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.


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