Redefining Development

Daniel Chodorkoff


Abstract The ecological society presupposes not only the rejection of the dominant development model, but even the very definition of development. Fundamental elements of a new definition of development must emphasize quality instead of quantity and the cultural particularities of people and their communities. This means that the communities themselves, with the active participation of their citizens, must reclaim control of the development process from the state and the market.



As the global expansion of "free trade" proceeds at an exponential rate and the hegemony of capital, with its attendant ideology of growth and expansion, seems assured, it would appear to be a futile exercise to undertake a critical analysis of the basic assumptions of "development". Yet without such a fundamental critique, there is no way to make sense out of the paradox presented by a grow-or-die economic model in an age of diminishing resources and ominously declining environmental quality. In fact, the ecological crises which we face both in our local communities and on a global scale can only be understood as an outgrowth of industrial capitalism and traditional models of development. And further, those crises must be seen as social crises, arising from society and our attitudes toward and relationships with each other, not from nonhuman nature. Thus any authentic solution to the "development puzzle" must address both the problematic of the industrial capitalist model and the society of which it is an outgrowth.

Contemporary models of development assume an integration of "undeveloped" nations and communities into the global market, and through that process a rise in economic prosperity and a gradual diminution of the differences in living standards between North and South. Such a transformation requires a massive infusion of capital for infrastructural improvements, usually in the form of international loans, and large-scale investments by multi-national corporations to extract resources and create industry and jobs. The results of this approach to development have often been catastrophic, leaving developing areas wallowing in debt, poverty, cultural disintegration — caused by the displacement of local cultures and economic systems — and, finally, ecological devastation.

Rather than creating a stable middle class which can join the ranks of benumbed consumers flourishing in the First World, this approach to development commonly leads to a dual economy consisting of a tiny group of the very rich and a great mass of the very poor. This trend has been well documented in relation to Africa, Asia and Latin America by authors as diverse as Ted Trainer (Developed to Death), Lloyd Timberlake (Africa in Crisis), Vandana Shiva (Staying Alive), and Rigoberta Menchu (I Rigoberta Menchu). While there has been a dramatic increase in the overall "wealth" of the planet, an ever greater concentration of that wealth is in the hands of fewer and fewer people. According to the December 19, 1994, issue of The Nation, there are currently 358 billionaires in the world (with a surprising number from Third World countries) who own assets with a net worth of approximately 760 billion dollars. Their assets are greater than the net worth of the poorest 45 percent of the world's population!

An analysis from the perspective of social ecology suggests that current development models must be firmly rejected if we are ever to achieve an ecological society. In fact, a basic redefinition of "development" is a precondition for the survival of the planet. How then does social ecology define development? How does that definition differ in basic ways from the traditional approach? And what are the means that can bring a new definition to bear in the world? The following pages present a set of issues which must be addressed in order to redefine development. They are intended to be suggestive rather than schematic, and will need to be applied in different ways in various parts of the world. But they must be, according to Murray Bookchin, the seminal thinker in social ecology, unabashedly utopian in the most profound sense. Utopian thinking today requires no apology. Rarely in history has it been so crucial to draw on the imagination in order to create radical new alternatives to virtually every aspect of daily life.

Quality Versus Quantity

A basic assumption of traditional development models is that bigger is better. Large-scale, centralized projects that require massive infusions of capital consume the vast majority of money spent, and success is usually measured by quantitative means (increases in the Gross National Product, output per worker, per capita income, etcetera). Quantitative criteria can reveal trends on a national level, but they do not necessarily tell us anything about the impact of these forms of development on the lives of people. Without a thorough understanding of the social context in which such statistics are being generated, it is actually possible to misinterpret what development means to people's lives. Despite impressive percentage increases in the Gross National Product throughout the developing world, Trainer remarks that "the poorest 520 million in these countries are probably seeing their income rise on average about 73 cents per annum."[1]

Even in the industrialized North such figures can be misleading. For example, since the late 1970s the United States has seen a steady increase in the Gross National Product, dramatic gains in worker productivity, and a small increase in per capita income, but the real wages paid to workers have declined, and the number of people living in poverty has increased. However, in a system increasingly dominated by a bottom-line mentality which delegitimates and degrades anything that stands in the way of profit, such are the costs of progress.

A social ecological perspective on development views the process in terms of quality, not quantity. It requires that we ask an entirely different set of questions. Traditional indices do not provide a framework adequate for the analysis of qualitative impacts. Here I am referring not only to the impact of development on the environment, which some "sustainable" development models do quantify, but more importantly the impact on the quality of life (connections and relationships between people, family and kinship bonds, sense of community, maintenance of cultural cohesion, and other criteria that are difficult to measure). These are critical areas that need to be assessed. It is the development of a higher quality of life, (with the economic component as merely one aspect), that must be the overall measure of success.

Quality of life is difficult to quantify. But the goal of development must be focused on providing people with the security that their basic needs, like adequate food and shelter, will be met, as well as what are often intangible areas that are reflected in a sensibility. Well-being undoubtedly requires a degree of economic security, but it rests more on a sense of socio-cultural security. A coherent community and an equitable distribution of even meager resources can often provide more for an individual's economic, social and spiritual needs than an increased income. This point is well illustrated by the success of Kerala, the poorest state in India, which has, through a process of development which rests on redistribution of internal resources, managed to attain India's highest rates of literacy (70 percent versus 36 percent for all of India), and to guarantee access to basic nutrition, health care and education for all of its citizens. The culture of industrial capitalism, while it pays lip service to these values, in fact is the major force undermining them around the globe.

The modern concept of development was born at the Bretton Woods Economic Summit following World War II and led to the establishment of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. These institutions were designed to finance the rebuilding of Europe after the war. They were operating in a milieu in which the basic assumptions of capitalism were a given. That this model has since been promulgated as a universal path for development speaks to both a basic misunderstanding of the nature of Third and Fourth World cultures, and the arrogance of the West. It is interesting to note that, despite 50 years of this type of development, poverty, famine, environmental disaster and the gulf between the rich and poor have been increasing at an almost exponential rate. These facts suggest that there is something basically wrong with the concepts that underlie this model.

Those qualitative aspects of life, upon which any viable form of development must be based, should contain within them an important economic aspect; however, the qualitative must not be subsumed by the economic. In fact, just the opposite is true. If authentic development is to occur, economics must be brought back under the control of society, as it has been for most of humanity's tenure on the planet. This view is supported by the perspective of economic anthropology, most notably by the work of Karl Polanyi.[2] The social ecology of Murray Bookchin posits this process as the creation of a moral economy. Moral economy sees economic activity not only as a way to provide people with the material means of life, but also as a way of creating affective ties between people and their community.

Much of what passes for development today has the opposite effect. Modernization undermines community and forces people into the market, where they lose their identity as unique individuals and are reduced to a faceless proletariat. The well-documented results of the "Green Revolution" in agriculture present a stunning example of this highly problematic process. A moral economy is perhaps the only alternative to this destructive dynamic. It is the preservation, creation or reinforcement of community and an active citizenry upon which development must focus. These in turn are the preconditions for resolving our ecological crises. Empowerment of people is the real goal of any authentic process of development. Social ecology calls for the primacy of these socio-cultural criteria over the economic. It is a revolutionary outlook which understands the elimination of all relationships based on hierarchy and domination as an integral part of the development process, and as the starting point for a reharmonization of people's relationship with the rest of nature. This perspective challenges in basic ways the institutions of the State and transnational corporations which are the primary vehicles for development under the current model.

Any approach which fails to offer this basic critique, even "alternative" models like "sustainable" development, "trade not aid", or "green" and "caring" capitalism, can only lead to further immisseration, poverty, exploitation, cultural devastation and ecological destruction. There is a growing literature touting such approaches and a substantial critique developing as well.[3] The criticism of these approaches offered by Survival International reveals their self-serving nature, as well as their underlying logic, which never questions the primacy of the market. The fact is that traditional models of development, far from being the solution to these ills, are in large part the problem. Unless the a prioris of statistic and corporate frameworks are rejected, capitalism will continue to colonize and subvert the cultural and ecological diversity necessary for a healthy planet.

Vandana Shiva[4] notes that "development as capital accumulation and the commercialization of the economy for the generation of surplus and profits thus involved the reproduction not merely of the particular form of the creation of wealth, but also the associated creation of poverty and dispossession." We need to reorient our thinking about development and find real alternatives. Attempts to create a "caring capitalism" are oxymoronic. The very nature of the global market undermines what should be the goals of development: the promotion of unity in diversity through processes that ensure local communities' economic security, cultural survival and ecological health. Attempts to posit capitalism and the market as appropriate vehicles to bring about these conditions range from the extremely naive to the extraordinarily cynical; for example, the focus of "sustainable" development, as it emerges on the world stage, is finding a means to sustain the expansion of capitalism.

When the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations, in its report Our Common Future discusses "sustainable development", it is exactly this process to which it refers. It is the economic realm which currently determines the conditions under which development occurs. Local and particular needs are subsumed under a "global" perspective which views the world as a series of interchangeable parts categorized under the rubric of raw materials, pools of labor, and potential markets. The homogenization of difference is posited as a progressive process. The universalization of the culture of capitalism (such as it is) is viewed as an inevitable and highly desirable outcome. Coca Cola Redux!


The problem of modernization is subsumed under a western, linear notion of progress which is rooted in a crude, Social Darwinist view of human history that first surfaced in the nineteenth-century cannon of cultural evolution. These ideas were first presented by Herbert Spencer and further elaborated by Maitland and Maine and, in the United States, by Lewis Henry Morgan. These schematic views proposed to rank all human cultures in a hierarchy, with Civilization (Western European) at the top and all other forms below. Typically, the hierarchy proceeds from Savagery to Barbarism to Civilization, to use Morgan's nomenclature. (Please note that Morgan's scheme, as developed in Ancient Society, was the basis for Marx and Engels' thinking on this issue, which is one reason that "Marxist" approaches to development have been as destructive as those of capitalism.)

The assumption underlying this thinking is that the rest of the world has failed to reach the same level of prosperity as the North because of inherent cultural flaws. They are beneath us because their cultures are inferior to our own. Thus it becomes "The white man's burden" to bring the poor savages and barbarians the benefits of civilization. In the nineteenth century, this line of thinking provided a moralistic rationale for the worst excesses of colonialism and imperialism, and in the present it is an a priori of traditional approaches to development.

This is not to suggest that Third and Fourth World people do not want access to aspects of modern technology and knowledge, rather that they are offered no choice in the matter. And further, that those elements of modernity which could have a positive impact on their quality of life are often presented only as part and parcel of a thoroughgoing "modernization" which undermines their traditional culture and transforms people into monadic producers and consumers operating as part of the global market. Just as surely as the political domination of the nineteenth century led to oppression, death and destruction, so too does the new colonialism of the IMF, the World Bank and the multinational corporations.

If anything, the neo-colonialism of the global marketeers is more pernicious. In the nineteenth century, empire was a mode of oppression which constituted a thin overlay of exploitative relationships intended to extract raw materials and labor from peoples who were still embedded in their unique cultures. In the late twentieth century we have seen the level of exploitation penetrate not only peoples' social and economic relations but their very consciousness as well. A diverse world of unique cultures is being denatured and reduced to a collection of interchangeable individual workers and consumers-isolated, exploited and manipulated. Modernization is equated with homogenization — no surprises — in a standardized world producing standardized products for increasingly standardized consumers who confuse freedom with the choice between white and pink toilet paper.

Authentic approaches to development must, from the perspective of social ecology, emphasize a unique developmental path that critically explores the potentialities of every individual culture as a distinct entity. This is not a call for an extreme relativism that uncritically takes every culture on its own terms. Rather it is a recognition of the complexity and diversity inherent in social systems and an examination of each in relation to a set of criteria which are extracted from our interpretation of certain tendencies within natural evolution that enhance ever greater complexity and diversity.

These tendencies include unity in diversity, non-hierarchical relationships, mutualism, spontaneity and co--evolution. These are key principles for us to consider as integral to a process of development that can help to create an ecological society. Every community must have a primary voice in its own development. Decisions regarding the adaptation of elements of modernity must grow out of an extremely self-conscious process, one which weighs not only immediate benefits and risks, but also the long-term cultural implications of every decision. The ecological principles mentioned above help to create an ethical framework which must be a necessary component of any authentic approach to development. It is the realm of ethics which will allow for a transcendence of the cost accounting methods prevalent among most international development agencies. As Ted Trainer puts it in Developed to Death, it calls for a "moral path to development."

The hegemonic position of the culture of capitalism undermines most efforts at maintaining a self-conscious and selective stance visa-vis modernization. It is presented as a "take it or leave it" proposition. If a nation questions the prescription of an IMF-style restructuring of economic and development policy, sources of credit and capital will be cut off. With the collapse of Communism and an end to the counter force once represented by the Soviet Union, even the limited options once available to underdeveloped nations have been constricted. The leverage which growing international debt has given to the World Bank and the IMF has effectively shut down the possibility for any creative approaches to development. While individual communities may choose to pursue alternative development models, the nation-states of the developing world must pay homage to the mastery of the market and dance to the tune of international capital.

One example of the emerging resistance to domination by the IMF and the World Bank is Guyana where the government has rejected an IMF-imposed Structural Adjustment Program to create an alternative which will balance the re-payment of foreign debt (which in order to repay at its current level would consume the salary of every Guyanan worker for the next 10 years) with the internal needs of Guyana. Similar programs are now being considered by 15 other nations with the assistance of the Bretton Woods Reform Organization International.

The inherent tension between the market forces that power modernization and the ecological imperative to preserve the biological integrity of the planet does, however, hold the potential for a creative resolution. In places where capitalism's assault on the environment is still in its early stages, people have the opportunity to critically analyze the experience of the developed world, to learn from our legacy of ecological devastation and to choose consciously not to replicate our mistakes. The crucial dynamic here is one in which people are able to develop the self-awareness necessary for such an approach to succeed. Increasingly, the pressure to open up markets and bring them into the global economy has taken on an almost religious fervor. The global market has become the holy grail of the nineties, and to resist the crusade on its behalf is to risk the fate of all unbelievers: dismemberment or death. Yet to not resist inevitably leads to the same end.

Process Versus Product

Traditional development models are geared toward increasing production, greatly enhancing the wealth of those who are in charge of production, and theoretically allowing the crumbs to "trickle down" to the lower level. If, for production to be increased, people have to sacrifice their freedom, their health or the environment, such sacrifice is justified if it results in increased production and a rising Gross National Product.

Social ecology views development as process oriented rather than product obsessed, focused not on production, but on reproduction, on the biological processes which renew the earth. The process of development must be transformed into one which leads to growing empowerment of disempowered sectors of the society, and an increased level of self-consciousness regarding their ability to reorient the direction of development. Development itself must be redefined as the empowerment of communities to determine their own future in an open way, free of the coercion of the IMF, the World Bank and other international development agencies.

As André Gunder Frank pointed out in the sixties, capitalist development fosters dependency on the dominant culture of the rich nations. As long as they define the terms under which development occurs (or does not occur), the chances for a process-oriented form of development which could allow Third World nations to break out of dependency are slim indeed.

Current development practice focuses primarily on resource extraction, on creating and exploiting low-cost pools of non-unionized labor, and on agricultural production of crops to be exported to the more affluent nations. In other words the product-oriented approach to development is geared almost exclusively toward production for consumption by the wealthy nations and the tiny ruling elites of the Third World. Ironically, nations like Mexico and Guatemala, which are both large exporters of agricultural products, still have substantial populations suffering from malnutrition and hunger. A growing consciousness of this fact has resulted in popular insurgencies in both countries. The Zapatista rebellion in Mexico focused on the destructive effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as a major issue.

The increased globalization of production and the free market ideology of NAFTA and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) can only further the immisseration of the poor.

Grass roots localized approaches to development, like those proposed by social ecology, would focus first on food security for the people living within the developing nation. Development must be a process of education as much as infrastructure building. It stimulates an unfolding of the productive possibilities in every locality in accord with the specific conditions in that particular place. It is an organic process which looks to people to define their own future, rather than allowing the market to define it for them.

It is an internal process that flows out of communities rather than a process which is externally imposed on them. Much current development in the South is debt driven. International agencies use the leverage that grows out of massive foreign debt to restructure the social policies and political priorities of debtor nations to reflect the needs of international capitalism. The "Shock Therapy" of IMF Structural Adjustment Programs has devastated nation after nation in the South. Often associated with right-wing regimes, these programs have been effective in forcing even "progressive" administrations to redefine their priorities. A good example is provided by the Manley government in Jamaica.

A social ecological approach to development begins the process at the grass roots, working with communities at the local level on projects which they have determined will improve their quality of life. Regional and national development priorities then grow out of the local orientation. This dynamic is facilitated by a process of confederation in which each locality has its concerns represented regionally and nationally to allow for the creation of a coordinated strategy for development which is built from the bottom up and reflects the desires of the mass of the population rather than those of the elite.

Perhaps the most radical departure of a social ecological approach to development is its rejection of the market as a viable mechanism for stimulating or facilitating development. In fact, the market stands in direct opposition to the goals of true development. The market demands adherence to a model with built-in winners and losers; it creates dependence on external sources of financing, technology and expertise; it disempowers the local in favor of the impersonal economic forces; it views nature as a "resource" ripe for exploitation; it presupposes a universal standard of affluence modeled on the North which, if ever achieved (an impossibility from an ecological perspective), would result in a homogenization of the world's cultures and ecosystems. We must recognize that dramatic changes in patterns of production and consumption in the North are a precondition for true development in the South.

The assimilation of the diverse cultures of the planet is the human parallel to the loss of bio-diversity that our current development practice foreshadows. It is only through active resistance to the dominant model and the creation of real alternatives which exist outside of the framework of the global market that there is hope for the authentic development of the peoples of the planet, an unfolding of potentialities that could allow us to achieve the more profound ground of a humanity which is both rooted in the varied lives of the world's diverse peoples and cultures and truly universal in its ethical stance and practice.



[1] Ted Trainer, Developed to Death (London: Green Print, 1989), p. 9. 

[2] See Karl Polanyi, Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economies: Essays of Karl Polanyi (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968); and The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1944). 

[3] See Green Business, Hope or Hoax (Philadelphia: New Society Press, 1990). 

[4] Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development (London: Zed Books, 1988). 

[5] For a full discussion of the principles of social ecology, see Murray Bookchin, Philosophy of Social Ecology (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1992).