Development as Hegemony

Recently I attended a workshop on Indian Civil Society Organisation’s (CSOs) participation in developmental activities abroad. The meet was to discuss the implications of and the way forward for Indian civil society’s participation in regional and pan-regional development and cooperation activities. A number of reputed organisations who havehad a long history in the development sector were present, along with the Joint Secretary of Development Partnership of Assistance of the Ministry of External Affairs (the division in charge of administering state-led development and cooperation activities abroad).

‘Development’ was discussed as  a serious business of transfer of funds, technical resources and assistance, and knowledge to, and building capacity of other third world and developing nations in a structured and formalised manner. It was argued by the Joint Secretary and the CSOs that since “poverty was similar across the globe”, there was something to be gained from sharing our developmental experiences of the past with other developing nations. This was also seen as a different approach to development when compared with organisations such as USAID or Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) that were top-down and paternalistic in their approach as they did not necessarily come from a similar position of understanding. Against such approaches, it was argued that the Indian state and CSOs had been able to take on a greater participatory and responsive role that moved beyond a focus on financing poverty reduction programmes. The important difference identified in India’s approach was its role as a peer – in learning from other countries and also sharing its knowledge and resources with them, its role as a catalyst and multiplier in providing opportunities for development, and its space as a marketplace for developing innovative solutions to poverty and development.

While the intentto do things differently from other Western organisationswas heartening and the enthusiasm for up-scaling India’s role as a development leader and catalyst was evident, what was disturbing about the exercise was the self-assured conviction about the model of development being forwarded. That is, it was a market-model of development that was privileged, that fit in with western, neo-classical theories of human capital and work-growth-productivity. With the emphasis within these theories being on individual participation in the market to assure economic development, this was sought to be assured in many ways. Within such a model, on the one hand, there is an emphasis on extending the market to cover the poor through micro-credit/savings/pension programmes in which they can take part. On the other hand, it seeks to ensure participation in the market through training in the right set of skills, as poverty is seen as a problem of a lack of skills. Thus, skills training in areas such as basic IT that would allow for market participation, to ‘soft skills’ in ‘marketability’ (i.e., learning to market one’s self and one’s culture) has become the staple of development work and discourse.

But absent from the discussion I attended, was any form of critical questioning of the model of development being advocated itself, or how this seemed to fit in neatly with the neoliberal agendas of advanced liberal economies, international organisations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), and western academia.There was hardly any deeper discussion on how such a model of ‘development’ impacted various socio-economic groups very differently, contributing to the reproduction of social inequities. Rather, the starting premise of all discussion was about the need to bring all, even the excluded, into the net of development by building their capacities and skills to participate in the market.

What is problematic about such thinking on development is that it fails to take into account larger structural factors that lead to poverty and ‘underdevelopment’, and instead institutionalises a form of thinking that makes poverty an individual’s problem. This locates poverty in the psyche of the individual rather than within the relationships of caste, class, gender, race and state that have historically and powerfully determined who remain at the centre and at the periphery of the state (and of development).  As several critical studies have sought to show, in the current political economy the discourse of individual skills and personal enterprise form the smoke-screen that hide the real factors that contribute to the sustenance and reproduction of poverty – such as the vested political control and interests within and outside nation states; the expansion of capital and its transnational control over social and political life; the retrenchment of the welfare state; the unequal relations of power between the developed and developing nations, post-colonial nations and former colonisers, etc.

Within this context, development work, as several scholars such as Craig and Porter (2003),Julia Elyachar (2005), Ilcan and Lacey (2011), and others show, serves the ends of capitalist development. That is, it works to identify a new population of consumers (the poor) and helps in the creation of new markets. In other instances it serves as a pressure valve, periodically letting out the building frustration over unequal access to development, by offering certain forms of immediate relief (e.g., access to credit through microfinance). However, it leaves untouched the more fundamental, historical and structural conditions of poverty.  As Julia Elyachar (2005), in her work ‘Markets of Dispossession: NGOs, Economic Development and the State in Cairo’points out, capitalist development itself depends on the poor and their social networks and cultural resources in order to expand itself. Thus, including the poor into the market becomes central to the enterprise of development. Development then becomes the key tool required to make ‘governed subjects’ of the poor, as Ilcan and Lacey (2011) observe in their book ‘Governing the Poor: Exercises of Poverty Reduction, Practices of Global Aid’, so as to bring them into the capitalist net.

‘Developmental work’ itself in this context has come to constitute a market around it, and is an ‘industry’ like any other – demanding the same sops of income tax rebates, green channels and corridors facilitating the ease of business, ease of travel and visa procurement, empanelment akin to other kinds of vendors to industries, etc., from the state (as was seen at the meet I attended).  Within this sphere, as has been pointed out by Eade (2006, p.9-10),terms such as ‘community’, ‘participation’, ‘bottom-up development’ are “…more often invoked to convey a benign glow than to illuminate debate or practice.” Despite our experience as a post-colonial nation, struggling with questions of inclusive development, it is still this dominant model of development that occupies our public imagination. Although several studies have brought attention to the new ways in which conditions of structural inequity and violence reinsert themselves into these solutions to poverty and development, ‘development’ continues to be understood as a problem of individual capacity and participation within the market. Just to give an example of this, one of the ‘learnings’ brought back by a CSO at the meet, from the ‘participatory’ model of development applied in African countries, was the practice of including women’s names in land records, as was seen during their work in Ethiopia. While this was celebrated as a ‘learning’ to be replicated in other contexts, literature shows how these new solutions are still couched within older patriarchal structures and relations. In fact, it was this underlying structure of patriarchal relations that first led to a new system of land registration in which women’s names were included. Yet, the structure having remained unaddressed, even these new norms have prevented women from taking any real decisions with respect to the land. In other instances it has handicapped them due to the continuation of traditional structures of division of labour, according to which women are not socially able to work on land, and are prevented by law from hiring labour (Girma and Giovarelli, 2013). Such gendered differences in terms of participation and access resonate with our own context; yet the radiant halo of development discourse is such that we hardly stop to engage with the festering problems of real-world social contexts within which such solutions are to be applied; and are rather satisfied in importing short-term salves that can soothe the pained psyche of a reflexive society (Giddens,1998 ).[1]

Thus, even when development models are supposedly participatory, and emerge from the standpoint of experience, they do not question the framework of development itself, or engage with the dominant relations of power within which they are conceived. They do not problematise the economic approach to poverty, or the capitalistic solutions of self-maximisation and sufficiency upon which they are based. Thus, alternative visions for development that call for a social redistribution of wealth or reparations for historical injustices, or advocate communal ownership (of property, resources, knowledge and skills) are never the focal point of such interventionist thinking.[2]‘Development work’ thus does not become the starting point for thinking through hegemonic theories of western academia and how these exacerbate the conditions of poverty or reinforce relations of power in contexts that have historically had different institutions and social practices. Rather they homogenise the poor without paying attention to how poverty intersects in a complex manner with historical conditions of caste, class, gender and race.


Craig, D., and Porter, D. (2003). Poverty reduction strategy papers: A new convergence. World Development, 31, 1, 53-69. doi: 10.1016/S0305750X(02)00147X

Eade, D. (2006). Preface. In Deborah Eade (Ed.), Development, NGOs, and Civil Society.  Oxford: OXfam GB

Elyachar, J. (2005). Markets of Dispossession: NGOs, Economic Development and the State in Cairo. Durham: Duke University Press

Girma, H., and Giovarelli, R. (May 2013). The Gender Implications of Joint Land Tilling in Ethiopia.  Focus on Land in Africa. Retrieved from

Ilcan, S., and Lacey, A. (2011). Governing the Poor. Exercises of Poverty Reduction, Practices of Global Aid. Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press

[1] I use ‘reflexive’ society in the manner that Giddens does, to indicate a development within society that is coming to terms with the disillusioning effects of its own modernity, and is constantly looking for solutions to this.

[2] Here I use ‘intervention’ as a way to distinguish it from a process of critical questioning or reflection. Action-intervention as a solution to development is preferred over deliberation and negotiation of knowledge.

Maithreyi R

Research Advisor, CBPS

[Disclaimer: Views presented above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CBPS]

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