The title undermines the message. Who says this is “upside down?” Image from the oxfam blog

I’m going to start jotting down some highlights of what I’m learning at Oxford every week. So every thursday/friday I’ll see which reading I liked most and quote extensively from it (especially when it’s not available to people outside the closed walls of academia). For the first week, the  reading I probably enjoyed most was from Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World byArturo Escobar. We read chapter one, in which he troubles notions of development.

 

From the economic development theories of the 1950s to the “basic human needs approach” of the 1970s… the main preoccupation of theorists and politicians was the kinds of development that needed to be pursued to solve the social and economic problems of these parts of the world. Even those who opposed the prevailing capitalist strategies were obliged to couch their critique in terms of the need for development … In short, one could criticize a given approach and propose modifications or improvements accordingly, but the fact of development itself, and the need for it, could not be doubted. Development had achieved the status of a certainty in the social imaginary.

 

But the concept of development is all but clear. Escobar wonders  “why so many countries started to see themselves as underdeveloped in the early post- World War II period.” What are called “developing countries” were seen as having certain problems, which then had to be fixed, bringing about a development discourse that has been shaped mainly by one group of countries while applied to another.
Is there an objective difference between “developing” and “developed” countries? I don’t know. You can use income figures, but you’ll have to draw a line somewhere, which will have to be a normative undertaking. And of course “developed” implies that a country is done developing, which is laughable at best and rather arrogant. In the U.S., according to some studies, African-American males have a lower life expectancy than the average man in Equador, China, or Syria (that last statistic might change once the numbers are updated of course). Who’s more developed now? In the latest round of the Human Development Index, Portugal (a “developed” nation) scored below Brunei, Barbados, and Chile, among others.

Very important points also about the power relations that gave rise to this way of talking about development (and the concept itself) — while the discourse now reinforces the power differential . (In fact, that’s really the focal point of the paper. Quoting those arguments is a bit more difficult. You ever cited a deconstructivist? It’s hell). The reading made many people uncomfortable, brought about a lot of disagreement: awesome.

Honourable Mentions:

    • Ingham, Barbara. “The meaning of development: Interactions between “new” and “old” ideas.” World development 21.11 (1993): 1803-1821.
      A very well-written, concise summary of many key ideas in development. Manages to pack an incredible amount of debates into fewer than 20 pages. Only downside: Written in 1993, so lots of recent developments are missing. But super awesome nonetheless.
    • Development Economics by Debraj Ray. We only had to read a chapter, but I’m going to go ahead and buy the book to read it all. Very well-written (something you have to treasure with economists!)