An obituary for "development"

The Development Dictionary -- A Guide to Knowledge as Power Edited by Wolfgang Sachs Publisher: Zed Books, London and New Jersey Price: Not stated

By Nivedita Das
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

MEDIEVAL theologians would have burned Wolfgang Sachs, the editor of The Development Dictionary, and his fellow contributors as heretics and proscribed the book. A second reading has convinced me of this. A dictionary is rarely re-read, but the explosive ideas in this one demanded it.

The book debunks all human activity that is classified as development -- activity into which my generation was hoodwinked into participating. I, too, contributed my mite to development by "conscientising" Adivasi women in Chotanagpur during my summer vacation and telling them about progress and what we, as a civilisation, had achieved. But, this dictionary has shaken the very foundation of my learning.
The underdeveloped US President Harry S Truman's declaration in his inaugural address on January 20, 1949, that the Southern Hemisphere is an underdeveloped area, redefined development, ushered in the Age of Development and an era of American global hegemony and provided the cognitive base for both arrogant Northern interventionism and Southern self-pity.

With Truman's inaugural, two billion people became underdeveloped and "ceased being what they were, in all their diversity, and were transmogrified into an inverted mirror of others' reality". Since then, at least one connotation of development is to escape from the undignified condition called underdevelopment. This connotation, with its focus on economism and marketisation, has gripped alike the minds of policy planners, academics and grassroot workers.

For two-thirds of the world's population underdevelopment is today a threat that has already been carried out; a life experience of subordination and of being led astray, of discrimination and subjugation. Redistribution of risk -- rather than the redistribution of wealth -- dominates the international agenda now. This is not surprising, for the Northern countries in 1960 were 20 times richer than the Southern ones, and 46 times richer by 1980.

This dictionary is an obituary of development. It is a pioneering collection of 19 essays, which review the key concepts of the development discourse after the Second World War.

As the book unfolds, development collapses like a house of cards for each essay demolishes a key concept of development -- and the range of essays is wide, from technology to environment to socialism. Historical and anthropological arguments are used to expose development's bias and the book, in sum, urges liberating people's minds in both North and South, so they respond boldly to the environmental and ethical challenges confronting humanity.

In lucid and simple style, this book's expose of development spares nothing -- not even the latest buzz phrase, people's participation. The book argues this phrase is no longer perceived as a threat, but rather as a politically attractive slogan that is also a good fund-raising device. No wonder the World Bank insists so on people's participation, hailing it as one of the many resources needed to enliven an economy.

Even efforts to save the environment -- a prime concern of the West today -- aims ultimately at new levels of administrative monitoring and control. Unwilling to reconsider the logic of competitive production and consumption, which is at the root of the planet's ecological plight, it reduces ecology to a set of managerial strategies, aimed at resource efficiency and risk management and the setting up of a global aco-cracy controlled by the West.

But this "powerful antidote to decades of brainwashing" leaves one confused. Who will be the first to discard the contemporary, overconsumptive lifestyles of a global middle class?

While the book does talk of "new commons that allow people to live on their own terms", aren't these isolated pockets allowed to exist by the Establishment only because they are isolated? It would take tremendous political effort to put into practice what the book hints at throughout: decentralisation and empowering communities to control their resources and to choose their destiny.

What will be the parameters of this new politics? Sachs has demolished earlier theories admirably; now, he owes it to us to come up with a volume on alternatives.

---Nivedita Das is doing her PhD in linguistics at Delhi University.

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