The Crisis of Development and Development Studies and Possibilities for Transformation

By Sebeka Richard Plaatjie

Development requires human persons to exist. On this basis it is reasonable to suggest that human life or the preservation thereof, is the foremost condition for development to declare and to recognize itself. Basic physiological needs for the survival of human beings such as food, water, clothing, and health care as suggested by Maslow must therefore be met. Beyond preservation of human life, which is also recognized by the United Nations, development merely functions an ideology, as proven aptly by standpoint theory. Standpoint theory postulates that human beings speak, read, and make sense of the world from the geo-political and body-political location of the subject who speaks.

This positionality fosters development to transcend universal principles such as life preservation, and to blend with varying value systems, socio-economic, political, and historical experiences of human beings from differing vantage points. Here development enters the space of ideology formation, which has often been marked by sharp differences which have escalated into unmitigated conflict in the history of humankind.

If development also falls within the realm of ideology, then, it must also be an artifact of philosophy – a particular worldview and its cognition. For critics, development is said to be informed only by western philosophy and epistemological paradigms. The history of this western philosophical paradigm and its champions is well documented: stretching from the Aristotelian maxim that “all men are rational animals” to Dum Diversas and The Romanus Pontifex papa bulls, to the Spanish Requerimiento of 1513, including Rene Descarets’ maxim cogito ergo sum, and many other western philosophical doctrines which variously justified colonialism and enslavement of people in conquered territories. This western paradigm inaugurated a “Euro-American-centric, Christian-centric, sexist, patriarchal and hetero-normative power structure of the world system”. This is a world which we continue to live in today through neo-colonialism or what is now popularly known as coloniality. This world design would systematically impose the western “civilising” mission on the conquered territories as makers of development: industrialisation, “modernisation’’, capitalism, neo-liberalism, structural adjustment programs, democratism , and most recently artificial intelligence.

Western philosophical paradigms have thus allowed a decadent civilization and a civilization of death to bare unto humanity. In crisis, this civilization is incapable of resolving the problems it has created. No surprise African heads of state – by no means perfect – were lobbied by the international community to try broker a peace deal in 2023 between two warring European nations in the Russia-Ukraine War. Many scholars in Africa and Latin America have chronicled the impact of the decadence of western epistemic paradigms on the global South: from the debasement of Africans from ontological-self and epistemicide to escalating problems of racism, nationalism, chauvinism and xenophobia, as well as rising levels of unemployment and poverty side-by-side over-consumption, and problems of climate change more recently.

Development Studies finds itself within this decadence of western philosophy in which it also plays a central part. The historic mission of Development Studies to train graduates who would administer the continuance of UK Government Administration Systems in the colonies after independence is one good example. Development historians have also noted Development Studies’ complicity with the imperial project of eurocentrism. However, self-corrective efforts within Development Studies such as consciousness about its fundamental challenges must not be undermined. The theme of the recent EADI/CEsA conference “Towards New Rhythms of Development”, is one good example of progressive efforts in Development Studies championed by EADI, to committing development to epistemologies which have been precluded from mainstream development discourse.

Epistemic justice is also still a pie in the sky in development and Development Studies. Ubuntu, which is the foundation of African philosophy, and the Latin American philosophy of Buen Vivir are still not in the register of mainstream development discourse and Development Studies. This is notwithstanding that these philosophies have been appropriated variously by the mainstream development discourse. For example, sustainable development entered the vocabulary of mainstream development discourse and Development Studies more forcefully only in 2002, after the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Durban, South Africa. However, sustainable development is an age-old principle found both in African philosophy of Ubuntu, and in Buen Vivir, both of which advocate for cosmic harmony and balance between human beings and nature.

Whereas this effort is a step in the right direction, consciousness about problems in development and Development Studies alone is insufficient. Development Studies still reels in systemic challenges both internally and externally such as weak legitimacy owing to its historical mission. The sluggishness of Development Studies to lift all voices including the silencing of the problem of race are a further cause for concern .

Resistance to epistemic justice and the incapacity of Development Studies to open up to other worlds is another fundamental crisis it is confronting. Proposals of alternative concepts during sessions at the EADI/CEsA  conference such as transformative modernity, positive modernity and or even liberatory modernity, are significant. This points by default not only to continued preclusion of other voices in the development discourse, but also the power of eurocentrism even amongst progressive voices seeking transformation in Development Studies. Why give “modernity” a new life when such horrendous crimes of colonialism and imperialism were unleashed in its name? Or are there no other linguistic expressions in other  language than English that signify development?

Complexities about representation of the excluded groups seeking justice in development and Development Studies must also not be undermined. However, can the voices of the excluded groups be truly represented by interlocuters who are graduates of western education systems? We also must note the moral dilemmas and complexities of transcending epistemic boundaries, and that those who stand for the ‘other’ often do so from a position of privilege. In addition, another challenge is whether the global South stands for a homogenous group both between and within nations in a world that is marked by hybrid forms of existence. Having reflected on critical challenges confronting development and Development Studies, I make the following proposals for transformation:

Towards a New Paradigm of Development and Development Studies

Development and Development Studies, with all their complexities, still offers us an opportunity to liberate humanity. For this purpose, serious commitment to focusing Development Studies on fundamental ontological questions will be mandatory. What does it mean to be human? Flowing from this question, naturally, Development Studies too will be required to adhere to basic principles that will guide it, and which I intend to discuss in full elsewhere due word count restrictions of a blog. These mutually constitutive principles are not conclusive nor limited to the following:

  • Centrality of human life as articulated in the philosophy of Ubuntu and Buen Vivir,
  • Commitment to elevation of sameness and depoliticization of difference,
  • Commitment to justice,  
  • Development of new grammar for development and Development Studies,
  • Commitment to persuasion,
  • Antidogmatic, and
  •  Promotion of the politics of the holy – The foundation of the philosophy of politics

Sebeka Richard Plaatjie is lecturer at the Department of Development Studies, University of South Africa, and President of the South African Developments Studies Association (SADSA)

Image: Mike Petrucci on Unsplash

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.

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