The Onward March of the Global Development Project

Project Rising

Since 2000, a Global Development Project has emerged, expanded, and consolidated itself. It deserves capitals because it is a powerful, well-resourced, and global endeavour. Focussed on the United Nations, it involves economically powerful countries, intergovernmental development organisations like the World Bank, non-governmental organisations like Oxfam International, a range of different consultants and public intellectuals, celebrities, and large corporations. It has no permanent HQ or agenda but it emerges out of UN summits, G8 and other intergovernmental meetings, the meetings of the World Bank and IMF (and for a time World Trade Organisation), annual meetings of specialised UN organisations (such as the UNDP) and the OECD.

From the setting of the Millennium Development Goals and the ‘Monterrey Consensus’ (2002) onwards, the Global Development Project has been constructed through international conferences and summits, resource commitments (mainly through aid), and increasingly impressive efforts to garner data and generate public relations messages. In a phrase: the Global Development Project has become a significant albeit slightly amorphous global institution.

One measure of its success is its ambition. Global development has come to mean practically everything and it has opened up economically poor non-Western societies to all manner of interventions and involvement.

Mission Creep

It was not always thus. On the eve of its invention, global development was largely a concern for economists trying to promote growth in post-colonial states and this was mainly done through lending for investment. The rise of a tradition of ‘political development’ research within American social sciences then reconfigured global development as a set of projects that aimed to ‘modernise’ people’s social behaviour: things like the promotion of formal education, projects that socially engineered peoples into entrepreneurs (mainly through variations on the ‘expert farmer’ approach), and a general support for urbanisation and industrialisation which – it was expected – would ‘de-ethnicise’ peoples and transform them into urban, mobile, and rational citizens.

Hardly an unproblematic approach to development, but at least parsimonious. Everyone involved knew what development was. In the present-day, we have something very different indeed. In the first place, there has been a massive profusion in the institutions of global development: more UN organisations, more states with aid programmes, non-governmental organisations, private foundations, university centres and institutes, the ‘philanthropic’ initiatives of corporations, and celebrity involvement. Secondly, global development has come to mean, well, everything as long as it fits within the following framework:

  • An aspect of life is identified as a problem, located within non-Western countries that are economically poor. The problem is defined as a ‘fact on the ground’, often through powerful headline figures, demanding immediate concern.
  • The problem defined in two parts: one that relates to human suffering and another that has detrimental effects on economic growth.
  • The solution is also defined in two parts: one that requires the agency of those in the poor country and another that involves the global development elites and their organisations.
  • The solution is articulated within a broader framework of ‘global development’.
  • The global development framework is one that strongly conforms to a liberal capitalist worldview.

So, within this framework, in what ways has the remit of global development expanded? Here are some of the most salient themes.

  • Grassroots development in which attention is drawn towards the value of ‘community’, leading to a range of ‘empowerment’ projects. These might involve training and education, the promotion of entrepreneurial activities, or various forms of ‘consicentisation’ which use public meetings and activities to elicit deliberation on aspects of community life.
  • Democratisation in which the focus is on the institutions of the state, the emergence of (liberal) citizenship, and the supposed comity of multi-partyism and the ‘free market’. Development here means providing resources and advice to re-engineer the nature of governance, and to fund, train, and ‘workshop’ within emerging civil societies in the expectation that all of this will improve the functioning of economic activity.
  • Rights-based development draws upon the human rights fundamental premise that all individuals have unalienable rights to certain things. In the development context this might be something basic like access to food or water. More broadly, it has come to mean something relating to capabilities to exercise meaningful choices and the flourishing of personhood.
  • Development and social capital in which economic vitality is considered in the context of sociability: patterns of group membership, familyhood, trust, openness, information sharing, and institution-building.
  • Security and development. Security here means ‘human security’ within which economic well-being is intertwined with minimising violence and instability. Either war is ‘development in reverse’ or poverty is a security threat. Livelihood security involves analysis of a household’s assets and their use. Food security has come to mean various things, but has at its heart the ability of agricultural societies to provision a basic minimum for a family group.
  • Sustainable development in which development is connected to arguments about restrained resource use, lower or more stable rates of growth, relations to the ‘natural world’, community and balance.
  • Health and development. Since the rise of HIV/AIDS as a global emergency, health provision and intervention has been strongly incorporated into global development practice. It has not simply been about access to health care but also the habits of life (especially sexual practices but also dietary and others). Furthermore, and more recently, mental health has become framed as a global development issue.
  • Development, livelihood, and wellbeing in which development is connected to qualitative, cultural, identity, and existential concerns about familyhood, stability, visions of the future, balance, and spiritual fulfilment or self-esteem.

The Great Moderation

There is, then, a desire within the Global Development Project to make our understanding of development more inclusive, its ambition being to seek out the new issue, coin the new approach, and achieve a more encompassing vision of development. In doing so, it constantly assimilates all sorts of ideas and research that take place outside of its own institutions, translating them into its own discourse, redacting out anything radical.

Some examples.

  • In regards to democracy and development, some seek to talk about popular democracy and struggles for social justice. In the orthodox approach which connects to its overarching Global Development Project paradigm, democracy is a means to secure responsible state action, to make markets work more efficiently, to realise liberal individualism.
  • In regards to sustainable development, some focus on the need to escape the ‘growth obsession’ of capitalism or to re-value other forms of economic activity. But the Global Development Project version of sustainable development is ‘green growth’ in which capitalism deals with environmental problems and perhaps even flourishes in the process.
  • Grassroots development and empowerment started as ideas wedded to a political movement to re-balance the power between peasants and states or even global markets. It was about solidarity and giving voice to the marginalised. As it has been incorporated into the Global Development Project it has increasingly been seen as a vehicle for the liberal empowerment of individuals through more open markets.
  • Health care came on to the agenda partly through social movement and rights politics (especially in regards to HIV/AIDS) and has incrementally been re-edited into a set of aid, technology, and institutonal issues.
  • Well-being and livelihoods open up a valuing of aspects of life beyond the market, such as stability, esteem, sociability, creativity. But, these terms are equally amenable to projects to construct resilient and independent individuals and families the better to cope or flourish in increasingly marketised societies. In a sense: a happy individual is a market-functional one.

My point is that the Global Development Project extrapolates its own world-view from the dissemination of diverse and broadening development research, endeavouring to push its own formulation of these concerns into the Global Development Project mission. Suitably translated, these issues become moderated, resourced, advocated, and interconnected. This is how global development consensus is constructed and protected. It is quite obviously an ideological project.

As ever in the prolix praxis of development, there is plenty of room here to contest these categories’ titles, sequencing, and aspects of their content. But there is no denying that they illustrate that something remarkable has happened to the global development project. It has expanded from the austere modelling of economists and ‘political scientists’ to something that involves a far larger and broader epistemic community who now speak about and practice global development as a concern that might reasonably include discussions of spirituality, self-esteem, familyhood, community, cognitive function, health, choice, associations, ambition, happiness, conscience, knowledge, citizenship, peace, sexuality, relations to the environment, expression, recognition, richness of choice, engagement with government, membership of organisations, freedom, and… well, perhaps I should stop there and simply ask the reader to identify an aspect of human existence that is not included.

The Unquestioned Answer

Despite being presented with such a high degree of agreeability that it approximates ‘common sense’, the Global Development Project is far from straightforward. There is an underlying logic within the Project and it can be condensed into a statement: the answer is liberal capitalism, what’s the question?

Why do development problems like poverty or malnutrition occur? Or why they have not gone away after such a long period of international development action? (After all, over a billion people still endure bare survival on US$1.25 a day or less.) Or why in some periods and places, major forms of human suffering have increased? (Mass poverty and inequality generally increased during the 1980s.) These are important questions, but Global Development generally starts by not asking them, or not asking them very seriously. Instead, the Global Development Project narrative starts by declaring how severe a problem is and how the problem is morally unacceptable. As a result, inquiries into how the conditions of mass suffering have emerged is largely sidelined. Inasmuch as global development intellectuals do address this question they tend to perform an historic sleight of hand: the development problem at hand was caused by a lack of the solution that is currently being advocated. Global development projects are necessarily generic, templates for the world’s poor who are defined not in terms of who they are but what they lack, the latter being something they are not required to identify for themselves. The Global Development Project is a set of solutions looking for a problem.

A development problem (or challenge) is, then, a kind of original sin that emerges from a state of timeless innocence in which complicated, and difficult questions about origin and persistence are nudged to one side by the desires to identify simple big problems with simple big solutions. There is an undertow of depoliticisation within global development programmes, manifest in the unwillingness to ask why problems exist and persist. This allows development to be discussed comfortably within liberal capitalist terms of reference: without history, without structure, without exploitation, without a recognition that global capitalism is established in relations of inequality. Here is doyen of the Global Development Project, Jeffrey Sachs: ‘What a deal the poor world is offering the rich world! The poorest of the poor are saying “We buy into your system. You can keep your wealth. We don’t call for revolution. We just want a little help to stay alive”… That is all the poor are asking for in this world.’ Simple.

The liberal capitalist frame serves very effectively as the adhesive to connect together the profusion of development issues and the broadening of the global development project’s remit. A useful coinage here is ‘inclusive neoliberalism’ (David Craig and Douglas Porter), in which a set of free market fundamentals are connected with a menu of social, cultural, and political aspects of human sociability in ways that render the latter compatible with the fundamentals of the former. In plain language: all of the new development concerns are given a liberal makeover, vehicles to promote individual empowerment, more market competition, rising entrepreneurship, open economies, and governments that take their cues from liberal economics. Forget the specific context, forget the history, forget the structures. This is how development issues are constructed within the Global Development Project as ‘facts on the ground’ ready for ready-made solutions.

The Moral Contours of the Global Development Project

The Global Development Project is non-discriminatory: it concerns itself with everyone, although it has categories of concern and it pays more attention to some than others. But how is this concern translated into development thinking? In the first place, there is a basic humanitarianism in which suffering is seen as an unequivocal bad that exerts a moral case on the rich and powerful to take action. But, humanitarianism is not development. The Global Development Project shares with humanitarianism (of the kind that underpins the Responsibility to Protect for example) and human rights discourses a normative universalism, but it is not only about rescuing people or realising their ‘human rights’; it is also about transforming them through a processes of market-based growth.

This is why humanitarian concern with suffering masses is not enough. The Global Development Project represents suffering not only as an intrinsic bad (a bad in itself) but also as an extrinsic bad: a bad because it damages the ability of a person or society to develop. One can see this dual concern in a wide variety of globally-promoted development initiatives each of which has an intrinsic and extrinsic value.

  • Tackling HIV/AIDS and other mass diseases to produce healthy and productive individuals.
  • ‘Empowerment’ to promote dynamic advantage-seeking market actors.
  • Eradicating malnutrition and hunger to improve labour productivity.
  • Promoting social capital to enhance the efficiency and stability of investment and contract-making.
  • Advocating rights and capabilities as ways to make societies more economically dynamic.
  • Supporting democracy as a means to more transparent and stable economic regulation and policy.
  • Security to ensure property and wealth are not at risk.
  • Sustainability to ensure that growth is stable and with minimal ‘external costs’.

Taken together, these extrinsic facets connect global development aims to the ideology of liberal capitalism. The intrinsic side provides a moral case for developmental concern articulating liberal intervention in the name of development: a legitimate way to integrate poor non-Western countries into global circuits of capital in the expectation that everyone will gain and all countries will converge into a shared liberal market global society.

This ‘everybody wins’ approach is reinforced by a particular reference in the practice of the Global Development Project: partnership. Partnership is a master-term that enables variations on a common theme: that states or individuals are responsible for their own development but that this responsibility is framed within a politics of external intervention. For some, this combination of responsibility and continuing external involvement is best understood as responsibilisation: a kind of global political practice within which aid and policy advice are projected into poor non-Western states in order to make them more closely resemble the classic liberal entity: the autonomous, capable, resilient, and rational agent – whether this be a state, a community, or an individual.

Global Development Project as Articles of Faith

To sum up, the Global Development Project is growing network of power in the world, defined by its desire to expand its remit of development concern, and to do so through a translation of humanitarian concern into a liberal capitalist telos. As such, the slender hope of development is entirely attached to a political economy that has not in fact demonstrated a great deal of success, especially in its starker and more recent forms.

  • International aid has proven to be effective in focussed provisions like mosquito nets, primary education, expenditure on basic healthcare, or responses to epidemics. What is far less clear is how aid promotes poverty reduction or any more complex process of development. The massive body of research on aid and development remains unclear in its identifications of cause and effect. This is worrisome because the Global Development Project is based on a faith that ‘more and better aid’ can address a wide range of development problems.
  • A great deal of mass poverty reduction has taken place outside of the Global Development Project. China, India, and Brazil have experienced processes of economic growth and mass poverty reduction. Social welfare has been provided most effectively in Cuba. Some Latin American countries have rolled out effective social support through conditional cash transfers without support from the Global Development Project.
  • The Global Development Project is based on a misrepresentation of the nature of global capitalism. Although global capitalism has all sorts of progressive aspects it would be nothing short of intellectually delinquent to assume that these aspects are predominant or that a largely uncritical adherence to a liberal capitalist policy agenda will bring a country into the fold of some transnational process of growth that ‘lifts all boats’. That is not how the world works. There are plenty of examples of transnational corporations acting in extremely anti-social ways; of international banks extracting money from besieged economies (most extremely through so-called vulture funds); of tax evasion and transfer pricing which sneaks profits out of poor countries; of environmental damage as a result of foreign investment; of uncompetitive practices by Western capitalist states to protect their own firms. Beyond a rather weak-kneed attempt to deal with tax evasion, the Global Development Project to all intents and purposes ignores these realities of global capitalism.
  • Finally, the Global Development Project’s evocation of new development challenges, targets, and initiatives is in good part autobiographical: a discourse that helps firm up a transnational elite raison d’être. For as long as there are brave new goals and programmes there will be a thing called global development. It is in part for this reason that the Global Development Project is prospective: looking forward with greater ambition and not reflecting a great deal on the past, most obviously its slender achievements. It is for this reason that any partially-fulfilled target is evidence of a need to try harder, not reflect on the underlying strategy.

I have argued that the Global Development Project is an expansive project of intervention in poor non-Western countries to attach them to a liberal capitalist code of practice, a code that both ignores the realities of historically successful development and the dynamics of contemporary globalisation. It is high time to treat this project with the incredulity it deserves.

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