Colombo Telegraph

Reimagining Development – The Journey Begins

By Vagisha I. Gunasekara

Dr. Vagisha Gunasekara

The Symposium

Since the beginning of Development Economics, the notion that economic growth by itself with a correlative increase in the amount of goods and services produced and consumed within a country, is a sufficient condition for development, has been one accepted and propagated by the mainstream.  For far too long it was given that the nations of the global South must “grow” and “develop”; and government policy is often based on the premise that higher growth rates and greater affluence are conducive to development and wellbeing – if the GDP is rising, we should all be better off, in every sense.  However, can we equate economic growth with development and the wellbeing of citizens?  Or should we recalibrate our idea of development?  These were the fundamental questions that the Center for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) put forth in the 11th Annual Symposium – Reimagining Development.

The Reimagining Development symposium was a culmination of a series of events that debated and discussed the usefulness of existing notions of development, both mainstream and alternative, in the current Sri Lankan and global contexts.  The event that took place on the 11th and 12th of December, 2012 was in many ways, a stock-taking exercise that was intended to:  provide an opportunity to reconfigure the concept of development by critically examining it in light of current, lived experiences; gather a diverse group of economists, policymakers, artists, and thinkers and facilitate a cross-fertilization of ideas that would allow us to take development outside of the current narrow confines of economics; and, create a space for dialogue on alternative thought, which in turn may flourish into a broader space for development discourse.  This critical assessment of current development paradigms and the evaluation of core ideas about development took place in seven parallel sessions, each discussing development in relation to a particular area in our political, economic, and social realms:  wellbeing, ethics and values, art, women, urban development, the environment, and knowledge hierarchies.  Each parallel session was a unique thought experiment in which attendees came together to reflect upon the unresolved tension between material progress on the one hand, and human wellbeing on the other.

What is the Urgency to Reimagine?

Since the mid 1980s, development thought has been stuck in a cul-de-sac as both grand meta narratives of development theory – Modernization Theory and radical Marxist approaches – lost their hegemony, and the neoliberal paradigm emerged as the dominant way of thinking about development.  Three decades of neoliberal economic thought with its commitment to methodological individualism (à la Max Weber 1922, 1968; Schumpeter 1909) and principles of private property, has attributed primacy to the role of free enterprise, free trade, and the market in the quest for development.  This shift to market that aims at transforming society as a whole into a ‘market society’, has not only influenced the behavior of government institutions, NGOs, and private organizations active in the domains of development, but also dampened intellectual diversity of ideas about human progress.

Developed in the 1960s by a minority cadre of conservative economists such as Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago, and strengthened by a large network of international foundations, institutes, research centers, publications, scholars, writers, and public relations hacks that package and push its ideas, the doctrine of neoliberalism has emerged as the dominant paradigm, and the ideological fuel of the global economy.  Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan gave neo-liberalism a big boost in the 1980s.  By then, many economists treated it as an unquestionable and inevitable truth – rather than as a vested economic construct – enabling Thatcher and Reagan to lead the neo-liberal ‘revolution’ with their rallying cries of “competition” and “efficiency”.  Allowing these mantras to shape all decisions regarding economic, political and social policy, and driven by a strict social Darwinism, neo-liberalists reshaped the face of the world economy in less than a decade.  But while competition and efficiency govern life at the lowest levels of society and economy, transnational corporations still reign virtually unhindered in an almost monopolistic alliance.

After restructuring many western economies, neoliberalists turned their attention to the ‘Third World’, where the doctrine of privatization has come to pervade influential economic institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank (via the Washington Consensus).  By the 1990s, loans from these and other international financial institutions were contingent upon their recipients implementing neoliberal agenda of privatization, fuelled by the dicta of competition and efficiency.

Despite the ‘tried and true’ formula of neoliberal growth, cemented by randomized trials to assess its interventions (indicating links to positivism), an intellectual query about the core of the current paradigm is much needed, especially in the face of global issues such as, recent economic crises, persisting imbalances in trade and financial investment between the global North and the South, lingering problems such as hunger and inequality, and physical limits of planetary resources.

The urgent call to reimagine development is also timely given the relationship between development and conflict, particularly in the context of post-war Sri Lanka.  Did the armed conflict in this country contribute to a lack of development, or does the causal relationship go in the other direction?  The notion that grievances of the conflict are development oriented surfaced during this symposium (as emphasized by Mr. Sunil Bastian), bringing attention to the lack of linkage between development and political power and human rights in the current development model (à la Prof. Savitri Goonasekere).  Development’s transformative capability was also contested (by Dr. Harini Amarasuriya):  how can development claim to be a transformative force when it is fixated with the future, and has sterilized itself from ‘sticky’ elements such as politics and history?  The idea that development cannot be divorced from the historicity and contingent nature of social processes, routine practices, and moral frameworks of people’s lives was another highlight of the inaugural session of the symposium.  The need to decode our current model of development and the latter’s captivity to the same processes that shapes the world it seeks to change, marked the climax of this discussion and called for further dialogue on understanding individual and collective visions of society and development.

Continuing to Reimagine

In other words, the symposium attempted to ‘undomesticate’ development by looking beyond the narrow frame of the apolitical and ahistorical individual or the household, and revisiting political and social relations within which both entities exist.  While some of these key questions were discussed during the seven parallel sessions, many other important ideas were not addressed due to time constraints.  Understanding the goal of development, what we are striving to achieve, and who really matters in this process are crucial questions that require further discussion.  Let us carry forward this conversation that CEPA kick-started with Reimagining Development.  This is the preliminary of a series of forthcoming articles inspired by the deliberations of the symposium.  The ideas that are presented by these articles are subject to debate and your critiques and commentary is highly encouraged, as we strongly believe that reimagining development should be a collective exercise.  So, come along, let’s reimagine…

*The Centre for Poverty Analysis(CEPA) is an independent, Sri Lankan think-tank promoting a better understanding of poverty related development issues. Vagisha Gunasekara is a Senior Research Professional at the Centre for Poverty Analysis, Sri Lanka.  Vagisha received her PhD in political science from Purdue University, USA.  Her research straddles issues at the intersection of post-war reconstruction, gender, feminism and international relations.

Back to Home page