Unit Five – Aid and Development

There was so much to explore this week, and so many different lines of enquiry, that I have decided to focus on a select few areas rather than try to describe them all. One point to make before I start is about something that struck me during the reading – the much more personal and emotive language style that I encountered in many of the blogs. For example, William Easterley’s blog on the Financial Times website (2010) states that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have “tragically misused the world’s goodwill” –  a perhaps unnecessarily antagonistic way of describing the situation (or not, depending on your perspective). I wondered whether this was on balance a good or a bad thing. While it is true that in many cases this made the texts more engaging and easier to read, I was concerned that this might either make the information they conveyed more difficult to access – either by veiling the facts and arguments in opinion and rhetoric, or by the language being more convincing to me without the arguments themselves being any more accurate, meaning I couldn’t trust my own judgement. Finally, I realised that there isn’t such a clear distinction between the language in traditional academic texts and blog-based arguments anyway. For example, Greig, Hulme and Turner at one point describe “The attach on global poverty” (2007, 155), which seems an unexpectedly emotive way to describe the movement. Bringing this to my attention was definitely a good thing, and I concluded that as long as I kept this in mind, this shouldn’t be a real problem.

My initial reaction to the explorations I made this week was that it was good to look at some ‘solid’ statistics on what aid fund are spent and where, such as the very visually accessible information in Anup Shah’s blog (2011). My secondary reaction was disappointment at what the statistics told me about the trends in ODA contributions and their distribution.

My tertiary reaction, upon reading further blogs such as OneWorld’s Foreign Aid Guide (2011) was to realise that these figures couldn’t every really be considered to be representative, given that ODA  represents perhaps only 80% of the aid being distributed (ibid.). This is especially true given that I have no grounds for assuming that the way in which ODA money is spent and distributed is necessarily similar to the way in which the other 20% – coming from non-DAC countries – is spent. It is perhaps not the fault of the Development Assistance Committee if non-DAC countries do not provide statistics for them to base reporting on. However I couldn’t help feeling that this information could prove more interesting in terms of looking at ways to improve the development methodology, as the non-DAC nations tend to be ones that have been ‘developing’ more recently (and outside of the Western development bubble) and so might have more light to shed through both positive and negative practices.

Bearing all of this in mind, I was forced this week to reflect on the criticisms I read about the work of Aid agencies and NGOs, and consider what that meant for me as someone who works for Oxfam. This was not always a comfortable process, and is something that will probably continue for some time to come. During this process of self-reflection, I found that many of the conclusions I have reached in previous weeks (and that were described in my previous blogs) were all the more relevant, and in a way this was a positive experience as a result. For example, I was reminded strongly of Cornwall’s arguments against ‘buzzwords’ (2007) when looking at the evolvement of terms such as “preconditions for take-off” (Rostow 1960, cited in Greig et. al. 2007, 156) into “critical thresholds of human and economic development” (UNDP 2003 cited in ibid, 156).

In particular, I spent a lot of time considering Owen Barder’s (2010) analysis of the exponential proliferation of donor agencies, and the negative opinion he gives of the possibility of donors in any given area being able to create a purposeful dialogue working towards each specializing in their area of ‘comparative advantage’. This reminded me of the structural overhaul currently being implemented across the Oxfam confederation; working towards a Single Management Structure, or ‘SMS’ (Oxfam, 2010, 5). Here, different affiliates are working towards a streamlined and strengths-based cooperative effort in each country where more than one (or in many cases, several) affiliates are working in the same areas. In this case, they seem to be overcoming some of the difficulties Barder envisaged with comparing data and strengths, although obviously the comparison is warped by the fact that all the ‘agencies’ in this case are part of the same confederation, regardless of their independent beginnings. Overall I tended to agree with Barder’s assertion; focus on changing the incentives, rather than the division of labour, is an approach that I can be much more optimistic about. This is not just because I agree that it is far more likely to create sustainable improvements to the whole system of aid, but also because his emphasis on empowering developing-nation-citizens to drive the changes really struck a chord. To me, this seems like a positive step away from the kind of trusteeship that I was nervous of in my first blog, as described by  Thomas (2008, 41).

The tone of the Greig, Hulme and Turner (2007, Ch. 7) chapter suggested to me that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are to be seen as representative of current trends in development aid. In that case, their emphasis on the improvement of governance for all governments involved in development (ibid, 132) – another step away from trusteeship, and one that I was cautiously optimistic about – uncovers a hole in Barder’s assertion of incentive change through empowerment. My reasoning runs thus. According to Barder, if aid agencies are to move forward from the last half-century of mistakes and begin to enable sustainable change in developing countries, then the citizens of those nations must be supported to create the incentives for agencies to improve their ways of working. This support must come from the agencies themselves, and relies on developing nations already having systems of governance in place strong enough to allow for the incentives to be created. Empowering citizens to put pressure on their governments in order to create change seems to be to be a western-influenced model, and makes the basic assumption that the political structures and inclination exist within developing governments to be influenced by pressure from their citizens.  If one presumes that donor agencies are not going to be able to effectively support citizens to create incentives until they have improved their practices to a certain extent, then what is the catalyst for change in nations where the governance is not already in place?

As a means of stepping out of this paradox, one must presume that the pressure would have to come exogenously from developed-nation-citizens putting pressure on their own governments to change incentives. But tangible results (or lack of them) would then have to be provided in order to engage these interested, but absent, citizens. At which point the focus has shifted firmly onto results-based projects, and away from the empowerment of those citizens who were supposedly meant to be firmly centre stage.

Another key area of interest for me was the middle ground that the MDGs seem to strike between Modernisation and Dependency theory (Greig et. al. 158) Given that in an earlier blog I expressed a hope that the insight of Dependency theory – that each case of development is necessarily unique and should be treated as such – could be taken on board without it leading to the isolationist conclusions that Dependency theorists tended to draw, I tried to decide to what extent the more flexible view on the implementation of grand theory expressed by UNDP (2003, cited in ibid., 159) fulfils that hope.  My conclusion was that it is at least a step in the right direction, and it also goes some way towards mitigating a statement that jarred with the sympathies I expressed in my last blog towards Post-Development; that “Any development challenge  requires an ‘overarching framework ‘ to coordinate international energy” (Shetty, 2005 cited in ibid., 151).

On the whole, I chose to broaden Barder’s view on aid when – responding to Easterly’s criticisms (2010) – he said “we don’t know very much about whether and how aid promotes economic and development, but we do know that it enables people to live better lives while that transformation is taking place” (2010). No matter what form it takes, whether developmental or post-developmental, it is surely better that people are attempting to support improvements in the lives of others.


Barder, O., (2010), Aid Effectiveness; Where is it going, and what could you do? (online) http://media.owen.org/After%20Paris/player.html (accessed 10th November 2011)

Barder, O., (2010), UN Summit Roundup: Three Development Narratives (online) http://www.owen.org/blog/3815 (accessed 10th November 2010)

Cornwall, A. (2007), ‘Buzzwords and fuzzwords: deconstructing development discourse’. Development in Practice, 17(4): 471 – 485.

Easterly, W., Only trade-fuelled growth can help the world’s poor, (online) http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2010/09/21/guest-post-only-trade-fuelled-growth-can-help-the-worlds-poor/#axzz1dLYWoXWj  (accessed 10th November 2011)

Greig, A., Hulme, D. and Turner, M. (2007), Challenging global inequality: Development theory and practice in the 21st century. Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan.

Oxfam (2010), Oxfam Annual Report & Accounts 2009/10 (online) http://www.oxfam.org.uk/resources/downloads/reports/report_accounts09_10.pdf (accessed 10th November 2011).

OneWorld (2011), Foreign Aid Guide (online) http://uk.oneworld.net/guides/aid?gclid=CMvhg_7vsKoCFeILtAod23of7w (accessed 10th November 2011)

Shah, A. (2011), Foreign Aid for Development Assistance (online) http://www.globalissues.org/article/35/foreign-aid-development-assistance#ForeignAidNumbersinChartsandGraphs%29 (accessed 10th November 2011)

Thomas, A. (2000), ‘Meanings and Views of Development’, Poverty and Development into the 21st century, Allen, T., Thomas, A (eds), Oxford University Press, Oxford.


Unit Four – Post-Development

I approached this week’s topics with reservations; previous experience with post-modernism has left me with a sense of distaste at the amount of time spent deconstructing historical constructs with very little to show for it in terms of positive advice or direction. However, at the end of the week I feel like I have reached an almost complete reversal in attitude, to the point where in looking back at my blog entry at for Unit One, I would now strongly dispute my own statement of “what good is a theory if it doesn’t have any practical application (in this area of theory in any case!)”. This reversal needs some qualification, but I am surprised at the scope of the revelation that has taken place in my personal theory as a result of the unit.

The focal point for me was the arguments centred around the ‘Environmental Challenges’ as termed by Greig, Turner and Hulme (2007). The key importance of this for me is that it seems to uncover a fundamental logical inconsistency in the modernization and neo-liberal positions. They set out, albeit in what seemed an overtly disparaging tone, the neo-liberal claim that “competitive capitalism is […] good for the environment” on the basis that not only can countries not adequately deal with the environment until they are sufficiently  economically developed (Norberg 2003 cited in ibid. 189), but that in fact the commodification of finite environmental resources is the best way to protect them. I reacted strongly against this latter statement because it seems that by viewing nature as a set of ‘resources’ (ibid, 188), rather than something that exists in its own right and without necessarily needing to mean something in terms of human requirements, one must have already implicitly commodified it conceptually and that therefore the formal step of commodification is a foregone conclusion. It is not easy to argue that a resource is not best protected by respecting it as a resource with value, but I don’t think that the environment can be fully captured by this definition.  I will return to this point in a moment.

As far as the former statement is concerned – that environmental concerns can only be effectively addressed if they are de-prioritized until such time as a nation is economically ready to address them – I would argue that the apparent lack of success that neo-liberalism has achieved is a compelling argument against this position being applied. There are two facets to this argument. Firstly, the criticism levelled at neo-liberalism pointing out that the separation of the richest and poorest 20% on an international scale has doubled between 1980 and 2000 (Chang and Grabel 2004, cited in Grieg et.al. 2007, 106) suggests that to wait for economic development to reach an optimum level before addressing a steadily worsening environmental situation would be frankly foolish. One cannot trust to a system on the basis that it should work in a particular way when there is evidence that this just isn’t a reflection of reality, as suggested by Sachs’ reference to  “piles of technical reports [showing] that development does not work” (2010, xvi). Even admitting the rebuttal that while relative poverty may be worsening there is a degree of economic development on an absolute basis (Norberg 2003 cited in Grieg et. al. 2007), there is still a more compelling second objection on logical grounds. Sachs (2010, xi) suggests that a “global apartheid” is implicit in any model of development which requires a consumption of finite ecological resources (there’s that word again!) on the scale which northern states have demonstrated. Underdeveloped states must exist as sources of these resources in order for the developed nations to progress. It is therefore a fallacy to try to suggest that this could be a global model; one cannot posit a plan of action to improve environmental conditions that simultaneously admits some states must remain underdeveloped, and claims that these states will also gradually improve!

And so we come to post-development, seeking to step outside development as a whole concept and critique its base assumptions. On the face of it this seems to be an entirely academic exercise, and the assumption might therefore be that it is essentially a waste of time. Yet I had already begun to dispute this assumption in my first blog, when I realized the importance of the academic scrutiny of terms as suggested by Cornwall (2007). In fact, Sachs too makes reference to the role of “semantic confusion” (2010, x) in obscuring the underlying aims and failures of development.

The next step for me was the realization that just because post-development does not seem to offer finite, positive guidance for action (Grieg et.al. 2007), this does not mean that it does not have any practical use.  This is based on two key points. Firstly, that the usefulness of the ‘positive’ guidance given by the various theories of development may be an illusion. Not only can one cite once again the lack of success of development, but I refer back to my earlier point about the inevitability of conclusions in neo-liberal environmental commodification. If theorists are unable to see that their blinkered assumptions restrict and imply their conclusions, then post-development can at the very least be seen as triggering new positive guidance by stripping away the layers of assumption to allow fresh perspectives that one would hope would lead to better conclusions. In a more direct sense, the emphasis placed on local context within post-development (Sachs 2010, xii) is, in my opinion a vital piece of positive guidance.

In both cases, the ‘practical application’ that post-development seems to give is based on taking a big step back in theoretical terms, and sacrificing the singular coherence (Grieg et. al., 216) of the position (compared to development) to the acceptance that only with a greater degree of local contextual scrutiny and less laying-on of grand theory can ‘development’ hope to make a greater positive impact.Far from my original assumption that a theory could only have value if it provided concrete practical applications, the absence of these can be viewed as the greatest strength of post-development.

As with Unit Two, I was interested to see that the general sentiments I expressed in my Unit One discussion posts – listening to individuals and not applying our own assumptions about what is needed or wanted – mean that I was predisposed to post-development’s conclusions even if I believed I would reject the post-modernist framework.


Greig, A., Hulme, D. and Turner, M. (2007), Challenging global inequality: Development theory and practice in the 21st century. Great Britain, Palgrave Macmillan.

Sachs, W. (2010), The development dictionary. Second edition. Chippenham and Eastbourne, Zed books.

Unit Two – Early Theories of Development

I was initially hopeful about the description given in by Greig, Hulme and Turner that Modernism recognised the interdependent nature of the relationship between the “social, cultural, political and economic life” (Lerner, 1972 cited in Greig et. al. 2007 75). It seems pretty intuitive that changing any aspect of society will inevitably impact on other aspects, which will cascade effects onto still others, if only because all these aspects combine in their impact on individual members of the nation.  No one person only interacts through one of these aspects, so how could they be seen as independent? Coming, as Eisenstadt claims (1973, cited in ibid, 75) did from the motivation to minimize the potentially destabilizing and conflict inducing effects of development, this seemed like a positive insight. However, when I compared this to Hewitt’s description of Modernism’s justification of the emphasis placed on economic growth as the instigator of development; that a sufficient level of growth would mean that “the rest would all follow” (2000, 293), if felt that the real insight of interdependence had been lost. Surely if one recognises that there is a subtle interlinked relationship between aspects of a whole, one should also be able to see that causing dramatic, rapid change in only one of those aspects wouldn’t simply affect all the others; the changes would warp them.

I struggled to see how this had been missed, until I looked at the birth of modernism and the political climate at the time.  Clearly there was a huge bias towards the OECD countries at the various formative stages (ibid. 291-292). Given the recent colonial history, it is only natural that these countries were motivated by their own political and economic agendas – in most cases overtly – but I think it was more subtle than this. The dismissive attitude displayed towards non-economic forms of development (for example, human rights) in the claim that they would inevitably be triggered by economic growth is indicative of the value placed on economic development by developed nations. I feel that the focus on economics can be ascribed to a certain extent to the fact that this was the element of development in ‘southern’ nations that would have the greatest positive impact on the OECD nations themselves. ‘Developed’ nations were still, whether they admitted it or not, finding ways to gain from post-colonial nations.  The positive impact of greater human rights in underdeveloped nations for developed nations, as a far more subtle and unmeasurable factor, seemed to fail to gain ground as fundamental aspect of development. Instead, it was relegated to the position of a positive afterthought that could be hoped for, but not necessarily prioritized.

For me this is the greatest point of salience of Modernism today, because I simply don’t believe that at the deepest level anything has changed in the attitude of developed nations, whether they care to accept it or not. To my mind, the fact remains that if there were no political or economic capital to be gained from it, there would be a fraction of the interest in development in its more modern incarnations that we see from ‘western’ governments. Both Modernism and Dependency theory must fulfil the role to some extent of reminding us of the roots of our motivations, and also reminding us of where it led to.  In particular, Modernism must still be salient in that it was the dominant theory at the time of the formation of institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. No matter how they have evolved, their roots are inescapably tied to this view of the world, and to forget it would be to allow the potential for mistakes to be re-made.

However, as I described on the discussion board this week, I think that critiques of Dependency theory also have more positive guidance to offer to modern development theorists.  Kiely’s paradox (1995, cited in Greig, Hulme and Turner 2007, 95) that “The status of normality becomes simultaneously more opaque” when one tries to explain every single case of development success as an exception – in this case to the ‘normal ‘ transition into modernity – draws attention to the almost necessarily unique nature of each nation’s development narrative. Looking back to the opinions I expressed in week one’s discussions about the importance of recognising people as individuals and of listening to what people decide they want rather than dictating their needs to them, it is perhaps unsurprising that I was drawn to the suggestion that the idea of a ‘norm’ for developmental progress is unsupportable when considered in an historical context.

In other words I do believe that both Modernism and Dependency theory are still salient in current theory, but more as a tool for context and, if considered authentically, as a way to highlight continuing weaknesses and unjustified assumptions by showing the effect that these errors had when they were present in historical settings.


Greig, A., Hulme, D. and Turner, M. (2007), Challenging global inequality: Development theory and practice in the 21st century. Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hewitt, T. (2000), ‘Half a Century of Development’, in Poverty and Development into the 21st Century, Allen, T., Thomas, A. (eds), Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Unit One – Defining and Measuring Development

This Unit has been transformative for me in the way that I think about development. I was very surprised at the seeming optimism of defining development in a single week, but the biggest single thing I have taken from the reading and discussion is that there simply isn’t a single definition for development, and nor should there be. Ultimately I have come to agree with Alan Thomas’ claim that development is “…an inherently ambiguous concept.” (2000)

Taking the nerve-wracking step of laying out my opinions on development before doing any of the reading or listening to the lecture turned out to be a very good move, as it has allowed me to reflect on my opinions as they stood before they were influenced by the compelling arguments I have found in the reading and my colleague’s posts.  It has also allowed me to identify which of the themes and categories my ‘theory’ fell under without even realizing it.

For me the most striking part of our responses was that they seemed to fall into one of two categories. Some (like mine) focussed in closely on the kind of day-to-day ‘development’ projects that involve personal interaction with communities. I later realised that I was looking at only one aspect of development; the ‘deliberate efforts’ described by Thomas (2000, 29), while failing to consider development as a ‘vision’ or an ‘historical process’. In my case that is not surprising; I have not worked in the development sector for long, and prior to that my main exposure to development was through voluntary projects typified by the kind of direct action that appears in my discussion post. My visualization focussed on what I had already experienced, and so looked at work with individuals and small communities and responding to their needs. The downside of this was that it had a tendency towards short and near-sightedness when compared to other discussions posts with a much wider view, which considered the broader themes of development, their aims and long term aspirations. I hope that as this module continues I will be able to combine my previous practical experience with the more theoretical approach that I am more used to applying to different subjects of study. However I also feel that the more direct feel of my post does have advantages; what good is a theory if it doesn’t have any practical application (in this area of theory in any case!)

It quickly became apparent that the range of responses was a clear piece of evidence in favour of the statement by Sumner and Tribe (2008, 88-89) on the cross-disciplinary nature of Development Studies. All of us had clearly brought our own agendas and assumptions to the discussion. If this kind of range of responses is evident in an academic discussion, it becomes all the more vital to recognise the existence of agendas in cross disciplinary theoretical discussion, where an academic will have trained him or herself to view all evidence presented in a very set manner. However, I would go one step further than the kind of ‘assumptions’ that Sumner and Tribe refer to. More than just the differences between disciplines, I would argue that the differences in assumptions between individuals in a personal and cultural setting must have just as great an influence on the theories and definitions that one produces. As students we can be grouped by our clear interest in the subject of development, yet we have arrived at this interest from a radically diverse range of cultures and sets of personal circumstances. I feel sure that if we were to try to collate all of our responses into a single definition (even a lengthy one), we would struggle and ultimately fail to do so.

However, this is not a bad thing in my opinion, as long as it is recognised. The constant self-inspection and criticism that this realization should prompt should prevent overconfidence and the automatic assumption of the role of ‘Trustee’ (ibid Thomas, 41). This idea of trusteeship concerned me greatly, especially when I considered the extent to which I had previously assumed that this was a valid position to take without ever really thinking about what right I had to do so, or whether I (or anyone else) was in any way a suitable candidate for the role. More than anything else, this is the insight that I will take away from this unit; how can I, with my cultural and personal background, possibly assume that I can adequately advocate for anyone else, let alone someone whose culture and upbringing differs significantly from my own.

For this reason, my strongest reaction this week was towards Andrea Cornwall’s article ‘Buzzwords and Fuzzwords’ (2007). Her argument – that by using broad, malleable buzzwords one can justify a huge range of actions – is deeply worrying. What I took from her article was the idea that one’s actions can stay “beyond reproach” (ibid, 472) simply by allowing those who would critically analyse them – including ourselves – not to think about the meanings behind the labels. It seems an awful kind of evasion to abdicate responsibility for scrutiny on the basis that it isn’t possible for two people to ever come to the same understanding of a term, rather than it being an inspiration to delve further into the meaning. My concern is that despite this abdication being a deeply flawed position, it is one that is far too easy to take without necessarily realizing that one is doing so, and I hope that this is a trap I will not continue to fall into. As such, my opinion on the question Cornwall initially posits “Why, after all, should language matter to those who are doing development?” (ibid, 471) is, on a personal level at least, that scrutiny of language is a vital process of self-examination on many levels!

In this context I was initially suspicious of The ODI Briefing Paper (Nov 2001) as ‘valuable human ends’ seemed dangerously close to a new direction in buzzwords. However, as the article progressed I was reassured that in fact Sen’s intention was to disambiguate ‘development’ as a term. Despite adding new dimensions to its meaning, the attention paid to the rights of the individual, as an individual, was refreshing to read after a week in which economic growth seemed to be the dominant focus in nearly all aspects of development theory. I look forward in the coming weeks to exploring this further!


Cornwall, A. (2007), ‘Buzzwords and fuzzwords: deconstructing development discourse’. Development in Practice, 17(4): 471 – 485.

Greig, A., Hulme, D. and Turner, M. (2007), Challenging global inequality: Development theory and practice in the 21st century. Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan.

ODI (2001), ‘Economic Theory, Freedom and Human Rights: The Work of Amartya Sen’, ODI Briefing Paper, November, Overseas Development Institute.

Sumner, A. and Tribe, M. (2008), Chapter 4, International Development Studies: Theories and Methods of Research and Practice, London: Sage.

Thomas, A. (2000), ‘Meanings and Views of Development’, in Poverty and Development into the 21st century, Allen, T., Thomas, A (eds), Oxford University Press, Oxford.