Radical Alternatives or Ambivalent Engagements? Development Understandings from the Global South

By Alba Castellsagué and Sally Matthews / New Rhythms of Development blog series

Critiques of development have historically problematised the dominant models of economic growth and the controversial ideas of modernity and progress. Since the sixties, many have attempted to advance more sustainable understandings of development, with proposals emerging from a wide range of approaches: human capabilities, ecological sustainability, gender justice, and decoloniality, among many others.

Global South Alternatives to Development

But reformulation has not been the only approach to development critique, as others have preferred to reject the concept and focus on the search for alternatives. Post-development and other critical development thinkers call for radical alternatives to development. While such claims started in the seventies, it is rather new that some such thinkers argue that such alternatives should be rooted in concepts and practices from the Global South. There is optimism that alternatives are already being worked out on the ground among communities in the Global South. For example, in the introduction to the book Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary, the editors claim that there are ‘thousands’ of ‘transformative initiatives’ around the world promoting alternatives to development premised upon indigenous concepts like Buen Vivir, Ubuntu and Swaraj. Buen Vivir (and related terms like Sumak Kawsay) refers to a ‘culture of life’ and harmonious living in particular regions of South America; Ubuntu is an African concept referring to human connectedness and mutuality; and Swaraj is an Indian concept referring to self-governance or sovereignty. These and other concepts from the Global South are gaining more attention from those interested in thinking about alternatives to development. Attention is also being given to concepts coming from marginalised communities in the Global North – see for example this EADI blog post where some Maori concepts of relationality are discussed.

Advocates of alternatives to development argue that we do not need new ways of implementing development, rather what is needed is a rejection of development and the presentation of alternatives to development. This has long been a much-debated feature of post-development thinking which is differentiated from other critical development perspectives by its radical rejection of development as a whole and its insistence on alternatives to development which draw on Global South concepts and practices.

Decoloniality and Global South Alternatives

Like post-development thinkers, the so-called decolonial thinkers also promote the idea that we should draw on marginalised perspectives from the Global South to find new ways to think about (or beyond) development. For example, in a recent book, influential decolonial scholar Walter Mignolo tells us that the philosophies of Ubuntu and Sumak Kawsay can help us ‘to divest ourselves from democracy and development’ and to live in harmony with each and the earth. Similarly, according to Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, the decolonial turn entails the ‘definitive entry of Global South subjectivities into the realm of thinking and imagining another world’.

Discussions like those mentioned above all draw attention to the potential usefulness of concepts from the Global South. Some go further to suggest that alternatives to development are already being practiced. For example, the editors of Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary argue that this pluriverse which they are seeking to build ‘is not just a fashionable concept’, but a practice that is already being worked out in many Global South communities. One example that is given is the cluster of initiatives called Vikalp Sangam at work in parts of India.

Questions and Cautions about Global South Alternatives

At the same time, however, the applicability of such notions is not free from controversy and scepticism has been raised from different standpoints. Several important questions arise in relation to the idea of using Global South concepts and practices to build alternatives to development.

Are Global South communities really rejecting development?

First, it seems that the concept of development and the many initiatives associated with it remain very popular. There seems little evidence of widespread rejection of development by communities in the Global South. Many marginalised communities in the Global South struggle with poverty, precarity and deprivation and seem to be very keen and supportive of many of the development initiatives brought to them by governments and aid agencies. It is therefore certainly not clear how broad appeal the idea of alternatives to development has in the Global South.

What complexities and risks arise when using concepts from the Global South?

Second, it is not clear whether and how concepts like Buen Vivir and Ubuntu are being used by Global South communities to articulate any such alternatives. Such notions have proven complex and difficult to define. Post-development thinkers provide, at most, a checklist of the ‘concept’s virtues as defining principles’ but rarely operationalise them following a systematic methodology, as Pedro Portugal Mollinedo makes the case for the Bolivian Vivir Bien. Furthermore, they are usually presented as closed notions that have internal coherence and unity, while they seem rather diverse and allow for different understandings. For example, Víctor Bretón Solo de Zaldívar identifies three divergent understandings of Buen Vivir in Ecuador. Other commentators suggest that such concepts are sometimes appropriated in ways that do not further the interests of the marginalised. For example, Bernard Matolino and Wenceslaus Kwindingwi warn that Ubuntu is being used to advance the interests of elites in South Africa and Andreu Viola Recasens cautions that some promoters of the idea of Buen Vivir idealise the lives of marginalised communities in the Andes.

What is the role of researchers in articulating these alternatives?

Third, the role of the researchers in the assessment of the supposed alternatives is rarely discussed. A cause for cautiousness is that most of the discourse and research on such notions is formulated by nonindigenous intellectuals and scholars, making the claim for an austere life in harmony with nature, at least, controversial.

Answering these Questions: The Role of Fieldwork in the Global South

Beyond the theoretical disputes, fieldwork with Global South communities helps reveal the complicated ways in which such communities receive and respond to development initiatives. Such fieldwork is also helpful in fleshing out whether and how communities in the Global South use alternative concepts (such as Buen Vivir or Ubuntu) in organising and trying to improve their lives. In our upcoming panel at the EADI CEsA 2023 conference, we will be hosting a discussion of how development and proposed alternatives to development are understood and negotiated on the ground. Rather than being easily categorised into either “reformist solutions” or “transformative initiatives” – as some contributors to Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary imply – our past experiences suggest that communities in the Global South typically negotiate the ideas and practices associated with development in complex ways rather than either embracing or rejecting development. We are hoping that our discussion can deepen and nuance debate about whether and how marginalised communities in the Global South engage with development and supposed alternatives to development.

This blog post is opening the “New Rhythms of Development” series around the EADI/CEsA Lisbon Conference, 10-13 July 2023

Alba Castellsagué is a Juan de la Cierva Post-doctoral Fellow in the Pedagogy Department at Universitat de Girona, Spain. Her research focuses on the gender and intersectional dimensions of development and particularly examines the areas of education (from primary to higher education) and mobility. She has carried out research in Spain and Nepal on school mobilities, early school leaving, intersectionality in educational and development practices, as well as discourse and policy analysis.   

Sally Matthews is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa. Her research engages with development (particularly post-development theory), the politics of NGO work, higher education transformation and decolonisation, and race and privilege. These seemingly eclectic research interests are loosely held together by a general preoccupation with the question of whether and how the relatively privileged can contribute to struggles for social justice.

Image: Ken Lane under a ceative commons licence on Flickr

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