Development Subjects: Why Aren’t They Being Heard?

Essay written by Giancarlo de Vera, (c) 2009



The idea of development stands like a ruin in the intellectual landscape. Delusion and disappointment, failures and crime have been the steady companions of development and they tell a common story: it did not work. Moreover, the historical conditions which catapulted the idea into prominence have vanished: development has become outdated.

–       Wolfgang Sachs (1992 : 1)

In an attempt to answer this question, this essay will focus on multiple discourses of development as they are featured within the context of gender mainstreaming policies. By way of definition, the word ‘discourse’ will draw heavily on Foucault’s (1970) notion of discourse, and the concept of ‘development as discourse’ will be defined as a “system of knowledge, technologies, practices and power relations that serve to order and regulate the objects of development” (Lewis et al, 2003: 545; see also Sachs, 1992; Ferguson; 1994; Escobar; 1995). Along with this essay’s discursive approach, this essay will note how meanings associated with development are “… produced, contested and reworked in practice – and thus … illuminat[ing] the multiple significances that the term holds for actors involved in the development process” (Lewis et al, 2003: 546). Hence, this essay will argue that the factors that make it difficult for the voices to be heard, despite the changes to the way development is practiced, is this: the development apparatus constitutes multiple discourses, as lessons from post-structural development critique illustrate, but that there are many discontinuities between discourses’ formal order and the local practices among local actors. Furthermore, it will be argued that actors on all levels involved, face a perpetual gap between local knowledge and practices, and the development discourses that impart meaning and legitimacy upon development practices.

In order to arrive at this conclusion, we must first look at what exactly is meant, and what constitutes the development apparatus. The term apparatus originates from Foucault’s dispositif, and is a useful concept in understanding the operation of power (Briggs, 2002: 426). In the Foucauldian context, the development apparatus is understood and allows for the recognition of “both the good intentions of agents and a wide range of both positive and negative outcomes generated through development” (Briggs, 2002: 427; see also Escobar, 1995). Hence, in this light, Morgan Briggs (2002) asserts that the development apparatus “…does not aggregate the operation of power or allow default to the oppositional position that development is ‘bad’” (p.427). These insights are important to understand, as all development discourses will invariably be reproduced (Ferguson, 1994: 13), and as such the development apparatus merely delivers methods on how actors reflect, adhere and act upon a discourse (Nustad, 2001: 484). In this sense, it must be understood that the formal development apparatus manifests development discourses both conceptually and institutionally through practices.

Recognising that the development apparatus operates on both a conceptual and institutional level is key in understanding how the gap between the formal development apparatus and local practices emerged. International and discursive developments in the postwar period led to the emergence of a development apparatus that ‘inserted’ and ‘normalised’ nation-states as a component element of the overall formal development apparatus (Briggs, 2002: 427). However, the development apparatus’ focus on the nation-state, did not preclude other actors in the development process. In fact, it “relie[d] upon the operation of normalization [of development discourses] at a range of other levels and sites, including that of individual subjects” (Briggs, 2002: 427; emphasis mine).  As a result, development discourses such as human development, gave rise to practices like microcredit programmes. During 1997-2005, the number of people receiving microcredit increased from 13.5 million to 113.3 million in India, and 84% of them were women (Daley-Harris, 2006). It was anticipated these loans would promote gender equality and the empowerment of women (see Kabeer, 2005) leading to the ability to overcome cultural asymmetries (see, for instance, Hashemi et al, 1996; Kabeer, 2001; Pitt et al, 2006). However, in a study conducted by Supriya Garikipati (2008) that assessed the impact of lending to women in India, it was found that the loans were mainly used to enhance or create enterprises controlled primarily by their husbands, whereby a mere 20.66% of the loans were used for assets that women managed or helped manage (p. 2633). Despite this statistic 29.3% of women did report a positive income after the loan was repaid (Garikipati, 2008: 2636). However, this was due to women ‘pooling’ their loans in high investment and high return enterprises, diversifying their risk (Garikipati, 2008: 2636). Thus indicating that microcredit had no inherent capability to address gender inequality or empower women.

What makes these findings so peculiar, is the fact that the development goal of gender equality and empowerment of women was borne out of a very strong acknowledgement of their invisibility and lack of voice in the development paradigm (see Leonard, 2003; Kabeer, 1994; Tinker, 1990, Parpart, 1995). As a result, the formal development apparatus attempted to address this lack of voice, through multiple changes at both the conceptual and institutional level, with the emergence of the ‘Women in Development’ (WID), ‘Women and Development’ (WAD) and finally ‘Gender and Development’ (GAD) discourses (Rasavi & Miller, 1995).  While criticisms of these discourses abound (Moore, 1998, amongst others), the most important criticism comes from J.L. Parpart (1995) who recognised that these discourses fell into ‘modernist stereotypes’ (p.236; see also Kabeer, 1991; Rai, 2003). For Parpart, these ‘modernist stereotypes’ continued to restrict analysis to modernist definitions of development (p.236). As such, despite the formal development apparatus’ attempt to incorporate and address the lack of voice, the development goals of gender equality and empowerment of women was limited.

Hence, microcredit programmes, despite their intentions, were empty signifiers within the development apparatus, urging us to question why. As previously stated, discourses will be invariably reproduced, whereby the development apparatus merely “delivers methods on how actors reflect, adhere and act upon a discourse” (discursive practices) that include “a wide range of both positive and negative outcomes generated through development”. Considering this, and how development discourses such as WID, WAD and GAD have attempted to be transformative; it is little wonder they have not obtained the material outcomes they intended. However, as Briggs rightfully states, this does not mean the development apparatus should “default to the oppositional position that development is ‘bad’”, for the development apparatus will always be subject to, and reflexive of the discourses that imparts meaning onto it.

Drawing on J.L. Parpart’s (1995) ‘modernist stereotypes’ critique of the WID, WAD and GAD discourses, we can begin see how modernist undercurrents are still prevalent today despite orthodox theories falling into disrepute within the development industry. Commenting on this, Parpart states:

The assumption that development requires planning (and expertise) inhibits new ways of imagining development, at the level both of theory and practice. It restricts GAD analysis to modernist definitions of development with their emphasis on Northern (or North-trained) technical expertise and the universal applicability of Northern models to development problems (p. 236)

What this highlights is the idea that anthropological and ethnographical approaches to development highlights: how development discourses bear significance on development actors, and how changes within the apparatus act upon ‘objects’ of development (such as women) (Lewis et al., 2003: 544-45; see also Gardner & Lewis, 1996, 2000: Bebbington, 2000; Bebbington et al., 2000; Batterbury, 1998; Rhoades, 1984; amongst others). While the emergence of anthropological and ethnographic approaches to development was intrinsically linked to the evolution of the globalisation research agenda (Lewis et al., 2003; 545) and radical critiques of modernist definitions of development such as post-development (Escobar, 1995; Sachs 1992, Nustad, 2001; Pieterse, 1998; amongst others), their attempt to incorporate the voice of those impacted by development practices, remained lacklustre.

Through the anthropological and ethnographical lens, development actors and organisations are viewed as a text, and part and parcel of the “system of knowledge, practices and power relationships that serve and order the objects of development” (Lewis et al., 2003: 545-46). However, this post-structural analysis offered little ethnographic details on how development actors worked, and how development actors influence the texts they produce and the practices they effect (Watts, 2001). As such, a slippage between the development text and effect was occurring both conceptually at a theoretical level (discourse) and institutionally (discursive practices). What was observed was the fact that development goals, as stated formally within the development apparatus (such as policy documents etc), the goals pursued in operational practice, and the personal goals pursued by ‘clients’ and local bureaucrats in the course of implementing the goals (or ‘performing’) were very different (Long, 1992: 34; see also Hebinck & Verschoor, 2001). Hence, if the slippage between development text and effect was so prevalent, then the implication is that analysis of practice must accompany analysis of text if one is to fully understand how development actors produce ideas, how slippage occurs in their translation into practice, and the material effects of this.

Thus, deconstruction of development practices is needed, in order for voices to be heard effectively. It is apparent, at least in the respect of women in India, that voices are being heard, but not effectively. The term ‘gender’ meant different things to the actors involved in the process and as such was contested, appropriated and reworked in practice (for further studies in India, see Walby, 2005; George, 2007; amongst others). In this sense, how actors understood gender was inherently a political process (Kabeer, 1994), and as such, political structures allowed multiple meanings to be associated with the term ‘gender’. Hence, if we were to accept that political structures gave way to multiple meanings for the term ‘gender’, then it logically follows that the term ‘gender’ was understood through social and cultural frames, for gender analysis to be articulated in culturally resonate ways. In this context, in respect to the development goals of gender equality and the empowerment of women, gendered critiques and discourses simultaneously legitimised limited practices like microcredit lending to women in India, without due regard to how they reinforced, reproduced and ultimately negated their purported development goals. Hence, while microcredit lending involved participation of women on all fronts, their participation operated through existing power relations, that inevitable become entrenched through further reproduction (White, 1996: 6). In this trajectory, women can even replace men in economic positions (which microcredit lending saw as an mean to their empowerment and greater equality), without necessarily transforming structural inequalities in society (Steady, 2006: 2). Herein, legitimacy of discursive practices was inextricably linked to representation, for it was thought that mere participation equated to inclusiveness.

In fact, this was not the case. These gendered critiques and discourses were a corollary of Western feminism, which assumed there was ‘… a global sisterhood linked by invariant universal feminine characteristics’ (McNay, 1992: 2). Essentialism trumped anti-essentialism, which lead to a disregard for prevailing norms that were at the root: “although an analysis of women’s subordination was at the heart of these approaches [WID, WAD, GAD], the essentially relational nature of their subordination had been left largely unexplored” (Rasavi & Miller, 1995: 12; see also Parpart, 1995: 233). This essentialist tendency was a direct result of the continued use of modernist definitions that was noted earlier, as they focused on the construction and reinforcement of gender inequalities superficially (Kabeer, 1994: xiii), and at the expense of a proper analysis that looked at the power that presupposes the construction based on patriarchal knowledge, and the reinforcement of practices based on that construction (Mosner, 1993).

By extension, we can also argue broadly speaking, that this nuanced dynamic is occurring for other ‘objects’ of development. Whether they be the peri-urban poor in India, disenfranchised women in the Persian Gulf, or dispossessed indigenous peoples in Botswana; what is needed in the deconstruction of development practices is the wholehearted recognition that the development process is “… an ongoing, socially constructed and negotiated process, not simply the execution of an already-specified plan of action with expected outcomes” (Long, 1992: 35). Herein we must move away from discourse being central, to agency being central in the analysis. 

Thus, if we recognise that the development process is an ongoing, socially constructed, and negotiated process, then we can begin to see how the voices of the ‘objects’ of development have not been heard effectively due to conceptual, normative and therefore institutional constraints. It is peculiar to think why Wolfgang Sachs concludes development is now outdated. On one level it is the product of developments in philosophy that have manifested itself throughout history, and on another its something more banal like politics that govern the operation of the development apparatus. Regardless, what is essentially lacking is indeed the individual subjects’ inherent agency in the development process. What is ironic is the fact that the development apparatus “relie[d] upon the operation of normalization [of development discourses] at a range of other levels and sites, including that of individual subjects”, and yet individual subjects have gone amiss. What emerges from the rumble is a disconnected, contradictory and spurious picture, lacking transformative potential to incorporate the voice of those impacted by development effectively.

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