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Development. Copyright © 2000 The Society for International Development. SAGE Publications
(London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi), 1011-6370 (200012) 43:4; 40–46; 015251.

Thematic section

Post-Development Theory: Romanticism

and Pontius Pilate politics

ANDY STOREY ABSTRACT Andy Storey looks at post-development theory’s

challenge to dominant development paradigms. He offers a critique
of the post-development critique and suggests that some of the
insights of post-development theory can be of considerable value to
those concerned with struggles for social change.

KEYWORDS globalization; participation; post-modernism; poverty;

power relations

Post-development theory
Attempts to go beyond the so-called impasse in development theory have led, in
some quarters, to a shift towards empirical and area-based studies and away
from explicitly theoretical work (Leys, 1996: 27–9). For others, the trend has
not been so much a drift away from grand theory but rather a rejection of its
very desirability – a questioning of the concept of development itself. This latter
line of thinking can be broadly classified as the ‘post-development’ approach,
which draws from wider currents of post-modern philosophy and also from
post-colonial theory (Sylvester, 1999).
The largest intellectual influence on post-development theory is the work of
Michel Foucault. Following Foucault, post-development theory sees develop-
ment as a discourse: ‘this theory argues that development constitutes a specific
way of thinking about the world, a particular form of knowledge. Development
is, in the Foucauldian sense, a particular discourse which does not reflect but
actually constructs reality. In doing so, it closes off alternative ways of thinking
and so constitutes a form of power’ (Kiely, 1999: 31, emphasis in original). A
key question then becomes: what effects does this form of power generate?
Within the post-development approach, development discourse legitimizes
and reinforces western dominance over the ‘Third World’, in part through its
very definition or categorization of the ‘Third World’ as being in need of
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Storey: Post-Development Theory

western-style development. (Hobart, 1993; Ferguson is sceptical about whether the develop-
Escobar, 1995). The ‘Third World’ is subject not ment discourse can be combated by pointing out its
only to the economic but also to ‘the definitional divergences from the reality of Lesotho or else-
power of the West. . . . Development . . . [is] a stan- where. For Foucault, ‘the problem does not consist
dard by which the West measures the non-West’ in drawing the line between that in a discourse
(Sardar, 1999: 44, 49). For example, the absence of which falls under the category of scientificity or
western forms of technology is treated as a cri- truth, and that which comes under some other cat-
terion not of difference but of underdevelopment egory, but in seeing historically how effects of truth
(Sardar, 1999: 47). ‘Development discourse, from are produced within discourses which in them-
this perspective, is about disciplining difference, selves are neither true nor false’ (Foucault, in
establishing what the norm is and what deviance is’ Gordon, 1980: 118). A certain form or exercise of
(Munck, 1999: 68).1 power cannot be undermined by ‘truth’ in some
The essence of the argument being made by the objective sense; development ‘talk’/discourse has
post-development approach may be illustrated by its own self-contained rationale and internal logic –
means of a specific example. Ferguson (1990), in its set of ‘acceptable statements and utterances’ –
his analysis of the World Bank’s depiction of the that is not amenable to challenge on ‘objective’
economy of Lesotho, found a recurrent Bank grounds. According to Foucault, ‘it’s not a matter
emphasis on certain putative features of the of a battle “on behalf ” of the truth, but of a battle
Lesotho economy, such as that Lesotho is, allegedly, about the status of truth and the economic and
an ‘aboriginal’ economy, largely unexposed to com- political role it plays’ (in Gordon, 1980: 132).
mercial markets and the money economy (i.e. that To demonstrate the ‘failure’ of development to
it is a classically ‘underdeveloped’ (or ‘deviant’) reduce poverty is also to miss the point, because the
economy.2 Ferguson shows how each of the alleged real purpose of the development exercise is to disci-
characteristics was wildly at variance with the his- pline and dominate – this is, in Foucault’s terms,
torical record: for example, Lesotho had been part ‘the economic and political role it plays’. To call for
of a cash economy for centuries. Ferguson goes on policy change within the terms of the dominant
to argue that the Bank’s stylized portrayal of the development discourse, it is argued, simply rein-
Lesotho economy was inaccurate but not irra- forces the power of dominant institutions such as
tional, its purpose dictated by the need on the part the World Bank because they can then rationalize
of the Bank to find a role for itself in the ‘develop- further interventions in the name of ‘corrective’
ment’ (‘disciplining’) of that economy – through action. As Crush (1995: 10) puts it, ‘development
the financing of rural cattle markets, the building is always the cure, never the cause’. For post-
of rural roads, and other such ‘development’ pro- development theorists, the ‘Third World’ thus
jects. As Ferguson documents, almost all these pro- remains objectified, and its peoples’ needs exter-
jects failed dismally to achieve their stated nally defined. Not only do ‘reformist’ critiques mis-
objectives, but criticism on those grounds is, he understand the point of the development exercise,
claims, pointless – because the projects did fulfil they may also encourage the adaptation and exten-
what he interprets as the (unstated) objective of sion of the underlying power relationship. Develop-
justifying Bank involvement in Lesotho.3 Lesotho ment, however revised, ‘can only lead to further
was constructed and defined as ‘underdeveloped’ in subjugation of the non-West’ (Sardar, 1999: 53).
order to legitimize, and facilitate the exercise of, What, then, is to be done? The question may not
western dominance over it. Institutional self-inter- interest all observers (including some within the
est demanded that a certain view be taken of the post-development school) who feel no compulsion
Lesotho economy, and the necessary view was to go beyond dissection of the problem. However,
therefore taken, because those taking the view for those within the post-development school con-
operated within a particular discursive framework cerned with effecting change rather than analysis
of, to them, ‘acceptable statements and utterances’ alone, there would seem to be an obligation to
(Ferguson, 1990: 18). abandon development discourse altogether, to 41
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refuse to talk in the terms set by the language of of non-domination (or, at least, diminished domi-
development. Escobar (1997: 92) argues for a nation). Nederveen Pieterse (1998: 363) claims
fundamental reconceptualization of the very that the post-development approach ‘conceals
meaning of underdevelopment ‘if the power of the differences within development, homogenizes and
development discourse is to be challenged or dis- essentializes development’ (see also Jackson,
placed’. What seems to be required is a willingness 1998). In an equally essentializing vein, post-
to somehow step outside the dominant world of development disregards what might be termed the
what Ferguson terms ‘acceptable statements and achievements of development: dramatic increases
utterances’ and to prioritize and valorize other in life expectancy in recent decades, for example.
statements and worldviews, views of ‘people Post-development theorists may respond that any
beyond modernity’ and their ‘sagas of resistance such gains are outweighed by losses (or arise only
and liberation’ (Esteva and Prakash, 1998: 290). at the expense of the maintenance of the overarch-
The extent to which post-development writers tend ing unequal structure of power). Whether the issue
to deploy romanticized language when talking of gains and losses can be empirically resolved is
about non-western communities is striking (Ned- debatable, but what is certain is that gains are
erveen Pieterse, 1998: 364), and is a theme achievable, as they have always been in the context
returned to later. of an unevenly developing capitalist system. By
And, according to some post-development theor- insisting on the hegemony of negativity, post-
ists, it is not just a matter of abstractly altering lan- development theorists are replicating the mistakes
guage – change can be brought about through the of dependency theorists who denied the possibility
actions of certain organized agents, in whom an of capitalist development at the periphery and
anti- or post-development discourse can be seen as found themselves confounded by realities in East
embedded. Escobar (1995: 227) lays great stress on Asia and elsewhere (Jenkins, 1994).
the potential role of ‘social movements, as symbols Second, how many people and societies have
of resistance to the dominant politics of knowledge achieved, or want to achieve, a condition of being
and organization of the world’. Munck (1999) also beyond development? Where exactly do ‘people
expresses belief in the transformative power of beyond modernity’ live, to use the phrase of Esteva
‘new social movements’ – women’s groups, and Prakash? And where do they want to live? As
indigenous lands rights movements, and others – Nederveen Pieterse (1998: 363) notes, many
and argues that ‘It is from such movements that a popular struggles in the South are about access to
genuine alternative development strategy based on development – such as higher product prices, edu-
empowerment might materialize’ (1999: 207).4 cation and healthcare (Schuurman, 2000: 15) –
Burbach et al. (1997: 158) describe social move- rather than rejection of it. Most such struggles do
ments as ‘the major ideological protagonists of the not see a land beyond modernity as their endpoint.
postmodern societies’ and as ‘anti-authoritarian The central challenge of the ecological critique of
and democratic in their structures and principles’. development practice to date is to question whether
unlimited access to narrowly defined economic
development is sustainable within the context of a
A critical engagement
finite ecosystem (Daly, 1997; Douthwaite, 1999).
However, the post-development response is prob- This may well mean that access to western levels of
lematic from both an analytical and political point material development is impossible for all, but it
of view, for four specific reasons. does not mean that this is not a desired option for
First, post-development, despite its anti-totaliz- many people in the South (Sylvester, 1999: 710). To
ing claims, propounds an over-generalized and in ignore that desire is to romanticize the aspirations of
some ways exaggerated conception of develop- many ordinary people – precisely the type of cul-
ment. For example, it fails to address the question of tural imperialism post-development theorists claim
whether there are alternative conceptions of to reject. As Ray Kiely (1999: 47) puts it, ‘A position
42 development that might or do entail relationships that . . . rejects any movement for development in
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the name of respect for cultural difference expresses ‘To a complacent, conservative post-modernism
the views not of the consistent multiculturalist, but which revels in the Northern view of the network
of the patronizing tourist’. or spectacle society, we can plausibly counterpose a
Third, the commonly designated agents of radical, contestatory and emancipatory post-
change – the social movements – are not, contrary modernism’. But contesting what, and emancipat-
to the claim of Burbach et al., guaranteed to be ing whom? For de Sousa Santos (1999: 42),
‘anti-authoritarian and democratic in their struc- oppositional post-modernism ‘claims a normativity
tures and principles’. Incidentally, to assume that which both posits sides and establishes criteria to
they would be is, in one of the more remarkable choose among them’. He states that such criteria
contradictions of post-development theory, to should be established on the basis of ‘bottom up’
assume that such movements, after long histories and ‘participatory’ methodologies. But if there is
of global capitalist penetration (from colonization one overriding lesson to be learned from recent
to globalization), somehow occupy a space outside critical writing on the practice of development –
the otherwise hegemonic control of development and this is where post-development theory displays
discourse (Sylvester, 1999: 711). a startling imperviousness to such studies – it is
Not all sagas are ‘sagas of resistance and liber- that concepts such as ‘bottom up’ and ‘partici-
ation’. Some contemporary environmental move- patory’ can often work to conceal and perpetuate
ments have been criticized for practising a politics relationships of inequality and domination.
of social exclusion through their emphasis on the Sarah White, for example, has formulated a pen-
preservation of allegedly ancient cultural tra- etrating critique of ‘the uses and abuses of partici-
ditions, however reactionary the political content pation’ (1996: 7, 14) in development projects,
of some such traditions (Hildyard, 1999). This warning that ‘The status of participation as a
point can be taken further – organizations of the “Hurrah” word, bringing a warm glow to its users
racist right can lay claim to the label of ‘new social and hearers, blocks its detailed examination’ – in
movement’ just as much as organizations which particular, examination of how participation may
claim to be progressive (Cattarinich, 1999). The become ‘the means through which existing power
existence of so-called social movements does not relations are entrenched and reproduced’. Her
guarantee that they will behave particularly ‘socia- warning, aimed at development practitioners, has
bly’, any more than the existence of civil society clear relevance for development (and post-develop-
groups guarantees ‘civility’ (Ndegwa, 1996; Kasfir, ment) theorists also. Claire Mercer (1999: 3, 31), in
1998). Peter Uvin (1998: 178) documents how a detailed case-study from Tanzania, documents
social movements in Rwanda ‘often sought non- how ‘participation’ became, in effect, a mechanism
emancipatory, racist, exclusionary goals’. To trust through which middle and upper income groups in
the political project of development or post- village women’s organizations gained access to
development to these groups, and to assume that social and material resources. Giles Mohan (1999:
the outcome will be a particularly happy one, is to 46), amongst many others, has also dissected the
engage in romanticism and wish-fulfilment, akin to extent to which the rhetoric of ‘participation’ often
the trust some ‘radical’ theorists of the 1970s serves to conceal the operation of powerful inter-
placed in guerrilla movements (Sylvester, 1999: ests within communities (see also Mayoux, 1995;
711). Goebel, 1998; and Hintjens, 1999). It is, therefore,
The post-modern philosopher de Sousa Santos not surprising that a comprehensive survey of the
(1999: 42) seems to offer a way around this third issue finds ‘little evidence of the long-term effec-
problem by counterposing what he terms an ‘oppo- tiveness of participation [in itself] . . . as a strategy
sitional’ post-modernism to a depoliticized ‘celebra- for social change’ (Cleaver, 1999: 597).
tory’ version which, as he puts it, ‘refuses to Furthermore, some of the most conservative
distinguish between emancipatory or progressive social movements may well be at least as ‘bottom
and regulatory or conservative’ movements and up’ and ‘participatory’ as their progressive coun-
ideas. This theme is taken up by Munck (1999: 67): terparts. Thus, the difficulty remains of entrusting 43
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the political project of post-development to move- political insight within the post-development
ments that are far from guaranteed to be politically critique, namely that challenges to, for example, a
progressive, and of having no satisfactory basis for particular development project or policy may ulti-
deciding whether they are or not (‘participation’, in mately serve to legitimize structures of power and
itself, being a wholly unsatisfactory criterion). This domination. To criticize such projects and pro-
is what Ray Kiely (1999: 45) terms Pontius Pilate grammes is, at some level, to speak the language of
politics, and it can only be transcended if critical dominant power, to recognize its authority. How (if
inquiry is willing to go beyond the mere ‘relativiz- at all) can this dilemma be resolved? A pointer
ing of narratives’ (Nygren, 2000: 30). towards an answer is suggested by Lohmann:
Fourth, even if progressive intent is somehow
evident, fragmented social movements and groups, A strategic awareness of the way the play of class and
institutional interest helps give shape to any particular
often operating around single issues, may be no
body of knowledge and ignorance suggests that it is the
match for the power of, for example, increasingly social context of truthtelling, rather than truthtelling
globalized capital. Again, de Sousa Santos (1999: itself, which is the key element in the intellectual battle
34, 39) seems to offer a way around the problem: to against destructive projects. (Lohmann, 1998: 11)5
cope with global forces, he claims, what is needed is
a ‘theory of translation capable of making the Thus, if the post-development school cannot
different struggles mutually intelligible and allow- provide a clear model of how social change can be
ing for the collective actors to talk about the oppres- effected, what it can usefully contribute is an
sions they resist and the aspirations that mobilize increased awareness of the social context of dis-
them’ in order to facilitate ‘emancipatory practices course formation. We can accept that development
[that are] . . . sustainable only so long as they is, in large part, a discourse of power that, as a dis-
become networked’. But, referring back to the third course, is not amenable to successful challenge on
problem discussed earlier, while the need for net- its own stated terms. (We should not lose sight of
working is obvious, what, if anything, is the basis the fact that it is also a reality, and not always a
for deciding which ‘struggles’ and ‘collective negative one, as discussed earlier.) But the dis-
actors’ we are concerned with? And how do we dis- course does not exist in thin air – it is formed and
tinguish an emancipatory from a non-emancipa- moulded by certain interests and influences, just as
tory practice, given that ‘participation’, for it then helps form and mould the thoughts and
example, is an inadequate criterion for making actions of individuals (Crush, 1995: 5). For Hajer,
such distinctions (see above)? ‘Discourse is . . . defined as a specific ensemble of
ideas, concepts, and categorizations that are pro-
duced, reproduced, and transformed in a particular
set of practices and through which meaning is
The above constitute problems of (mainly) political given to physical and social realities’ (Hajer, 1995:
strategy that many commentators sympathetic to 44); attention to who is involved in these actions of
post-development theory are acutely aware of production, reproduction and transformation –
(Franch, 1998). Parpart (1995: 265), who sees attention, in other words, to issues of agency – is by
considerable value in the post-development no means ruled out under such a definition. As
approach for the advancement of feminist con- Mills puts it:
cerns, notes the ‘danger of dissolving into relativity
A discourse is not a disembodied collection of statements,
and political paralysis’. The problems do not,
but groupings of utterances or sentences, statements
however, invalidate the entirety of the post-
which are enacted within a social context, which are
development approach. I agree with Nederveen determined by that social context and which contribute
Pieterse (1998: 345) when he argues that despite to the way that social context continues its existence.
its difficulty in generating a future programme, Institutions and social context therefore play an import-
‘post-development articulates meaningful sensibil- ant determining role in the development, maintenance
44 ities’. Despite its shortcomings, there is a very real and circulation of discourses. (Mills, 1997: 11)
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We can analyse that process of discourse for- assumes ‘development’ to be singular, hegemonic
mation, especially at the institutional level, and in and invariably negative (so much so that it neglects
that analysis we may find some guidelines for the extent to which it remains an aspiration for
understanding and, perhaps, challenging the dis- many of the world’s people); it romanticizes move-
course, not on its own claimed terms, but in terms ments of resistance to ‘development’ (and, contra-
of what it is that actually forms and drives it (Dillon, dictorily, assumes such resistances to be beyond the
1999). This can be interpreted as an investigation reach of the otherwise hegemonic development
into what Foucault terms ‘the political, economic, discourse); and it celebrates a diversity which may
institutional régime of the production of truth’ (in be politically progressive in neither intent nor
Gordon, 1980: 133). Relatedly, the texts of capacity to effect change. In conclusion, it is the
development may themselves be focused upon in methodological orientation of the post-develop-
order thereby to cast light on ‘the apparatuses of ment school – especially its seemingly ‘negative’
power and domination within which those texts predilection for deconstruction and critical dis-
emerge, circulate and are consumed. The aim in course analysis – that has, I believe, most to offer,
this kind of approach is literary analysis as prelude rather than its problematic attempt to formulate a
to critique’ (Crush, 1995: 6). more ‘positive’ model for social change.
In summary, post-development theory wrongly

Notes 5 Lohmann’s reference to ‘truth’ pp. 1–23. London and New York:
may be a little confusing given the Routledge.
1 The non-West is defined as ‘an
distrust post-development writers Daly, H. (1997) ‘Sustainable
unruly terrain requiring
tend to display towards that Growth: An Impossibility
management and intervention’
concept (see above). Theorem’, Development, 40(1):
(Crush, 1995: 3).
2 In similar vein, Mitchell (1995) Dillon, E. (1999) ‘Towards an
demonstrates how USAID Analysis of Development in
discursively constructed the Nile APSO: the Dynamic Relationship
Valley in Egypt as an area in between Actors and Discourses in
which life had proceeded more or Burbach, R., O. Núñez and B. Development’. Paper presented at
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Pluto Press. Douthwaite, R. (1999) ‘Is it Possible
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Cattarinich, X. (1999) ‘The Racist to Build a Sustainable World?’, in
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