Beyond Development

To say “I hate politics”, or “please, I am not that much into politics” – and with much conviction – is more often than not a political act. This resonates well with a long-held view that scientific or technical knowledge, construed by liberal consensus to ‘true’ knowledge, is fundamentally non-political and conversely, that overly political knowledge is not scientific and hence cannot be considered as ‘true’ knowledge.

Following in this precedent, many developments ‘experts’ today, including politicians, have claimed that their work is not ‘political’ but ‘developmental’-within an uncompromising zeal to render the concept of development technical. These apparently unchallengeable, self-evident truisms that exist in the world today originate less from fact than from strategy. Essentially, they allocate certain roles and positions to carefully selected actors and processes while excluding others. Ultimately, they constitute a hegemonic enterprise.

Dispatch 1: 13th September, 2010

“In Nairobi- Higher Education Minister William Ruto has given public universities an ultimatum- phase off all courses that will not help Kenya industrialise if they want to continue getting government funding.”

The Star  

Growing up in Kenya in the 1990s-at the height of neoliberal reform in the ‘Global South’ in general and in Africa in particular- I was actively made to think that sciences were much better than humanities and art. In addition, I was told- in school and in church-that I was created by God, saved by Christ, and would be civilised by Western education: education is the key! And not any other kind of education of course, only that which will turn individuals into obedient servants and workers within a capitalist industrial system, which in my country, is synonymous to development.

In this way, my social world had been carefully thought out and created.

Within this dynamic, the human body and mind has no space for emotions and irrationalities, and that space only exists for facts and logic. Subjects such as literature, history, music, culture, and politics, did not fare well in the epistemological ladder to the scientific heaven.

Dispatch 2: 18 August, 2010

“In Luweero, President Museveni has criticised humanity courses at universities as useless, saying graduates from such departments can hardly solve anything to steer national development.”

Daily Monitor  

Of course, everything else, including poverty, rising levels of unemployment, crime, and violence, were either reduced into technical problems, requiring technical solutions, or viewed as curses -abnormalities occurring to those with little faith and those who did not choose the ‘right’ courses or simply did not work hard in school.

And so, when they ‘sent’ me to the university and after having failed to convince me to study medicine or engineering, my family insisted that I shouldn’t bother myself with university politics – even as student welfare conditions deteriorated without fail. That many had gone through the trouble and were now successful – “driving their own cars!”

Through these disciplinary frameworks, a whole generation in my country and beyond have been encouraged to obey but not to question, to master handed-down formulas of “success”, and mathematical equations, but not to rethink and reinvent their meaning. Ultimately, through these means, people have been urged to steer clear of alternative ways of being and thinking.

This has become extremely powerful and unquestionable at a time where life is becoming increasingly precarious especially for the middle-class, and all sovereignty and power to affect Africa’s destiny and progress has been appropriated by others.

The result of this hegemonic enterprise to wipe out the relevance of any social justice thought and work (which would lead us into asking the difficult questions) and the study of humanities and social sciences which would be relevant in this regard is the de-politicization of development itself. Thus, the global approach to development aims to be scientific and technical, refusing to see poverty and inequality as social justice issues while precluding contestation in whatever is described as a development project.

“By uncompromisingly reducing poverty to a technical problem, and by promising technical solutions to the sufferings of powerless and oppressed people, the hegemonic problematic of ‘development’ is the principal means through which the question of poverty is de-politicized in the world today.”

-James Fergusson, The Anti-Politics Machine, 1994

As argued by Edward Said, the author of Orientalism, no one has yet devised a method that detaches the ‘scientist’, or the development ‘expert’ from the circumstances of life, or from his involvement (conscious or unconscious) with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position, or from the mere activity of being a member of a society.

Yet, an unceasing belief in the magical powers of technocracy and of the assumed non-existence of politics in development matters persists. It allocates unchecked power to the technically educated, and none to the uneducated –the supposedly grateful beneficiaries of development intervention.

In this way, development, as an idea and discursive tool, available for use by democrats and autocrats alike, has stood against unlimited democratic potential and wide-spread progress. It has been deployed to delegitimize political opposition and exacerbate the powerlessness of millions by supporting unwavering foreign intervention into their lives and affairs without their voice. We are now faced with policy makers, experts and officials, who, as one observes, cannot think how things might improve except through their own agency.

BUT- “We tell them [rural peasants] what is good for them,” remarks an agricultural expert with an NGO working in Western Kenya. However, this ‘telling’, which can better be described as ‘coercive persuasion’, has involved the uprooting of ‘undesirable crops’ in rural Rwanda by government officials, the distribution of fertilizer (supposedly to improve agricultural production in rural Ethiopia) which destroys soil fertility, and farmers being ‘asked’ off their small-plots of land so as to pave way for massive plantations that are said will help make Africa ‘food secure’.

The basic question coming out of all these examples is: after half a century of its existence, how is the concept of development achieving wide relevance in a world where inequality and injustice have only increased over time? At what point are we going to have a genuine post-development or ‘beyond development’ conversation?

The problem, it seems, is that such a conversation will mean the tacit acceptance by the international development community that development is inherently political: the exact antithesis of current development discourse.

This post was written by Ngala Chome.

Ngala Chome was born in Kenya and is passionate about ideas and work that challenge existing frameworks for understanding social justice issues and development. He is an editor with Routes and was the 2013-2014 Commonwealth Shared Scholar at the University of Edinburgh. His email is


Suggested Readings:

Maria Green, Tanzanian Local Politics

Christian Lund, Ghana, Development and Change, Twilight Institutions: Public Authority and Local Politics, 2006.

Claire Mercer, LSE Civil Society and Community development in Tanzania

Henrietta Moore, Cutting Down Trees

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