Development Studies and the Manufacturing of Consent

By Tara van Dijk

Why should we “think SDGs” in Development Studies?  This model of development (getting countries, corporations and other institutions to champion a list of non-binding goals and arbitrary targets) should be an object of analysis and critique. Yet this and similar messages adorn Development Studies departments’ websites, events, and curriculum.  And what do these messages preclude and promote?   They promote consent for this brand of development by precluding dissent and abstention.  Here I delve into why and how Development Studies, in effect and since its inception, manufactures consent for mainstream development thinking and projects.

The Genesis and Contradiction of Development Studies

The contemporary notion of development was born out of the fourth pillar of President Truman’s 1949 inaugural address that laid out the United States’ place and role in the world.  He proclaimed that the country “must embark on a bold new worldwide program for making the benefits of our scientific and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.”  While at the time of the speech there was neither a plan nor a single document about how this “worldwide program” would be organized and operationalized, a foreign policy, subsequent industry and the field of Development Studies were seeded.

Today there is a global (ideological) apparatus including the World Bank, United Nations, Offices in Foreign Affairs and State Departments, NGOs and INGOs, private consultancy firms, corporate responsibility offices, professional associations like EADI, and many university departments and degree programs linked together by this concept of development.  For Americans, and eventually the rest of the West, it offered a way of conceiving the world and their country’s role that was both self-affirming (it is noble to help the rest of the world modernize) and generated an industry spanning across the private and public sectors that continues to provide careers for many well-meaning professionals. Since the 1990s, master’s degrees in Development Studies became popular in the wake of the rise of the NGO sector, celebrity philanthropy, corporate responsibility, fair trade campaigns and, most recently, sustainability.  Arguably, these degrees are children of demand much more so than social science.

The potency of this notion of development, currently in its sustainability iteration, persists despite undeniable critiques and the objective failure regularly cataloged in IPCC reports.  The contradiction between what Development Studies knows and what it does is striking. Development Studies knows that the current global regime through which advanced economies’ access the labor, natural resources and markets of the global South contributes to underdevelopment.  Arturo Escobar’s Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World explained how development created rather than discovered the ‘third world’ by retroactively positing former colonies as areas of lack and backwardness that need ‘first world’ assistance.  It knows that the financial flows from South to North, when informal and illegal flows are included, dwarf the amount of development aid and investment that flows from North to South.

When geographies of value extraction and realization are foregrounded, it becomes clearly false to recognize development as a rupture from imperialism. Critiques of ‘sustainability’ and ‘the Anthropocene’ reveal how these framings depict and yoke the economy with nature and society in ways that stifle the political and perpetuate activities that sustain the unsustainable, namely the dictatorship of global capital.

This or similar scholarship is not missing from Development Studies, yet rendering a verdict on mainstream development’s performance, conflicts of interest and structural contradictions remains perpetually deferred.  How can we account for this ongoing ambiguity?

Examining the Gap between Knowledge and Action

Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media can shed light upon how Development Studies remains epistemically tethered to mainstream development. This connection is reproduced through the routinely taking up of mainstream development’s categories of practice over and above categories of analysis derived from social science.  Development Studies’ courses give credence to categories of development practice like resilience, sustainability, participation, self-help, inclusion, diversity, big data, and micro finance. However, to discuss something is always to already posit its existence. When a Development Studies department offers a module on a category of practice, such as ‘sustainable cities’, this compels those involved to act as if sustainable cities already exist.  The uncritical centering of categories of practice reproduces or reinforces reifications or, in other words, functions to manufacture consent for the projects from which they arise and rationalize.

Categories of Practice Pipeline 

On the topic of elite driven social change, Anand Giridharadas notes in Winners take all: The elite charade of changing the world:

“When elites get involved in social change, what they do is they change change. They take leadership of change. They Columbus social change. They declare themselves the CEO of Change Inc. And then they edit out—in their capacity as board members, trustees, leaders of organizations, donors and funders—forms of change they don’t like.”

A generative way to “edit out” or marginalize categories of analysis an institution or other powerful actor is indifferent or opposed to in Development Studies, is to provide alternatives.  There are three reinforcing pipelines of categories of practice to Development Studies: first, mainstream development institutions fund projects aligned with their own categories (aka evidence-based policy).  Second, most Development Studies majors want to work for development institutions and thus need to be well versed in their categories of practice.  Third, Development Studies’ academic staff are encouraged to collaborate with development institutions. Categories of practice are what collaborations with development is all about. In sum, research funding, student career prospects, networking, and access to development institutions’ knowledge resources combine into the manufacturing of consent via categories of practice.

Development Studies’ manufacturing of consent mirrors what Herman & Chomsky delineated in mass media.   They found that formal censorship is unnecessary and counterproductive when bias can be easily mobilized through the filters of commercialization, defining worthy vs. unworthy victims, reliance on information provided by state-funded or corporate entities, and flak for those who dissent or abstain by colleagues and superiors who comply.  Of course, there are some differences. Rather than having a dichotomy of worthy versus unworthy victims, we have categories of practice marginalizing social science-based categories of analysis. But the gist is the same.

The umbilical cord between mainstream development institutions and Development Studies needs to be cut.  Moving towards a self-determined Development Studies requires an open and critical assessment of the dominance of categories of practice and their pipelines.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the EADI Debating Development Blog or the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes.

Tara van Dijk @beyondcapital1 is currently an independent scholar working on her book: India Urbanizing: Informality Beyond ‘Dead Capital’ and ‘Self-Help’ Housing based on research funded by her European Commission MSCA Grant: 749841.  This blog was extracted from a journal article she is writing, so comments are very welcome.