Post-Development Perspective
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Albert Einstein famously said, “The distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion” (NPR 2013).

Arturo Escobar, the anthropologist, post-structural political ecologist, and post-colonial/development theorist, critically demonstrates the process of “discovering” the Third World  through empirical and historical comparative analyses starting from the colonial era to the development of the new international world order. The strategic moves in theorizing his hypothesis on the discourse will be determined on this essay. The concealed and explicit psycho-sociological elements in rationalization and conceptualization of such claims and strategies will be dissected and manifested through gestalt and relative advantage theories, along with the analytical approaches of the post-structuralist school of thoughts. 

Escobar illustrates the sequential historical development of international political economy and relations in three stages. In the colonial era, European colonial powers intervened in the rest of the world under the idealism of “mission civilisatrice” which was purely metropoles-colonies world structure. Aside from the over-exploitation of their resources and manpower, the “mission” was supposed to deliver the “uncivilized” peoples from the darkness, but without any strategies or attempts to help improving their economic conditions because the Europeans presumed it as pointless and implausible (Escobar 1995: 133). However, in the interwar period, under the provision of the League of Nations, the power relations were restructured into the super-powers/mandates relations, where the mission and strategies were to supervise these newly emerged nations to rule themselves sufficiently (Escobar 1995: 136). Finally, In the postwar period, after decolonialization, and resuming of globalization under the US hegemony, the new international order had emerged with entirely new strategies and restructuring of the former world system. This time the mission was the development of the underdeveloped countries through international apparatuses to legitimize the US interventionism in the Third World (Escobar 1995: 138). Meanwhile, the mission in the colonial era was supposedly intellectual enlightenment of the savages, and the mission of interwar period was governance supervisions; in the postwar period, the mission was purely economic development programs as strategic “war on poverty” in the Third World (Escobar 1995: 132). 

One can portray this sequential perception, which attempts to find patterns and continuity within the historical development of international system in order to come up with a holistic perspective, as a gestalt approach used by Escobar either consciously or subconsciously, yet profoundly. The gestalt theory conceptualizes that humans subconsciously tend to look for or consciously observe similarities, pragnanz, proximity, continuity, and then closure of phenomena or visuals to find the ultimate meaning of the whole and to complete the missing parts of the given reality from the bigger picture or the overall situation. A perception where facts fit into different narratives because they are complementary, and individual parts do not necessarily have meanings or functions by themselves alone (Çakir 2009: 322-24). Hannes Peltonen well demonstrated the gestalt psychology within social constructivism, cognition, and duality of international relations as,  “We, with our socially constructed identities, study socially constructed things in worlds of our making, but we have trouble seeing them simultaneously, illustrated in the global law example” (Peltonen 2016: 86). Additionally, such International orders are at least affected by and established through: “(1) the content of policymaker beliefs, (2) the organization and structure of policymaker beliefs, (3) common patterns of perception (and misperception), (4) cognitive rigidity (and flexibility) for change and learning, and (5) impact on policymaking.” (Çakir 2009: 24) 

Another gestalt tactic is evident when Escobar academically raids on the positivist methodology of the Global North’s naturalization of the Third World conditions as poor, and justifying their interventions within such regions through asserting on the “discovery” of mass poverty in Asia, Africa, Latin America after the WW II by which two third of the world population was labeled as poor countries (Escobar 1995: 132). Moreover, based on modern techniques, scientific measures,  and technological tools along with well-established institutions, they allowed themselves to acknowledge development project as “self-evident” and “universal truth”. A manifesto, that assisting the underdeveloped regions economically improve, is the capitalist missionaries’ ultimatum. Moreover, they claimed that once the Third World could overcome its ignorant, non-conformist, and regressive conditionalities,  the economic development in such regions will become “self-generating” (Escobar 1995: 134). 

In his post-structuralist stance, Escobar denaturalizes the naturalization of the Third World and describes it as an inadequate scientific methodology by the Global North for the fact that social structures, societies, and their management need interdisciplinary, self-governing, and complex social reforms and organization rather than imposing “discovered universal natural laws” by the Global North on the rest of the world. Moreover, he explicitly indicates the paradoxical standpoint of such scientific positivism when the International Bank report in 1950 elucidates if Colombia succeeds in accomplishing the World Bank’s developmental program, it will not only achieve its “salvation” but will be a shining example for the rest of the underdeveloped regions (Escobar 1995: 135). To demonstrate more on that; on the one hand, the advocates of development emphasize on the scientific measures and universalizing or naturalizing the project, on the other hand, they proclaim a messianic or ironically rephrased as a “secular theory of” salvation for the Third World through reformation (deformation, say) in the white-male image led by the US (Escobar 1995: 137). Although, as a post-structuralist, Escobar emphasized on the language and interpretation of the discourse, the thought/reality complex is also illustrated in his exposure of the contradictory reality/utopia complex in the development project. 

Meanwhile post-structuralists believe that races are the main actors in the formation of global system, Escobar himself also puts extra emphasis on white-supremacy throughout the three phases mentioned earlier, and he defines the development project as an American interventionist project ‘fueled by  ethnocentric and racist positions’ (Escobar 1995: 137). However, as an anthropologist, he is also well aware of the interrelations and significance of the other main actors such as culture, race, gender, nation, and class in the formation and reformation of the different world orders within different phases (Escobar 1995: 134). It is worth mentioning that such classifications of the world order can be referred to another psycho-sociological theory which is relative advantage theory. Relative advantage is a collective process occurs amongst a group of people to define their situation, values, character in comparison to another/other group(s) or themselves in different spatiotemporal circumstances which gives them a sense of satisfaction. This collective process usually strengthens unity amongst the members and rarely leads to isolation of some members, but almost exclusively leads to categorization and separation amongst different groups in which the perception of superiority, neutrality, and inferiority emerges through comparison with others of: (a) similar statuses, (b) lower statuses, (c) superior statuses (Wolf 1990: 41-42 & 52-54). 

Furthermore, Escobar well-demonstrated the relative advantage in the development project that can be defined in three subsections. First, As a Colombian scholar, one can realize that he is also affected by such relative advantage psychology when explicitly states that Latin America is quite different than Africa and should not have been treated the same for the fact that most of Latin American countries achieved independence in the beginning of nineteenth century nonetheless they remained under the European economic and cultural influence (Escobar 1995: 136). The second aspect depicts the power relations amongst the US, Western Europe, and the Third World, where he gives an obvious example on General Marshall who stated that Latin America must not expect to receive anything similar to the Marshall Plan for Europe (Escobar 1995: 137). The third part exposes of the white-supremacy over the rest of the world by citing Elihu Root, prominent figure in shaping the US foreign interventionist policies, who outspokenly stressed that without the consent of Latin America, particularly Colombia regarding to the separation of Panama for instance, yet without greed and for the betterment of humanity, Root continued, the US will intervene in others’ sovereignty and affairs (Escobar 1995: 136). Furthermore, Wilson’s ambassador to England, claimed that the US would intervene in Latin America, and force them to vote to elect ‘good men’. If not, we will shoot them until they learn to vote and rule for themselves (Escobar 1995: 138). 

The development project is analytically and empirically confirmed as the continuity and complementary sequential establishment of colonial and imperial international relations and policies accompanied by the development of capitalism in the Global North and its outreaching to the rest of the world especially after the collapse of the Communist World. Thus, it led to the subjugation of the Third World by the Capitalist World, in the name of developmental programs to improve poor nations’ economies and eradicating poverty globally. Nonetheless, Escobar contested development through post-structural lenses and depicted it as a sham. This paper made an extra attempt to better explain the strategic moves from two different but corelated perspectives such as gestalt theory and relative advantage theory in order to represent the role of the factors and actors in the formation and reformation of the global order in an ethnocentric image of the white-supremacy. 

Arez Barzinjy 

Bachelor of Arts in International Studies and Law at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani

Studies Master’s Degree in Global Political Economy and Development at University of Kassel, Germany


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Wolf, C. (1990). Relative Advantage. Symbolic Interaction, 13(1), 37-61. doi:10.1525/si.1990.13.1.37