Words, Spirits and History: A review of Gilbert Rist’s The History of Development

By | September 8, 2011

I was looking through my computer earlier today and I discovered a review I wrote during my first weeks as a Masters in Development Studies student at Uppsala in Sweden. The first thing those guys did was to encourage us to question the whole idea of development by making us read Gilbert Rist’s The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith. Below is a review I wrote of the book – an assignment. As I read through it today I strongly resisted the urge to edit my 24 year-old self, so excuse the sometimes flowery language. 

Words, Spirits and History: A review of Gilbert Rist’s The History of Development

What is it with words? While some hardly make a sound others simply stand out, they call attention to themselves, beg to be heard. One of them is development. It is simply unimaginable that this word, and its most recent offsprings, human and sustainable development(s) should be subjected to as much rigorous examination and criticism as Gilbert Rist does in The History of Development. But the word is not what Rist battles with, it is the philosophy which gives the word life, which makes it relevant; it is the spirit which the word conjures, and the faith which it commands that necessitate such examination. Then, words have long had a way of creeping into our consciousness and dominating our imagination, but not without some aid. Rist set out to explain the process by which this word gained and kept prominence. Perhaps the first thing it would be good to know is that the word has an origin.

Even before opening the book we get an idea of where the word came from. From the subtitle of the book we have a vague idea of the word’s birthplace, but not its birth process. Rist traces the process by which development came to become the dominant paradigm of measuring relations between North and South, he shows that the word has its roots in Western consciousness. He goes as far as to Aristotle’s conception of nature as development in circles, i.e. as a series of beginnings and ends and new beginnings, to St Augustine’s view of history as eschatological as it is presumed to be linked to the Bible, and ultimately to Jean-Baptiste Say and his social evolutionists who saw the western world as the most advanced one because of its high level of production and consumption. Apart from this argument for the western world’s referencing of itself as the ideal, their defeat of “savage races” seemed to lend credence to social evolutionism. It seemed only sensible to conclude that the western human was the most advanced of humans. Of necessity, this set the stage for the next level in the development of the history of development: colonialism.

In the late nineteenth century, the savage needed protection, and guidance in utilising the abundance of natural resources which nature had deemed fit to thrust upon him, or so the colonialists say. It was a period in which global relations marched from conquered/ conqueror to savage/civilised, and so colonised/coloniser. Several arguments were used to convince the people of the nobility of the endeavour, one was economical and another was purely paternalistic. Who wouldn’t blame the civilised world if they failed to bring civilisation to the dark parts of the world? If some parts of the world were uncivilised it was only morally obligatory for the part that was to bring civilisation to the other part. But the dominant paradigm was soon to adopt a different, more portent and enduring concept, that of development.

Rist gives the birth of development as the time of President Harry Truman’s inaugural address. From that time on, the relationship of countries of the north and those of the south came to be defined by the level of development. The paradigm shifted from that of colonised/coloniser to underdeveloped/developed. The main problem of this distinction was its assumption that underdevelopment is a natural stage of humanity. It was not an effect but could only be the antecedent of the “developed” Northern world. It was as if the North could look at the South and see how it was before it was touched by development. This perception of things could absolve the North of any responsibility in making the South the way it was, as underdeveloped is an intransitive verb, it is not an effect but can only be affected. The peoples of the South were no longer viewed as individual nations with individual histories, they were simply underdeveloped countries; they were deprived of the privilege of having their situations explained by history and were instead described as the natural state of being that was embarrassing and so would have to be helped to the state of the industrialised countries. And the way to do this was given as increasing the GDP. Perhaps we should say a little about Rostow’s proposition and his stages of economic growth.

Rostow’s recommendation for economic growth underlines an assumption that is an offspring of the development paradigm. Since it is believed that underdevelopment is a natural state from which the developed countries rose, it was only natural to presume that to effect development all one had to do was to follow the steps through which the North rose and then development would necessarily arrive in the underdeveloped regions. Rostow’s scale of development then starts with the underdeveloped stage, a natural state in which development is lacking and which has to proceed to the stage in which the preconditions for development are taking shape. During this time the society is gearing for the next stage when the preconditions are already set and the society is ready to develop. This stage Rostow calls the take-off stage – the GNP starts rising and the move towards industrialisation is instituted. The fourth stage is the drive to maturity stage. Here, the societies are already experiencing a rise in GDP and since the elite are benefiting strongly from this they would be encouraged to ensure the continuation of growth. The final stage is that of high consumption rates since the gains of productivity is distributed to the people. This stage is also characterised by the welfare state. This is another evolutionist account of development that, needless to say, is doomed to fail in capturing the development process.

Rist also examines the different conferences and reports that were convened and prepared in the name of development. There is almost no need to examine each one in itself, the basic theme that runs though all of them is the desire to write away history by not focussing on the need for a redefinition of development. This is exemplified by the report of the New International Economic Order (NIEO). The text of the report is a reinforcement of the dominant paradigm, it emphasised “economic growth, expansion of trade and increased aid by the industrial nations” as the solution to the problem of underdevelopment. Like many reports produced by such organisations its recommendations were not implemented. Rist says it is really a relief that it was not, as the recommendations would have been more harmful to the Third World than before, it would have widened the gap between the rich and poor countries as it still situated the source of development in the North, and the source would have to help the poor countries to achieve development by assisting them with aid and investment. Experience has shown that private investment in poor countries only come when the investor knows that it can maximise his profit, and this often to the detriment of the economy of the poor countries.

However, there is a report that Rist says stands out for its boldness in declaring that another development is possible. The Dag Hammarskjörld Foundation report extends the concept of development from mere economic growth to something that has to be born by each society out of what is unique to it. This means that there cannot be a universal definition of development. Another thing that sets it aside from all other reports is that it includes the industrialised countries as part of the countries that need to become developed. They need to review their consumption patterns. This report was simply forgotten.

The structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s is another point that is worthy of note in the history of development. It was a direct child of the lending activities of Northern creditors who lent money irresponsibly, without enough security, to Southern countries. The major impact of structural adjustment programmes was in impoverishing the peoples the more. It was thought that for the countries to be able to pay off their debt they had to, among other things, cut down on the involvement of government in the economy and the financing of infrastructure projects. The meaning of this is continued impoverishment of the population. This era was the era of the trickle down policies. The harm these policies did in the Third World has been severally studied. Considering that Rist’s mission is to show how contradictory development could be, and in fact is, he paid too cursory an attention to it. For the recency of these programmes and their failure make them scream for attention.

One of the problems with works that set out primarily to criticise a notion is the failure to provide an alternative. Rist’s criticisms are the state of the art in its field; they capture the very contradictions of the term, its actions and proponents. But they fail to provide a way out of the problem. One could try to understand this problem by pointing at the fact that it was not easy to proffer a solution where a whole industry is built around a concept. Rist talks about this when he pointed to the organs of United Nations, and the NGOs, both local and global, that are founded around the development concept. If one were to do away with the concept and its baggage what does one do with the industry? Where does one put them?

Another problem is about what is to be done instead of giving aid and other forms of assistance to poor countries. Rist’s cynicism in criticising these moves as reinforcing the development paradigm is understood but, practically, what is to be done? What is the alternative to this? Isn’t it rather better to continue with these and all its different siblings than to simply sit and whine, especially as the paradigm does not seem about to change in the nearest future? I am saying this at the peril of sounding naïve and simplistic but, being a citizen of the Third World, I understand that a long-term solution would have to take into account not just the immediate satisfaction of hunger but the continued survival, and by extension peaceful existence of a people, it would be more naïve to fail to act for today while being pre-occupied with thinking about tomorrow.

To answer the questions about what to do Rist offers three answers. One of them borrows from Christian Comeliau. This approach advocates economic growth and the proper integration of the Southern economies into the world economy, especially according to how they can gain from it. This is against blindly advocating the promotion of free trade. He is not against loans as long as the terms of the loans ensure that they can be paid back. He also advocates the transfer of technology to poor countries by multinational companies. In the classic Rist tradition he picks apart this proposition by questioning the intentions of the people who are supposed to initiate these moves. Will they be sincere enough to initiate the needed reforms? And even if they are what is the assurance that the programmes won’t be abandoned after the next coup d’etat, or elections? What does this leave us but a feeling of utter dejection and disillusionment? The second answer draws from the experiences of some grassroots movements in some poor parts of the world. Instead of seeking to become like the rich countries they organise to change the attitude and behaviour of the people, encouraging them to concentrate on what they posses and not on what they lack. Although Rist admits that a person who believes in GDP and per capita income would point to the material needs of these people, he concludes that what they feel would nevertheless be fewer discontentments as it would be if they were concentrating on their needs. But for how long can such islands sustain in the world where diffusion of information is the norm and not the exception?

The third and most appealing answer to the question is a total rethinking of the relationship between societies, drawing from the anthropology and history disciplines, as against a purely economic approach. These disciplines should help to study alternative models to achieving the state popularly referred to as development. This is because theoretical models that are expected to capture the reality, and reality, or alternative reality, can be perceived basically from historical and anthropological perspectives. This is a theoretical approach that does not neglect the potency of the two earlier suggestions. For Rist, the three form a good team, although certainly not the best.

These answers are good enough on the surface but considering that development is such a new creature that has grown in so much importance over a short period of time, a creature that can be likened to a religion, with its own priests and institutions, what is the assurance that these are practical answers? Just like Rist criticises the first answer we can almost see resistance to the development of an alternative paradigm. To be practical, are studies advocated by anthropologists not going to be funded by development agencies? Are these anthropologists not going to work within certain frameworks prescribed by development experts? In a world where research-funding agencies provide funding only for projects in their own interest, what would be the incentive to embark on such studies? Rist’s book is a classic deconstructionist text but it falls flat when it attempts to do more than that.

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