Unlocking Third World potentials

The Rise and Fall of Development Theory - Doctrines of Development - Thinking about Development

January 24, 1997

The so-called "impasse in development theory" of the late 1980s continues to generate heated debate. It was precipitated by the Third World debt crisis, increasing concerns about the environmental and social unsustainability of conventional development paths, the crisis of state socialism, the end of the cold war and the growing attractiveness of postmodern critiques. Some authors have responded by articulating ecocentric, postmodern, postcolonial or revisionist "new political economy" theories. Many others remain bemused, often abandoning theory in favour of more applied research agendas, or adopting the latter-day neoconservative perspectives of the leading international development agencies. Still others have sought to cast new light on the present by re-examining the historical trajectories of development doctrines and theories in relation to changing world circumstances. The three books reviewed here all fit into this last category and yet are remarkably different, considering the progressive credentials of their authors.

M. P. Cowen and R. W. Shenton argue that the conventional wisdom that "development" as we know it originated in the immediate aftermath of the second world war is erroneous. Most authors of both orthodox and "alternative" textbooks on development economics and sociology are roundly accused of ignorance.

Much of their argument rests on a rigid adherence to the classical constructivist distinction between "development" and "progress", which they trace back through a lineage including Hegel, Marx, List, Comte and ultimately Cardinal Newman's ecumenical concerns with "development" in the early-mid 19th century. Here, "progress" refers to the long-run evolution of society, comprising phases of both growth and decay/destruction, while "development" is a sudden break where deliberate intent is applied to "ameliorate the disordered faults of progress". "As for development, so for underdevelopment: neither was invented during or after the second world war and neither was originally construed as part of a new imperial project for the colonial and postcolonial 'Third World'."

Cowen and Shenton devote several hundred pages to their complex argument. The historical detail can be fascinating: the discussion of authors and politicians not conventionally associated with the history of development thought such as Joseph Chamberlain, for example, and the contention that these concerns were initially articulated in the context of European and Old Commonwealth rather than Third World poverty and unemployment. The final chapter, purporting to examine the jargon of current development literature, is a disappointing resume of the earlier arguments coupled with almost intemperate invective against "alternative development" expounded by "the malcontents of development", a label overused with monotonous regularity, especially as the authors' ire is directed at the contributors to one specific (and admittedly extreme) edited volume.

Many of Cowen and Shenton's problems would be eased by an acceptance that definitions and the meanings attached to particular concepts are inevitably reinvented, reinterpreted and even emasculated over time through popularisation. Had the main thrust been to illuminate the long pedigree of development thinking, this would have been a monumental and seminal study. However, the failure to accept that "development" and "progress" are usually defined differently today, the lack of attention given to nonwestern development traditions, the disappointing final chapter and the sometimes difficult prose detract from the overall impression. It is a hard read, which even most postgraduate students would find daunting.

By contrast, Colin Leys has provided an eminently readable, well argued and concise survey of "western" development theory, which provides much of interest for the initiated and novice alike. Given the author's long engagement with development in Africa, the volume has a certain autobiographical quality. It would make an excellent student text, despite occasional overlap between chapters, which stems from the fact that the book is a compendium of Leys's relevant output from 1978 onwards. Two of the nine chapters were originally published as recently as 1994. Three chapters, namely the opening overview, a critique of "new political economy" and brief concluding essay, were specially written. These are excellent and, together with the overview of the Kenya debate, among the best I have read. Despite his involvement with the subject and firmly held views, Leys's style is moderate and his coverage balanced. This lends authority to his argument just as Cowen and Shenton's invective detracts from theirs.

Leys begins with a brief historical glance towards the origins of development theory, pointing to the importance of capitalism and especially industrial capitalism in the late 18th century in spawning conceptions of "a universal history". He regards Hegel and Marx as the "true originators of development theory" because "they recognised that it was the sudden acceleration in the rate of change that the establishment of capitalist production and bourgeois society had generated that made it necessary and possible to think of history in this way".

However, he points out that this is not what most people have meant by development theory, and shifts his concern to the transformation and enhanced productivity of the European colonies and ex-colonies following the second world war. For him - and in sharp contrast to Cowen and Shenton - this new theory can be distinguished on three principal grounds. First, it has had a strong practical orientation - explaining and providing a framework for improvement on the ground. Second, the theories formulated were tainted by cold war considerations, since the new states represented a key prize for the contending superpowers. Third, the establishment of the Bretton Woods regime provided a distinctive regulatory framework for trade and investment.

In the later chapters, Leys also points out, that whatever the strengths and weaknesses of competing theories and actual development performance until the 1980s, the current international trading and investment regime is very different. It presents substantively new challenges for which neither the old theories nor nostalgia will be adequate. He reaches the frank conclusion that Africa will have to increase capitalist productivity as well as overall output, and that this will require a transition to commercial productive relations from what he somewhat misleadingly refers to as "simple commodity production", ie often complex peasant-based systems. However, this is no advocacy of naked market competition. For all countries, "the conclusion ... is as simple as it is daunting: that ... recapturing control over their own destinies requires the re-establishment of social control over capital and the resubordination of markets to social purposes."

In Thinking About Development, Paul Streeten provides a well-written and authoritative autobiographical survey of his set of key postwar issues and institutional changes. Originating as the 1991 series of Raffaele Mattioli Lectures at the Universita Commerciale Luigi Bocconi in Milan, this book benefits from the addition of a brief introduction and a fascinating extended autobiographical essay by the author, a full listing of his publications from 1949 to 1991, a set of short commentaries by five other eminent economists and a complete bibliography. Purely out of interest, I began with Streeten's autobiography but would recommend this route since it provides wonderful insights into his nature and character, enabling one to understand his analyses more fully. The range of issues and debates in which Streeten has participated is formidable, despite his being most widely known for his contributions to basic-needs philosophy and practice. This is clearly the work of an economist, giving it a somewhat different slant from the two other books.

Streeten's position as an enlightened and progressive analyst marginally to the left of centre is clear but unobtrusive. While I would not agree with all his analyses, they are well formulated and expressed. His core argument is that the IMF and World Bank orthodoxies of full liberalisation and privatisation as articulated in the so-called "new political economy" are misguided and harmful. Indeed, "a liberal framework of prices and markets requires an active and efficient state ... State action is needed in order to stimulate private action through complementary public services ... These services will go beyond the provision of a framework of law and order ... to the conduct of economic policy, the construction of infrastructure and the financing of research ..."

He ends less pessimistically than Leys or Cowen and Shenton, indicating that the present assault on the economic liberties of the welfare state is achieving the opposite results from those intended, that less brazen and extreme policies can better achieve improved efficiency and accountability without hardship and pauperisation. Unicef's record exemplifies what can be achieved.

The student of development studies and development theory has an unprecedented range of books to choose from. The material on offer varies substantially, but the literature has certainly been enriched by these three volumes. One regret, though, is that none of them really addresses the challenges posed by the most recent theoretical turns in the field, such as postmodernism, postcolonialism and ecocentric development.

David Simon is reader in development geography and director of the centrefor developing areas research,Royal Holloway, University of London.

The Rise and Fall of Development Theory

Author - Colin Leys
ISBN - 0 85255 359 5 and 3501
Publisher - James Currey
Price - £35.00
Pages - 205

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