chapter  1
55 Pages


One of the central tasks of postcolonial ecocriticism as an emergent field has been to contest – also to provide viable alternatives to – western ideologies of development. These contestations have mostly been in alignment with radical Third-Worldist critiques that tend to see development as little more than a disguised form of neocolonialism, a vast technocratic apparatus designed primarily to serve the economic and political interests of the West. A more balanced, if no less trenchant, critique of development is urgently needed for both postcolonial and environmental criticism, and this is the far-from-easy task that the following section undertakes. Several fundamental questions can immediately be brought to the fore here: What is development? How should it be defined and measured, and whose interests does it serve? What is development’s historical relationship to colonialism and imperialism; whither development in an increasingly globalised postcolonial world? Is development sustainable, and what is its connection to the environment? Last but not least, what can postcolonial ecocriticism add to current and/ or historical debates on development? To what extent have postcolonial writers, in doubling as cultural and environmental activists, been successful in pursuing an anti-or counter-developmental approach? These questions are complex, all the more so in that the word ‘devel-

opment’ is taxed with considerable semantic difficulties of its own. Development is generally recognised to be a strategically ambiguous term, adapted to the different needs of those who use it, and shot through with self-congratulation and condescension, based as it all too often is on the enormous cultural assumptions and presumptions of the West (Black 1999: 3). As the German sociologist Wolfgang Sachs puts it, pulling no punches, the international development debate has tended to mimic ‘the rise and fall of political sensibilities within the [affluent]

Northern countries’, particularly the US; thus, ‘unfettered enthusiasm for economic growth in 1945 reflected the West’s desire to restart the economic machine after a devastating war; the emphasis on manpower planning echoed American fears after the shock of Sputnik in 1957; the discovery of basic needs was stimulated by President Johnson’s domestic war on poverty in the 1960s; and so, too, for [contemporary] concerns about worldwide inequality: what development means depends on how the rich nations feel’ (Sachs 1997: 26). Harsh though they are, Sachs’s words echo widespread fears, particu-

larly in the so-called ‘beneficiary’ countries of the Third World, that development is at best a form of strategic altruism, in which technical and financial assistance from the self-designated First World is geared to its own economic and political concerns. Perhaps the most extreme form of this view is that development is little more than a myth propagated by the West that, under the guise of assisted modernisation, re-establishes the very rift (social, political, economic) between First and Third Worlds that it claims to want to heal (De Rivero 2001). This myth of development, taking false support from ideas promiscuously linked to the Enlightenment ideology of progress and the Darwinian survival of the fittest, enjoins the less ‘advanced’ Southern countries to close the gap on their wealthier Northern counterparts, and in so doing to subscribe to a capitalist growth model that is both demonstrably unequal and carries a potentially devastating environmental cost (De Rivero 2001: 110). If development is a myth, it is also a ‘historically produced discourse’ (Escobar 1995: 6) which can arguably be seen along similar lines to those of Saidian Orientalism, and which, like latter-day versions of Orientalism, operates a regime of representation that is aimed at consolidating the social, cultural and political authority of the West in a postcolonial world (Escobar 1995). ‘Developmentalism’, as the Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar dubs this discourse, involves the ‘developmentalization of the Third World, its progressive insertion into a regime of thought and practice in which certain interventions for the eradication of poverty became central to the [late-capitalist] world order’ during the period immediately following the end of the Second World War (24).1 Much like Sachs, Escobar attributes the post-war ‘invention of development’ to the historical confluence of several different factors: the demands of decolonisation; the pressures of the cold war; the need to find new markets; and the faith in modern science and technology as a panacea for social and economic ills (32). Development, Escobar insists, is as much a mechanism of discursive control as an agency of economic management, based on the assumption that the western values it inculcates are indisputably the right ones, and characterised by a ‘top-down,

ethnocentric, and technocratic approach’ in which people and cultures are treated as ‘abstract concepts, statistical figures to be moved up and down [at will] in the charts of “progress”’ (44). This abstract view of development and the players within it is argu-

ably backed up by economic agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank which, also created as part of the US-led ‘war on poverty’ in the immediate post-war era, effectively turned poor people into ‘objects of knowledge and management’, and poor nations into targets for social and political intervention by the privileged countries against whose measures they were to be judged (Escobar 1995: 23). For radical critics of development, this financial apparatus merely increased the gap between rich and poor, helping to create what the Peruvian exdiplomat Oswaldo de Rivero calls a modern form of ‘socio-economic apartheid: a planet in whose northern hemisphere there is a small archipelago of wealthy nation-states, surrounded by the majority of mankind’ (De Rivero 2001: 24). A more liberal view is the one taken by the Indian Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, who acknowledges the interference intrinsic to western development practices but still accepts development’s basic premise: to address the persistence of poverty, environmental degradation and the violation of human freedom in the contemporary globalised world (Sen 2000: xii). For Sen, the primary objective of development is not economic growth (though this is certainly to be wished for) but the expansion of human freedom: ‘The role of economic growth in expanding [social] opportunities has to be integrated into [a] more fundamental understanding of the process of development as the expansion of human capability to lead more worthwhile and more free lives’ (295). Development is first and foremost human development, and can thus be measured in terms of an enlargement of human choices that actively requires ‘the removal of [those] major sources of unfreedom’ (3) – poverty, social unrest, political repression – that by definition limit the scope and quality of people’s everyday lives. While Sen sees development in terms of both economic growth and the expansion of human capability, his theory is perhaps best seen as a humanisation of the abstract principles of economic productivity. Freedom, for Sen, consists at least in part in the freedom to participate in the global market system he supports. This is capitalism with a conscience, attuned to the contemporary realities of social inequality. The market, Sen insists, is not just a vehicle of self-interest but an instrument of social justice; and development, similarly, isn’t just about ‘growth’ per se, but about the various mechanisms that promote and protect the quality of human life. Definitions of development, then, are in part arguments about the

social, as well as economic, benefits of a world market system that,

depending on the viewpoint, is (1) not necessarily antithetical to human equality or (2) rides roughshod over local human and environmental interests in the attempt to secure preferential conditions for international trade. Just how colonialist is this system? To some extent, it might be argued, modern theories and practices of development are part of a wellintentioned attempt to repair the damage caused by colonialism, helping to create the more advantageous economic and political conditions that might allow historically marginalised and/or exploited peoples to work towards building their own future while consolidating their own individual and collective human rights. However, in Gustavo Esteva’s view, development and the progression it implies is better understood as a form of ‘colonizing anti-colonialism’ in which the poor countries of the world are simultaneously seen as socially and politically ‘backward’, and in which the ‘positive meaning of the word “development” – profoundly rooted after [at least] two centuries of its social construction – is a reminder of what [these countries] are not’ (Esteva 1997: 116-31). Development, understood this way, is a classic example of the self-privileging discourse of neocolonialism, as put into practice by people and governments primarily interested in exploiting others in the name of the noble cause (Black 1999: 268).2 Far from putting an end to old-style imperialism – as Truman might have it –modern (post-war) development finds new ways of instantiating it, e.g. through the ongoing collaboration between national governments and gargantuan transnational companies whose economies exceed those of all but the largest ‘developing’ countries, and whose financial and technical assistance is provided in terms that continue to favour the West (Esteva 1997: 9-11; also Spybey 1992). This contemporary transnational dispensation aligns development with a predatory socioeconomic system – global capitalism – that effectively spreads inequality at the same time as it champions its own adherence to freedom, democracy and human rights (De Rivero 2001). While these global conditions are often touted as being new, they provide a reminder of the historical connection between colonial expansion and capitalist production, in which the export of capital and its concentration in monopolies inexorably led to a territorial division of the world (Larrain 1989). They also indicate the double truism that the current circumstances of globalisation, as well as those that had obtained under previous empires, cannot help but produce uneven development; and that development, indexed to the rise of global capitalism, has historically created the rationale for expansion and the ‘pacification’ of local peoples so as to make way for favourable conditions of international trade (Havinden and Meredith 1996: 87). More recently, postcolonialism’s troubled relationship to globalisation

has brought with it a renewed attention to the possibilities of ‘post-

development’, which may be loosely understood as a set of revisionist strategies through which development is re-articulated at grass-roots levels, and which emerges from the recognition that the nonhomogeneity of the world system requires that the multiple modernities encapsulated within it be negotiated in local terms (Rahnema and Bawtree 1997; Saunders 2002). Post-development, in Kriemild Saunders’s words, confronts ‘the fundamental contradiction of global capitalism and economic growth with the goals of equity, empowerment and a sustainable environment’ (Saunders 2002: 17). It doesn’t imply an outright rejection of development, but rather emphasises the untenability of those dominant models of ‘catch-up’ development that are based on the twin principles of western cultural hegemony and economic growth. Such models are characterised, post-development theorists argue, by ‘a colonial mentality stamped by [the] overvaluation of industrial societies and a [corresponding] devaluation of subsistence-based communities’, which often work with different sets of social and ecological principles, and which tend – in very general terms – to formulate a view of the world that privileges simple living, and in which spiritual and socio-cultural well-being is accorded greater importance than material growth (19). To some extent, of course, this rose-tinted view of subsistencebased societies is a recipe for romanticism, but post-development theorists are no more unified in their philosophy than their neoliberal counterparts, and are not necessarily opposed to at least some of their alleged opponents’ principles, e.g. the value of western science and technology, or the need to match ‘efficiency’ to ‘sufficiency’ models in the pursuit of a fulfilled life (Saunders 2002). ‘Sustainability’ is the watchword of these theorists, but at the same

time many of them are suspicious of the coupling of sustainability and development, on the grounds that preserving the term ‘development’, in whatever shape or combination, implies a continuing attachment to the idea of development as economic growth. More suspicious still are those radical theorists, like Wolfgang Sachs, who see sustainable development as just the latest ruse deployed by the apostles of development ideology to ward off critiques of development’s destructive tendencies: ‘No development without sustainability; no sustainability without development […] Development emerges rejuvenated from this liaison, the ailing concept gaining another lease on life’ (Sachs 1997: 29). Sachs sees contemporary catch phrases such as the ‘survival of the planet’ in similar vein, as little more than a political alibi for the latest ‘wave of state intervention in people’s lives all over the world’ (33). He links this wave to what he calls a ‘global ecocracy’, whose concerns for environmental management rely on forms of administrative control and technological

one-upmanship that cannot help but suggest that ‘calls for the survival of the planet are often, upon closer inspection, nothing [other] than calls for the survival of the industrial system [itself]’ (35). Sachs is joined here by Escobar, who sees sustainable development in

terms of ‘the resignification of nature as environment; [as] a reinscription of the Earth into capital via science; [as] the reinterpretation of poverty as [an] effect of destroyed environment; [and as] the new lease on management and planning as arbiters between people and nature’ (Escobar 1995: 203). Taken together, these measures suggest that sustainable development, far from being an attempt to adjust development to social and environmental concerns, is rather the First World’s latest initiative to ‘colonize the last areas of Third World social life that are not yet completely ruled by the logic of the individual and the market, such as water rights, forests, and sacred groves’ (198). Like Sachs, Escobar sees sustainable development in terms of the sustainability of the market as a primary regulating mechanism in the determination of people’s everyday lives. For both, the term ‘environment’ itself implies the marketability of nature, providing an implicit rationalisation for the control and management of natural resources by the global urban-industrial system and its primary political ally, the nation-state. In this sense, sustainable development implies that it is economic growth, rather than the environment, that needs to be protected, and that environmental degradation is to be fought against principally because it impedes this growth:

The epistemological and political reconciliation of economy and ecology proposed by sustainable development is intended to create the impression that only minor adjustments to the market system are needed to launch an era of economically sound development, hiding the fact that the economic framework itself cannot hope to accommodate environmental considerations without substantial reform.