Challenging Global Development while Defending Modernity and Enlightenment Thought

By Tanja Müller

The latest book in the EADI Global Development Series has recently come out with the apt title Challenging Global Development: Towards Decoloniality and Justice. It is a timely and important book, not least because it provides good summary of the history of ‘development’ and Development Studies, up to contemporary debates. It interrogates most of the relevant themes and contestations in relation to the concept of development and Development Studies as an (academic) subject. The book provides pertinent critiques of a diverse range of themes, such as inclusions and exclusions; transformative processes of knowledge production; questioning the growth-agenda; structural roots of global inequalities; and narratives based on dichotomies. A focus on decoloniality and justice is welcome, as is the recognition that colonialism is ultimately a power structure.

So far, so good. But from my own history with development and Development Studies, and numerous encounters as a lecturer on these themes with different generations of Masters students, I think there is also a danger here: The danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The gist of my thoughts therefore centres on defending modernity and enlightenment thought – as an approach, not in the way it is often discussed and has fed into dominant development discourse and practice. I will attempt a defence of modernity and enlightenment thought in three interventions.

Development as a promise that turns vertical into horizontal temporalities

My first intervention centres on definitions: The question what development is or may be has been debated for decades. And it is certainly true, as many of the book contributors point out, that development has too often been linked first and foremost to economic growth. It is also true that global attempts going beyond economic growth agendas, like the SDGs, can be seen as a continuation of coloniality and a legitimisation of a global capitalist system that perpetuates structural inequalities.

But development has also always been a promise, or an aspiration, in particular for those outside of it. The aspiration to see a better life for one’s children; to be freer, whatever that may mean in concrete, to arrive somewhere different over time. As James Ferguson reminds us in Global Shadows, not only is the world intertwined, but the promise of development is at its core liberating. It turns a spatial hierarchy of top and bottom into a time sequence, into the starts of a journey towards something, well, ‘better’, whatever ‘better’ may mean in concrete.

To hold up the idea of development as an aspiration does not necessarily imply what one may call ‘Western’ knowledge and colonial mindsets. One may call anything that transcends those mindsets post-development, in particular various theorisations of grassroot practices from the Global South, but is post-development not attached to development by the same umbilical cord? Would it not be more helpful to keep up development as an aspiration that can transcend the specifics of capitalist development?

Modernity as a product of global interactions, not colonial exploitations

This leads me to my second intervention: To imagine different lifeworlds, do we not need ‘modernity’ in its many guises, a modernity that transcends or is different from capitalist modernity? There is the well-rehearsed argument about the foundational violence of modernity. It states that modernity would not have been possible without coloniality, or without treating the natural world and different groups of people as a mere source for exploitation. But there are also counter-arguments, probably summed up most eloquently by Tzvetan Todorov in his book In Defence of the Enlightenment. He argues that the enlightenment was a product of global interactions of multiple kinds, not a ‘Western’ invention or imposition. More generally, the gaze of others and the reflection of that gaze back on us are essential parts of the human existence. Are central pillars of enlightenment thought, most prominently emancipation of the mind, not prerequisites for the freedom to change the world – for the better or worse, as freedom always implies both possibilities? I am not convinced that rejecting ‘modernity’ is the way forward, not least, as Leszek Kolakowski reminds us in his book Modernity on Endless Trial, that both, modernity and anti-modernity may be expressed in distinctly barbarous and anti-human and oppressive and exploitative forms.

Modernity and the celebration of alternatives forms of knowledge

My third intervention centres on this last point: modernity and its relationship to human progress. Indeed, too often modernity has been enacted as an enemy to the natural world and thus the foundations on which human civilisations are being built. This is in particular the case for capitalist modernity and the mechanisms to extract profit. It is certainly one of the key necessities of our time to re-imagine the relationship between what is human, natural, cultural, and societal in different ways – as many of the examples in the volume do.

But I am quite sceptical to suggest this means to throw out modern achievements of science and technology, and turn to some form of romanticised vision of embeddedness. To take the term Global Development seriously and search for its emancipatory dimensions, needs both: embracing modernity and the promises of the enlightenment, and creating space for contestation, resistance and, indeed, solidarity.

Modernity in its true sense and in the spirit of the enlightenment always includes respect for and celebration of alternative knowledges, cultures, forms of existence – as long as these are not oppressive, but emancipatory. It also includes restitutions of past wrongs – enlightened modernity would reject appropriation based on unjust conquest. Maybe a re-appreciation of the possibilities of modernity is needed, not a simple rejection.

Global Development aspirations have their clearest expression in mobilities

This makes me return to the question of how “development” is exactly defined, and which understanding of development  the book contests: I am a little puzzled by something that is missing from the book: While we have a lot of informative examples of alternative development and grassroots initiatives, based on different theories of human society and nature, the theme of mobility as a core human condition is missing.

Many people interpret ‘development’ in their own, dare I say ‘modern’ way: by going to a place where they feel their aspirations can be met.

A letter by two boys from West Africa who were found dead in the landing gear of a plane in Brussels airport, reproduced in Ferguson’s book, says it all: They embarked on their journey to be part of modernity, the letter is a plea to belong to the modern world. We may call this a colonialised mindset that led those boys astray, but in a world where one’s passport and place of birth determines life as no other category, it seems a very rational and indeed a modern act to embark on that journey.

Where does that leave the idea of global development, in light of the title of the book? I would propose that global development is perhaps best seen as a creative approach to thinking relationally about development processes in ways that disrupt North-South binaries. This may, directly or indirectly, include decoloniality and justice, but also many other things. It definitely includes a focus on thinking from the Global South to understand the Global Norths. Yes, the terminologies of North and South again suggest binaries, but we still need a language to be able to communicate in a way that is widely understood, so for now these terms seem to fulfil this requirement. It also includes new exploration of transnational flows and relationships. Not a great new theory, but if a theory is needed at all, it should be one that builds on the possibilities of modernity and the as yet too often unfulfilled promises of enlightenment thought.

Tanja Müller is  Professor of Political Sociology at the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester.

Image:  by Stefan Boness,