Developmentalism is one of the most pervasive and harmful of modernity’s myths

By Jimmy Billings ©

Originally posted to Instagram:

Developmentalism is a deeply entrenched narrative in modern societies that leads us to believe that some humans are developed, others are undeveloped or developing, and that being ‘developed’ should be the ultimate goal of all human societies. ‘Developed’ is understood as a byword for ‘good’, ‘better’, ‘ahead’, or ‘superior’; with ‘undeveloped’ being the opposite. Development at its base is synonymous with modernity and the extractivist economies that materially enable its cultural lifeways. The narrative of developmentalism is both historically flattening and defuturing, and works to enable the perpetuation of inequalities in the present. It ignores the histories and continuing systems that enable ‘developed’ countries to be ‘developed’ at all, which is through historical and continuing extraction and violence against ‘developing’ countries (read: human beings, other animals, plants, waterways, land, etc). Far more wealth is extracted from ‘developing’ countries than is directed back to them in the forms of charity and aid. 

Where in the past this violence was maintained directly by the colonial administrations of European imperial states, nowadays the role has shifted mostly to international financial, legal, humanitarian, and political organisations (usually headquartered in the West and led by Western or Westernised technocrats), NGOs, corporations, and so-called free market capitalism; but imperial invasions still happen if anyone presumes to defy the hegemonic global status quo in any way that significantly threatens capital (eg. see list of invasions and coups carried out or supported by the US from 19th century to present). Developmentalism defutures societies because it positions being ‘developed’ (read: modern, industrial, extractivist, productivist) as the only desirable end goal for a society, foreclosing on the multitudes of other possibilities and alternative ways of organising human societies which do not produce mass death and suffering. Development defutures us all since the trajectory of simply continuing full steam ahead with even more modern development and economic growth is the near term extinction of our species and many thousands of others which are already being lost to the storm of progress.

When we peel back the developmentalist narrative even slightly, there is the ahistorical fantasy that ‘developed’ countries came to be so through superior technological innovations, better management and governance, ingenuity, and hard work. With a bit of help and elbow grease, others can do it too, we’re told, so long as they follow the shining examples of their betters in the developed world. In other words, it amounts to a glossy public relations rewrite of the older white supremacist civilising and salvationist narratives employed by colonial powers to justify extraction and subjugation of the rest of the world for centuries prior to WW2. In both cases, they are rooted in a view of the civilised/developed as benign, as if they give assistance out of the good of their heart to those inherently less fortunate or capable (uncivilised/undeveloped). On the contrary, it is the continual theft, dispossession, expropriation, and abuse of the majority world by powerful imperial states, companies, and organisations that enables people in ‘developed’ countries to have more than others to begin with. The debt owed for this accumulation is one far too great to ever be quantifiable.

The idea of the superiority of ‘developed’ peoples and countries (mostly white) is thinly veiled behind the idea that modern development is more ‘advanced’ and desirable than any other mode of organising society, most of which are consigned to the past (imagined as ‘backwards’, ‘behind’, or ‘primitive’) on modernity’s linear timescale of historical progress. This universalises the social and cultural standards of white European/Western civilisation which are projected as the apex of what it means to be human and therefore everyone should want to strive for that ideal. Jason Hickel points out that up until the end of the 15th century before European imperial powers began their violent reconfiguration of the whole planet toward their own benefit, there was no appreciable difference in standards of living between most peoples across the globe. (1)

In fact, ‘Europe’ (which it was not yet known as) was likely a more miserable place to exist for the average person than most other places in the world at that time due to the brutality of Christian feudal monarchies and empires in laying the foundations for capitalism to come about. Nobody was amassing unfathomable hoards of wealth from the subjugation of billions of people at that time. Global impoverishment and inequality is a situation deliberately created and maintained by ‘developed’ countries. Developmentalist narratives are an important part of that maintenance, because narratives act as the glue for any kind of social cohesion, and they function to let ‘developed’ countries off the hook by making them seem benevolent for giving any kind of ‘help’ at all. Charity and aid amount to a mere trickle in comparison to the wealth that is extracted, to speak nothing of the magnitude of destruction and violence required to produce that wealth at all.

Developmentalism is coupled with a stagist view of history: that human history has definable ‘stages’ which ‘progress’ almost inevitably from one to the other. How these stages have been defined has varied over time and depends on who is doing the defining. The pervasive idea is roughly that humans have moved through ‘stages’ from being hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists to developing civilisation to industrial modernity, and that this movement through broad stages represents a ‘progression’ and overall improvement to human lives. Evidence to the contrary is endlessly abundant if one reads almost any anthropological or Indigenous studies literature, for example. In archaeology (and across disciplines) we see the idea of ‘ages’, starting broadly with the so-called ‘Stone Age’, which homogenises the first few million years of the Homo genus until the metalworking ‘ages’ that then move rather rapidly into ages defined by written history and finally industrialisation. The ‘inevitability’ implicit in stagism looks a lot like ‘destiny’ at another angle, a destiny which peculiarly favours white Europeans and their descendants in settler states. In reality, there are no ‘ages’, there are just different ways of doing things and different technologies that do not necessarily determine what then happens socially. An ‘age’ which is alleged to be the ultimate stage of human history but which will end rapidly in the death of our species and causes untold suffering along the way can’t really be considered ‘better’, ‘forward’, or an ‘improvement’ to anything that preceded it or that was destroyed by it.

There is nothing ‘sustainable’ about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as they ultimately retrench in capitalist modernity rather than seeking the abolition of any of its institutions or organising to bring about any significant culture shifts. All of the goals are fundamentally unattainable under the colonial capitalist system because the ‘problems’ they identify are inherent functions of its operation. They are not remote byproducts that can be isolated and otherwise resolved by piecemeal reforms and tweaks. The primary way in which the SDGs are sought to be attained is through increasing GDP, ie. more of the same thing that has generated our global predicaments. How can that be imagined as ‘sustainable’? A problem cannot be solved by the same means in which it was created, or in Audre Lorde’s famous words, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Capitalist modernity is a fundamentally unsustainable system by definition of how it functions structurally and the lifeways it enables, which are based on over-consumption, individualism, accumulation, extraction, domination, and violence. The developmentalist narrative rests on the false promise of a universal middle class, where even now with proportionally very few people living a middle class lifestyle the planet is beyond capacity of what it can support. If everyone alive at present were to have a middle class lifestyle, there would need to be more than 6 earths to support it. If we are to begin living ‘sustainably’ and regeneratively again, rather than parasitically, then that will no longer be capitalist modernity, it will be something beyond it. As Vásquez-Fernández and Ahenakew highlight, since the establishment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 which then became replaced with the purportedly more eco-conscious SDGs in 2015, “no fundamental transformation has been achieved.” (2)

This conversation is important in decolonization and rewilding efforts because these paradigms are both at their core concerned with refuturing; about re-membering (‘member’ from Latin ‘membrum’ = ‘limb’, ie. putting our bodies back together) erased and forgotten ways of living in reciprocal relationships with the rest of life and each other. To even conceive of these possibilities, there is a need to strive to understand histories in their full complexities in order to locate how and where we were dis-membered and defutured from more ‘wild’ ways of being, and ways in which present systems and their narratives continue to defuture us. In our efforts to decolonize in predominantly white modern societies it has to be acknowledged that our cultural lifeways, most of our desires and wants, and most of what we think to be ‘normal’ only exist through being heavily subsidised by violence against people and land in the Global South (and, importantly, historical violence against our ancestors and the lands we’re on!). This is a story that all of us in ‘developed’ countries have to reckon with, not just the wealthy who benefit most from the existing order. The futures we often project for ourselves and the generations that follow us are ones built on more extraction and accumulation, modes of being that are incommensurate with the survival of our species and thousands of other species beyond this century.

Sources cited:

  1. Hickel, J. (2018) The Divide: Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Markets
  2. Vásquez-Fernández, A. M. and Ahenakew, C. (2020) Resurgence of relationality: reflections on decolonizing and indigenizing ‘sustainable development’