Alternative Development

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= on Alternative Development as a political perspective

Project: From the Crisis of Capitalism to the Emergence of Peer to Peer Political Ecologies


Summary by Jose Ramos:

Practices of colonialism were supported by theories of economic development first developed by Adam Smith (Campbell, 1997, pp. 41-43), later buttressed by an ideology of white superiority, supported by pseudo-scientific theories of racisms (Inayatullah, 1997a, pp. 68-75), and resting on ‘Rise of the West’ assumptions that would later be turned into ‘development’ models (Marks, 2002, pp. 1-20, 150). A common assumption here presupposed the West helping otherwise backward nations and peoples to advance, ideas reinforced by 19th century social theorists (Campbell, 1997; Inayatullah, 1997a). Such ideas drew strength from the idea of ‘progress’, for example August Comte’s idea of the march of knowledge, and later notions of material and economic progress (Scharmer, 1997). These ideas were further underpinned by a worldview which saw the non-Christian world living in sin - the West’s role to save the savages from themselves (Sardar, 1993). Nandy calls this the ‘social-evolutionist model’ in which:

Africa, Latin America and Asia, they are supposed to be societies on a particular trajectory of history ... they are all supposed to be trying to be in the future what Europe and North America are today. So, in that sense, technically there are no options open to them in the future. They are today what Europe was in the past; tomorrow they will be what Europe is today (Ramos, 2005b).

As a challenge to this, the post development discourse subverts the historical view that the West has progressed through stages into the most advanced form of civilisation. For much of the world (India, China, Indonesia, etc), colonialism ended relatively recently and the collective memory of the colonial experience is that of being ‘de-developed’ and economically exploited by the West (Marks, 2002; Sardar, 1993; Zinn, 2003). Historians like Marks turn this ‘Rise of the West’ conception of history on its head. For him the so-called ‘rise of the West’ is better understood as conquest, theft and genocide on a grand scale, which allowed the West to ‘de-develop’ the non-West, gaining key advantages in trade, technology, and transport (Marks, 2002).

After colonialism, ex-colonial countries or de facto spheres of influence (such as Latin America under the ‘US backyard’ policy) attempted to develop economic autonomy from their ex-colonial masters, through dependency economics which advanced import substitution as a pathway toward economic development. Projects for Southern development emerged, such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) which articulated a New International Economic Order (NIEO), as well as the birth of the non-aligned movement (NAM). In this context, led by the US, the West offered ‘development’ assistance to the global South. However, this was often the economic carrot, and proxy war or assassination the political stick, that formed parts of a strategy of containment (of socialism) and the extension of influence (of liberalism and capitalism) (McChesney, 2004).

Factors in the post WWII period, under the shadow of the cold war, helped to rupture faith in a top down, Western led developmentalism. A ‘neo-colonialism’ became increasingly visible, with the US’s role in imposing a corporate-capitalist development, against other models, enforced through CIA initiated proxy wars, clandestine economic influence and political assassinations (Nelson-Pallmeyer, 2001). The US military-industrial complex as well became part of a proxy war system, in which so-called development aid was linked to military assistance to support favourable regimes (Galbraith, 1994, p. 180). Yet Western led development was not simply the application of an economic model, or just ‘containment’, but part of a strategy of domination. Military aid was entwined with a US military strategy of expansion to enforce economic interests (Johnson, 2004, pp. 255-281). Aside from the great costs of military expenditure and aid, huge debts were incurred by Southern nations through development economics inspired projects. Perkins goes so far as to argue countries were deliberately encouraged to accumulate disproportionate debts that could not be paid, as a form of geo-political control and an extension of economic influence (Perkins, 2004). Overall development was increasingly seen as a way of prying open third world economies for the benefit of large multi national corporations (Newfarmer 1984, Radice 1975 in Boulet, 2007) as well as a form of cultural imperialism, the imposition of Western technocratic / capitalist values upon the rest of the world (Wolfgang Sachs 1992 in Boulet, 2007)(Millet, 2004).

The unfolding of the Western development approach laid the foundations for many of the problems targeted in the alternative globalisation movement, such as the massive debt burden suffered by many poor nations (Lernoux 1982 in Boulet 2007; Millet, 2004), the lack of accountability by international institutions like the IMF and WB, and the green revolution, which would have cascading ecological impacts (Shiva, 2000a). Bello eloquently charts the history of the post WWII landscape in the struggle for the governance of the world economy, how the North (G7) and South (through the UN) struggled over decades for the institutional apparatus to set global economic policy, and the nature and direction of this development (Bello, 2004). The advent of neo-liberalism, (explored in Chapter Four), would deepen the crisis. For many countries the application of structural adjustment programs (SAPs) would be a form of ‘de-development’ and re-colonisation (Bello, 1996). Many countries would transform their mixed economies into export oriented ones, wrecking havoc on agriculture and ecosystems (Shiva, 2000a), accumulate enormous debts that could not be easily repaid (Millet, 2004), and compromise their capacity for food security and sovereignty. While the ‘Asian Tigers’ and New Industrialised Countries (NICs) were used by development economists to show how they escaped from economic deprivation through hyper-industrialisation, they were supported economically through this period by the US (in its struggle against communism), used command economy models at odds with neo-liberal theory, and presided over large scale environmental destruction and social displacement (Goldsmith, 1996; Synott, 2004, pp. 167-172).

Alternative development thinkers see development as taking dynamic and plural forms. The Western development approach is seen as obsessively reductionist in its bias for economic growth, supporting the development of infrastructure (airports / roads), energy (dams), and trade. By contrast alternative development thinking opens up many areas to development: health, community, peace, food security, ecological health, citizen participation / engagement, public space. Our fundamental ‘being-ness’ has many aspects to it, mutually considered when invoking development as a goal. Neef’s distinctions in Human Scale Development are a good example, where he uses categories such as subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, idleness, creation, identity, and freedom, to distinguish fundamental needs and satisfiers (Seabrook, 1993, pp. 186-192). He distinguishes between ‘pseudo-satisfiers’ like economic aggregates which purport to explain but cloud understanding of human needs, from ‘single satisfiers’ which offer instrumental solutions, to ‘synergic satisfiers’ which are considered fundamental to human wellbeing (Seabrook, 1993, p. 187). This does not completely deny the role of economic development, but rather qualifies it in a much broader view of what it means to ‘develop’.

With respect to agency, in alternative development thinking social change is initiated from within communities, endogenously, or at least in equal collaboration with external agents. The history of power relations between the West and non-West (or between proxy developers / ruling elites and their peripheries) has meant that it has been the agency of the West that has won out in the model of development. In contrast to this, an alternative development approach emphasises the importance of the local stakeholders in any decision-making process. Power differentials are fundamental to the question of who develops what, and how. Development projects need to emerge as part of human needs that a community identifies for itself as a worthy goal and aim, not by outsiders who claim a community ‘lacks’ one thing or another. Agency can also be understood in Freirian terms, as a process of conscientisation toward collective action (Freire, 1970; Freire, 1973). It is not conceived of in individual terms, as renegade innovation and the achievement of individual security and private attainment (as per the US inventor myth of Edison, Bell, etc). Broad and Cavanagh argue extensively that the alter-globalisation movement is fundamentally a movement about transforming development, characterised by a shift away from the power of the institutions of neo-liberalism, and toward grassroots and citizen agency, which:

prioritize the fulfilment of people’s basic social, economic, cultural and political rights. They measure progress in terms of the improved health and wellbeing of children, families, communities, democracy and the natural environment…. [which] involves the redistribution of political power and wealth downward. (Broad, 2009)

Alternative development problematises the cultural projections occurring through ‘development’, and seeks to open up alternatives, global South, and local visions of development. The epistemology of alternative development challenges the ‘diffusion model’, in which ‘scientific’ and ‘expert’ knowledge, created in universities and poly-technics, is then diffused into society (for example industrial agriculture), as embodied in modernisation theories such as that of Rogers (1995). The linking of expert science with technology with development, which is then exported / imposed from above on so-called ‘under-developed’ peoples is seen as a dangerous misuse of power as well as a mis-representation of reality. In respects, Participatory Action Research, an approach to research which makes primary the knowledge and experiences of those working to ‘develop’ themselves, embodies the epistemology of alternative development (Borda, 2002, p. 33). The expert from their university is no longer privileged with sole authority; rather it is the local participants, in their own inquiry into development in their terms, which become legitimate and authoritative knowledge. In this way a mono-cultural development is pluralised into many heterogenous development approaches.

Alternative development thinkers call for a new ethic to development. One important aspect of this is to shift from ‘development on’ to ‘development with’. For example, Goulet is concerned with a development ethics, looking at the means by which development is conducted, its manner and appropriateness, as opposed to an exclusive focus on the ends. By coupling a commitment to ethical reflection with development, a development which puts ‘human enrichment’ first could be achieved:

The essential task of development ethics is to render development actions humane to assure that the painful changes launched under the banners of development do not produce anti-development, which destroys cultures and exacts undue sacrifices in individual suffering and societal well being, all in the name of profit, an absolutized ideology, or some alleged efficiency imperative. (Goulet, 1995, p. 27)

George argues, from a ‘critical development studies’ vantage point, an epistemological ethics – the imperative is to make explicit key assumptions and value positions, to lay bare the underlying interests at work in development:

I’m not competent to judge whether a truly detached, neutral stance can exist in mathematics, but I’m quite sure it can’t in economics, sociology or political science. In the name of “neutrality” or “objectivity”, one usually gets the pre-suppositions and the ideological framework of the reining paradigm. In our case at the current moment, this will be the neo-liberal worldview...The responsibility of critical intellectuals is to make explicit these pre-suppositions and visible this ideological framework… (George, 2005, p. 6)

A number of authors provided an understanding of the violence of cultural projections in the context of post-coloniality, and the power relationships that manifest through development theories (Nandy, 1992, 1999; Ramos, 2005b; Sardar, 1993). An important part of this is to see how superiority and inferiority play out through the imposition of the ‘social evolutionist’ model. Thus in the alternative development discourse many have called for ‘decolonising the mind’, to deal with how the psychological dynamics of colonialism, humiliation / humiliator and inferiority / superiority, can be addressed, or as Thiong’o argued:

The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement… (Thiong’o, 1981)

In this vein, Sardar writes that the ‘future has been colonised’, the image of the future as corporate globalisation and neo-liberalism has become so pervasive that, throughout the world, no other future is possible (Sardar, 1999b, p. 9). In challenging a monolithic development vision, he argues we must reject the teleological projections of Western development, and proponents and pioneers of development alternatives must articulate the possibility of many futures, and many experiments with development. It is possible for each and every country, and region, to follow distinctive paths of development that reflect a people’s particular values and visions (Sardar, 2003, pp. 312-317). Escobar rearticulates this as a rejection of the abstraction of global policy, and appreciation for the living alternatives that already exist in their local manifestations.

there are no grand alternatives that can be applied to all places or all situations…One must then resist the desire to formulate alternatives at an abstract, macro level…the nature of alternatives…can be most fruitfully gleaned from the specific manifestations of such alternatives in concrete local settings. (Escobar, 1995, pp. 222-223)

From [1]


Ramos, J. (2010) Alternative Futures of Globalisation: A Socio-Ecological Study of the World Social Forum Process, P.h.D. Thesis Dissertation, Queensland University of Technology

P2P Commentary

Michel Bauwens 1

  • How does peer-to-peer engage with the space/spatiality of that particular discourse/perspective? E.g. what is real in the discourse (such as structures, variables, factors, agents, actors)?
  • How does peer-to-peer engage with temporality? E.g. the historical narrative and futures trajectory offered by that discourse/perspective?
  • How does each perspective engaged with the contemporary crisis of capitalist?
  • How does each perspective consider the transition from the old regime to the new?
  • What are regressive elements of this perspective?
  • What are progressive elements of this perspective?
  • How can peer to peer engages with the perspective, assists it or offer opportunities and possibilities for it?
  • How can peer to peer help to transcend and include the perspective - by keeping the good and neurtralizing the bad?

Regarding the critique of the alternative development theorists, I think it is important to distinguish the ideological justifications inherent in the simplifying development theories, but also at the same time have a recognition that a certain temporal sequence has indeed been at work, i.e. industrial systems have followed agriculturally-centered economies, and 'cognitive capitalist' practices are being built on top of industrial societies. Because of uneven rhytms and balance of power, these different logics are being telescoped in many countries of the global South. At the same time, we should recognize alternative paths, but take into account competitive dynamics, i.e. chosen certain paths that weaken countries vis a vis the destructive power of western capitalism and imperialism, are not going to lead to viable change. However, I think an interesting dynamic is unfolding. One is that extensive globalisation is slowly coming to an end due to resource depletion and biosphere destruction, and as a result, all societies in the world will have to contemplate 'post-materialist' models of development which take into account the ecological balance as well as social externalities. Amongst the possibilities that I see is that countries of the South could pay particular attention to the emerging peer to peer model of shared innovation communities and commons, coupled with new forms of industrial and agricultural tools and technologies which allow a new type of selective deglobalisation and dynamic localisation. Thus, taking into account the local spatial and temporal characteristics, regions in the South could selectively focus on that type of innovation commons that suits their own priorities. I also believe that given the common priority of both traditional pre-capitalist social models, and the transformation towards post-material priorities, that a dialogue between both forms could be very fruitful, under the form of neotraditional economics. This means that contemporary humanity could learn and critically engage with the conceptions of societies that were already in effect following 'immaterial priorities' rather than material priorities. In particular, abandonning phase-based conceptions could lead to a direct engagement of the economies and societies of the South, with network-technology enabled cognitive strategies, i.e. for example, adopting a policy of 'smart networked agro-ecological agriculture'.

A danger of the A.D. approach is a regressive idealisation of the older social forms, which despite their advantages, also were class societies based on exploitation and domination. A second danger is the 'forgetting' of the competitive power dynamics of alternatives vis a vis the dominant system. The new must be able to withstand the neoliberal and neocolonial assaults, and thus must function in such a way as to have credible defense mechanisms. Finally, localization is not a panacea, and a critical engagement with globalization is important. In our view, the new vision would ideally combine: 1) global open innovation communities based on sharing experience and 'IP'; 2) relocalized and distributed manufacturing and production where appropriate; 3) continuing elements of 'physical' globalization whenever appropriate, for example, through the use of global 'for-benefit' entities that can conduct global material cooperation.

Peer to peer, which represents trans-modern, hyper-cooperative and outcompeting dynamics of peer production vis a vis the older forms of capitalism, would be an ideal partner for dialogue which would lead to both transmodern and neotraditional approaches, which creatively combine solutions from past, present and future.

José Ramos

Part of the beauty of the alternative development perspective is its wholesale critique of the idea of Western led development that follows the “rise of the West” conception of history. From this point view, it was not so much that the West naturally evolved through social economic forms such as industrialism, and then exported them to the non-West, but rather that the West drew upon and took from the industrial practices already existent around the world and then proceeded to de-develop and force upon the non-West regressive or subsistence or nonindustrial modes of likelihood. The way the British in India on one hand took the technology for textile manufacturing from the Indians back to the UK, while the same time making it illegal to produce calico in India, is one example. Thus, in this view development has a strong political dynamic.

For me then one of the key articulation challenges within the peer to peer vision is how it can accommodate the idea that development is a deeply political affair in the interaction between different countries around the world. For example, the deep legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party rests on its success in the development agenda in China, with particular respect to the way it has increased its power relative to the West. For all the injustices perpetuated in China's capitalistic turn, the Communist Party's legitimacy is still strengthened by their success in overturning the economic power imbalances that China was victim to for many years (think Opium War), which other smaller countries are still subject to. Indeed one of the very reasons for 20th-century nationalism, or postcolonial nationalism, is to create a structure capable of resisting exploitation by other better organized national groupings. The question here then is to what extent the peer-to-peer perspective can work with or engage in such processes of national economic sovereignty and self-determination? Or does it reject this type of nationalistic development as inherently regressive, and therefore it should be bypassed?

Michel, you already discuss such possibilities when you begin to talk about dialogue between different phase based conceptions of development, subsistence, industrial, postindustrial. In a sense the alternative development conceptions I see as operative want to promote both the development of national industries on one hand, but at the same time nurture the heritage and diverse productive sources and practices by the many communities that make up a nation. Neotraditional economics does in a sense begin to address this vision of diversity of economic forms. But what does peer-to-peer offer in terms of the coherence or furthering of such neotraditional possibilities? In particular within a nationalist framework?

Indeed, alternative development thinking, when it is hijacked by party or group interests, simply re-inscribes the vested power of a select group, who then proclaim themselves vanguards of national prestige or success, as has happened in dozens upon dozens of countries, from China, Russia, to Saudi Arabia, etc. So in this sense I am interested in the democratizing potential within peer-to-peer visions which can bring a greater level of integrity to alternative development conceptions in the context of national to global power dynamics.

I would be very interested in greater elaboration on the ideas around neo traditionalist conceptions of layered economies, which can retain a critical conception of globalization (eg geo-political struggle) while nurturing diverse localities of productive exchange. I think it is important that the peer to peer movement represents functional and effective alternatives which work in variety of settings. But to move toward a more strategic field of vision requires more than a "partner for dialogue", but a formative agenda that can be consistent / aligned with national goals of economic self sovereignty, and can develop (via dialogue) powerful analytic approaches that can diagnose national capitalism along with global capitalism in a way that can usefully lead to responses. Perhaps this is what you mean by "transmodern and neotraditional approaches", but I would like some more elaboration here as well.

Michel Bauwens 2

Hi Jose,

In your response, you ask:

- Neotraditional economics does in a sense begin to address this vision of diversity of economic forms. But what does peer-to-peer offer in terms of the coherence or furthering of such neotraditional possibilities? In particular within a nationalist framework?

To answer this, we must distinguish the specific project of neotraditional economics from p2p in its more general sense of peer production. The first is above all a cultural force to reconnect with existing communities and worldviews, and to rediscover and relegitimize the wide variety of succesfull economic and social practices that are available within the nation / community, and therefore, liberate them from a sole dependency on the paradigm of development. One of these aspects is of course the practice of the commons itself, and just as a reminder, even the late Marx advocated the protection and restoration of local commons against the onslaught of capitalism (in that sense, contrary to some perceptions, he was not a developmentalist!!) [2], see the discussion at: The Commons in Marx’s Thinking, for that detail. Now about peer to peer itself. Here also, I'd like to make a Marxian reference, and namely to the concept of dwarfish forms. As you write, China's government is successfull and legitimate because it has repositioned itself against western domination. But, unfortunately, it does so in way that is not sustainable in the long run and may well turn out to be counterproductive when it can no longer deliver on the 'developmentalist' expectations. Now, if we simple localize/regionalize, and go back to traditional forms, no country or nation can hope to compete with the machine of capital. Here is specifically where P2P offers a way out. By combining the neotraditional forms, with the latest in global cooperation, by making every cooperative ecology a global innovation comomns and in effect, a kind of global p2p multinational, it transforms the dwarfish forms into new transmodern forms that can outcompete, or rather, outcooperate, traditional developmentalist/capitalist forms. To take an example, smart ecological agriculture is only possible through such global learning and cooperation, not just through the injection of technology, say the Garduino, but most of all, through the rapid sharing of human expertise through the global networks. These powerful coordination effects, hitherto the domain of capital-intensive multinationals, are no longer so exclusive. The success of open source software production, displacing proprietary software; the success of the open content economy in the U.S., one sixth of GDP, and the success of the Shanzai economy in China, are indications that this is not just wishful thinking, but that global innovation commons could be transformative and create a new way forward.

Jose, you conclude with a wish:

- a formative agenda that can be consistent / aligned with national goals of economic self sovereignty, and can develop (via dialogue) powerful analytic approaches that can diagnose national capitalism along with global capitalism in a way that can usefully lead to responses. Perhaps this is what you mean by "transmodern and neotraditional approaches

I indeed think that a combination of neotraditional + p2p/transmodern approach is a useful political proposition. First of all, it will re-ignite the local development and bring in global knowledge that can be stimulate internal innovation. Second, open approaches, unlike IP importation, creates profound local knowledge. Thirdly, combining those strategies with distributed manufacturing, is an important part of restoring local sovereignty and resilience. The successfull regions and countries will be those who can create and attract the best contributors to the global innovation commons, and link them to local physical production capabilities. At the same time, the existence of the global innovation commons, and the intricate embeddedness of every local activity in such a global cooperative web, also makes sure that the localization is not regressive, but inscribed in the further evolution of humanity as a global cooperative organism. So, while we strengthen local peer production communities, at the same time, we have a positive message for the national elites, and offer them a competitive advantage in their own competitions with neoliberal globality.

More Information

Other perspectives discussed in this series:

Done to date:

To be done:

  • Re-localisation
  • Ecumenism
  • En-gendered
  • Co-Evolution
  • Auto-nomistic
  • Indigenous Struggles for Equipotentiality