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Taking The Less-Travelled Road Of Development: Alternatives To The Western Model

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“Two roads diverged in the woods

And I took the one less traveled by

And that has made all the differences”

Robert Frost

What Is Development?

The word development has had different meanings over the years. In the present sense, the term development dates from the post-war era of modern development thinking and was preceded by colonial economics (Pieterse, 2010, p. 5). In a general context, it can be said that the meaning of development was understood to be catching up with the advanced industrialized countries (ibid). This understanding was shared by mid-nineteenth century theorists and scholars who argued for national policies to catch up (Cooper and Packard, 2005, p. 129). The aim of this article is to contest this understanding of development by arguing that development need not be approached in a euro-centric way.

There are other comprehensive and all-embracing views of development, say, Development as Freedom or development focused on social and community development and human flourishing (Friedmann, 1992, cited by Pieterse, 2010, p. 6) or actor-oriented approach (Pieterse, 2010, p. 12). This article deploys the conceptualization of development as proposed by Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen – Development as Freedom.

The article proposes this understanding of development as an alternative to the general meaning of development. It gives the example of the development of Kerala, an Indian state whose development can be a model for Third World Countries (Tharamangalam, 2006). Here we see how Kerala took the less traveled road which is manifested as the development paradox that it contains and how that has made all the positive differences in the State. Before we conclude we see a suggestion for countries to keep traveling in the non-western path of development. We begin by a limited exploration of ‘catching up’ with the West.

Development As Catching Up With The West

Crucial to this understanding is the modernization theory which had a one-size-fits-all answer for development to the Third World countries- a linear path of the West. According to modernization theorists, some cultural characteristics and non-adherence to some particular economic policies that followed the given stages of growth were holding back underdeveloped countries (Kufakurinani et al, 2017, p. vi).

Modernization has two versions- Cultural and Rostow versions. The cultural version, to put in simple words, attributed underdevelopment to being stuck with traditional culture and prescribed being modern as the remedy to this.  The prescription of ‘modern’ was the assimilation of western values sans which one’s entire life would be in poverty (Grosfoguel, 2017, p. 49). The Rostow version is the five stages of growth that a country should go through to be developed, enumerated in his book, Stages of Economic Growth.

Modernization theories were criticized by the Dependency Theory. According to the latter, underdevelopment has been and will continue to be the outcome of the peculiar characteristic of the relationship between the countries in the Global North and Global South which always worked in favor of the former whilst being detrimental to the latter (Olukoshi, 2017, p. 22). Dependency theory stood as a counter to modernization theories’ attempt to naturalize as necessary stage the underdevelopment of Africa, Asia, and Latin America (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2017, p. 34). But most importantly, and to the relevance of this article, dependency theory enabled a redefinition of the existing relationship structures which was instrumental in realizing that apart from the one-size-fits-all model of western development, there can be many different paths (Olukoshi, 2017, p. 22).

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

Amartya Sen equates development with individual freedoms from social deprivation, tyranny, intolerance, etc.

The underdeveloped countries of contemporary times are often regarded to be in the early stage of development of the now developed countries owing to the linear path of progress as propounded by the modernization theorists. But dependency theorist Andre Gunder Frank criticizes this view (Nafziger, 2007, p. 54). He gives the example of economic development in Japan after 1868 to substantiate his theory that the Asian, African, and Latin American countries that were least integrated into the international capitalist system of North America and West Europe were the highest developed countries (ibid).

Having discussed the global uniform path to development, let us move on to look into the alternative understanding of development.

Development As Freedom

Selwyn, while finding alternatives to frameworks of economic growth dominating the conceptions of development observes that ‘Development as Freedom’ as propounded by Amartya Sen is a brilliant vision of human development (Selwyn, 2011, p. 68). According to Sen,

Development…concerned with enhancing the lives we lead and the freedoms we enjoy” (Sen, 1999, p. 14)… “The people have to be seen, in this perspective, as being actively involved- given the opportunity- in shaping their own destiny, and not just as passive recipients of the fruits of cunning development programs” (p. 53).

In approaching development as freedom, the former requires the elimination of the major sources of unfreedom- tyranny, intolerance, poor economic opportunities, neglect of public facilities, systematic social deprivation, overactivity of repressive state are a few to name the ones listed by Sen. This article would like to go one step ahead and argue that the neoliberal policies and policy prescription by international organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which can be considered as contemporary manifestations of modernization theory with their emphasis on economic growth and industrialization, as an unfreedom for the developing countries.

This is so because people have to be ‘actively involved’ in planning for their development. These policies often are what Sen called “cunning development programs“.  Argentina becoming insolvent and the then President saying “following IMF prescriptions is been part of the problem” (Al Jazeera English, 2011) can be understood through this lens. Elimination of this unfreedom along with enhanced participatory freedoms can be one of the focuses in development for the developing countries.

This freedom-centered perspective of development, especially with its emphasis on extensive roles of state and society- public discussions and social participation would ensure that ‘development’ would no longer be attached to its earlier core meaning of catching up with the West, rather would ensure that more variation in development themes emerge. Sen sees development as a friendly approach where people help each other and themselves with their skills and human capital (Emmerij, 2007, p. 42). The example of Kerala would follow this section, can be explained using this understanding of development. Sen has drawn extensively from Kerala’s development experiences in his works.

Another argument that this article brings based on this understanding of development is that, instead of focusing on attaining ‘modern values’ of the West, the developing countries can focus on attaining a ‘capability set’. According to Sen (1999, p. 75), the capability of a person can be defined as feasible alternative combinations of functionings for the person to achieve, and therefore, is a kind of freedom- substantive freedom that enables to achieve various alternative functioning combinations.

The amount or extent to which a person enjoys this functioning can be represented using a real number and can be viewed as a ‘functioning vector’. So, the capability set would be consisting of the alternative functioning vectors from which a person can choose (ibid). Here, a combination of functioning would reflect a person’s achievements and the capability set represents the person’s freedom to achieve.

With all these said, I have to mention that this approach of Sen is not free of criticisms. Selwyn finds the association of this conception of development with the capitalist system, in which the non-freedoms of some maintain and realize the freedoms of some, as a major issue (Cohen, 1981 as cited by Selwyn, 2011, p. 71). Sen is also criticized for placing individuals as the subject and object of analysis ignoring collective agents and social classes as subjects (Navarro, 2000, p. 665). But even so, we see that here development becomes more comprehensive and most importantly, causative links and relationships are reversed (Emmerij, 2007, p. 43).

Development Paradox Of Kerala- The Road Less Travelled By

The state of Kerala is a special interest to scholars due to the development paradox it poses- high social development despite low economic growth (Tharamangalam, 2006). This is an outright challenge to and strong contestation of the linear path of western development, especially because, in modern development thinking and economics, economic growth as in Big Push theory and Stages of Growth theory was understood as the core meaning of development.

During the 1950s, Kerala had the highest population growth in the country but in a matter of two decades, the rate had come to be the lowest and in another three and half decades, the population growth rate was stabilized to a demographic replacement level of net reproduction rate equal to 1 (Parayil, 1996, p. 942-943). When Kerala reached almost full literacy, the average of India was only a little more than half of Kerala.

Kerala, led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan (pictured above), of the CPI-M has one of the best social development records in India.

Parayil draws from the comparison of Kerala’s achievements with that of the US made by anthropologist Richard Franke. According to that statistics, in 1981, the Physical Quality of Life Index (PQLI) for Kerala was 82 while the US ranked 96. Similarly, in 1994, the Human Development Index (HDI) was 0.775 for Kerala and 0.925 for the US (ibid). The point that one should not give a miss is that the Per Capita Income of Kerala during these times was about one-hundredth of that of the US.  At HDI 0.775, the HDI of the state was twice more than the national average.

According to Velayudhan (2010), this Kerala experience shows that social change can happen even without being preceded or accompanied by economic growth. It is worth to take note of the aspects that Kerala employed to achieve this level of development- public action through the mobilization of people, the spread of literacy especially female literacy, provision of primary and preventive health, reducing social inequality and inequality in income and consumption, fair price shop, democracy, local self-government institutions, people’s planning, etc (Parayil, 1996, p. 950). Here we can see that taking the less traveled road of social justice to development (ibid) has made these positive differences in the State.

Before we conclude, let us address one last question- what can be done to create a conducive environment to enable countries to continue in the non-western path of development?  What exactly can these countries do? They can invest in building up of institutions and in the training of local economists, enabling examining, analyzing, and suggesting solutions for the issues in their own country (Rosen, 1985, p. 233, cited by Cooper & Packard, 2005, p. 135). The expert advice from others would be examined and accordingly rejected or modified by these local experts (ibid).

Resisting Euro-Centric Ideas Of Development

The central aim of this article was to contest the meaning of development as ‘catching up with the Western industrialized countries’. This was accomplished by deploying the conceptualization of development by Amartya Sen. Here the article puts forward two main arguments. First, the imposition of ‘modern values’ on the development process in developing countries by the contemporary manifestation of modernization theories can be seen as ‘unfreedoms’. Therefore, the developing countries should remove these unfreedoms and work towards enhancing participatory freedoms of people, which according to Sen, is crucial for development. Second, the shift of focus should happen from modern values to capability sets.

Role of police administration against Panchayat Tuglaki farman
Representational Image

Effective public action, mobilization, and participation were an important part of the Kerala model.

The capability set by showing the alternative functioning combinations from which a person can choose represents the freedom to achieve, which is substantive freedom in ‘development as freedom’. Then we discussed the example of Kerala. The development journey of the State in the less-traveled path of social development which is not preceded by economic growth or industrialization dismantles the linear path of Western development. Through the paradox that the State has to its credit, it discredits the catching up the meaning of development. Finally, we saw that building up of institutions and training expertise at the local levels are important to ensure that the expertise from the western countries is addressed accordingly.

By learning from Kerala, by approaching Development as Freedom, and by building institutions and developing local expertise, let us hope that we all witness more countries saying, ‘chose the non-western development road, and that has made all the differences.

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