Against Imperialism’s ‘Development’


The North-centric and Western version of development history begins in 19th century Europe, the mythic seedbed of global development itself. Sandra Halperin describes some of the historians in her book, Re-Envisioning Global Development: A Horizontal Perspective, who tout Europe’s “dynamic developments” as the impetus for “world-historical ‘revolutions’ in science and technology, agricultural and commercial practices, intellectual life, and social and political institutions.” Yet, there is a glaring problem with this approach: Long before Europe was a blip on the global economic map, the world already had a robust, global, and cultural system of trade. This Asian-rooted global economic system, which eventually came to include western and southern Europe, worked its way from China and beyond the Middle East. Integration into the extant global economic system would further development that eventually sparked in Europe, which most certainly was not the fountainhead that Western civilization so often pretends.

Fast forward some centuries, and several of the development philosophies that manifest after 1945 fall in line with the American push for a new global economic world order. As the United States contributed virtually half of the world’s industrial production, it was poised to continue the errant narrative of North West development. Many development concepts took a theoretical magnifying glass to welfare and human development, modernization, eliminating dependency, capacity building, human development, sustainable development, and security. Myriad approaches sought to clarify and provide different routes to development in the interest of those considered “less-developed by reigning imperium. Third World countries—initially considered “backward” by an industrialized North West and its so-called experts—were expected to benefit from America’s post-war, global imperial project for development. This economically liberalizing project speciously pretended “economic growth” and “modernization” for all its subscribers. In order to prosper, the recipe was simple: less-developed nations needed only model themselves after their developed counterparts in the industrialized world. Or so the US largely perpetuated its ruse.

Unfortunately, the post-World War II pro-market reforms that America encouraged have ended up causing serious consequences for both developed and less-developed nations alike. Laissez-faire alterations and likeminded policy (and the wars they require to sustain and propel them) inspired ungrounded claims that state intervention thwarts development. Pro-market reforms thus blossomed throughout less-developed nations in the 1990s, but the problems of neoliberal globalization’s liberal economic model betrayed the kind of development it prophesied. What is more, the consequences of today’s liberalizing economic world order differ little. The recent 2008 economic crash and global recession—the worst for America since the Great Depression—caused “developed” countries to take drastic state action to remedy financial fiascos. Banks were temporarily publically owned so as not to fail completely; certain industries threatened by bankruptcy were accordingly subsidized; and, there was the resurfacing of many Keynesian monetary and fiscal policies all around the world to stabilize precarious markets.

Against the Pro-Imperialism Paradigm

In his essay entitled “Globalization: Myths and Realities”, Philip McMichael notes the development paradigm has generally “subordinated rural populations, and hence rural studies, to the higher authority of industrialism.” McMichael suggests that theorists of development “extrapolated from the example of modern states, whose rural populations had diminished drastically as agriculture industrialized.” The world’s rural population assumed the appearance of an unlimited pool of labor, and rural issues were relegated to positions of lesser importance—even within the social sciences responsible for propagating theories of development in the first place. In fact, one development paradigm to emerge actually amplified the rural population’s significance. McMichael signals the fretful consequences of this “agro-industrialism” in order to underscore the point that the “development paradigm’s underlying belief in inexorable technological progress.” This particular take has given rise to some of history’s most intensified examples of “landlessness, hyper-urbanization, and environmental deterioration.” All of these concerns and more negatively impact states’ abilities to support an infrastructure that serves their peoples and furthers participation in the global economy. Of course, this is not accidental.

Today, too many aid agencies (multilateral and bilateral) treat development and developing country research as one and the same. Blanket approaches are thought to remedy pressing and persistent issues despite any nearsighted assumptions that the strategies and theories at work in “highly industrialized” countries ought to naturally and effectively work in states of altogether different histories. This is, of course, not to mention the fact that the globalizing capitalist system might use such institutions as crutches on which its agenda might lean in order to ease its accumulative power across an unknown landscape of popular dissidence and resistance. The system’s detractors also cite the reigning “ethnocentric” paradigm as giving a priori precedence to development philosophies that come from Western societies and cultures despite the fact that different parts of the world develop and change in very different ways and under very different conditions in which same standards cannot universally apply.

There must be a shift from the pro-imperialism approach that is now in place, which relegate the Global South, its wisdom, and its responses to North Western prescriptions for development. And if researchers today absent too much from their work for the sake of pragmatism, they risk, as John Degnbol-Martinussen says, propagandizing that “developing countries’ own traditions and inherited economic, social and political structures and institutions” have “little importance as determining factors for their societal development.” Thus, a solid point of departure for recalibrating the central areas of development approaches and research becomes consideration for the “special features of the developing countries” as having “critical importance.” Why? Because the North Western prescription for development has given birth to the most economically, socially, and politically detrimental Frankenstein in development history: neoliberalism. Neoliberalism’s principle gambit holds that maximizing freedoms for individual entrepreneurs and corporations favors business and thus alleviates or cures poverty. As a result, many still presume that a liberalized global economy maximizes human freedoms globally. Serious problems have arisen from this thinking and its corresponding policy, and the consequences have been absolutely and tragically dire for millions of people, especially in the Third World.

Room for Democracy?

After recent decades, so-called instances of democratic governance and (economic) policy reform have largely abated the threats of poverty, unequal access, violence, and modest economic growth that still afflict the world’s marginalized. Yet, the causes of such ills are completely intelligible. In addition to failed market actions, institutional development remains a problem. Neoliberalism has been the agent provocateur in stymying institutional development for the global 99 percent. Regarding human efforts on development, Peter Kingstone avers that institutions which “support a state that is restrained in its behavior, supports innovation and creativity, and yet works for equality and justice seem enormously important and incredibly illusive.”

New technologies have also developed instep with the restructuring of international capitalism and its avaricious stratification of wealth. Inequalities have also changed, and they have worsened in many cases. Large multinational corporations control the abovementioned technology, which, a la the spirit of capitalism, they do not utilize to assuage the free market’s induction of suffering that is all too often directed at the world’s poor. This predicament persists though it soundly echoes what has been true of decades past thanks to the American project for global development and economic alignment. Inadequate access to education and training, when coupled with a metastasizing economic inequality, has stifled development in growing regions, especially in Latin America during the 20th century. One thing remains clear for all countries that must today work just to counter the powerful processes which perpetuate inequality within their sovereign space: Successful countries in the last two hundred years have used what Rodrigo Arocena and Peter Senker identify as “heterodox autonomous growth strategies.”

In a historic sense, the assumption that progress, transmission, and global integration have each moved from the North West and then to other parts of the world is truly flawed. The undying myth that the West has blessed the world with progress and development borders absurdity, and it is actually quite false and extremely detrimental. The fact is that world develops in the 21st century and no thanks to the military-industrial complex and international subterfuge propagated by powerful and industrialized nations like the US or the UK, whose unfettered capitalism, and global war on the poor, certainly rages. Specifically, the trajectories in development that arose in the wake of the Second World War are important to consider, as an age of global sustainable development dawns beyond the horizon of imperium.

Reoccurring failures amongst states, institutions, and economies, which extend the kind of development forced on Third World nations post-WWII, are many. Financial sectors and business yet wreak serious economic havoc as they have done for so long, and they fail to assess the changing balance of risks that coincide with sustainability issues and, importantly, climate change. Pro-market reforms and adjustments to states’ economic policies do not increase their capacities to foment and pursue development the way that many had forecasted decades ago. But, if neoliberal reforms do not embrace the assembly and organization of people and policy necessary to create a global, concerted movement, which can reverse the already extant negative effects wrought by old fascistic policy, then there is perhaps also little hope for correcting the detrimental effects of landlessness, hyper-urbanization, and environmental devastation that clearly dooms us all.

Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.  


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Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.

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