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An Open Essay on Development Theory: A Critical Perspective

Over the past fifty years there has been significant shifts in development paradigms throughout the world. The sole intent of these paradigm shifts is to provide humanity with a better system of addressing issues concerning the social, cultural, economic, political and environmental wellbeing of its people. Development practitioners the world over have established several theoretical frameworks upon which development projects and organizations operate sometimes with limited or no connections or contributions from local systems in developing countries to which these development projects target. This essay evaluates the establishment of yet a new theoretical framework within the development discourse such as gender, participation, the rights movements, and how these processes interplay within the context of mainstream development operations building on the ideological framework of "Common Sense" proposed by Gramsci and expanded by Philip McMichael in his work about "Green Neoliberalism" and how these processes interact with the state, international financial organizations, and development agencies, such as non-governmental organizations in the collapse of the development project.

Development theorists and practitioners in the late 20th century formulated a new paradigm in the field of international development by providing a unique experience and opportunity for restructuring the development discourse through the industrialization of the agricultural sector. This process led to the subsequent replacement, subordination, and exploitation of the rural population with a higher form of authoritative regime; that is, the globalized industrialization development paradigm (McMichael 1996 in Robert & Hite 2007). This new shift in the development paradigm and discourse significantly impacted rural populations of developing countries as their agricultural sectors improve to a more capital-intensive industry, thus marginalizing local issues, which also points to the fall of the development discourse associated with this new theoretical construct.

According of McMichael (1996), “firstly, development as a master conception of social sciences promise to give rise to improve standard of living; secondly, that development project as a political agenda in the process of instituting and managing national economic growth; thirdly, that the applicability of developmentalism as a tool for organizing states and international institutions with the purpose of maximizing national welfare through technological advances in both the industrial and agricultural sectors; fourthly, with the 1980s debt crisis this development paradigm collapse and lastly, the perpetuation of the globalization project as a new alternative to the development project with the goal that nation-state no longer “develop;” rather proposing that nation-state should position themselves in the global economy.”

The agenda upon which the formation of the development project was constituted was for the systematic stabilization of the global capitalist economic system. The shift in development discourse from the development project to the globalization project had a global impact affecting every binary within the development sphere ranging from the North to the South, and from developed countries to developing countries. This new shift in development paradigm promises a future, which globalists theorized would be dominated by efficiency in trade, which has been exponentially influenced by technological advancements in the process of alleviating the burdens that are associated with time and space (Levitt 1998:99 in McMichael 1996). With this new development paradigm came the issue of financialization, a system which provides liquid assets as oppose to fixed capital in the domains of the private and institutional sectors link to their historical context in decline to the power of the state (McMichael 1996 in Robert & Hite 2007). This gives rise to the ideological formation for the process of restructuring the state through which globalization as a historical globalist economic management system seeks to achieve perceive failures of the development project through the “powerful global elite financiers, national and international bureaucrats, and corporate leaders” (McMichael 1996 in Robert Hite 2007:218).

The development project was significantly influenced by the eurocentric ideologies and discourses categorizing their outputs as advanced living standards in opposition to the “Rest.” The creation of the Bretton Woods financial institutions following the agreement in 1944 serves as the landmark for the formation of fixed exchange rates and the mechanisms through which the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) could maintain a stable currency exchange through the process of extending loans that are short termed to nation-states with imbalances in payments (Block 1977 in Robert & Hite 2007). This shift created a system of the stabilization of national economies and the provision of state-based subsidies, which significantly increase employment rates and job stabilization, thus increasing consumptions. This process was later reinforced by the US introduction of the Marshall aid, a “program that redistributed dollars to capital-poor regions of the world, which included parts of Europe, East Asia and Africa” (McMichael 1996 in Robert & Hite 2007:219). As a result of this initiative another economic barrier was created in which the US currency (Dollar) became the “international-reserve currency”, which also symbolizes the freedom of enterprises that became the hegemonic litmus test of the free world. During this postwar period, developmentalism emerged from within the center of institutional frameworks at which time goals associated with the development project were centered around “raising and protecting living standards and through this effort massive military and economic assistance programs emerged” (McMichael 1996 in Robert Hite 2007: 220).

The development project, as we know it to be, was a construction of the world order to stabilize the world capitalist economic system and thereby promise to bridge the gap between the “West” and the “Rest.” However, development projects failed to enclose the increasing gap between the First World and the Third World, because of its eurocentric discourses and approaches in addressing the needs of the targeted population, which fails to acknowledge local systems and disregard local participation in decision-making processes of development agenda (Escobar 1995). It failed in its universal terms and as such created the opportunity or platform for a new paradigm that could later shift how development initiative are carried out and this new development paradigm is what McMichael classified as the globalization project. Development project, which was a system created and understood in the process of ordering the world systematically through institutionalization, thereby recreating and restructuring the nation-state, globalization project on the other hand, in its historical context is also a systematic process of ordering the world systems. Globalization seeks to accomplish this process through the “stabilization of capitalism through global economic management through the lenses of specialization rather than replication” (McMichael 1996 in Robert & Hite 2007: 220). The issue of specialization as a core aspect of the globalization project is differentiated between states and regions with specific reference to marginalization as a paramount part of the project’s cores and objectives. The globalization project encourages the formation of analogies of views among key players and how they share similar understanding of a particular institutional form of capitalism. Unlike the development project, which elites were basically, state managers and bureaucrats who essentially share similar interest in stabilizing the global capitalist economic system, the globalization projects added a new group of elite; that is, financial and corporate elite combined with the IFIs such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Center (WTO) (Goldman 2005).

Moreover, Goldman’s expansion on Gramsci’s work of Common Sense and how that process interplays with the mainstream development thoughts taking into account how gender, participation and the rights movements speak into the process of knowledge production within the World Bank system and how it has established itself and created a power relations between the North and the South bringing into existence a new hegemonic regime in development. Gramsci once wrote that “Common Sense is not rigid and immobile, but it is continually transforming itself, enriching itself with scientific ideas and with philosophical opinions, which have entered ordinary life” (Gramsci 1971 in Goldman 2005: 32). His argument is that popular belief systems and scientific ideas are paramount ingredients in shaping the universe. He asserts that these ideologies and thoughts commonly accepted by the populace should not be merely overlooked, because they contain powerful forces and energies that have the potential of serving as obstacles to achieving our goals for change (Goldman 2005). These common thoughts and perceptions become powerful, because of civil hegemony; that is, “the dispersal of power through civil society, such as, through schooling, religious life, scientific, cultural and voluntary organizations, and popular forms of communication and the media” (Goldman 2005:33). The acceptance of popular knowledge and opinion as a general rule of thumb either forcefully or by consent according to Gramsci is significant to understand the issues of hegemony. After carefully considering the arguments that Gramsci raised one is left with series of thoughts about who are the benefactors of such hegemony. For the World Bank and the from the perspective of Green Neoliberalism, the issues of state restructuring, good governance, and an active civic society as well as environmental sustainability are constituted within the parameters of what the World Bank classified as capital-driven, hydra-headed and authoritative.

Moreover, the issue of grassroots movements and activism has also play a significant role in challenging major institutions of development such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Trade Organization (WTO) with respect to some of its Neoliberal development agenda such as the privatization of water, electricity, public transportation, communication, forestry and the healthcare system (Goldman 2005). These actions were taken by people of different socio-economic, political, and cultural backgrounds all aiming at one goal; that is, challenging the status quo “to the right-to-livelihood, against military repression, environmental destruction or degradation and the privatization of natural resources and public goods” (Goldman 2005:44). These grassroots social movements form against the development giants swept throughout the global sphere representing diverse population in terms of nationalities, languages, cultures, and traditions. Transnational networks of activists and agents of change and social justice whose interests include, but are not limited to mega dams, human rights abuses, genetically modified foods imports, food sovereignty, corruption, cronyism and development lead projects supported their efforts. As a result, Gramsci states that these institutions and grassroots organizations and networks become at war with each other leading to a new form of hegemony. Just as one critiques the other a new system of hegemonic sphere emerge and becomes dominant for that time which will later become criticized yet by another (Asher 2009).

The World Bank’s system of economic and ethical style is always changing and this process is based on external pressures from wide range of political atmosphere. The shift in development paradigm from previous development theories to Green Neoliberalism by the World Bank arises as a result of “series of events and practices centered on professionals working in government, firms, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and the scientific community” (Goldman 2005:33). Just as Goldman rightly put it that these institutions and grassroots transnational and national networks are engage in “wars of positions” which he borrowed from Gramsci’s famous phrase, which are “not so much a matter of creating movements outside the hegemonic order but rather on its terrain, radicalizing the meaning of democracy, appropriating the market, democratizing sovereignty, and expanding human rights” (Burawoy 2000 in Goldman 2005: 45). Green Neoliberalism as a new development framework instituted by the World Bank in partnership with other actors such as professionals in governmental offices, multilateral corporations, NGOs and the scientific research community thought that for the gaps between the developed and developing nations to be bridged

To conclude, since the end of World War II there has been significant changes in development paradigm. Most development discourse has been influenced by Western ideologies and perceptions, which shape the way in which development projects are initiated. Development project failed to achieve its objectives, because it created a divide between developed and developing countries instead of bridging that divide. The failure of the development project gives rise to the globalization project, encourages the formation of analogies of views among key players and how they share similar understanding of a particular institutional form of capitalism. The World Bank after receiving several complains of how their projects were negatively impacting communities in developing countries developed the Green Neoliberal development framework, which functions on these key elements or principles, which include but not limited to the privatization of water, electricity, public transportation, communication, forestry and the healthcare system (Goldman 2005).

2. This semester has been an adventure for me in my quest to learn and understand how international development theories are formulated and the discourses associated with these theoretical frameworks. The search for a better way of life has always been for people throughout the ages. Development theories are instituted or established within the context of major world events, which help shape how these theories are formulated and constructed. It involves the tearing down of traditional structures and institutions for the sake of modernity and human progress (Lemert 2004). The purpose of this essay is to provide an overview of what I have learned and understood throughout this semester in relations to International development theories and how that has changed from my previous understandings of how development is carried out and how I anticipate to use these theories and concept in the construction and implementation of development agenda in meeting the felt and real needs of communities that I will be working with as development practitioner and agent of social change.

The end of World War II left the world at the mercy of the United States of America whose power both economically, politically and militarily stood at the peak of the world’s powers with its physical and economic infrastructures in place (Robert & Hite 2007). As a result of this, the need for a market was paramount for the United States to market her industrial products as well as continue to have access to raw materials for her industries to keep functioning. However, this could only be possible if functioning economies to buy these products were available in other countries as the continual existence and stability of the US economic growth rested on these factors (Robert & Hite 2007). This led the US to formulate several policies and institutions that could assist bridge these gaps in an effort to create a sustainable future for the US economic prosperity and the development of other countries. Some of such policies included, but are not limited to the Marshall Plan and the Bretton Wood, which give rise to significant structural changes in providing aid to developing countries as well as other developed countries. All these institutional restructuring took place at the epicenter of major world historical events, which trigger significant movements in shifting development paradigm to meet the needs of those events.

Throughout this course, I have come to the realization that development or “international development” as we know it to be has failed to bridge the gap between poor and rich countries. It has failed to break the barriers between the “West” holding about 80% of the world’s wealth with only 20% of the world’s population and the “Rest” holding 20% of the world’s wealth with about 80% of the world’s population. It has failed to bridge the imbalances within the market economy where there continue to be dependency between industrial nations and developing nations in foreign exchange rates, import and export, and the marketing of their produce (raw materials) and products (manufactured goods and services). This imbalance has led to the increase dependence of developing countries on developed countries, international corporations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for loan, which comes at a high cost, because most of the developing countries borrowing these loans end up paying more than they actually received (Goldman 2005).

During this course, I learned how Development discourses shape the way in which development projects and initiatives are implemented and how those discourses are Eurocentric in their scopes and operations alienating local knowledge, belief systems and traditions, which significantly contributes to their failures. The concept of an alternative development as a possible option for replacing development discourse to me is possible if and only if these alternative forms of development acknowledge local knowledge, belief systems and traditions and encourage the local participation of community members and community-based organizations. Participatory grassroots development strategies to me are the best forms of discourse that will be effective in addressing local needs of the targeted population in developing countries.


McMichael, Philip. (1996). “Globalization: Myths and Realities” in The Globalization and

Development Reader, Roberts and Hite, Eds. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 216-232.

Roberts, Timmons J. and A. Hite (2006). The Globalization and Development Reader: Perspectives on Development and Global Change. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Escobar, Arturo. (1995). “Encountering Development.” Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Asher, Kiran (2009). “Black and Green: Afro-Colombians, Development, and Nature in the Pacific Lowlands.” Durham: Duke University Press.

Goldman, Michael (2005). “Imperial Nature: The World Bank and Struggles for Social Justice in the Age of Globalization.” New Haven: Yale

Lemert, Charles (2004). “Modernity’s Classical Age: 1848-1919” and “Social Theories and

World Conflict 1919-1945” IN Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings. Charles Lemert, Ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press


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