Development: a Critique

It seems like development projects in the 70’s thought of themselves as Agent Smith showing up at the beginning of the Matrix where the local police are having trouble dealing with Trinity. The extent to which he thought he was “cool” and helping was directly proportional to how ineffective he was. Bloated self-images rarely go hand-in-hand with effective collaboration. Equal footing is essential for collaborators walking a path of service.

You’ve heard of armchair philosophers right? Well, I think that the armchair developers of the 70’s were even more out of touch with the masses of humanity. Publishing peer-reviewed papers on how to ‘modernize’ the ‘3rd world’ didn’t pan out as anticipated. Later, these same academics read several books about relationships and yet, shockingly, still failed to have happy marriages! Practice and experience are indispensable to developing sound theories.

The difference between academic and spiritual communities concerned with development reminds me of the difference between record label agents and your mother. Record label agents may offer your wildest dreams coming true, but your mother always seems to love you more. Genuine solidarity with the oppressed is essential for successful transformation at the grassroots.

Development defined as better health, better housing, better education, better employment, better family life, and better community organization — reminds me of the scene from Zoolander where him and his buddy are jumping around karate-chopping the desktop monitor because the “files are in the computer”. Unfortunately for Zoolander and Development models, things consist of more than just their material parts. Spiritual motivation is intrinsic to human purpose.

Full participation from indigenous populations is like the holy grail of development. In that case, the whole history of development is like King Arthur and his band of merry men in Monty Python’s movie as they fumble along the path searching for the Holy Grail. Co-determination, and not just co-implementation, are necessary for full participation.

Developers contemplating the role of  indigenous people are like little boys scheming ways of falling asleep before their mom asks them to brush their teeth for bed. Closing your eyes to the role of self-determination does not make the problem go away. Genuine learning from rural people facilitates the process of capacity building and empowerment at the grassroots level.

Robert McNamara is to the World Bank development efforts as Ronald Reagan is to modern economic policy: the father of Top Down models. Transformation like money must bubble up before it can trickle down.

tree on the hil