Surely wanting to help people is a good thing? Not necessarily so according to Mexican thinker and activist Gustavo Esteva. He is an advocate of post-development; an academic movement which calls for the dismantling of ‘development’ from the World Bank to international NGOs.
What does Esteva write about?
Esteva’s essay Development asks “what does development actually mean?” He traces the history of the word to illustrate that ‘development’ is not something that has always existed. Rather it is an idea, something that has been invented.
The meaning of ‘development’ has shifted through time. A word that hails from the natural sciences in the 1700s its earlier meanings referred to the biological evolution of an organism. From this era Esteva takes us through the semantic shifts of the word up until the second half of the twenieth century, the main focus of the essay.
In this era ‘development’ comes to mean escaping underdevelopment. So to develop you first have to be seen as underdeveloped in the eyes of the developer. Esteva calls this colonising anti-colonialism. Underdevelopment becomes a new word for backwardness and poverty; the very social conditions that legitimise foreign intervention or neo-colonialism. This new form of foreign intervention has one key feature according to Esteva: economic growth. Money is seen as the only way of escaping underdevelopment. Although trained as an economist himself Esteva is very critical of the discipline which he claims provides a logic and therefore justification for intervening with other countries and cultures.
What do I find useful about Esteva?
I remember leaving school with ‘trade not aid’ scrawled on my exercise book and thinking that working for the UN would be the best job in the world for helping people. Esteva really makes you question what are in hindsight very simplified convictions. His historical analysis and interrogation of ‘development’ I find particularly useful – I don’t think I would have ever asked “where does development come from?” had I not been prompted.
He is talking about ‘development’ in very broad terms but I try to apply it to more specific situations such as what types of organisations I want to work for. He points his finger at certain US organisations, such as the Peace Corps, labelling them as puppets of government and foreign policy. In other words he is saying that as an individual you are complicit and responsible for propelling development and therefore the subjugation of two thirds of the world’s population. These are weighty statements which, like development, shouldn’t be taken at face value. In spite of their subjectivity Esteva’s words have certainly made me think about what organisation I would like to work for. Would I feel comfortable working in an environment where I would be professionally obliged to promote and support projects that prop up ‘development as intervention’?
On the other hand however it is very useful to have an insight into this world. I’ve carried out some work on government donor reports for an international agency. Being part of this beuareacratic chain of subcontracting and tenders was itself eye opening. The messaging of the reports, in my eyes, had no moral compass; advocating dam building with very little mention of local political and social contexts. There was no consideration of development’s contentions and instead it was understood that economic investment automatically equalled prosperity.
I came away with such mixed feelings. Part of me felt ‘morally dirty’ for having been a part of this project. At the same time I felt depressingly enlightened knowing that this is how the development world goes round and this is what ‘alternative’ approaches are up against. These are the organisations that have the lobbying power, that have the ears of the politicians and that strongly influence decision making.
What do I not useful about Esteva?
I find Esteva’s call for an alternative, what he calls a new commons, vague and to some extent paralysing. He says change should come from within, from the local communities who suffer from inequality. In theory I agree with this. Communities should be able to decide how they want to better their lives and there are many ways of going about this.
However the question of time complicates this. What do you do about the short-term and often life threatening effects of inequality such as hunger and illness? Do I kick back and wait for change to come from within? Isn’t this just as ethically challenging as becoming a puppet for ‘development as intervention’? Perhaps this is taking it all too literally but in making such a big statement as “development should be abandoned” there should be substantive responses.
In fairness, Esteva has founded Universidad de la Tierra (University of the Earth) in Oaxaca, Mexico. The university is a learning centre for people to come together to organise social change based around radical democracy. Glancing at the website it looks like a lot of their work focuses on working with indigenous communities in Mexico. Check out their video and a glimpse of the man himself Esteva.
Overall I think reading authors such as Esteva is a very personal thing. It makes me approach and engage with all development issues far more sensitively – I question and I criticise what I am doing as well as what others are doing and for this I am grateful.