnectedness of knowledges and realities all tied together by the coloniality of power.  Just the same as the West cannot be taken as the standard setting, seeking alternatives cannot mean to term everything local or non-Western as inherently good, but it must mean to view European knowledge as a partial, local knowledge, just as all others, and to consider its applicability in very contextual settings.

Rather than spending much energy and time on re-thinking, re-defining or re-creating ill-defined concepts and practices, the task at hand is paying attention to and valuing what has been there for centuries: social structures and knowledge systems based on conviviality and solidarity (also with the non-human world of nature) that have existed independently of the creation of the nation-state and our obsessions with growth and productivity. This are essentially those forms of science, knowledge production and philosophy that value “democratic, pacific, life-maintaining, and communal tendencies […] and that are so at odds with imperialistic, violent, consuming, and possessively individualistic ones” (Harding 2006).

Seeking out alternatives to development starts with analysis, with a historical inventory (Gramsci) of the past and with contextuality. Mignolo (2018), in proposing a universal project of pluriversality to counter the universal project of “development”, pinpoints:

“Pluriversality as a universal project is aimed not at changing the world […] but at changing the beliefs and understandings of the world […], which would lead to changing our (all) praxis of living in the world. Renouncing the conviction that the world must be conceived as a unified totality […], and viewing the world as an interconnected diversity instead, sets us free.”

Consequently, thinking about “alternatives to development” is a universal project of partiality and diversity. It can start with two easy steps:

  • Telling and listening to more than “the single story”

Seeking out different stories is made easy by such great initiatives as Global Social Theory or the Post-Development Dictionary (forthcoming).

And, thinking about stories quite literally: why not start with the local, traditional knowledge of your country or community rather than searching for “the local” elsewhere?

  • Paying attention to and engaging with the practiced alternatives around us.

Uma Kothari argued that “one way forward may be found in everyday forms of conviviality and solidarity.” And indeed, we can find many examples of that in our communities: urban gardening initiatives, conscious kitchens/foodsavers, repair cafés, neighbourhood initiatives, but also large scale protests and movements pushing for more just immigration policies and border regimes, demanding policy measures to counter climate change, gender equality and much else.

Julia Schöneberg is Research Fellow at the University of Kassel and the International Center for Development and Decent Work (ICDD) and currently Visiting Researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). She works on the question: “How does Post-Development matter?” She can be found on twitter j_schoeneberg or reached via julia[at]convivialthinking[dot]org.

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