The Uncomfortable Opportunism of Global Development Discourses

Since the 2008 financial crisis and the end of the Millennium Development Goals, academics and practitioners working in ‘development’ have been groping for a new development paradigm. Yearning for the end of neoliberalism and stumped by the rise of China, academics hopped on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) bandwagon to call social scientists to think ‘globally’ beyond national-centric analyses. This was, of course, a noble goal – no different from the motives of the hopeful SDGs. New ‘Global Development’ proponents argued that we must think globally and relationally, surprising some within development studies that this had not been happening already (think Dependency theory).

As Development Studies departments found themselves new names and new networks were established, some academics took the opportunity to stake claim over the meaning of Global Development. New scholarship argued that a new Global Development paradigm would rescue us from development studies’ oppressive past, which obsessed over distinguishing between a backward developing world and a utopian ‘developed’ heaven. They reasoned that this was necessary because the ‘South’ was actually rising in comparison to the ‘North’ on the basis of growth and human development indicators. But in presenting this trend as a paradigm shift, these scholars misdiagnosed the problem. They presented the entire ‘South’ as rising, failing to isolate China’s rise and obscuring the fact that countries may have experienced very different trajectories.

In a Forum section that appeared in Development and Change, the case for Global Development was subjected to open debate. The case for Global Development is based on ‘converging divergence’, which suggest that there is increasing convergence between the North and South while there is increased evidence of sustained within-country inequalities (divergence). This elaboration of ‘Global Development’ selected 1990-2015 as the time series within which convergence was identified in terms of growth, health and education. The paper was roundly criticised for its sloppy use of indicators. For example, generalisations of wellbeing were based on the widely-criticised (in every intro to development studies course) Human Development Indicators. In selecting the time period 1990-2015, the paper implies that convergence resulted from the implementation of market-led policies, implicitly condoning neoliberalism, as Andrew Fischer argued. Of course, such claims stand directly opposed to the experiences of most countries in ‘the South’ where structural adjustment and the legacy of market-led reforms has limited prospects for structural transformation.

The paper was also criticised within the Forum on several other counts (see Jayati Ghosh’s contribution for example). For their part, Global Development proponents acknowledge most criticisms. However, they refuse to nuance their claims of converging divergence. They replied that the study was a purely empirical exercise and converging divergence was a stylized fact. It is as if selecting which data you use, as well as the time period, is not a choice.

Global Development Rising

 After a Forum was published debating the appropriateness of this framing of ‘Global Development’, it seemed that Global Development proponents were on a hiatus. There was reason to assume that Global Development proponents had listened to their critics. Soon, it was clear that this was not the case. The Covid-19 pandemic appeared to offer the perfect opportunity for the proponents of Global Development to resurrect the case for their proposed paradigm once again.

So the same scholars made a new case for Global Development, arguing that it rested on the old case of ‘converging divergence’. But the choice to make the case for Global Development, as several countries around the world were locking down in March 2020, was odd. That was the moment when borders and nationalism had become more salient than they had been for years. Reality seemed to matter so little to making cases in times of crisis.

The rise of Global Development seems unstoppable, as institutional power structures appear locked in. The evil international development seems beaten. But was international development actually ever a paradigm at all? Development paradigms have usually been presented as being associated with certain schools of economic thought, which contributed to certain policy directions: Import Substitution Industrialisation, Neoliberalism, Good Governance etc. Global Development, instead, was all things to everyone. And it called for no policies or any form of politics apart from thinking globally.

Global Development has all the bells and whistles of progressive thinking. Scholars project it to be a a new paradigm, presenting it as an alternative to traditional development studies, which has long been chided for its colonial origins. Since ‘Global Development’ aims to re-centre our study of development, proponents opportunistically align it with existing movements to Decolonise Development. However, such claims are hardly persuasive given that its proponents barely acknowledge (let alone analyse) colonialism (in the initial framing of Global Development or subsequent iterations). Global Development’s most grandstanding claim is to call for a global collective solution to climate change. But a failure to centre analysis of historical inequalities blinds them to possibilities for just solutions, which require analysis of the historical inequities on which capitalist accumulation rests.

A (reluctant) case for Development Studies

For all its troubling foundations, the field of development studies retains some strengths. At the field’s birth, development studies purported to be an interdisciplinary space dedicated to studying the non-Western world. There are few fields like it. Name the discipline and you have a strain of decolonising literature that begins by arguing for more space in the canon to study non-Western countries. Of course, there were clearly challenges with how non-Western countries have been imagined, born as development studies was within the colonial project. However, surely, the correct response is to understand how colonialism has shaped contemporary development challenges rather than ignore it.

Troublingly, inter-disciplinary development studies is now waning in favour of a more multi-disciplinary field (dominated by American-trained – or those who hope to mimic American-trained – social scientists who see themselves primarily as anthropologists, economists or political scientists). As Ha-Joon Chang argues, this leaves little space for classical (and heterodox) political economy, which is the original foundation of development studies.  A multi-disciplinary development studies inevitably bows to the Economics Imperialism of neoclassical economics. Troublingly, development studies is then open to capture by increasingly narrow social science fields, which are themselves striving to mimick the formalised mathematical abstraction of neoclassical economics. Global Development proponents say nothing about how they aim to reinvent the broader field of development studies, suggesting their appreciation of these generalised trends. Instead, Global Development proponents simply paint International Development and North-South binaries as strawmen (that we can all collectively hate).

In fact, the Covid-19 pandemic has actually reminded us of the salience of North-South inequalities (or at least, between the industrialised or de- or non-industrialised). This is true, of course, in the ongoing vaccine apartheid underway globally. There is also a clear picture emerging that the United Kingdom and the United States of America are soon returning to normal while even other emerging powers like India and Brazil are reeling from increasing variants, infections and deaths. The foundational logic of Global Development – ‘converging divergence’ – jars with reality. The perpetuation of such a framing will increasingly reveal knowledge divides in development studies, with both the voices and experiences of those outside the West permanently obscured.

Pritish Behuria is a Lecturer in Politics, Governance and Development at The University of Manchester’s Global Development Institute. He is a political economist, researching the politics of economic transformation. He is also the Co-Convenor of the Politics and Political Economy Study Group at The Development Studies Association.

Photo by Lesia and Serhii Artymovych on Unsplash

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