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Development: beyond the single story

Having been knocked off our feet, as I discussed in my previous article, by the powerful concepts of coloniality and modernity, we dive deeper into international development. This development concept is rooted in the Western paradigm and its single story that prescribes what it means to be human and what is considered valid knowledge, and can be seen as a continuation of imperialist approaches. This article is bound to become somewhat of a caricature, but I distilled it from experiences shared with and by our class.

Progress?

Development is a really tough topic. People from the West with good intentions go to help ‘underdeveloped’ countries to make progress. However, it turns out that even just the notion of progress is a Eurocentric idea. To me it sounds like human nature, because we all want to improve, right? But actually it did not exist in pre-capitalist medieval times and does not exist in any non-Western cultures.

Development beyond the single storyProgress is linear thinking, where people have to go through the same stages from a backward place to a better place. It shows dissatisfaction with the present, and a drive to get somewhere, to perfect humankind. Also, it implies that different societies can be ranked. Underdevelopment is only possible with constant comparison (and who defines the parameters of this comparison?). Somewhere along the line subsistence, meaning you have enough to live well, became to be viewed as poverty (in the West). This was not always the case, and certainly is not the case everywhere. Only from a capitalist point of view subsistence means you are poor, because you are not accumulating. The development answer to this poverty is economic growth. What would an approach look like if it focused on human flourishing instead?

Expertise?

We had class from Dr. Karambu Ringera, founder of International Peace Initiatives in Kenya, who explained that the idea of helping others often turns into some outside ‘expert’ coming in to a community to assess what is wrong and how it can be solved. This expert knows what is best, while the community or individuals are portrayed as dependent, not capable of thinking for themselves. This is problematic, because Western expertise is not the same or necessarily compatible with that of other cultures and contexts. As I explained in the previous article, there are different ways of relating to nature, and different ways of knowing and being that we in the West often fail to notice or even deny. We must realise that going somewhere with our Western view is likely to do more harm than good, even if we have good intentions.

Development beyond the single storySeeing the world from a different perspective is very difficult. Take a look at the picture on the left here: what do you see? It is a map of the world I have on my wall, which I turned ‘upside down’ after our classes. Did you turn your head to look at it the ‘right’ way like my reflex is? I have put it this way as constant reminder that my view is only one of many possible ones, that it is difficult to truly see the world through different eyes, and to encourage myself to look out beyond for those different views.

Beyond?

So, how to move beyond the development paradigm? One recurring question in our class was whether there is a place for Western-initiated approaches at all. There were many discussions and I hope the following two snippets of opinions give some food for thought. There are many views about these issues, and I encourage you to think about what you find of all this and how your opinion is shaped by your experiences, upbringing, and view of life!

Dr. Karambu Ringera found that Western people are welcome, but only as partners working with the local people, not to help. You should own your position, the credentials you bring and power you have. Instead of pretending that these are not there, they should be actively acknowledged and dealt with. It has to come from deep humility, with the idea that you do not know how to help someone, because you are not that person in those circumstances with that history in that place. Instead, you should ask how they could help themselves. You are not the expert; the community should have ownership.

According to others, the radical approach to development would be to leave. Read for instance this temperamental speech by Ivan Illich telling US volunteers to stay at home and help there rather than to come to Mexico. Perhaps we should focus on our own problems and where they come from, rather than exporting our ways to other parts of the world. This is by no means easy, especially if you see something you find unjust or inhumane. Tt might be worth noticing though that no one is coming to our society to help us develop because we put our elderly away in a care home, pollute our rivers and air, or have little connection with our ancestors.

Further reading:

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