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July 15, 2021

By the West, for the West: Deconstructing the Development Discourse

India bus

Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen; licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Written by Shreyanshi Upadhyaya

The term development is hard to define because, over the years, it has come to connote different things: in the realm of economics as an objective such as modernisation, capital growth, poverty eradication; in the realm of ideas as a meta-narrative, discourse, or grand strategy; in the realm of development agencies as aid; and finally, for leaders of the developing countries development has meant a beacon of hope for prosperity. Despite these different meanings, in the realm of common-sense understandings, development has always had a positive connotation. Developing countries have adopted numerous development paths and the UN grandiose Development Goals. However, despite these makeovers, development has failed to produce any successful process of eradicating global poverty or inequality. Then why do we still believe that development works?

The invention of ‘underdevelopment’ and ‘global poverty’

In 1949, US President Truman advanced his Point Four Program wherein he made it the West’s self-ascribed agenda to deal with ‘poverty’ in ‘underdeveloped’ areas. It is in the context of the Cold War competition for world domination between the West and the East that the ‘grand strategy’ of Western-style development was advanced by the US, where development aid was sent to the newly independent countries in exchange for their loyalty.

The development discourse during the Cold War became a force that the leaders of the ‘underdeveloped’ world genuinely believed in. Development promised to them a world where they could be as prosperous as their former colonisers. Their colonial experience had taught them that there was no space for demonstrated weakness and vulnerabilities such as insecure systems of food, health, trade, etc., in the international arena, which was already taken care of in the developed West. To undo this insecurity, development presented a beacon of hope. Hence, as E.P. Thompson notes, the people who were objects of development during the colonial times and had ended up in a situation of depravity due to its very functioning, came to fight “not against development but about it”. Such was the hope that was eschewed by the ideology.

Even in the neoliberal era, bullied by the IMF and World Bank for decades, developing countries adopted American institutions and policies under Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) to learn “good” economic practices to get a sip out of the elixir of development which was the stronghold of the West. Even as they witnessed, for instance, during the East Asian crisis, the coercion of these fellow developing countries by the US and the IMF to reduce government welfare expenditure—even as it resulted in the resurgence of AIDS in Thailand and curtailed food subsidies for the starving in Indonesia—they were told it would be painful at first, but in the end, they will emerge ‘developed’. Adopting SAPs on the recommendation of these international financial institutions led to similar adverse consequences for the African economies, at times heightening unemployment and social insecurity. The developing world held onto the hope of development even as, a decade after, the same policies—increased government spending, massive deficits, bailing out of banks, interest rates as low as zero—that they were lectured about being against growth were adopted by the US to deal with its own 2008 crisis, aided by some of the same officials at the IMF and the World Bank. Why, despite this, did the non-West continued to follow the linear path to development?

With Truman’s speech in 1949, two billion people suddenly came to homogenously identify themselves as ‘underdeveloped’. Failing to note what they possessed—cultural diversity, talented population, and biodiversity—they came to see themselves in terms of what they were lacking: development. The term ‘underdevelopment’ had never before been used to classify entire populations into a hierarchy, where the developed were superior and the ‘underdeveloped’ inferior. The term was thus the creation of the development discourse advanced by the West. The development discourse helped solidify a specific perception into a fact that suddenly dichotomised the world and spoke to the vulnerability of the newly independent countries. Hence, the discourse of development was enticing because it not only made the achievement of Western-style development seem attainable for the ‘underdeveloped’, but also created the desirability of such development in the first place.

Similarly, global poverty—which rendered two-thirds of the world poor—was a phenomenon that was the construction of the development discourse. Poor people had always existed in all societies—which, as highlighted by Mustapha Kamal Pasha, kept devising vernacular methods for their support—but they had never become a feature that characterised countries in this manner before. Global poverty meant that the ‘underdeveloped’ countries came to be defined in relation to the standard of prosperity set by the ‘developed’ countries.

The development discourse led to the construction of ‘underdevelopment’ and ‘global poverty’, both of which ushered the creation of new discourses and practices that shaped the reality to which they referred. Faced with this new social reality where their existence came to be defined in terms of ‘poverty’ and ‘underdevelopment’, the discourse of development came to be naturalised as the necessary response for the leaders of the Global South, which they believed must be followed at any cost. Hence, development can be understood as a pervasive discourse, through which, the West influences and produces social reality for the non-West.

‘Benign’ Remodelling of non-Western Societies through ‘Science’ and ‘Objectivity’

At the heart of the Western discourse of development lies the normative need to compare non-Western societies to those of the West and frame the difference in terms of something the former is lacking and should aspire to achieve. It is what they lack, and the West possesses, is precisely what makes the non-West ‘underdeveloped’. Since the West holds, through virtue of experience (which itself is abstracted from history), the secrets to development, the path to development cannot be walked without an external intervention by the West.

Hence, the discourse of development encourages a study of the non-Western society by the knowledge-bearers and experts of the West. These interventions have produced descriptions and statistics—which cannot help but remind one of the colonial practices of census for resource exploitation—of the ‘underdeveloped’ that convey the various standards in which the non-West is lacking against entirely Western-centric rubrics. Therefore, the discourse of development has attempted to normalise the world in terms of the developed West’s experience and expectations.

However, the failure to meet these standards is not taken kindly to in the development discourse. Prescriptions given by development institutions, abstracted from any relation to colonialism, indicate that the ‘underdeveloped’ are oppressed by their own lack of initiatives, primitive societies, traditions, and overpopulation. These adjectives are also repeated endlessly as the root cause of ‘problems’ in the developing countries. For instance, framing of the ‘crises’ of African agriculture by the World Bank rests on the seemingly obvious connection between “more people/less land/ lower productivity/less food” which are merely vast generalisations that not only ignore the historical experience and difference in social structures but also end up caricaturing Africa because of its population.

Timothy Mitchel has shown that USAID’s development texts on Egypt have continually portrayed the Nile Valley and the peasantry living there as external to the political and economic transformations of the twentieth century, and hence, static over centuries. Portrayed as primitive and unchanging, then, agriculture at Nile Valley understandably needs the influx of Western technology and expertise. Jonathan Crush blames the development discourse for the propagation of the idea that societies evolved in a linear fashion, which then allowed development professionals to assume certain societies as static or being stuck in the past.

Given the ‘problems’ of the ‘underdeveloped’ countries in meeting the Western standards of development, the development discourse benevolently takes it upon itself to share its knowledge, science, and expertise to tackle them. Arturo Escobar highlights that development thinking has led to a conception of the social life in the non-West as a technical problem which requires the intervention of experts and science to rescue itself from its own stagnation. Every aspect of life—even the poor themselves—is subjected to the eyes of the experts and in military language, ‘action plans’ are drawn to impose on such societies. This trust in experts is combined with a blind faith in science, technology, planning, international organisations, and aid agencies, which are all seen as neutral and inevitably beneficial since their value has already been proven by the Western achievement of development.

Though development presents itself as essential, it seldom produces any new knowledge to tackle the problems it had set out to. Mark Duffield has shown that since 1950s, development reports carry the same recommendations: check population growth, modernise agriculture, reforestation, increase aid spending, renewed focus on poverty reduction, etc. Hence, the ‘technical’ study of societies through development analyses leads to a common diagnosis of problems in diverse societies, which, in turn, leads to the transfer of standardised policies from one country to another to tackle them.

This uniform application of development techniques has had irreversible consequences for the societies and cultures within the non-West. The use of buzzwords such as ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’ to denote the upliftment and involvement of communities in the development processes—which attach a moral feel-good character to the cause—has led to the legitimisation of many development interventions. However, the reality of the development discourse goes against the very idea of involving communities, who are continually ignored in the process. Stacy Leigh Pigg points out that in development planning, though it is widely assumed that villagers are “people who don’t understand”, there is an implicit sense that villagers must be labelled as ignorant not due to their absence of knowledge, but because of “the presence of too much locally-instilled belief”. Hence, the price of development has been the destruction of history and cultural traditions for two thirds of the world’s people.

The development discourse—by reducing people to data points, by destroying many historical practices of the non-West and tainting their cultures, by remodelling the non-Western societies according to Western standards, and by regarding percentage point decreases as an indication of poverty and inequality reduction—does violence to the very hope of a future without poverty and inequality. Thus, the development discourse advanced by the West works for the advancement of the West.

Author Bio

Shreyanshi Upadhyaya is a part-time Research Assistant at WICID and a full-time MA International Relations student at Warwick University. She draws inspiration from Postcolonial and Feminist International Relations theories, and her current research interests centre on optics, popular culture, and the construction of the national security environment in India.

May 27, 2020

Global Insights: COVID–19 and the Global South

Covid19 and global south

Authors: Jonathan Crush, Ann Fitz-Gerald, Hallelujah Lulie, Briony Jones, Anja Osei, Shirin Rai, Rachel Robinson

Editors: Briony Jones and Maeve Moynihan

This post is part of a larger collection covering the Global Insights webinar series, hosted jointly by Balsillie School of International Affairs (Canada), the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick (UK), the Institute for Strategic Affairs (Ethiopia), American University’s School of International Service (USA), and Konstanz University (Germany). Global Insights webinars take place every Thursday at 16:00h (BST). You can access a recording of this week’s webinar here.

Panelists: Ann Fitz-Gerald (Moderator - BSIA), Briony Jones (PAIS/WICID), Shirin Rai (PAIS/WICID), Jonathan Crush (BSIA), Hallelujah Lulie (ISA), Rachel Robinson (AU), and Anja Osei (KU)

COVID-19 is highlighting existing inequalities, exacerbating differences between the Global North and Global South, and bringing to light the gendered, racialised, and ethicised differences in the way people experience and can respond to crisis. COVID-19 is a health crisis, but it is also a crisis of security, governance, and democracy. The following post summarizes reflections through five questions and five policy recommendations.

In what ways does the pandemic in the Global South differ from that in Europe and North America?

Both scholars and journalists have been quick to highlight the differing experiences between the Global North and the Global South during the pandemic. A more nuanced approach that acknowledges similarities between the Global North and South as well as variations within the Global South itself is necessary. Within the Global South, economic consequences may be more severe, health burdens are greater, infrastructures for regulating populations are weaker, and trust in political institutions is lower, all of which may affect the capacity of governments to deal with the crisis. However, the population in the Global South is younger, less urbanised, has a history of dealing with health emergencies, and has fewer severe infections and fatalities thus far. This may just reflect a time lag and under-reporting in the Global South, but it may also demonstrate forms of resilience and early action which are not present in the Global North. There have been inspiring and effective responses throughout the Global South that disprove many flawed portrayals of the region, including effective food and resource distribution, accurate and consistent global health messaging, and the preservation of human rights in a time of crisis.

How is the COVID-19 pandemic in the North affecting the Global South?

The possibility of declining capital flow for development was a recurring topic throughout the webinar discussion. This decline encompasses remittances, foreign direct investment, and overseas development aid. In 2019, over 250 million migrants collectively remitted over $600 billion to their home countries. Remittances fell by 7% during the 2008 financial crisis, and the World Bank estimates that they have already dropped by 20% during the pandemic. The closure of borders in the Global North has already affected migration and remittance flows. As demand for clothing and other consumer goods declines, factory workers in the Global South have lost jobs without any security or pay. Support for foreign direct investment to Africa has already declined, and argued that the 0.7 Gross Domestic Product development assistance commitment may soon come under pressure as well. Such dramatic decreases in capital flow to the Global South will have a sustained impact on economies there. The US government’s attempts to defund the World Health Organisation exemplifies how governments may use COVID-19 as an excuse to limit funding to multilateral organisations. These tendencies towards isolationism, as well as neo-colonial trends as the Global North serve as concerning signs of what may come.

What is the response to COVID-19 taken by the South and what are we learning from it?

A variety of responses from the Global South have arisen so far, including quick and effective responses which demonstrate strong leadership at a time of crisis. National and local context drives this variation, but histories of responding to health crises and activism around the right to health impact it as well, as we see in Brazil for example. The Africa Centre for Security Studies has pointed to innovative responses such as Presidential Task Forces which mobilise professionals from different disciplines to share best practices like mobile testing. Governments in the South initially responded to the informal sector with tight spatial control, but later reversed this decision realising its vital importance for food security, among other aspects of daily life. In Addis Ababa for example, where around 40% of the economy is informal, the application of lockdown has to be different to contexts that we might see in London or Paris. In the context of the Global South, many populations see the lockdown response as more painful than the pandemic, leading to protest. As governments respond to this opposition, monitoring and observing in future elections will be affected, which may further cement authoritarian tendencies in government and increased dissatisfaction among populations.

Many countries in the global south are pursuing far-reaching democratization agenda. How is/could COVID-19 impact on these agenda?

The Global South is in a liminal moment in which xenophobic and populist politics may intensify, or a more collectivist political approach will triumph where states, civil society organisations, and multilateralism win out. For example, there is evidence in India of civil society organisations providing the much-needed food to the poor during lockdown, however there is also evidence of the pandemic being communalised to target India’s Muslim populations. This moment shows how the state can mobilise crises to shut down democratic critique in the name of urgency. Scholars, practitioners, and policy-makers must remain vigilant in order to guard against these potential threats to democracy, particularly in states where authoritarian tendencies are using such restrictions to quash opposition activism. In Senegal, for example, a recent study found that more than 80% of the population is suffering from the economic conditions due to lockdown, yet more than 80% approve of the government measures and are ready to comply. The pandemic and responses to it have and will continue to exacerbate inequalities surrounding gender and sexual orientation, in particular. For example, access to contraception and abortions is reduced and governments with a pre-exiting anti-LGBTQI stance continue to target sexual and gender minorities, but access to community support services are diminished. We have yet to see if this will also offer a powerful rallying cry for populations to demand more from the state.

How will/has COVID-19 impact(ed) Security Issues in the Global South?

In many places, the pandemic has emboldened state power and created an entry point to consolidate national consensus. The pandemic threatens security surrounding food, justice, equality, and more. In 2019 the FAO estimated that almost 2 billion people globally were either moderately or severely food insecure. Lockdowns have disrupted supply chains, reduced income, and increased food insecurity amongst the most vulnerable as the Hungry Cities Project has identified. The joint food and economic crises are forcing governments in some nations to relax lockdown restrictions before the health pandemic allows. The panel also highlighted the way in which the pandemic is widening the justice gap. In a report in 2019, the Task Force on Justice found that 1.5 billion people globally have a justice problem which they cannot resolve and that 4.5 billion people globally are excluded from the opportunities that the law provides. Current emergency measures may lead to, or indeed themselves be, violations of human rights for the general population and racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. A coordinated response from all justice actors – local, national and international, civil society and private sector – is necessary to independently monitor these measures, create safe zones in violence hotspots, and generate people-centred data on needs.

Key Conclusions: Five pieces of advice for policy-makers

1. Development agencies in the Global North should design aid programming that incorporates social care and social work. Governments in both the Global North and Global South should include increased resources for social care in relevant budgets, and recognise the value of care work being undertaken, as well as the gendered dimensions as women take up the burden of additional care work due to COVID-19.

2. Governments in both the Global North and Global South should invest resources in social infrastructure and build strong social welfare systems, considering policy tools such as universal welfare provision, basic income, wage protections schemes and public childcare provision.

3. Policy makers in governments as well as practitioners in development agencies should take an interdisciplinary approach including, but not limited to, health expertise.

4. Fund independent data collection, including a focus on people-centred data.

5. National governments and multilateral organisations should use this opportunity to create national consensus and dialogue.

Through these five pieces of advice for policymakers, the topic of COVID-19 and the Global South can spur conversation about how we understand the effects of the pandemic, how we construct narratives of the ‘crisis’ of the pandemic, and how we respond as scholars, practitioners and policy makers to ameliorate the impact of the crisis. While leadership, innovation and best practices are visible in the Global South, resource needs and declining development aid are growing. A multilateral response in conjunction with local and national action are of utmost importance to address the complexities and variations in the Global South at this time of crisis.

January 31, 2020

"We All Have a Role to Play in Peace": From the International to the Local and Back Again

Dr Briony Jones

Associate Professor in International Development; Deputy Director of the Warwick Interdisciplinary Research Centre for International Development.

Politics and International Relations Department, University of Warwick

Geneva Peace Week 2019 took place from 4th – 8th December 2019, and in the words of the organisers: “emphasises that each and every person, actor and institution has a role to play in building peace and resolving conflict”[1]. Following the 2017 Geneva Peace Week I reflected on the implications for knowledge of bringing researchers, policy makers and practitioners together[2]. I remain convinced of the benefits and indeed necessity of challenging boundaries between epistemic communities and striving for constructive dialogue between peace makers as broadly conceived. This is of particular pertinence for the fields with which my own work engages: justice, peace, development and human rights. But as I continue to seek dialogue, and to understand the complexities of which this means in practice, I am left wondering what it actually means to claim that “we all have a role to play in peace”.

The oft quoted words from George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” gives us pause for thought here. I strongly agree that every person, actor and institution has a role to play in building peace. But not all roles are perceived to be equal, and not all people are able to determine their roles equally. It is incumbent on all of us to recognise this and to take it into consideration when designing inclusive collaborations or making claims for, of, and about, peace. In my specialist area of transitional justice, the questions of whose justice and on whose terms currently informs much of the discussion between scholars, practitioners and policy makers. More inclusive programmes are increasingly prioritised, and examples range from the national and diaspora consultations undertaken by the Côte d’Ivoire Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation Commission[3], to victim participation at the International Criminal Court[4] and the outreach programme of the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia[5]. The values which underpin and motivate such programmes are important and echo the raison d’être of Geneva Peace Week.

What is notable however is the framing of inclusion and participation, the way in which ‘locals’ are invited to participate in agendas set by others elsewhere, and how collaborative programmes between the Global North and South are too often not the equal exchange of minds and resources that they are purported to be[6]. I will always remember the words of one of my collaborators when he told me at our first project meeting when we were discussing roles: “we don’t want to just do the translations and collect the data. We want to analyse and to share in the research outputs”. If we believe that we all have a role to play in peace then we need to think more carefully about the following issues, among others of course:

  1. Narratives of inclusion need to grapple with the ‘deviant’ voice – the individual who does not wish to participate, the institution which acts as a block to reform, the political impasse as peace agreements fail. This deviancy may frustrate the agendas of certain actors but may also illuminate another way of seeing the conflict and responses to it.
  2. There is not one version of any actor, be it a ‘local’ or ‘international’ and roles are often changing over time and across contexts. The roles that we all play will not be static or easily captured through programming support.
  3. There is a hierarchy of roles. There is a donor who controls the flow of financial resources, there is a community gatekeeper who controls who can participate in meetings, there are the academics who write about distant places and cultures and puts words in the mouths of their research subjects.


The Warwick Interdisciplinary Research Centre for International Development addresses urgent problems of inequality and social, political and economic change on a global level.

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Dr. Briony Jones
Dr Mouzayian Khalil-Babatunde

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