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date: 20 February 2018

The Development Paradigm and Its Critics

Summary and Keywords

Development cannot be separated from global political economy, but it is an inherent component of the latter. The concept of development was popularized through expansion of colonization, and underwent various transformations as the socio-political structure of the world changed over time. Thus, the central task of development theory is to determine and explain why some countries are underdeveloped and how these countries can develop. Such theories draw on a variety of social science disciplines and approaches. Accordingly, different development paradigms have emerged upon which different scholars have shown profound interests and to which they gave extensive criticisms—modernization, dependency, Marxism, postcolonialism, and globalization. With the recent emergence of the post-modern critique of development, power has become an important subject in the discourse of development. Nevertheless, a full theoretical understanding of the relations between power and development is still in its fledgling stage. Though highly apparent in human societies, social power per se is a polylithic discourse with no unified definition and implication, which has led different proponents of development paradigms to understand power differently. Although there is a dialectic contradiction between the different dialogic paradigms, the reality of development theory is that there is a large choice of theories and models from which field practicioners will draw pragmatically the most appropriate elements, or they will create their own model adapted to the situation.

Keywords: development, development theory, social science, modernization, dependency, Marxism, postcolonialism, globalization, post-modern critique


The development paradigm has sparked a vast amount of criticism. In this essay, the objectives are to map this fragmented literature, assess the myriad critiques, and point to emergent directions in these debates.

Development, of course, does not stand apart from the global political economy: it is a chapter of the whole. In thinking about the linkages, analysts have established a paradigm that is dynamic partly because responses to critics have brought modifications in the basic knowledge set itself. Nonetheless, there are core tenets firmly inscribed in the development paradigm, which is delineated elsewhere in this compendium and various surveys (e.g., Peet 2009). The precepts are about the incongruity between powerful and rich actors alongside the weak and many poor, the ways in which flows of capital and labor operate across these zones, the institutions that organize power relations, and ideas about these structures. But, as one would expect, those who work within this paradigm are not univocal; they disagree in certain respects.

Indeed, paradigms are not fixed and invariant; they are in motion. Even if, as Thomas Kuhn (1970) famously argued, fundamental paradigmatic shifts are infrequent, there are continuous tussles between para-keepers who want to maintain steadfast formulations and para-makers who seek to upset the conventional knowledge structure. In this contestation, each cluster of criticism subsumes its own variants. And the clusters are not watertight compartments. There are no unambiguous borders in this complex tableau. Critics frequently draw on or contribute to more than one of these clusters.

While this assessment of a vast collage constructed by legions of authors cannot be comprehensive, it considers major exemplars of critical thinking. Forming a broad church, they have more in common than opposition to extant knowledge. The critics share a cast of mind that tilts against existing arrangements, seeks to unmask them, and tries to reconstruct understanding of people’s conditions.

Following the emergence of the earliest premonitions of development theory, each cluster provides impetus for modifications in the received wisdom. Reactions to this groundwork have produced important adjustments: reconceptualizations without abandoning the foundation stones. From the base of the development paradigm, let us now trace this multilevel structure in which each critique is leveled at its antecedents. Without pigeonholing heterodox scholars, such as Albert Hirschman (1958; 1971; 1981), whose intellectual biographies defy easy characterization, five clusters of critique may be identified: modernization, dependency, Marxism, postcolonialism, and globalization. Although the mainstream absorbed aspects of them, the focus in this essay is on their critical edge. In concluding, this tour d’horizon will offer a stocktaking of evolving directions.

Intellectual Underpinnings of the Development Paradigm

If a paradigm in Kuhn’s sense (1970) means a common framework, a shared worldview that helps to define problems, a set of tools and methods, and modes of resolving research problems deemed askable, then development may be understood as a series of debates. The development paradigm is a multilayered knowledge set and an evolving process.

It rests on a cornerstone belief in the pursuit of human freedom and advancement, a classical theme that may be traced to more than two millennia ago, especially to Plato and Aristotle’s ethical claims about social engineering and the quest for the good life. Foundational to the enlightenment as well, such perspectives have come to embrace rationality. They resonate with the more contemporary writings of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen (1999) and others about how to reduce constraints and expand the scope of collectivities to be free to choose among alternatives. In its different iterations, the development paradigm continues to be a vision about emancipation from the blockage that limits choice and open policy space. The goal is to establish self-sustaining growth and build the capacity for realizing human potential.

This intellectual trajectory proceeds against the long-held belief that the primary political and economic divisions of the world were about natural gradations in temperature, soil, and rainfall. The eighteenth century philosopher Montesquieu, for example, held that the immutability of culture and low levels of income in the southern zones result from a climate that saps the body of vigor and strength. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, influential observers discarded the climatological theory and adopted a race theory to compare the achievements of societies. For instance, in a televised lecture delivered in 1963, Hugh-Trevor Roper, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University, maintained: “Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history [. . .] But at present there is none; there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness [. . .] and darkness is not a subject of history” (quoted in Mazrui 1972:7). This Eurocentric view of agency came under attack at a time of nationalist movements and in the age of decolonization.

Levels of Criticism

Level One: Modernization

Battered by its critics, imperial doctrine slowly lost legitimacy. A new theory was needed to replace the “white man’s burden” and the mission civilisatrice. A changing world order prompted moral critiques of the old perspectives on development and set the stage for new concepts. And although modernization thinking later came to be considered “mainstream,” it was a major departure from the knowledge claims made before its inauguration.

In the aftermath of World War II, analysts contended that it is not race but a lack of capital and know-how that explains why the so-called developing countries are lagging behind. External inputs, primarily investment and technical assistance, experts argued, are needed to modernize the flagging nations. The term “modernization” gained currency as part of President Harry Truman’s 1949 Point Four Program, which included the diffusion of scientific and industrial knowledge to newly independent countries.

Modernization theorists offered a vision of a restructured global political economy based on universal processes of development. The strategy designed by these thinkers – most of them Americans – would be enabled by the spread of US economic and military power. It was facilitated by international organizations, especially the United Nations and its affiliates, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which would help nations recover from world war and develop peacefully.

According to modernization theorists, the starting gate for all nations embarking on development is traditional society (Lerner 1958). In these societies, people lack the traits of modern individuals. In all realms, tradition is staid and inhibiting, whereas modernity is vigorous and creative. As societies become more complex, more specialized roles emerge. No longer does the chief represent the political executive, judge, and legislator. Elaborate institutions evolve. There are distinctive activities to be carried out in order to solidify the nation-state. Forging a national identity necessitates molding new attitudes that center on individual achievement and empathy for fellow citizens (Banfield 1958; Lerner 1958).

All societies progress through the same distinct phases on the road to modernization. In one formulation (Rostow 1960), the sequence is from tradition to a take-off period when the obstacles to growth are transcended, leading to higher mass consumption, the advancement of technology, and the allocation of more resources to social welfare and security. The progression is fixed and linear. The early modernizers (the Western countries) pilot the way; the latecomers will follow this same course.

In the political realm, forging a national identity is linked to modern values centered on individual achievement, not ascribed roles. The polity is participatory, though not overly so, lest order be disrupted. It is pluralist to the core, with balance among competing groups. The terminus of the journey is liberal democracy, which, Huntington (1968) argued, is built on order, though he does not specify how to transition from order to democracy. A civic culture is a goal that all nations can attain (Almond and Verba 1963; Pye 1966; Huntington 1968). Recommended policies center on closing the gap by transferring resources from advanced to developing countries, providing technical assistance, strengthening ties with the rich industrial nations, and implementing reforms designed to modernize institutions such as banks, markets, education, and civil service. This model of diffusion and catch-up is predicated upon a perspective of social harmony and a moralistic injunction for all stakeholders to work together in their common interests.

Initially dominated by the work of the Social Science Research Council’s Committee on Comparative Politics, the grand theory of the 1950s and 1960s latterly came under attack from critics who contend that the modernization thinkers acknowledge different levels of development without properly grasping causality and the mechanisms of dependence. What they believe are causes of underdevelopment are actually its consequences and the supposed cures are the means to perpetuate this condition.

Level Two: Dependency

In the next round of criticism of the evolving development paradigm, it is held that even if the modernization school refocused attention from great power politics to what it called “emerging areas,” the conceptualization was still marred by ethnocentrism; the locus of change remained in the West. As an alternative, the dependency perspective emanated from Latin America.

The dependentistas initially drew their inspiration from a UN agency, the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA), established in Santiago, Chile, in 1948. Under the leadership of the Argentine structural economist Raul Prebisch (1950), the intellectuals and technocrats staffing ECLA offered a blistering critique of neoclassical development economics, arguing that its emphasis on the theory of prices and general equilibrium failed to recognize the built-in features of the global economy that disadvantage the underdeveloped countries. In particular, ECLA documented unequal terms of trade between the exporters of raw materials and the exporters of manufactured goods, resulting in chronic balance of payments problems. Importantly, ECLA’s first general secretary, Prebisch, and his colleagues proposed an inward-oriented development path known as import-substitution industrialization, which is based on manufacture to satisfy demand previously met by imports.

In addition to building on the work of ECLA, the dependency approach gained strength as a result of the blossoming of leftist movements from the 1950s into the 1970s. The Cuban revolution, China’s cultural revolution, the election of the Marxist government of Salvador Allende Gossens in Chile, and the American debacle in Vietnam seemingly lent credibility to critical analysis.

In this context, there followed reformulations of the initial analytic framework, with more attention to ways in which internal social forces are linked to international processes (Cardoso and Faletto [1969] 1979). Still, at a general level, dependency is deemed a special form of domination and subordination, a chief characteristic being vulnerability: constraints on a collectivity’s ability to determine its own answers to social forces in the global political economy. External forces, the economies of the “center” condition the responses of the “periphery,” narrowing the options for autonomous development (Dos Santos 1970). A country is dependent when capital cannot find its own dynamic of accumulation within the national economy (Furtado 1964; Frank 1966; Frank 1969; Sunkel 1973). The capacity to increase the scale of capital requires the creation of new technologies and the expanded production of capital goods (machinery and equipment). Meanwhile, the groups holding the reins of power are the chief beneficiaries of their ties to the center and would be threatened by a realignment of political power. Through the political process, they established a form of production consistent with their own interests and objectives. In this way, development signals a deepening of dependence.

Allowing more scope for variation, Peter Evans’s fieldwork in Brazil (1979) led to a concept of “dependent development,” which seeks to explain industrialization on the periphery. Evans (1979) posited a “triple alliance”: relationships among multinational corporations, the local industrial bourgeoisie, and state-owned enterprises. In other words, the state is an active partner in a coalition with local and international capital. In this structure, the state becomes an agent in promoting dependent development but uses the instruments of coercion to exclude most of the national bourgeoisie and masses from participating politically in this project (Evans 1979:50).

Clearly, dependency theory differs in major respects from modernization thinking. Although dependentistas assailed modernization authors for their lack of historical analysis, dependency writing itself is attacked for being historically weak (Bernstein 1973). The center–periphery distinction is based on existing market imbalances. Thus, the concept of unequal exchange – wherein the products offered by the periphery embody more value than the goods they receive in return (Emmanuel 1972) – concerns trade between nations and does not, in the first instance, spring from the level of social relations and the sphere of production. Robert Brenner (1977) also leveled this criticism at world-systems scholars such as sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, who may be distinguished from dependency theorists but contributed importantly to this perspective, especially by adding the category “semi-periphery” (1974a; 1974b; 1976).

Yet it is unclear how the imagery of center, periphery, and semi-periphery is tied to changing production relations among peasants, workers, landowners, and industrialists in specific historical contexts. Added to this criticism is the letdown in coming to grips with the question of how to eliminate dependency relations. What is the way out? If it is to delink from the global economy and follow a path of national autonomous development, is there evidence that it works?

Plus, more attention to the role and content of the state is required, a point emphasized in Theda Skocpol’s biting critique (1977) of Wallerstein. And the overlap of some versions of dependency theory and Marxism (Chilcote 1988) is evident in that both augment classical theories of imperialism.

Level Three: Marxism

Marxist critiques of the development paradigm acknowledge and, in some cases, take issue with work by Hobson, Lenin, Luxemburg, and Schumpeter; after World War II, they incorporate contributions by Paul Sweezy (1942), Paul Baran (1957), and Harry Magdoff (1969) of the Monthly Review group, based in New York. Simultaneously, scholars in Europe drew on Marxist foundations and debated theories of development in journals such as Economy and Society and the Journal of Peasant Studies. Especially important are the works by French structural anthropologists such as Claude Meillassoux (1973) and Pierre-Philippe Rey (1973), who detailed the impact of market development and the transformation of the social organization of agricultural activities. So, too, intellectuals in the developing world took up the challenge, in some cases as criticism of Western Marxism, especially its structuralist variants, deemed mechanistic. As indicated below, these thinkers insisted on historicizing the development paradigm in lieu of constructing ahistorical models, a feature of both modernization theory’s linear and positivist underpinnings and some dependency analysis that stresses imbalances in the world economy without attention to social relations on the ground.

For Marxists of different orientations, the concept of capital accumulation (profit making and reinvestment) is central to explaining development. To come to grips with accumulation, one begins with production, an interchange between humans and nature. By knitting together the physical and social aspects of production, one avoids adopting a mechanical and overly economic view of capital accumulation. Crucial to political economy is to know who controls production and to what end. In turn, how owners and actual producers relate to other social forces in society also impinges on the development process.

The existence of a particular structure of patriarchy, for instance, can have a major impact on the form of surplus extraction. Barriers to women’s participation in the workforce due to culturally sanctioned norms can stifle social development. A gender-based workforce allows capitalists greater flexibility in hiring or firing employees. The existence of a substantial number of female workers can also promote greater wage differentials. Also pertinent to production broadly understood, the depletion of the environment due to fast-track industrialization may undermine long-term developmental possibilities. A failure to pay attention to biodiversity stands to generate permanent health risks to living species and diminish productivity.

Production and social reproduction are thus bound up with the exploitation of labor. Although exploitation in the economic sense is key to understanding domination in capitalist societies, it is equally important to recognize that exploitation is embedded in social relations and their legitimation. This means that economic exploitation typically takes place in the context of other forms of social discrimination, frequently expressed in idioms of religion, ethnicity, and gender. Consequently, the structure of exploitation and domination results from parallel, overlapping, and mutually reinforcing processes. For example, in India, the rigid hierarchies of patriarchy and religion render women of the lowest caste in Hinduism – the shudra or untouchables – the most economically disadvantaged (Mittelman and Pasha 1997:86).

Although this line of analysis rests on the bedrock of the trail blazed by Karl Marx, major reformulations of his work seek to account for the zones outside Europe that do not correspond to the patterns in Europe. Indeed, capitalism has adapted in ways thoroughly unanticipated by Marx, and there are many unsettled questions in efforts to rethink Marxist views on the nature of the state and contemporary class formation.

In the developing world itself, indigenous Marxisms have sought to supplant Western Marxism (Anderson 1976) and fill the gaps. Especially notable among these efforts is the Guyanese scholar Walter Rodney’s influential thesis (1972) that underdevelopment is not an original condition. Rather, before the arrival of European imperialism, parts of precolonial Africa were on the way to achieving development, understood as “a capacity for self-sustaining growth,” albeit at rates and in ways that differed from those in Europe (Rodney 1972:114). Ample historical evidence shows that, prior to incorporation in the global system, increasing economic and political integration was in train in Africa. However, according to Rodney, the penetration of Western capitalism and the slave trade arrested indigenous patterns of development. When Europeans first arrived in Africa, they encountered ongoing integration of diverse peoples into larger political systems and increasing expansion of exchange relations among myriad groups. However, divide-and-rule strategies adopted by the Europeans exacerbated conflicts among Africans themselves, pitting local groups against one another. Some of them actively collaborated with the colonizers and others waged fierce resistance struggles.

Moreover, slaving altered demographic patterns, created gender imbalances, and reduced the size of the productive workforce. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, when Europe’s population grew rapidly, Africa lost many millions of people. (Historians dispute the actual numbers.) The Europeans also introduced cash crops, often replacing food crops, altering dietary habits, and orienting colonial economies to foreign markets rather than local needs. In sum, the act of incorporation of Africa in the world economy not only delayed developmental impulses, but also reversed these tendencies. For Rodney, this is the taproot of underdevelopment in Africa. Imperialism changed the course of ongoing processes of development.

In debates among Marxists, this process is known as the articulation of modes of production. As the South African activist-lawyer turned sociologist Harold Wolpe demonstrated (1980), the implantation of capitalism did not eradicate precapitalist modes of production. Rather, it combined with them in diverse ways, with classes such as the peasantry and nobility (monarchs) as vestiges and often with conflicting interests in the political arena.

In a complementary analysis, the Guyanese economist Clive Thomas (1974) argues that, for centuries, production and consumption had been in harmony but not at all static. Subject to precapitalist structures and the limitations of resource endowment, local peoples produced what they consumed and consumed what they produced. With the coming of imperialism, however, production and consumption were disjoined. Hence, local peoples largely produce what they do not consume and consume what they do not produce. This reasoning leads Thomas (1974) to posit two “iron laws” of transformation: converging resources and demand and converging needs with demand.

The prolific Egyptian author Samir Amin focuses on accumulation on a world scale (1974; 1977). He details the effects of world integration on developing economies and the specific mechanisms of unequal development. Extending Marxist concepts, Amin has long examined and anticipated themes that have become of great contemporary interest – e.g., technological development and access to natural resources. For Amin, the way to remedy “maldevelopment,” as he calls it, is to delink from the world capitalist economy. This would pave the way for developing countries to eventually relink on a more equitable basis.

Wanting, however, is historical evidence that self-reliance on a national or regional level is actually a viable strategy. Countries that have tried it, such as Tanzania during the presidency of Julius Nyerere or Burma under its military junta, have not met with success. It is likely that Samir Amin and other proponents of delinking would maintain that these countries lacked a proper alignment of class forces led by a worker–peasant alliance. Yet new middle classes in Asia, technological strata, and other social forces are rapidly forming. And in rethinking Marxism, relations between classes and nonclass elements are a vital issue. Among nonclass forces are religious, racial or ethnic, caste, and gender-based groups as well as varied social movements (for example, people organized around environmental issues).

Level Four: Postcolonialism

Whereas modernization, dependency, and Marxist approaches all attempt to identify laws (i.e., general patterns) that drive development, postcolonial critics focus on the differences born of hierarchical relations and the ways in which they are represented as development discourses. Attention thus centers on ideas and shared meanings. Whereas the first three clusters of critique express an urge to find order in the world, postcolonial writers posit a messier existence, one without universal truths. These scholars seek to decenter analysis of a supposed impulse for development and to deconstruct hegemony. Their efforts originated in a poststructural intellectual climate dominated by Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, himself from the postcolonial world – a Jewish Algerian.

Yet one precursor, often unacknowledged in this stream of literature, is an unorthodox German thinker whose pioneering work probed how and why individuals and groups that differ from the superordinate in a power hierarchy are framed as outliers. This process of Othering – drawing distinctions between “us” and “them” – is fundamental to the writings of Carl Schmitt ([1932] 1996; [1950] 2003), a philosopher and legal scholar who joined the Nazi Party in 1933. Today, the revival of his concepts (e.g., Agamben 1998; 2005) includes left-wing Schmittians, attracted to the German scholar’s ideas because of the ways in which they skewer liberal democracy and incorporate a structural perspective on power, and right-wing Schmittians, who want to bolster sovereignty and who criticize neoconservatives for drifting too far from their philosophical moorings.

Schmitt adopted an expansive and systemic view of power, in some respects similar to that later advanced by Foucault (1977; 1990), whose concern is disciplinary power that flows in a variety of social institutions such as medicine and prisons. For both thinkers, groupings of friends and enemies are distinctive to political life. In our times, these representations are taken for granted – as in “foreign” policy and “foreign” students. Schmitt’s reflections on such tacit categories give pause. For him, an enemy is the Other, the alien. Not a private opponent, the enemy is a public enemy because of strife between collectivities. Whereas Schmitt’s attention turned to armed conflict between organized political entities, including religious communities, he was also troubled about the enemy within. In Nazi Germany, Schmitt found this enemy among people who live together. The enemy is a friend of Christians who, in fact, are threatened by them, because the superordinate group is held together by exclusion. Hence, the assimilated Jew becomes anyone, an element to destroy (Ojakangas 2003:417, 420).

An ardent anti-Semite himself, Schmitt advocated that Jews are the absolute enemy not because of racial inferiority but because they constitute a political enemy. The exclusion of the enemy binds the dominant community, that is, a political identity of friends, which sees itself as the enemy of the enemy. For Schmitt, Jews are the absolute enemy because, in diasporic Judaism, they evade identification as the Other, and this ordinary existence as assimilated people is a genuine threat to the sense of belonging among friends. Thus, according to Schmitt, the exclusion of the enemy, within and without, is a vital function for the unity and spiritual well-being of political life (Ojakangas 2004:78–79).

Going further, Edward Said (1978) examines political ideas and uncovers a complex of representations: the ways in which boundaries are drawn in minds of peoples so as to divide them. A Christian born in Jerusalem to Palestinian parents (his father was also a US citizen), reared in Egypt, and then long-time resident in the US, Said laid out a way of deconstructing “Selves” and “Others.” His notion of “Orientalism” denotes a Western style of dominating and maintaining authority over the Other. Directing attention to the machinery of knowledge production, he claims that Westerners have built power by setting themselves apart from so-called Orientals. The images of “us” and “them” are constructed, for example, in many literary works on the Middle East, and put to political use. In other words, these dominating frameworks come to shape views and are implicated in the exercise of power.

Picking up on Said, exponents of this tradition (inter alia, Nandy 1983; Spivak 1990; Ahmad 1992; Chatterjee 1993; Bhabha 1994) interrogate history, seeking to deconstruct and rediscover memories. They frame questions anew about the psychological, social, and material effects of colonialism and cultural interactions. Born of post-colonial criticism, cognate analysis of ideational representations, cultural differences, and aspects of feminist political economy take issue with mainstream development discourses, especially positivist approaches that aim for objectivity and value neutrality.

In this vein, some scholars regard development as an ideology of domination and call for more critical reflection on the production of knowledge (Escobar 1995:216 and passim; Rahnema 1997). And as Claude Ake, a leading Nigerian intellectual, put it: “[Development] […] was the ideology by which the political elite hoped to survive and reproduce its domination” (Ake 1996:7). He traced this ideology to “the former colonial masters,” who also promoted development and invented concepts such as partners in development (Ake 1996:8). Speaking of Africa, Ake famously observed that the problem with development is that it has not been tried (Ake 1996:1, 159).

For observers amenable to a constructivist bent on development, ideas and language are not reflections of interests or mere euphemisms. Rather, they constitute interests and thus speak to the key concerns of political economists: who pays and who gains?

Training a critical lens on developmentalism, writers such as Cristina Rojas (2007) have embraced cultural political economy in order to move beyond naturalizing standard ideas and to reframe the problematic. The cultural turn departs from the common-sense proposition that the challenge is to close the gap between rich and poor countries and to catch up with the front of the pack. This one-dimensional approach imagines the state-centric model as a given, characterizes international development as an ahistorical template, and neglects social relations among different sorts of people represented as a binary of “insiders” and “outsiders.” In some respects veering toward Antonio Gramsci’s view of cultural hegemony (1971) and Karl Polanyi’s concept of culture as “protective covering” for classes, broadly understood ([1944] 1957:71), this latter form of critical development studies looks to marginalized cultures. It opens questions about how they are embraced by subaltern groups for the production of counterdiscoures and as a source of resistance to domination. The emphasis here is on deconstructing notions of essentialism and deciphering meta-narratives that convey cultural meanings, as in identities and language. From this perspective, buzz words like “basic needs,” “partners in development,” “development cooperation,” “sustainable development,” and “capacity building” signify processes of production and maintenance of a given order.

What is more, development theory is faulted for sidelining patriarchy. Feminist critics (e.g., Mohanty et al. 1991) have sought to disclose the gendered division of labor: a key stratification system that places women in subordinate positions. This is a matter of social reproduction. Feminist postcolonialism finds inspiration in Foucault’s notion of biopower wherein the political melds public and private space. Viewed biopolitically, bodily sites evidence multiple oppressions: organized rape as an instrument of war, as in Rwanda and northern Uganda (Tickner 2001:50; Enloe 1993:119–20), abuses involved in migratory flows of maids (Chin 1998), human trafficking that transcends the national scale (Samarasinghe 2007), and “honor killings” especially of women by male authorities.

Research by Pratiksha Baxi et al. (2006) demonstrates ways in which global processes are embedded in local lives, conflicts, and institutions. Families and community governance bodies in South Asia sanction the murder, kidnapping, and torture of women and men for contravening family codes of honor. The identification of “honor crimes” by tribal councils, police, and legal officials, even including local judges, is a form of gendered violence, sometimes manifest as revenge rapes, that criminalizes consensual relationships. In collusion with the family, the authorities countenance violence against consenting adults who marry or have sex against the norms of caste, culture, or class. Honor is upheld as retribution for bringing shame on the community. Whereas these crimes may contravene constitutional law, the state itself, especially in the postcolonial world, is fractured; given social power relations, law, and sovereignty are pliable; and with a surge in migration and the growth of diasporic communities, the naming aspect of honor crimes transcends a specific place. There is displacement of this phenomenon, and the legal discourses that surround it, to global space.

Level Five: Globalization

It is also argued that the “globalization project” is superseding national development and that individual states are helping to install a global enterprise in their locales (McMichael 2004). From this standpoint, notwithstanding enormous contextual differences in the magnitude of state power, the role of the state in the developing world is becoming that of administrative coordination of flows as they slice across national nodes in the global political economy. The state is said to exercise reduced control, leading to a growing sense of powerlessness. And parallel to the process with the European Union (EU), other areas are undergoing the stripping away, or surrendering, of slices of sovereignty: surrendered perhaps as a defensive measure to preserve the state.

However, a number of prominent economists premise that the national template remains crucial, and reaffirm the framework and tools of neoclassical economics. These scholars include public intellectuals, such as Dani Rodrik (1997), Jeffrey Sachs (2005), Joseph Stiglitz (2002; 2006), and Paul Collier (2007), whose work informs policy. While there are differences among them, they are alike in believing that policy space in the developing world can be expanded.

A former director of research at the World Bank, now a professor at Oxford University, Collier epitomizes this way of thinking about development in the era of globalization. Wisely shunning single-factor explanations, his book The Bottom Billion (2007) maintains that a series of traps grabs hold of inhabitants of some developing countries, most of them in Africa. Further, Collier contends that poverty itself is not a trap. According to him, most of the world’s poor are able to escape extreme poverty, but nearly one billion remain stuck at rock bottom. Hindering development are: high levels of conflict; bountiful natural resources, which can reduce a country’s likelihood of exporting other goods and services; landlocked locations in dangerous neighborhoods; weak economic infrastructure; and bad governance in small countries. Collier then endorses the notion that the challenge is to catch up. He thereby posits the gap trap as the root issue.

His prescriptions for the bottom billion are a combination of instruments: aid, heightened security, good laws and governance charters, and reform in trade policy whereby developed countries open their markets and lift tariffs. In effect, this advice resuscitates features of the conventional development paradigm without pointing toward new directions. There is also a problem of voice. Collier listens only to a small circle of Anglo-American celebrity economists, such as the World Bank’s David Dollar (Collier and Dollar 2002) and scholars currently at Princeton and Columbia universities: Nobelist Paul Krugman (evidently Krugman and Venables 1995, though the authors’ work is not actually cited), Jeffrey Sachs (2005), and Joseph Stiglitz (again, without reference to a specific publication). Stonily silenced in The Bottom Billion are critically minded intellectuals from developing countries – the likes of Amin (1997), Ake (2003), and Jomo (Jomo and Fine 2006) – as well as Nobel laureates Amartya Sen (1999) and Muhammad Yunus (1999), economists who have contributed importantly to discussions about strategies for development. Collier does not invoke views on development outside his frame. One is left to mull over why he fails to engage critical reflections and major debates.

The point is not to dwell on the work of one researcher, but to illustrate ways in which reformist neoliberals are revisiting centrist neoliberal ideas, some of them harking back to modernization theory, about world market integration and the implications for development. Known as the “Washington Consensus” – a term coined in 1990 by economist John Williamson (Williamson cited in Broad and Cavanagh 2009:3) while at a think tank in Washington, DC, the Peterson Institute for International Economics – the centrist framework centered on a combination of deregulation, liberalization, and privatization.

As a result of heavy criticism and the deleterious effects of market-driven globalization in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Asia in its 1997–8 downturn, and Argentina when it closely adhered to the prescriptions of the Bretton Woods institutions, the 1990s Washington Consensus became discredited. To modify this agenda, policy makers fashioned the Monterrey Consensus, agreed to by heads of state at the 2002 United Nations International Conference on Financing for Development (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2003). In a post-9/11 globalizing world, there are efforts to implement this inter-elite accord and, also, ongoing discussion about the role of the state and market reforms, especially calls for re-regulation.

Understood as compression of the time and space aspects of social relations, globalization is a historical structure of material power. It is not a single process, but a set of processes that touches down differently in various regions and countries (Mittelman 2000). The interactions between globalization and development also manifest in myriad ways on specific issues (viewed from critical perspectives in Cheru 2002; Appelbaum and Robinson 2005; Steger 2008; and Broad and Cavanagh 2009). For the sake of brevity, let us focus on one element of this matrix: the security turn.

The problematic nature of the relationship between globalization and security or insecurity is a feature of not only scholarly literature but also the UN’s Human Development Report, national security strategies, global commissions, and major research projects. Inspired by the UN’s Human Development Report and produced at the University of British Columbia, the Human Security Report 2005 (Mack 2006), for example, documents that, worldwide, the number of armed conflicts involving a government fell by more than 40 percent between 1992 and 2003. The deadliest conflicts, defined as at least 1000 battle deaths, plummeted by 80 percent during this period. War-exacerbated diseases and malnutrition caused the largest death tolls (Mack 2006). But the largest incidence of both direct and indirect deaths in armed conflicts lies in the developing world.

Spreading risk and conflict across borders through globalizing structures such as transnational organized crime, these countries are said to be characterized by weak security; they are poorly governed, with “failed” or failing states, and, in some cases, bedeviled by warlords. Hardly satisfying the Weberian criteria of statehood, weak states are defined as lacking capacity (Migdal 1988; Jackson 1990). Capacity is gauged in terms of efficacy and legitimacy. States that are not capable of providing basic services, protecting their citizenry from harm, and monopolizing the legitimate means of coercion within their borders are deemed a threat to a peaceful order.

But if the adjectives “failed” and “weak” are relative categories, it seems fair to ask: compared to what? Are states weak compared to other states, their domestic civil societies, the putative strength that they had some years ago, or market forces? Unfortunately, from one author’s account to another, the meanings of failure and weakness vary enormously. States are weakened when they become mere managers or facilitators for market forces and other actors, such as powerful international economic institutions. Weak states lose autonomy and relinquish functions of governance. Yet all states, even the strongest ones, are facing increasing pressure from above in the form of markets and international organizations such as the World Trade Organization and the EU, and from below in pressure exerted by civil societies. All states are experiencing difficulties in harnessing global flows of capital, information, knowledge, technology, migration, and weapons. If so, it is misleading to suppose that there is a neat distinction between weak and strong states. The issue may be transposed to the amount of reduction in autonomy and loss of control vis-à-vis globalizing processes, but of course the magnitude of state power still differs patently from one case to another.

Problematic as well is the notion of “failed states” in the sense of shadow entities that do not provide public services for their citizens. But failing, or fragility, is a catchall for sundry types of vulnerability to diverse risks. This grouping obscures numerous basic differences among actors placed in the same schemata. Countries’ capacities to cope with extreme shocks range enormously according to each case and at specific localities within them. The historical trajectories and hinges to globalization are so dissimilar that it is not helpful to shoehorn these highly disparate situations into a single residual category (Mittelman 2010).

In some cases, warlords such as Aideed in Somalia and Charles Taylor in Liberia step into the breach of state power. Especially when national institutions lack capacity and legitimacy, these contenders can be somewhat effective. They pursue private gain and build networks as bases of support. In an impressive study, William Reno (1998) skillfully goes beyond the earlier tendency of specialists on the armed forces who focused on the idiosyncratic variable – the traits of autocrats like Idi Amin (Decalo 1976). Reno explores the structure of power relations that constitutes warlordism. He indicates that, in weak states, leaders may aim to serve the public interest, but warlords are bent on capturing rents for their own benefit. Grounding his research in case studies of Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sierra Leone, with attention also to Nigeria as a potential example of warlord politics, Reno examines the interplay between the fluidity of power and conflicts over economic means. In his case chapters, warlords have little or no concern for public welfare. They amass gains by working with international institutions, bilateral agencies, and nongovernmental organizations, siphoning aid and circumventing, penetrating, or seizing the state. They benefit as well from foreign trade, especially exports of primary commodities and imports of arms. Consequently, this kind of war economy fuels patronage, which, in turn, feeds warlord politics.

This line of inquiry shows how political life is being transformed for large numbers of people. New spaces are established. The rules are shifting. Symbols, such as emblems of sovereignty, are appropriated by combatants. Icons are important because they can lend legitimacy. Symbolic representations count heavily in contesting power.

Warlord politics fuses the local and the global. In a post–Cold War order, there is no more largesse from two superpowers at loggerheads with one another. In this conjunction of globalization and local conditions, permutations of warlord politics may be found in venues from Somalia to Afghanistan to Colombia and Iraq. The instances abound. But if leaders can forge ties to external interests, what about transnational social movements as actual or potential partners for other strata? And at the local level, more attention needs to be given to cases in which power seekers do not become warlords and where conditions are opportune for them (Dixit 2004). How do analysts account for the lack of warlordism in an environment that in certain respects is less favorable for development than another context? Is there a crucial distinction between, say, Ghana on the one hand, and Sierra Leone on the other, given their dissimilar resource endowments? The former, where warlords have not dominated politics, lacks the latter’s diamonds, used by combatants in lucrative trade (Väyrynen 2000:444–63, cited in Nafziger and Auvinen 2003:148). Are valuable primary commodities a prerequisite for, or an enabling factor in, the rise of predators that thrive on the spoils of war?

Yet there is a presumption that underpins this entire story about weak states, “failed states,” and warlord politics. This narrative presupposes that development requires security. Armed conflicts generate fear, undermine cohesion, destroy social and economic infrastructure, sap taxes, and thus diminish the development budget. As a consequence, in a post-9/11 world marked by a “global war on terror,” development challenges are securitized. In fact, one critic argues that the nomenclature of “failed state” is used as a technique to justify intervention and occupation, as in Afghanistan, and for counterterrorism (Duffield 2007).

The categories of weak, failed, and warlord entities are implicated in both policy matters and scholarly inquiry. In an effort to unmask this practice, Tarak Barkawi and Mark Laffey (2006) critique the Eurocentric features of security studies insofar as it pivots on the hierarchical relations between the West and the rest rather than multiple processes by which they are co-constituted in specific contexts. For Barkawi and Laffey (2006), boxes like “Islam” and “the West” form ahistorical templates that do not facilitate explanation. Hence, in conventional security studies, the foremost threats and specific danger points are presented as a reaction to Western modernity and a consequent effort to define a new fate. In this way of thinking, agency lies with the great powers; the politics of the weak derives from the politics of the strong. And this is the politics of the conventional turn in security studies as it relates to development (Barkawi and Laffey 2006). However, according to critics such as Duffield (2007), if development is to happen, it must be desecuritized. The call is for delinkage from security structures so that development can actually be tried.

The Next Level of Critical Inquiry?

Quite clearly, the five critical moves recounted above have occurred at particular historical moments. Since the 1940s, the development paradigm and critical reflections about it have mutated along with, or sometimes trailed behind, shifts in the global political economy. In certain respects, each move departed from the old paradigm and presented fresh concerns. But where does critical inquiry now stand, and what are the prospects for new directions? Is critique of the development paradigm at an impasse, merely resulting in antidevelopment – rejectionist stances that are not developmentally interesting?

In our times, one option is to flat-out abandon the terrain of development. Inasmuch as the critiques of the development paradigm are prone to Olympian conceptualization, some analysts may prefer more concrete pursuits. Not surprisingly, there is a mood of frustration in a field devoted to a seemingly endless quest for collective self-realization. Better to just contest policy and engage power. From this perspective, critics would put aside the longue durée and focus on the here-and-now. Some scholars want to disaggregate big-picture research and look at discrete problems such as fiscal management or water resources in a given locale (e.g., the trajectory from Haggard and Simmons 1987 to Haggard in his 2001 article with Garman and Willis). This may entail concrete institutional analysis, with emphasis on detailed texture. Also deserting the abstractions in development studies, researchers may migrate to other areas altogether, perhaps countries in a developed region (as in the course from Ashford 1961 to Ashford 1976). All in all, these routes seem to suggest that para-breaking is not on the near horizon. The would-be para-breakers are either discouraged or kept at bay.

However, still other analysts continue to meld theory and practice, implicitly regarding them as inseparable, and move afresh to core concerns in development studies. One illustration must suffice: a critical lens on the dominant paradigm for poverty reduction (Mittelman 2008).

Critical thinkers hold that the conventional paradigm renovates an old-fashioned view ingrained in modernization and mainstream economic theory: “we” are partners in development. Oft-heard are expressions of moral outrage about entrenched poverty and the ethical imperative that “we” ought to help the desperately poor. Now, the imperial “we” is the Group of Eight (G8), a club of rich countries. Sometimes overlooked in such pronouncements are that the G8’s promises of aid, especially to Africa, remain largely unmet and that member countries lack the political will to tackle global poverty. Without a way to summon this will, pious proclamations about poverty reduction merely express wishful thinking.

A centerpiece of the dominant paradigm is the United Nations Millennium Declaration. After the leaders of 189 countries endorsed it in 2000, international summits hammered out the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These are incorporated in the World Bank’s war on poverty, glimmerings of which had first appeared during the tenure of its president Robert McNamara (1968–81), a former US secretary of defense and an architect of the Vietnam War. Subsequently, in 1996, World Bank President James Wolfensohn called for a “new paradigm” for poverty reduction as part of a Comprehensive Development Framework. Following the introduction of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) in 1996 and the expansion of this program into the Enhanced HIPC Initiative, the Bank’s pledge to fight poverty was enshrined in its Poverty Eradication Plan and folded into the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers in 1999 (World Bank 2005:51, as cited in Blackmon 2008:189).

Unquestionably, this initiative and the MDGs themselves include commendable objectives like halving acute poverty, defined in terms of the World Bank’s $1 per day threshold, in developing countries by 2015. The aim is to reduce the proportion of people who go hungry, to treat diseases, address child mortality, and improve access to education. To this end, a plethora of targets and measurable outcomes are set. Meanwhile, the US has paralleled this international process by establishing its own Millennium Challenge Account.

Yet observers such as Ashwani Saith (2006) have faulted the MDGs as mere lip service to worthy ends. These goals are seen as a means to use the antipoverty agenda as a policy instrument for dispensing a neoliberal market prescription for restructuring societies and economies. Requisite conditionalities are a mechanism for accomplishing this convergence. Complementing them are various actions like public–private partnerships, the UN system’s concept of a Global Compact, and global financing arrangements.

Regarded by critics as “palliative economics” and “welfare colonialism,” antipoverty programs like the MDGs are preoccupied with measurable progress toward achieving targets focused on symptoms and divert attention from the basis of development itself (Reinert 2007). From this standpoint, it is held that, as a corrective to the nostrums of neoliberal economics, the production system must be revved up, and first and foremost oriented to the domestic market; supplementally, to the regional market.

As Robert Wade (2008) points out, it is notable that lending agencies proclaiming the virtues of the MDGs not only decide on conditions and advise borrowers, but also produce information. The World Bank is the main source of statistics on world poverty. It is also a repository of categories for representing poverty and mathematical methods to gauge its levels. But is there a conflict of interests in an international economic institution, headquartered in Washington, DC, where the most powerful and richest member appoints its chief officer and mandates the organization to generate the numbers on poverty? In the face of fierce criticism, does the Bank attempt to show that its performance meets high standards and warrants more support (Wade 2008:385)? Surely the interrelationship between the manufacturer of data and the interests at play is worth scrutinizing. So, too, the emphasis on a family of statistics and quantitative indicators, descended from the neoliberal tree, utilizes intellectual vitality to grow technocratic forests. They become buttresses for a poverty industry served by officials and allied intellectuals, many of them hired consultants. This business stands to enervate critical reflection and creative thinking.

Alternatively, other critical thinkers stress both absolute and relative poverty, along with a rights-based approach to freedom from extreme poverty and ways in which local and global forces coalesce. This is evident in research on the feminization of poverty. Although poverty is an age-old phenomenon, today there are policies that entrench its gendered dimensions. Indeed, it is widely reported that women are the majority of the world’s poor due to disproportionate access to education and other opportunities, discriminatory laws regarding inheritance and land, and unequal household work, which remains outside the formal labor market (Eisler 2007:124, 224; United Nations Development Fund for Women 2007).

With neoliberal restructuring, a decline in social services puts more pressure on the family and affects rates of child poverty and intergenerational poverty. It is primarily women who take on responsibilities jettisoned by the state, in its response to globalization, and who still carry out traditionally defined work at home. Although some women have new sources of income because globalizing processes incorporate them in the formal labor force, old forms of household work become more arduous; the reorganization of production has a disruptive and uneven impact on ways of life. The gendered division of labor continues to place most women in subordinate positions. After all, gender is fundamentally a relationship of power in which structures of domination are preserved in an often unconscious manner through “commonsense” assumptions.

The point of this avenue of critical inquiry is to lay bare dominant conceptions and reorient thinking on the linkages between poverty and development. This reframing is not fully fledged. Perhaps a half-step and still tentative, it departs in certain respects from the conventional development paradigm and opens new questions.

A sharp reformulation can shed brighter light. Short of a paradigmatic transformation, this is no small achievement. It is what one should expect from innovatory thinking. If antidevelopment points in this direction, it is developmentally interesting. And what could be more practical than reworking the knowledge that may become insinuated in power?


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The Development Group for Alternative Policies (GAP). At, accessed Jul. 2009. The Development GAP is a Washington-based nongovernmental research and advocacy organization, focusing on criticism of World Bank/IMF policies and alternative development strategies. Resources include reports and policy proposals organized by region and issue area.

Europe’s Forum on International Cooperation (Euforic). At, accessed Jul. 2009. Euforic is a nonprofit consortium of European nongovernmental organizations, research institutes, and government agencies involved in international development. The forum maintains a large online database of news, press releases, and research reports gathered from its members on a variety of development issues with a focus on the EU’s development policies.

Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO). At (Spanish), accessed Jul. 2009. FLACSO is an international organization consisting of 17 Latin American states dedicated to supporting and improving social science research. It maintains a Spanish-only website that offers a virtual library of reports on many areas of scholarship, as well as links to national affiliates that produce similar, country-specific publications.

International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). At, accessed Jul. 2009. ICRW is a Washington, DC-based nongovernmental organization that carries out research and advocacy related to women’s issues in the developing world.

South Centre. At, accessed Jul. 2009. The South Centre is a think tank sponsored by an intergovernmental organization of developing countries. In addition to a listing of events and programs, the Centre’s website posts PDF versions of English, Spanish, and French publications on economic development issues from the Global South’s perspectives.

UN’s Human Development Reports. At, accessed Jul. 2009. Issued annually or biannually by the United Nations Development Program, the Human Development Reports comprise statistics, a composite human development index, and a broad assessment of a specific theme. The website makes available the current report and links to previous ones.

Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO). At, accessed Jul. 2009. WEDO seeks to ensure women’s equality in global environmental and development policy. It is closely associated with the United Nations Environment Program, and focuses its advocacy on the UN and other global forums. The organization maintains an online library of its publications and UN conference papers.

World Social Forum (WSF)/Forum Social Mondial. At (French), accessed Jul. 2009. The WSF is an annual summit of global activists and academics dedicated to producing and advocating alternatives to neoliberal theories of trade and development. The forum’s French-language website mounts “Bibliothèque des Alternatives,” which features alternative policy papers in several languages.


Credit goes to Daniel Dye for providing stellar research assistance and compiling the information on websites. Parts of this essay echo my previously published work (especially Mittelman 2000; 2008; 2010; and Mittelman and Pasha 1997).