The invention of underdevelopment

Aid grew from benevolence into a business.


Post-development theorist Arturo Escobar (1995) starts his book Encountering Development with the statement that the domain of economy is completely and seemingly naturally monopolized by capitalism. He then states that the same can be said about globalization. I in turn believe that to a great extent the same goes for development. Our development theories are monopolized by capitalist notions, which makes it is impossible for us to see the economic diversity that actually forms social life. Development in any discourse always stands for a deepening and a universalization of Western-style capitalist modernity. This is not a natural phenomenon, as ‘to develop’ in the literal sense means ‘to grow or cause to grow and become more mature, advanced or elaborate’ (Oxford Dictionary, 2016). This essay aims to investigate from a post-development perspective how and when development was equated to capitalism and economic growth, resulting in the notion of ‘underdeveloped’ countries, and how language was strategically used to represent this underdevelopment. With growing globalization, this issue is now of undeniable importance. What is now before us is the question of our relation to other cultures, other states, other histories and other destinies (Said, 1989, 216). The occupation of the economy with capitalism is a harmful phenomenon, especially if we want to confront the worsening ecological crisis (Escobar, 2012, xxxii).

The professionalization and institutionalization of development

Development was a response to the poverty problem that started to be seen in the world during the years that followed the Second World War. However, according to Escobar, it was not a natural process of knowledge that gradually uncovered problems, but rather a historical construct that provides a space in which poor countries are known, specified and interviewed upon (Escobar, 1995, p. 45). Approaching development in terms of a historical construct, demands an analysis of the processes through which it becomes an active force. Two of these processes are institutionalization and professionalization, which are structured by forms of knowledge and power.

The professionalization of development refers to the process that brings the Third World into the seemingly neutral realm of science and expert knowledge, removing all problems from the political and cultural realms. This has led to the establishment of the development studies in major universities in the developed world and to the restructuring of Third World universities to suit the needs for development. As Escobar pointed out:

An unprecedented will to know everything about the Third World
flourished unhindered, growing like a virus. Like the landing of the Allies
in Normandy, the Third World witnessed a massive landing of experts,
each in charge of investigating, measuring and theorizing about this or that
little aspect of Third World societies. (Escobar, 1995, 45)

Through the professionalization of development, social life became to be seen as a matter of rational decision-making that had to be entrusted to a group of professionals whose specified knowledge qualified them for the task. Instead of seeing change as a process embedded in each society’s culture and history, these professionals intended to create procedures to make societies fit a preexisting model. Unsurprisingly, this model embodied the structures of Western modernity.

Third World countries started to be seen as underdeveloped and inferior, not only by the developed West, but also by their own inhabitants. At times, it became so important for Third World countries to develop in this newly invented way, that it became acceptable for their rulers to subject their populations to certain systems of control which led to massive impoverishment, to selling their resources to the most convenient bidder, and to the degradation of their physical and human ecologies (Escobar, 1995, 52).

The second mechanism – the institutionalization of development – entailed the creation of an institutional field of organizations where discourses are produced, recorded, stabilized, modified and put into circulation and action. Starting in the mid 1940s with the establishment of the big development organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, this process has resulted in the creation of a big network of power. Poverty, illiteracy and hunger became a lucrative industry for experts (Rahnema, 1986). Aid grew from benevolence into a business. This does not mean that the work of these institutions has never been beneficial to the people it targets, but it must be stressed that it has not been an innocent effort on behalf of the poor (Escobar, 1995, 46).

The invention of the ‘other’

The Depression and the Second World War brought about an emphasis on full employment and growth, and neoliberalism emerged during the Cold War. Countries that had fallen under the allure of statism each had a disastrous record of social development and individual freedom. State socialism was an example of the failure of state-planned development. The USA, as standard-bearer of democratic capitalism, stated that development should emphasize on the private sector and private entrepreneurship (Greig et al., 2007). State involvement should be limited; this laissez faire attitude was supported by US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and was based on the idea of a natural tendency toward cooperation and social gains, achieved through the pursuit of self-interest. The goal of this approach is to make development possible through national economic growth. The means are a free market without state regulation and structural adjustment programs. This way, underdeveloped countries are supposed to become part of the world economy and world trade.

Through several growth theories, capital accumulation became the center of discourse, opening the way for foreign aid and foreign investment. One of these theories is Arthur Lewis’s theory of the dual economy. The discursive operation of this model was the division of a country’s economy and social life into two sectors: one modern and one traditional (Escobar, 1995, 77).

This model equates tradition to backwardness, creating the view that the traditional part of the economy has nothing to contribute to development. Furthermore, the modern-traditional dichotomy creates the idea of the ‘other’ – the ‘underdeveloped’, the ‘native’ – who belongs to a different time period. This feature is by no means restricted to the field of economics; it is also deeply embedded in Western social sciences. Escobar (1995, 78) states that the result of this discourse is a scientist’s monologue from the height of power.

Lewis describes this dichotomy as follows: “There is the same contrast even within people; between the few highly westernized, trousered natives, educated in western universities, speaking western languages, and glorifying Beethoven, Mills, Marx or Einstein, and the great mass of their countrymen which live in quite other worlds… Inevitably what one gets are very heavily developed patches of the economy, surrounded by economic darkness” (Lewis, 1954, 408). This is an important statement, not for its rationality, but because it is a central piece in the development discourse. The language that is used explicitly equates westernization to development, and tradition to economic darkness. It contrasts ‘us’ – the western developed peoples – to ‘them’: the natives that live in another world.

According to Edward Said, there has grown a vocabulary around the colonized that reinforces their secondariness (1989, p. 207). He states that colonization did not end once the colonies achieved independence, as a mix of characteristics like poverty, underdevelopment, illiteracy, corruption and war still label the formerly colonized people who remained victims of their past (Said, 1989, p. 207). As Alex Perry eloquently pointed out: “Where once Africans fought ruling powers, they now fight ruling perceptions.”


According to Lakoff and Johnson (1980), our conceptual system is highly metaphorical. However, what our conceptual system consists of is by no means obvious, as it is not something we are normally aware of. One way to study our conceptual structure is to look at language. The way we use metaphors says a lot about the linguistic boundaries in our conceptual representations of the world. One of these metaphors is the conduit metaphor of communication. A fundamental assumption upon which the conduit metaphor of communication rests is that language merely represents an objectively given state of affairs (Toukas, 1997, p. 836). In my opinion, this representational model of language is crucially flawed. The language that we use to refer to the world not only represents it but also forms it. The language that we use creates the world around us. The invention of the ‘native other’ has created a language about underdevelopment, which is deeply imbedded in our conceptual systems. This language is not neutral; there lies tremendous power in terms such as ‘other’, ‘Third World, ‘First World’, ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’. This discourse sets the boundaries within which we think and act. In the field of development, these boundaries were set in a specific time and space, by certain people. The professionalization and institutionalization of development have led to the construct of underdeveloped peoples, which has resulted in a flood of studies, interventions and policies from the developed West. This shows that knowledge and language can be used to exert power over a group of people, and in this case, even over and entire continent.




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