How postdevelopment can transform EU (‘Development’) Studies

by Sarah Delputte, Jan Orbie and Julia Schöneberg

This is the introduction to a blog series seeking to explore how Postdevelopment approaches can inform, infuse and potentially transform the study of EU (development) policies and relationships with the Global South. The aim is to stimulate thinking about different imaginaries of ‘another Europe’ and alternative role(s) the EU could/should play, inspired by insights from postdevelopment thinkers. The blog series results from various exchanges and discussions between the contributors since early 2019. It builds, amongst others, on the insights gained through a reading group on post-development at the Centre for Studies (CEUS) at Ghent University, a full-day workshop on bridging EU- & Post-Development in May 2019 and a visiting scholarship by Julia Schöneberg at CEUS in September-October 2019.

Although much research on the European Union (EU) and its ‘development policy’ can be considered ‘critical’ towards the EU’s policies and approaches, remarkably, post-development debates have remained largely off the radar in debating the EU’s global role. In line with a call by Manners & Whitman (2016) to advocate for more dissident voices in theorising Europe, and Schöneberg’s (2019) plea for ‘practical’ post-development, we argue that a post-development perspective towards EU ‘development’ can contribute to the field in important ways. In framing our approach, we want to use postdevelopment insights to imagine the EU as part of a ‘pluriverse’ and foster more creative and critical thinking on the EU and its relations with the so-called ‘Global South’.

International Relations, and with it, EU Studies, is a field that from its inception has relied on Western theories of governance, society and politics; with the interrelations of nation states as a focus point. The EU’s role is complicated, being a sui generis donor and a coordinator of member states’ development policies. At the same time, the vision of EU as a union is a powerful construct that is closely intertwined with Europe’s colonial legacy, both theoretically and politically. Despite important exceptions, European studies have often (implicitly or explicitly) replicated Eurocentric and (post-)colonial assumptions that also drive ‘development’ policy.

Let us first explain how we understand and make postdevelopment approaches practical and what we mean by pluriverse. Subsequently, we will explain how postdevelopment thinking can inspire (studies of) the EU and its policies, contributing to a plEUriverse within Europe. Finally, we will sketch out how our deliberations can inform EU efforts to moving beyond a Eurocentric approach in thinking and shaping interactions between the Global South and Europe, and indeed to contribute to the pluriverse. Overall, we aim to provide inspiration in bridging EU and postdevelopment studies.

Postdevelopment and pluriverse

Postdevelopment proponents offer the most radical critique of past and present development policy and cooperation: It is failed and should not be resuscitated. Rather than thinking about reforms, refinements and adjustments they call for a full abandonment of “development” as a discourse, as a vision and as a practice. In other words, they advocate ‘alternatives to development’ as a paradigm shift, and not merely ‘development alternatives’ such as green growth and sustainable development. Despite of postdevelopment’s heterogeneity we identify three points of critique as central:

  1. ‘Development’ is a historically produced discourse that serves to establish, stabilize and reproduce hegemony and control. It is inevitably a narrative that seamlessly follows up from colonial civilization discourses, thereby reinforcing asymmetries of power, ideology, representation.
  2. ‘Development cooperation’ denotes the apparatus of actors and institutions, among them the European Union as a donor and coordinator, that through policy, programmes and projects establishes rules and defines those in need of help and those with expertise and solutions.
  3. “Development” is a project reducing global structural injustices to localized technical problems that can, and should, be fixed through external intervention.

Beyond this, there is much debate and diversity in the world of postdevelopment. Helpful orientation is provided through Ziai’s broad differentiation of two variants: anti-development (or neo-populist) and skeptical post-development. While the former rejects Western modernity altogether and essentializes a (oftentimes criticized as culturally relativist and romanticizing) model of vernacular and frugal communities, the latter is more differentiated in promoting an ideal society, and is open to hybridizations.

Inevitably following onto the fundamental critique is the question of practical alternatives. As recently proposed by the author collective of “Pluriverse – A Post-Development Dictionary” a helpful frame for conceptualizing alternative imaginaries can be the ‘pluriverse’.

The most poignant definition of the term is offered by the Zapatistas of Chiapas: they imagine a “world in which many worlds fit” rather than succumbing to the homogenizing endeavor of globalization seeking to make all worlds fit into one. To provide practical examples, the “Post-development Dictionary” includes 87 different transformative initiatives, practices and cosmovisions; ubuntu, buen vivir and prakritik swaraj among many others. The editors purposely make a distinction between “reformist solutions”, merely aiming at universalizing the earth, and what they frame as “transformative initiatives”, seeking to unfold a pluriverse of alternatives. While the alternatives described source from all parts of the world, they share fundamental commonalities as to what a good life and well-being entails: unity of human and non-human, community and interdependence, sovereignty and self-government. All of them critique the logic and impact of the anthropocene, (neo)-extractivism and uncritical belief in euro-modernist ideologies of progress and growth. As Mignolo, 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.”

What does this imply for our concern with EU Studies? First of all, seeking out alternatives to ‘development’ starts with critical self-reflection by the former ‘developer’ or ‘donor’ (or scholar of ‘development studies’). It makes a historical inventory of the past and contextuality an imperative. Within this spirit, the next section will first consider how postdevelopment thinking could inspire research of EU policies and the construction of the EU in general. Subsequently, we will elaborate on what this could involve for studies on the EU’s global role.

The plEUriverse in the EU

Criticizing western donors’ interventions in so-called developing countries and the Western imperial mode of living more generally, many arguments of postdevelopment thinkers also apply to the EU and its policies. Taking the pluriverse as intellectual point of departure allows for a critical analysis of the EU’s ‘unity in diversity motto’ by (a) better acknowledging and appreciating the diversity of views on ‘development’ within Europe and (b) scrutinizing the homogenizing tendencies of the EU project. Contrary to what pundits often suggest, the problem of the EU may well be a lack of diversity and an excess of unity.

There is a vast diversity of views on ‘development’, or, to avoid the value laden term: of a good life, within Europe. Although European actors may share the same underlying Eurocentric, modernist and colonial paradigm of ‘development’, there are various ways in which they have conceived ‘development’ (policies) both in their own countries and communities, as well as in relation to others within the union and with the Global South. However, many studies tend to hold shallow conceptions of diversity and envisage unity as the ideal outcome. Differences between member states are conceptualized as variables that explain cooperation and integration at EU level – or its absence. Moreover, member state particularities are often implicitly (or explicitly) seen as undesirable obstacles to the development of EU policies. Regional and local divergences are usually overlooked. The plEUriverse would involve a rejection of monolithical thinking and allow for more detailed, complexity-sensitive and interdisciplinary research that delves into the cultural, historical and political economy backgrounds of different EU views on (societal) development in Europe and elsewhere. The task in working towards a pluriverse in EU studies, or ‘Europeaian Studies’ as it has been called, is to acknowledge and give value to a multitude of knowledges and worldviews in Europe (and thus beyond EU institutions). Interestingly, this also includes member states that have been (partly) occupied and oppressed by other powers (e.g. Ireland, Finland, and Baltic states), that have lived under entirely different economic models (e.g. the formerly communist countries) and that have had dictatorial regimes (e.g. Germany, Italy, Spain) in the recent history.  Also within and across countries there is a plethora of voices that have been silenced systematically and remain largely invisible (e.g. African diaspora, LGBTQI groups, working poor).

In addition, postdevelopment stimulates us to criticize the homogenizing tendencies of the EU.  Critiques formulated towards the United Nations, World Bank and World Trade Organization may also be applied to the EU itself. Since austerity policies with the eurocrisis and border restrictions with the so-called migration crisis, scholars have increasingly recognized the structural biases in the EU construction. The EU machinery has been well equipped to foster market integration and competition through Europe. ‘Authoritarian neoliberalism’ involves the application of market-enhancing recipes by technocrats at the European Commission and the European Central Bank to the member states and its populations. Similarly, the EU’s toolbox for migration control has been dramatically reinforced, including the strengthening of the EU’s border control agency Frontex. At the same time, the Commission’s limited power in some areas of migration policy facilitate the EU’s overall hands-off approach towards human rights violations on the Mediterranean. It is impossible to overlook the racist elements in the EU’s approach to migration.

It remains to be seen whether the corona crisis will involve a reconsideration of the competition-driven economic growth model that is core to the European project; as it may also reinforce xenophobic and authoritarian tendencies, and/or exacerbate the obsession with economic growth and support for unsustainable sectors. Hence, in different ways, EU policies are undemocratic and undermine diversity. While it is important to understand the technicalities of EU institutions and decision-making, it is quintessential to also challenge how the EU reinforces inequalities between workers and employers, big and small member states, local and central governments, parliamentarians and executives, different genders, BPoC and white people, and European versus non-European people.

In doing so, (former) development policy scholars would find much resonance with a plEUriverse of feminist, de-growth, neo-marxist, ecological, and post-structuralist studies on the EU that already exist. Having established that postdevelopment insights can be used for critical self-reflection on the EU in general, what remains to be done for studying the EU’s engagement with the rest of the world?

The EU in the pluriverse

Starting from and in line with the previous, postdevelopment could help EU studies to move towards a more fundamental critique and rethinking of the EU’s relations with the Global South.

First, it can help EU development scholars to clarify that the real challenge – underlying many more superficial challenges that are often noted in EU development studies – lays in the problematic conception of development (aid) itself. While existing critics of EU development policy mainly emphasize how moral principles are increasingly subordinated to hardcore interests, postdevelopment could stimulate a novel critique of these changes and challenges by shifting the attention to the paradigm underlying them. This critical scrutiny must include the colonial legacy of ‘development’ as a discourse and practice. It also involves a questioning of what it is that is fundamentally aspired. In light of the climate crisis it becomes blatantly clear that the neoliberal growth-centred model of ‘development’ will no longer be sustainable for anyone. All of this necessitates acknowledging ‘development policy’ as an intervention, which cannot be treated in disconnection from the EU’s broader internal and external interventions, including trade, investment, taxation, agriculture and migration policies. In their research, EU development scholars could deploy their valuable expertise and in-depth knowledge to lay bare these broader power structures underlying the EU’s  development history and evolutions, its complex institutional setting, its ideational and internal divisions and debates, various programmes, different budgetary and technical instruments.

Second, a postdevelopment perspective can stimulate thinking about alternative role(s) the EU could/should play towards the so-called ‘developing countries’. Given the diversity within Europe that was mentioned and the fact that EU policy-making contains many access points for critical debates – because of the EU’s nature as a multi-level, fragmented and compartmentalized thing – there may be several spaces for discussions on general post-development roles and on practical alternatives. This would require the EU to go beyond the decade-old rhetoric on ‘equal partnerships’ and engage in a real dialogue with countries and communities in the Global South about alternatives to development. It would also require the EU’s recognition of development policy as being part of a broader intervention than needs transformation. Also, discussions on reparations to formerly colonized countries could be fostered at the EU level. Finally, it would also require the EU to fight the existing power asymmetries by forcing structural reforms in global governance at the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF and other organizations. If we are serious about ‘ownership’ and ‘partnership’ principles that are so strongly advocated towards the South, why can the putative beneficiaries not take control over ‘development institutions’ such as the World Bank?

Third, the core question remains: Can we imagine EU Studies beyond a Eurocentric approach? Moving beyond requires interactions between the Global South and Europe and critical analyses of the EU brought forward by non-European scholars. It also more broadly, requires a decolonization of IR theory and the consideration and application of political theories that originate from non-Western traditions similarly to the acknowledgement of non-European ways of living and the acknowledgement of Europe’s (post)colonial position and legacy.

Given the current political and social-economic challenges in Europe and the US, the calls for racial justice by the Black Lives Matter movement, the multipolar world, the growing assertiveness of African countries, the increasing inequality within and between countries, the climate crisis, and pressures on our health systems, the pressure for a more existential questioning of the western growth model is high. Therefore, it would seem wise for the EU and for EU Studies to engage in a more existential reflection on what ‘development’ and ‘development policy’ mean, inside and outside Europe, and on whether the assumptions of the previous decades should still be valuable.

Sarah Delputte is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for EU Studies, and a lecturer at the Department of Political Science at Ghent University. Her primary research focus is on the EU’s development policy and EU-ACP cooperation.

Jan Orbie is a professor of political science at the Centre for EU Studies at Ghent University (Belgium). His main research interests concern the EU’s external relations and its normative dimensions, with a specific focus on European external trade, development, social, democracy promotion, human rights and humanitarian aid policies.

Julia Schöneberg is co-founder of the Convivial Thinking Collective and, as a senior researcher at the University of Kassel, works on theorizing postdevelopment.