Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Postmodernism and Development

Lest any of you doubt that I am actually in graduate school, and think that my life consists purely of vacationing and the excitement of exotic travel, this more academic post should help to disabuse you of that notion.

As I’ve been researching my term paper for Intro to Urban Ministry, looking at development and urban ministry, I was somewhat surprised to find such a philosophical element to the development debate. There are many ways to understand and do development work, but one of the most prevalent is the modernization paradigm, currently being espoused as neoliberalism (according to David Simon, see below). I assume modernization in this context would be basically countries such as Kenya becoming “modern,” like the West, in the sense of getting electricity, roads, media, etc. The postmodern perspective critiques this idea as being problematic on many levels, such as the assumption that we are more “advanced” than others, and we then merely duplicate our lifestyles and impose them on others. Such issues as environmental sustainability also point to the consequences if everyone were to have an American standard of living: not good. Even looking at the current economic crisis, from my devout reading of NY Times columnists I get the impression that there is a systemic shift going on in American attitudes towards consumption and having a lot of “stuff”—most of which they don’t need. Showing off wealth by going shopping and buying ridiculously overpriced clothes and other things doesn’t seem quite as cool anymore.

Back to postmodernism, I hadn’t thought of its implications in this specific aspect; but I realize now that this “movement,” if it can be organized to that extent, affects all academic disciplines. Some of the conclusions arising from the postmodern critique of development end up in the realm of anti-development: it shouldn’t be done at all. Well, that is probably not the most helpful way to go about this issue! I found the following quote quite fascinating:

Most postmodernists and postcolonialists have great difficulty in embracing the concrete development aspirations of the poor in practice, despite their theoretical sophistication. Part of this trend is a growing retreat to the cosy Northern pavement cafĂ©—a favoured haunt of those with panoptic vision(s)!—from the rigours and challenges of field research in the South, by hiding behind the conveniently hyped 'crisis of representation' of who has a/the right to speak or write on behalf of Third World 'others'. (Simon, 185)

This sounds quite a bit like the conversation going on theology concerning African identity and the nature of authentic, African theology (or theologies). Of course, it is true that we as outsiders cannot make their decisions or speak on their behalf, but in terms of development, does that mean we do nothing? And then of course there’s the whole debate over dependency and all its related problems, but I won’t be able to solve that here! I suppose I should get back to actually writing the paper, but I thought this was quite an interesting idea. I’ll leave you with this:

What I am suggesting is the importance of a healthy scepticism towards some of the more sweeping and emotive formulations of post-everything, which may universalize from particular case studies in a manner reminiscent of modernist theorizing, be elitist as practised by its advocates despite the supposed concern with precisely the opposite, and may actually be of little practical use in addressing poverty and providing basic needs. Moreover, critiques of conventional developmentalism and the search for more meaningful, appropriate and socially grounded and bottom-up alternatives are not new. As with the different definitions of development and the examples of basic needs and environmental sustainability given above, there is a long pedigree of initiatives and theoretical formulations stretching back decades… (Simon, 190)

(from David Simon, “Development Reconsidered; New Directions in Development Thinking,” Geografiska Annaler, Series B, Human Geography 79, no. 4 (1997): 183-201.)

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