Looking at the UNDP with different eyes

by Juan Telleria

I really like these moments when you find a new idea that catches your attention and changes the way you used to understand something. You are reading a text or listening to something and suddenly you think ‘Oh… I never thought about this issue in this way!’ For a few seconds, your mind wanders and tries to understand the novel perspective opened up by the new idea. Then, you realise that your understanding of the world has changed (at least a little) and now you look at it with different eyes. I like these moments so much that I’ve become addicted to them. Probably, that is why many years ago I decided to start my PhD in Philosophy, and nowadays I publish my findings aiming to share these moments with other open-minded people.

I remember one of these moments when I was studying Social and Cultural Anthropology, almost 20 years ago. I was reading the text entitled ‘The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man’ by Clifford Geertz. In it, the anthropologist explained that since the Enlightenment, Western scholars had shown a tendency to understand human beings in a ‘stratigraphic’ way. This way of understanding human beings assumed that an individual was the sum of four hierarchically organised layers. The first layer – the essential core of the human – is biological and refers to our body and our most basic needs; the second one, which builds on the first, is the psychological layer that brings together our capacity to think and act rationally; the third layer, which surrounds the previous two, is the social layer and refers to the space where the rational individual – the first two layers – interacts with other rational individuals. Finally, the last layer is the cultural one, which shows the diversity that arises in the ways of living among different human groups.

Geertz’s description of the stratigraphic schema generated in me one of these moments described above. He reflected about the simplistic assumptions sustaining the stratigraphic schema, and showed that it was an essentialist position that we are not obliged to accept uncritically. Suddenly, I realised that deep down in me, in a very subtle and implicit way, this was the way I had long conceptualised human beings and society. I discovered that I had uncritically accepted an anthropological schema originating in the Enlightenment period that limited my ability to understand the complex political, social and economic issues around me. Since then I’ve had great respect for Geertz, and I am very grateful to him for sharing his thoughts.

Years later, Geertz’s work became central to my research on the UNDP’s Human Development Reports. I discovered two important aspects that helped me to better understand and contextualise the UNDP’s proposals. The first is that the famous Human Development Index accurately reproduces this stratigraphic conceptualisation of human beings. When the UNDP states that health, education and resources – the three sub-indices of the HDI – are the three essential dimensions of the human being, and links human development to the development of these three dimensions, its logic reproduces the stratigraphic schema: health represents the adequate functioning of the biological stratum; education is the adequate cultivation of our psychological and rational capacities; and resources are the result of our adequate behaviour in the social sphere. Measuring human development through these three dimensions assumes that human beings are the set of strata described by Geertz. This, in turn, strongly conditions the way the UNDP conceptualises the relationship between the individual and society. A critical reading of the UNDP’s reports shows that its proposals to empower individuals to function adequately in society is a simplistic approach that fails to account for the complexities of the political, economic and social problems of today’s world.

The second thing I discovered thanks to Geertz’s work is that the stratigraphic conceptualisation reproduced by the UNDP has its origins in one of the most important evolutionist thinkers of 19th century Victorian England: Herbert Spencer. Influenced both by the positivism of Auguste Comte and the evolutionary theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin, this liberal British sociologist sought a theoretical approach that would explain all phenomena – physical, biological, social, etc. – as the result of the development of a ‘universal law of evolution’. To this end, in his work First Principles (1862) he outlined the academic schema that would shape his intellectual project. This schema established that the understanding of the evolutionary character of reality implied the study of four principles, which he structured hierarchically: biological principles first, psychological principles second, social principles third and finally moral principles. Hence, the roots of the stratigraphic schema go deep in the 19th century.

In the 20th century we find a resurgence of this schema: in the early decades of the century, the American evolutionist sociologist Talcott Parsons reproduced the same understanding of human beings and society. Parsons explained society as a functional set of subsystems whose purpose was the adaptation and evolution of the whole system. His conceptualisation of society was hierarchically structured in four subsystems: the behavioural subsystem, which gathers the biological needs of human beings; the personality subsystem, which accounts for our psychological abilities; the social subsystem, which explains our coexistence and our interactions; and the cultural subsystem, which refers to the values that keep the whole system cohesive and united. In this sense, the UNDP’s proposals can be understood as a late 20th century update of the theories of modernisation of which Parsons is one of the main exponents.

Personally, I was very surprised to see how clearly the UNDP’s proposals were linked to the social evolutionism of the period of the rise of the British Empire and to the modernisation theories of almost a century ago. That is why, as I explained at the beginning, I often remember that moment when, reading Geertz, something changed the way I conceptualise human beings. Thanks to that moment, when I look at the work of the UNDP I no longer see a project aimed at changing the world and ending underdevelopment. Instead, I now see a political project aimed at perpetuating an evolutionist, Eurocentric and liberal way of understanding the world, showing as natural and universal something that is rooted in British liberal thought of the apogee of the colonial period.

Juan Telleria is Assistant Professor at the Department of Philosophy of the University of the Basque Country UPV/EHU. His research focuses on the philosophical and anthropological essentialist assumption of the development discourses of the United Nations.