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Postdevelopment Theoryfree

Postdevelopment Theoryfree

  • Sally J. MatthewsSally J. MatthewsDepartment of Political & International Studies, Rhodes University


Postdevelopment theory is a compelling and controversial field of thought in contemporary development studies. It gained prominence during the 1990s, when it sparked fierce debate, but its influence has since waned somewhat. This chapter summarizes the contribution of postdevelopment theory to development studies and, more generally, to international studies. Postdevelopment theory’s key contribution was a stringent and multifaceted critique of the idea of development. The critique offered by postdevelopment thinkers went beyond other critical engagements with development theory, in that it sought to reject, rather than reform, development. The critique was strongly informed by concerns about Westernization and by an associated desire to validate, protect, and revive non-Western ways of life. Furthermore, postdevelopment theorists adopt a critical stance toward globalization, seeking to defend the local against the global. After reviewing postdevelopment theory’s radical critique of development, the article provides an overview of critical engagements with postdevelopment theory. Critics have been particularly concerned about postdevelopment theorists’ reluctance or inability to move beyond critique in order to clearly outline possible alternatives to development. While this critique is well founded, the article does describe the ways in which some of the recent work by postdevelopment writers has begun to take on a more constructive character. The chapter concludes that post-development theory is relevant not only to those interested in development theory, but also to all those interested in thinking of alternatives to the capitalist, industrialized way of life that has for so long been held up as an ideal toward which all should strive.


  • Development

Updated in this version

Addition of new references; minor edits; expanded section on future directions for postdevelopment theory


Postdevelopment theory is one of the most compelling—and controversial—fields of thought in contemporary development studies. This body of literature became prominent in the 1990s and has since sparked fierce debate and attracted much attention, both positive and negative. The discussion generated by postdevelopment theory has contributed not only to development studies but also to broader discussions about the so-called Third World and the future of left politics in a postcommunist, postmodern world.

A wide and varied range of literature is included under the umbrella term postdevelopment theory, making it difficult to define what exactly postdevelopment theory is. Perhaps the most common distinguishing feature of texts described as postdevelopment theory is their rejection of past development theory and practice and their insistence that development initiatives, on the whole, did more harm than good, hence the need for “alternatives to development.” In this article, this and other key features of postdevelopment theory are outlined with the aim of providing a concise overview of this varied school of thought. The overview is followed by a summary of the criticisms that have been directed against postdevelopment theory. Finally, the conclusion offers a brief discussion of possible future directions in the field.

Historical Survey

Postdevelopment theory is a relatively new area in development studies. The idea that there was something that could be described as postdevelopment theory arose in the 1990s. That said, precursors to postdevelopment theory can be identified. To some extent, dependency theory can be considered to be a precursor of postdevelopment theory, because some features of dependency theory are shared by postdevelopment theory, particularly a concern with exploitation and oppression. However, as discussed by Manzo (1991) and Gülalp (1998), dependency theory shares with modernization theory “the idealized notion of development derived from the Western experience and the associated implicit longing to replicate it voluntarily” (Gülalp, 1998, p. 957). Postdevelopment theory’s critique of modernity distinguishes it from dependency theory.

The first examples of what would become postdevelopment theory emerged around the 1980s with the critiques of development provided by Escobar (1984), Illich (1979), Latouche (1986), and Nandy (1983, 1986, 1988). This kind of literature burgeoned in the early 1990s with the emergence of several scathing critiques of development in the form of books by Ferguson (1990), Latouche (1993), Mies and Shiva (1993), and Verhelst (1990), as well as volumes edited by Apffel Marglin and Marglin (1990, 1996) and Sachs (1992). In the mid to late 1990s, these were joined by Escobar’s Encountering Development (1995), Esteva and Prakash’s Grassroots Post-modernism (1998), and Rahnema and Bawtree’s Post-development Reader (1997). These three texts, along with The Development Dictionary (Sachs, 1992), really consolidated the postdevelopment library and attracted much attention to this school of thought. Since the 1990s, there has been continued discussion about postdevelopment theory, notably in volumes like Ziai’s (2007) edited volume Exploring Post-Development and in a recent special issue on postdevelopment theory in Third World Quarterly (Volume 38, issue 12, 2017), but interest in the topic has gradually slowed down, as is discussed further below.

Like most subfields in development studies, postdevelopment theory is by no means a unified school of thought. While this term has been applied, and sometimes self-applied, in reference to the above-mentioned authors and to several others, there is much diversity in the literature. First, one can differentiate between postdevelopment literature that is mainly disseminated and discussed in English and literature that is predominantly influential in Francophone circles. While it is possible to note some differences between the two groups, there has been a fair amount of interaction between postdevelopment theorists from various linguistic groups. Consider, for example, a conference held in 2002 in Paris (titled “Défaire le Développement, Refaire le Monde” [Unmake Development, Remake the World]) that brought together participants from all over the world, speaking mainly in French, but with sessions in English as well.

Second, one can differentiate different schools of thought within postdevelopment theory. David Simon distinguished between what he calls “antidevelopment” and “postdevelopment” texts (2003, p.7, n. 36; 2006, pp. 11–12). Anti-development texts present a radical and derisive critique of development, lambasting it for causing cultural destruction and dependency. Escobar’s Encountering Development was identified as an example of such a text. In contrast, Simon characterized postdevelopment theory as more forward-looking literature in which new alternatives to development are proposed. Esteva and Prakash’s Grassroots Post-modernism was considered an example. The distinction Simon made was not between two sets of writers (indeed, some authors, like Escobar, have written both anti- and postdevelopment texts), but a distinction between a critical backward-looking approach (anti-development), about which he is not very positive, and a more forward-looking constructive approach (postdevelopment), about which he is more optimistic.

Aram Ziai (2004) made a slightly different distinction: he distinguished between a reactionary populist variant of postdevelopment theory and a radical democratic one. The former rejects modernity completely and advocates a return to a romanticized, subsistence-based existence. Ziai (2004, pp. 1054–1056) identified Alvares (1992) and Rahnema and Bawtree (1997) as proponents of this approach. The other variant, which Ziai believed was promoted by Escobar (1995), Esteva and Prakash (1998), Banuri (1990a, 1990b), and Apffel-Marglin and Marglin (1996), is as cautious in its praise of “the local” and of non-Western cultural traditions as it is in its criticism of modernity. Ziai argued that this variant fits nicely with the idea of radical democracy as espoused by Lummis (1996) and Laclau and Mouffe (2001), in that it favors radical decentralization and the rejection of universal models.

Simon’s and Ziai’s distinctions are quite different, yet both help to delineate the field of postdevelopment theory. This article, however, treats postdevelopment theory as a single school of thought, even while it is acknowledged that there are significant variations within postdevelopment literature.

Before outlining some of the key themes in postdevelopment theory, a brief comment on the intersections between postdevelopment theory and other “post” literature is necessary. Some authors, such as Power (2003) and Esteva and Prakash (1998), treat postdevelopment theory as if it were a post-modern approach to development. This is misleading because, while some of the above authors have been influenced by post-modern writing and concerns, overall, postdevelopment theory cannot be said to unambiguously reflect a—and certainly not the—post-modern approach to development. It would be more appropriate to say that much postdevelopment theory is influenced by post-modernism, but that there is much variation in the extent of this influence. Postdevelopment theory also shares much in common with post-colonial theory, despite the surprisingly little interaction between the two, although Sharp and Briggs (2006) and Simon (2006) have written about common themes found in both postdevelopment and post-colonial writings.

Postdevelopment theory emerged out of the despair felt by many at the apparent failure of development and at the impasse with which development studies seemed to be confronted by the late 1980s (see Booth 1985, 1994; Power, 2003, p. 83; Schuurman, 1993; Sharp & Briggs, 2006, p. 7; Simon, 1997, p. 183, 2003, pp. 5–7). Given this context, it is not surprising, then, that a lot of postdevelopment theory—particularly those texts that Simon (2006) referred to as antidevelopment writings—focused on the shortcomings of past development theory and practice. As the discussion below indicates, postdevelopment writers spend much time critically interrogating the assumptions that had informed development work and the practices that had characterized attempts to bring about development. However, in addition to such a critical interrogation, postdevelopment writers also point to some possible better ways to define and address the problems development initiatives typically purport to tackle—problems like poverty, oppression, and exploitation. In the sections to follow, key themes that emerge in postdevelopment theory are overviewed with the intention of providing the reader with a broader understanding of the arguments made by postdevelopment theorists as well as pointing the reader toward texts dealing with particular themes.

Postdevelopment Theory’s Critique of “Development”

Postdevelopment theorists believe that development has failed, in that its promises remain unfulfilled. Here they are in agreement with most critical development theorists, who concur that since the 1980s, the so-called lost decade of development, there has been growing disappointment with the whole project of bringing development to the Third World. As Sachs put it: “The idea of development stands like a ruin in the intellectual landscape. Delusion and disappointment, failures and crimes have been the steady companions of development and they tell a common story: it did not work” (1992, p. 1). The persistence of problems like poverty and inequality after decades of attempts at bringing about development is considered by postdevelopment theorists as testimony to the failure of development.

These theorists also believe that, in addition to its failure to bring about the benefits it promises, development causes problems of its own. Rist (1997, p. 20) argued that over and above failing to alleviate poverty in the Third World, development has increased the dependence of the Third World and resulted in the depletion of its resources, and Rahnema said, “Not only did development fail to resolve the old problems it was supposed to address, but it brought in new ones of incomparably greater magnitude” (Rahnema & Bawtree, 1997, p. 378). The problems to which he referred are cultural alienation, environmental destruction, loss of self-esteem, conflict, and the creation of perpetually unfulfilled expectations.

Postdevelopment thinkers believe that the failure of development and the new problems it has apparently provoked have led to a loss of faith in development. This loss of faith is a further indicator that it may be time to call for an end to development, to “write its obituary” (Sachs, 1992, p. 1), and to proclaim a postdevelopment era. The contemporary notion of development has been delegitimized, so that it is increasingly difficult to remain convinced that poverty, inequity, and other problems can be solved by development.

One reason why postdevelopment theorists do not find the failure of past development initiatives a motivation to intensify efforts to bring about development is that they understand the failure of development to be related to flaws within the idea itself, rather than being the result of failed implementation of a basically sound idea. To postdevelopment theorists, development as an idea is deeply problematic, so that the failure of development is inevitable, and, indeed, so that the success of development would ultimately be no better than its failure. Development is premised upon shaky assumptions.

To make this argument, postdevelopment theorists stress that development is not just a set of projects aiming to address a set of problems, but that development is a “cast of mind” (Sachs, 1992, p. 1), an “ideology” (Alvares, 1992, p. 90), an “interpretive grid” (Ferguson, 1990, p. xiii), a “discourse” (Escobar, 1995, pp. 5–6), and a “myth” (Latouche, 1993; Rist, 1997). In this way, they emphasize that development is more than just a series of policies and practices, and that the failure of development is ultimately the failure of an idea. Marglin summed this up nicely when stressing that the criticisms of development offered by contributors to a book he co-edited were “directed not at particular failures, which might be explained away as poor implementation of basically sound ideas, but at the theories which have undergirded and legitimized practice” (1990, p. 1).

Rist’s The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith offered a useful discussion of this theme. Rist argued that development is rooted in a particular intellectual tradition and that the flaws in this tradition are reflected in the idea of development itself. He identified the idea of infinite progress as “an idea which radically distinguishes Western culture from all others” and also as an idea that is hopelessly flawed (1997, p. 238). The contemporary idea of development, he argued, fits into a set of Western ideas regarding the infiniteness of progress, and, given the flaws of these ideas, the idea of development is also deeply flawed. Progress is not infinite, and development, as it has been conceived, is not possible.

If, as Rist and other postdevelopment theorists argued, development’s failure can be attributed to flaws in the very idea itself, rather than flawed implementation, then no amount of improved development practice will allow the problems that development purports to address to be solved. For this reason, postdevelopment theorists believe that what is needed is a new approach to these problems, one that may even reveal certain “problems” not to be problems at all and that may expose new difficulties.

One of the flaws in the idea of development, according to postdevelopment theorists, is that it misrepresents both those it labels “developed” and those it labels “underdeveloped.” For postdevelopment theorists, these labels make little sense, involve the essentialization of both those labeled developed and underdeveloped, and create false impressions about those assigned to each camp. It is important to note that, while postdevelopment theorists take issue with the developed/underdeveloped distinction, they do believe that important distinctions exist between regions classed under these headings. However, they question the explanatory value of relating the distinctions to “levels of development.”

Postdevelopment theorists point out that “underdevelopment” is not an objective condition. People, it seems, came to be described as “underdeveloped” at some stage. In an account of his own experience of development, Shrestha wrote that, as a young boy growing up in Nepal, he had no idea that he was underdeveloped: “Poor and hungry I certainly was. But underdeveloped? I never thought—nor did anyone else—that being poor meant being ‘underdeveloped’ and lacking human dignity” (1995, p. 268). It was only in the 1950s that this word (or the local translation of it) began to take on some meaning in the village where Shrestha grew up, and indeed in many other parts of the world. Postdevelopment theorists point out that describing a group of people as underdeveloped means defining them in relation to what they are not and ignoring their diversity, so that diverse groups of people are united by their lack of something that has been achieved by others (Sachs, 1992, p. 3). Highlighting this, Esteva talked about how the emergence of development discourse meant that people

ceased being what they were, in all their diversity, and were transmogrified into an inverted mirror of others’ reality: a mirror that belittles them and sends them off to the end of the queue, a mirror that defines their identity, which is really that of a heterogeneous and diverse majority, simply in the terms of a homogenizing and narrow minority.

(Esteva, 1992, p. 7)

Development literature tends to present “underdeveloped” ways of life as absolutely undesirable and inferior to the “developed” way of life. But, Rahnema asked, “Was everything so bad in the old world?” (Rahnema & Bawtree, 1997, p. 379). He referred to the work of Marshall Sahlins and others, who have shown that the lives of hunter-gatherers, who would typically be classified as extremely underdeveloped, were not as bad as they are often presented to be—in fact, Sahlins (1997) called this kind of society “the original affluent society.” Similarly, in Shrestha’s narrative of his own development experience, he argued that the Nepalese economic system and values, which he had earlier rejected in favor of the “developed” way of life, had much more going for them than he originally thought. This way of life was “generally self-reliant, self-sufficient, sustainable, and far less destructive of humanity as well as nature” (1995, p. 276). Similarly, Shiva (1989, p. 10) pointed out that traditional diets, building styles, and forms of clothing are often healthier and ecologically more appropriate than their modern counterparts. The “underdeveloped” way of life cannot so easily be dismissed as completely undesirable.

Postdevelopment theorists like Rahnema, Shrestha, and Shiva cautioned that they do not mean to suggest that everything about the “underdeveloped” way of life is good and desirable. Shiva, for example, stressed that not all cultural practices are of equal value and described traditional practices like dowry, India’s caste system, and genital mutilation as undesirable (Mies & Shiva, 1993, p. 11); and Shrestha emphasized that he is “not trying to suggest that whatever was old was good and desirable and that every aspect of our lost heritage should be reclaimed. . . . Nobody should be oblivious to the many tyrannical practices of our feudal-religious heritage” (1995, p. 276). However, Rahnema, Shiva, Shrestha, and others stressed that, while the “underdeveloped” way of life may have been flawed in several important ways, development discourse misrepresents this way of life when it presents it as being like life in Hobbes’ state of nature—“poor, nasty, brutish and short.” It is misleading to present the lives of the underdeveloped as perfect and trouble-free but, as Latouche pointed out, “The incredible joie de vivre that strikes many observers in African suburbs misleads less than the depressing objective evaluations using statistical apparatus which discern only the Westernized part of wealth and poverty” (1993, p. 216). More positive accounts of life in the underdeveloped world are often criticized for romanticizing the poor, but postdevelopment thinkers suggest that such romanticization is no more misleading than the standard negative way in which the underdeveloped are presented in development literature.

Postdevelopment Theory’s Concerns About Westernization

Most postdevelopment theorists are deeply critical of contemporary Western society. If developing means adopting the modern, Western way of life, then, as Sachs commented, “It is not the failure of development which has to be feared but its success” (1992, p. 3). According to postdevelopment theorists, the modern, Western way of life is not sufficiently good and desirable to function as a model for what other parts of the world ought to become. Development surely means becoming like those labeled “developed,” but if this is so, then the form of development being proposed is only desirable if the developed way of life in which it results is desirable. But, argue postdevelopment theorists, it most assuredly is not.

Much development literature implies that suffering, deprivation, and misery are the preserve of the underdeveloped. Citizens of the developed world apparently live basically good, meaningful, happy lives. From the perspective of a Third World citizen, familiar only with images of the developed society and not with the reality of day-to-day life in the developed world, this developed way of life seems very desirable. But, as a character in the play Mon Oncle d’Amerique commented, “America doesn’t exist. I’ve been there” (quoted in Banuri, 1990a, p. 59). Much the same can be said of the “developed” world. If the developed world is the world in which poverty, injustice, conflict, want, and misery have been eradicated, then indeed, the developed world does not exist. Nevertheless, certain parts of the world are continually labeled developed, and development literature continually assumes the desirability of life in these parts.

Postdevelopment theorists acknowledge that there are many benefits to life in the developed world, but point out that “the attractions of the Western model need no elaboration” (Marglin, 1990, p. 3) —we are well aware of the high levels of physical comfort enjoyed by those in the West and of the other benefits of the Western way of life. Despite these benefits, postdevelopment theorists argue that “the Western model remains less than compelling” (Marglin 1990, p. 3). There are several problems with the developed way of life, and postdevelopment theorists feel that these problems ought to be highlighted. As Verhelst (1990, p. 66) pointed out, many in the Third World are attracted by the well-advertised benefits of the Western way of life, and surely honesty requires that the problems of the West be publicly described and analyzed as well, to prevent the “persistent, servile admiration” of the West reflected in the attitude of some Third World citizens.

One of the problems of the West highlighted by postdevelopment theory relates to the environmental destruction that the developed way of life has brought with it. This problem is well known, and many in the developed world are actively trying to pursue ways in which to continue the developed way of life while mitigating its effects on the environment. The environmental crisis casts doubt on the viability and desirability of the development project.

Another problem experienced by the developed world has to do with the sociocultural characteristics of the developed regions. The developed world has certainly not found a way to eradicate misery. Marglin listed “spiritual desolation, meaningless work, [and] neglect of the aged” as some of the characteristics of the developed society that make it a “dubious example” for the rest of the world (1990, p. 3). Latouche spoke of the West as “an impersonal machine, devoid of spirit” and stressed that Western civilization has its “dark side,” which includes desolation, numbness, and insecurity (1993, pp. 11–13). Verhelst dedicated a chapter (titled “Alienation amidst Plenty”) in his book on culture and development to the cultural desolation of the West. He began the chapter by noting that “There is something insulting and narrow-minded in speaking only of the ‘problems of the Third World’ as if humanity’s evils were confined to the tropics and to people of color; as if the West, in contrast, was sheltered from all the misery and depravity that thrives overseas” (1990, p. 65).

A further problem that postdevelopment theorists identify in developed society is that it is parasitical upon the existence of underdevelopment. Here, they echo and build upon the ideas of dependency theorists, who argued that the underdevelopment of some regions is a result of the same process that brought development to other regions. It seems to postdevelopment theorists that developed society is only made possible by the deprivation of others. Alvares (1992, p. 145) argued that the levels of resource use and wastage of the developed world require the “permanent victimhood” of the many excluded from this way of life.

Disillusionment with the benefits of the modern Western way of life is thus a key feature of several postdevelopment writings. From the perspective of postdevelopment theorists, development appears to be premised on exploitation and oppression and to result in a way of life that, while having many benefits, is by no means unambiguously far superior to other ways of life.

The critique of the West enables postdevelopment theorists to question both the possibility and the desirability of development. If development is premised upon environmental destruction and the exploitation of others, then it may not be possible for the Third World to develop, because it lacks a periphery to exploit and because it seems that the development of the Third World would escalate already terrifying levels of environmental destruction, until such a point that all further development becomes impossible. Furthermore, if the goal of development—becoming “developed”—is not as desirable as it has been presented, then there seems to be no reason to justify the exploitation of people and nature in pursuit of development.

Several postdevelopment theorists, particularly Sachs (1992, 2000, 2002, 2009, 2013) and Shiva (1989, 1991, 2016; Mies & Shiva 1993), drew attention to the ecological limits that suggest that the developed way of life cannot possibly be generalized. Sachs, for example, wrote of the “five or six planets [that] would be needed to serve as mines and waste dumps” if the industrialized model were to be generalized (1992, p. 2). Shiva and other ecofeminists argued that something more radical than the “greening” of development or “sustainable” development is required. Drawing on statistics about current and projected future resource usage, postdevelopment theorists argue that proposing development as the solution to the problems of the Third World is at best unwise and at worst suicidal. They do not see new “green” technology and “sustainable” development as solutions to such problems. It seems clear that even with attempts at “green” development, it is not possible for the whole of humanity to consume or waste in a manner similar to that of citizens of the developed world. For postdevelopment theorists, then, ecological limits make development impossible, and suggest the need for a new approach to the problems of the Third World.

Development is also impossible because it seems, as mentioned earlier, that the development of some parts of the world was at least to some extent predicated on the exploitation of other parts of the world. We can only speculate about what our contemporary world would look like had there been no imperialism, no slave trade, and no colonial and neocolonial trade practices; however, it seems reasonable to assume that the developed parts of the world could not have achieved their current levels of material comfort if these practices had never taken place, and indeed did not continue to take place today. To use Sachs’s (1992, p. 2) image, the underdeveloped would need five or six planets not only to serve as mines and waste dumps, but also to serve as areas to be exploited and to provide cheap labor. Thus, the exploitative nature of the development of the developed world suggests that the underdeveloped will not be able to achieve development.

For postdevelopment theorists, development is not only undesirable because it seems to be at least partially predicated upon exploitation, but also because the outcome of development—the developed society—does not make development seem a worthwhile process. If, as discussed earlier, the affluence of the developed world has not led to the eradication of misery, hopelessness, loneliness, fear, and deprivation among its citizens, then it seems necessary to question both the possibility and the desirability of becoming developed.

As pointed out earlier, postdevelopment theorists believe that to group together large sections of the world under the label underdeveloped is to ignore the differences among these groups. The underdeveloped regions of the world are home to diverse cultural groups with diverse ways of seeing and being in the world. Postdevelopment theory gives much attention to this diversity and presents it as a valuable asset that is being undermined by development.

Shanin (1997) suggested that the idea of progress, a core element of the idea of development, emerged partly in response to the West’s need to explain the diversity of humanity. As European travelers became more and more aware that the world consisted of a vast variety of different people who lived in numerous very different ways, it became necessary to try to explain this diversity. The old dichotomy of civilization/barbarity no longer seemed adequate, given the myriad of societies that came to light during the period of European conquest. The idea of progress or development proved a useful tool to explain this diversity. Different societies were portrayed as being at different levels of development, with Western society presented as a more evolved version of earlier societies (Shanin, 1997, p. 67). This way of explaining diversity strengthened the West’s belief in its superiority and helped legitimize colonialism. The post-colonial era may have seen the delegitimization of the idea that the “advanced” countries should rule over the “backward” regions, but it has not seen an end to the belief that differences in societal arrangement reflect varying levels of some kind of evolutionary progress.

By explaining social difference in a way that ranks different groups of people, non-Western ways of life are denigrated. Moreover, this way of understanding difference denies non-Western societies any future other than gradual assimilation by the West. As Marx put it, “The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future” (1958, p. 74, cited in Rist, 1997, p. 42). According to this understanding of difference, a developed world would be one in which differences in socioeconomic arrangements and general lifestyle would be significantly reduced. Postdevelopment theorists believe that current development initiatives have thus far served to reduce diversity and that the reduction of diversity is to be lamented and opposed.

Diversity, to postdevelopment theorists, is an asset. As long as there is diversity, alternative ways of living are evident. The persistence of diversity means the existence of “other ways of building economies, or dealing with basic needs, of coming together into social groups” (Escobar, 1995, p. 225), and thereby provides us with lived alternatives to the way we do things. Marglin (1990, pp. 15–17) compared cultural diversity with biological diversity. Just as biologists speak in favor of maintaining the diversity of the genetic pool, so we should defend cultural diversity because the existence of a variety of cultures maintains “the diversity of forms of understanding, creating, and coping that the human species has managed to generate” (1990, pp. 16–17).

Postdevelopment Theory’s Defense of the Local and the Non-Western

Postdevelopment theorists can be described as defenders of the “local.” In line with their defense of diversity discussed above, many are opposed to “global solutions” because such solutions tend to ignore the specificities that may make a solution appropriate in one place but less appropriate elsewhere. Thus, for some postdevelopment theorists, to resist development is not to propose in its place another solution to the world’s problems, but to stress that different societies need to find different ways to cope with the problems they face —and that the problems, too, will differ from place to place.

Some, like Esteva and Prakash (1997, 1998), opposed both thinking and acting “big.” They argued that the slogan “Think globally, act locally” epitomizes a common approach among “alternative development” activists, but that it is preferable to both act and think locally, because they believed global thinking to be impossible and unwise. It should be noted that Esteva and Prakash were not opposed to “effective coalitions for specific purposes,” nor to the articulation of a “shared No” to common enemies (1997, p. 24, p. 28), but they were cautious about more general and restrictive affirmative coalitions that try to define a broader common project. Similarly, Escobar believed that “There are no grand alternatives that can be applied to all places or all situations. . . . One must resist the desire to formulate alternatives at an abstract, macro level” (1995, p. 222). The argument is not one in favor of a radical localism that seeks no contact outside the immediate locality, but it is a position that both favors the local and is rather suspicious of big, far-ranging approaches.

Other postdevelopment theorists were less cautious about presenting general solutions or identifying general problems. Mies and Shiva warned against a position that is so sensitive to difference, and so opposed to universalism, that it advocates a form of cultural relativism. They argued that what “grassroots women activists” want is a new form of universalism and that we should focus not only on differences between people but also on “interconnectedness among women, among men and women, among human beings and other life forms, worldwide” (1993, pp. 12–13).

Postdevelopment theorists’ suspicion of big, grand-scale projects leads them to support local social movements. Rather than placing their faith in government agencies, international institutions, and large nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), postdevelopment writers place their faith in smaller, “grassroots” organizations, many of which are referred to as “new social movements” (NSMs). It is hoped that these locally based, locally inspired groups will be better able to play a role that is sensitive to difference and that is based on the particular needs of particular groups of people.

In line with their critique of the West, their emphasis on the value of diversity, and their focus on the local, postdevelopment theorists stress that many non-Western, “nondeveloped” ways of life are valid and worth defending. Thus, they challenge the desirability of development both by challenging the desirability of becoming developed and by challenging the undesirability of being underdeveloped.

Postdevelopment theorists are more likely than other development theorists to draw on non-Western thinkers and philosophies in defense of their arguments. One of the non-Western thinkers much respected and referred to by postdevelopment theorists is Gandhi (see, for example, Alvares, 1992, pp. 131–135; Mies & Shiva 1993, p. 322; Shiva, 1993, p. 264). Alvares (1992, pp. 131–141) also drew on other non-Western thinkers, including Indian thinkers, such as Manu Kothari and Lopa Mehta, and a Japanese agricultural scientist, Fukuoka. Rahnema referred to the Chinese thinkers Confucius and Lao Tzu in the closing chapter of The Post-development Reader (Rahnema & Bawtree, 1997, pp. 387–389). This reliance on non-Western thinkers is by no means unique to postdevelopment theory, but it contributes to their general stance in favor of the non-Western.

Postdevelopment theorists clearly do not think that development should be rejected only because being developed is not all it has been made out to be; they believe, too, that the underdeveloped ways of life, and the philosophies of those coming from underdeveloped areas, have much to contribute to discussions about how to live good lives. In order to make this point, they implicitly and explicitly stress the value of underdeveloped worldviews and practices.

Postdevelopment Theory’s Proposed “Alternatives to Development”

What ultimately characterizes postdevelopment theory, and sets it apart from other critical development theory, is its rejection of development. While many critical development theorists would agree with many of the arguments outlined above, they draw the line at calling for an “end to development.” At this point they caution against “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” (see, for example, Parpart, 1995, p. 264; Sharp & Briggs, 2006, p. 8; Sutcliffe, 1999, p. 151). Rejecting the whole contemporary notion of development seems to many to be a little extreme.

Extreme it may be, but this appears to be the position of postdevelopment theorists. In Sachs’s introduction to his Development Dictionary, he described the intention of the contributors to the book as being “to clear out of the way this self-defeating development discourse” (1992, p. 4). Alvares talked about a need for “a frontal attack on the ideology of development,” and said, “There is no such thing as a developed or an undeveloped person” (1992, p. 108). Rahnema stated that, while he does not believe that all development projects are bad, he and most other contributors to The Post-development Reader “have come to the conclusion that development was indeed a poisonous gift to the populations it set out to help” (Rahnema & Bawtree, 1997, p. 381).

It seems clear that postdevelopment theorists differ from other critical development theorists in that they choose to oppose development rather than to reform and rehabilitate it. However, the difference between the two positions is not all that clear: is it a squabble about words—about whether or not the word development should still be used in descriptions of initiatives aiming to improve people’s lives—or is there some deeper difference? Perhaps part of the reason why postdevelopment theorists choose to reject even the vocabulary related to development is that they believe that words do not just indicate and describe “things out there,” but conjure up a whole number of images and feelings. Esteva argued:

Development cannot delink itself from the words with which it was formed—growth, evolution, maturation. Just the same, those who now use the word cannot free themselves from a web of meanings that impart a specific blindness to their language, thought and action. No matter the context in which it is used, or the precise connotation the person using it wants to give it, the expression becomes qualified and colored by meanings perhaps unwanted. (1992, p. 10)

In a later work, Esteva (1996) described the words common in development discourse as buoys in a net, such that when one uses them, one finds oneself trapped in the net. In a similar vein, Latouche argued that “Words are rooted in history; they are linked to ways of seeing and entire cosmologies which very often escape the speaker’s consciousness, but which have a hold over our feelings” (1993, p. 160). Latouche therefore did not believe that the debate about the word development is simply a silly squabble over words. For him, development is a “toxic word” that cannot escape the connotations that attach themselves to it. To argue that development must be completely different from what it has always been seems dangerous to him—it is to “don the opposition’s colors, hoping perhaps to seduce rather than combat it—but more likely to fall into the abyss itself” (1993, p. 160). For Esteva, Latouche, and others, it seemed safer to avoid the terminology generally used in development discourse altogether. In this, postdevelopment theorists clearly differ from many other critical development theorists who prefer to redefine development, arguing like Tucker (1999, p. 15) and Rahman (1993, pp. 213–214) that the term development is a powerful word and that to reject it “would amount to handing over a powerful tool to those who exploit it for their own purposes” (Tucker, 1999, p. 15).

Along with rejecting the word development, postdevelopment theorists distance themselves from the advocates of various forms of “alternative development,” arguing instead for “alternatives to development.” Their distaste for alternative development stems partly from the realization that many so-called alternatives have been co-opted into standard development discourse, and that what is needed is a more radical position—one that opposes standard development discourse, rather than trying to coax it in a new direction. Banuri’s distinction between “internal” and “external” critiques is useful here (1990a, pp. 35–38; 1990b, pp. 75–76). Internal critiques of development accept the underlying moral arguments and assumptions made in the development theories they criticize, while external critiques of development “reject the basic notions of welfare and behavior implicit in such theories” and are opposed to the “presumed superiority of Western values” implicit in much development theory (Banuri, 1990a, pp. 35–36). External critiques resist being assimilated into development theory, while internal critiques do not. Postdevelopment theorists, unlike the advocates of “alternative development,” are clearly external critics, standing outside the value system from which development initiatives emerge, and opposing the assumptions upon which the idea of development is premised. In this way, they resist being co-opted into standard development discourse. The recent history of development discourse demonstrates the very real risk of co-option: when development’s impact on the environment was criticized, the idea of sustainable development came to the fore; when development was criticized for the way it approached culture, attempts were made to see culture as a “tool” for development, and so on. Thus the postdevelopment theorist’s position of standing outside standard development theory and vehemently opposing it can be understood as an attempt to resist co-option within standard development discourse.

Of course, it should be pointed out here that the internal critic/external critique distinction is not very clear. Many advocates of alternative development share some but not all the values and assumptions implicit in standard development theory, and postdevelopment theorists cannot be said not to have a single value or assumption in common with mainstream development theorists. Nevertheless, the postdevelopment theorists’ position is at greater variance with the standard development position than is the position of most advocates of various “alternative” forms of development.

Indeed, some postdevelopment theorists not only distance themselves from alternative development but also show themselves to be completely opposed to it. Latouche called alternative development a “siren song” and described it as more dangerous than “true blue” development (1993, p. 149). By presenting a “friendly exterior,” alternative development is harder to resist than standard development; nevertheless, it shares many of the pitfalls of standard development. For Latouche, “The opposition between ‘alternative development’ and alternative to development is radical, irreconcilable and one of essence, both in the abstract and in theoretical analysis” (1993, p. 159, emphasis in the original).

The rejection of the idea of alternative development and of the very vocabulary associated with development is part of postdevelopment theorists’ preoccupation with culture, discourse, and mindsets. Many critics of past development initiatives point to the material failures of past development practice, but few give as much attention to the nonmaterial aspects of development, and of its failure, as do postdevelopment theorists. As mentioned earlier, postdevelopment theorists emphasize that development is a way of seeing the world, an ideology or a mindset. This emphasis on the nonmaterial also extends to the approach that postdevelopment theorists take when suggesting how to address the failure of development. Rather than proposing new strategies and approaches that could bring about “real” benefits, such as GDP growth, increases in literacy levels, and so on, they suggest that the most important requirement for addressing the failure of development is a change in the way we understand the world.

Postdevelopment theorists point out that the way we act and the way we see the world are intimately connected—“The act of belief is performative, and if people must be made to believe, it is so that they can be made to act in a certain way” (Rist, 1997, p. 22). Development has become the preoccupation of so many in the Third World because their imaginations have been conquered by the contemporary idea of development. In order for this idea of development to be popularized, people had to begin to see the world in terms of development—they had to perceive certain situations as being situations of underdevelopment and to see the solution to certain problems as development. As Esteva pointed out, “In order for people to seek to escape underdevelopment, they first have to believe that they are underdeveloped” (1992, p. 7). Likewise, if contemporary development initiatives are to be discarded and new ways of approaching problems like poverty and injustice are to be initiated, then new ways of seeing and understanding the world need to emerge. Verhelst stressed this, saying, “There can be no solution to the crisis if we merely change structures without effecting the sort of personal conversion that allows collective changes of mentality and behavior” (1990, p. 71). So often, talk of the discourse and imagery of development is seen as neglecting the “real” effect of development or the lack thereof, but, as Ferguson underlined, “Thinking is as ‘real’ an activity as any other . . . ideas and discourses have important and very real social consequences” (1990, p. xv).

Postdevelopment theory’s emphasis on the nonmaterial is one way in which it breaks with dependency theory. Postdevelopment theory echoes dependency theory in its belief that the development of the West was premised upon the exploitation of the Third World, but it does not see this exploitation as being only or even primarily material, nor does its way of addressing the problem stress the material. Verhelst discussed the importance of paying attention to nonmaterial aspects, and he quoted Ziegler (in Verhelst 1990, p. 20) who argued that many radical approaches are so fascinated by the “practical aspects of class struggle” and by material conflicts that they neglect another “battlefield”—“the one where wars are fought for the control of the imaginary.” Postdevelopment theory seeks to enter into combat on this battlefield.

Criticisms Directed Against Postdevelopment Theory

Given the radical nature of postdevelopment theory, it is not surprising that it has attracted significant criticism. This criticism has come from a variety of sources, but it appears that most critics are advocates either of a Marxist, neo-Marxist, or post-Marxist understanding of development, or otherwise of some alternative conception of development. While it could thus be said that criticism of postdevelopment comes mainly from “the left” within development studies, it should be stressed that critics of postdevelopment theory are by no means a homogeneous group and that there is no single “anti-postdevelopment” position—rather, there are a number of different thinkers coming from a number of different academic disciplines and with different subject positions with regard to development who have found aspects of postdevelopment theory, the work of particular theorists, or in some cases the whole body of literature, problematic.

One of the most common criticisms of postdevelopment theory is that the methodologies used and arguments made by postdevelopment theorists are unsound and that postdevelopment theorists provide inadequate support for their conclusions. Some critics feel that postdevelopment theory’s conclusions are based on sentiment rather than sound argumentation. Sidaway noted that some see postdevelopment theory as nothing more than an “intellectual fad” (2002, p. 18), while Nanda (1999, p. 9) argued that postdevelopment theory’s rejection of development stems from a particular predisposition or “mood” rather than from careful analysis of development practice. Postdevelopment theory’s use—or misuse—of post-modern writings, especially of Foucault, is highlighted by several critics. Some critics (see, for example, Brigg, 2002; Lehmann, 1997; Ziai, 2004) feel that Foucault is not always well used by postdevelopment theorists, while others (such as Kiely, 1999) feel that the use of Foucault, and of post-modern thinking in general, is in itself a flaw that compromises postdevelopment theory. A final problem with regard to methodology and argumentation relates to certain gaps in the arguments presented by postdevelopment theorists. Berger (1995), for example, criticized Escobar for paying insufficient attention to the Cold War; and Lehmann (1997) and Nederveen Pieterse (1998) accused postdevelopment theorists of not adequately examining the experiences of the Asian countries, especially the Newly Industrialized Economies, in their analyses of the way in which development operates.

A second, and related, criticism levied against postdevelopment theory relates to its homogenization of development. Critics argue that the rejection of development by postdevelopment theorists is a consequence of their failure to recognize that development has changed over the decades and that not all development is the same (see, for example, Grillo, 1997; Kiely, 1999; Simon, 1997; Storey, 2000; Van Ausdal, 2001). As Simon put it, postdevelopment theory “set[s] up a straw elephant in seeking to portray postwar engagements with poverty in the South as a single or singular ‘development project’ in order to be able to knock it down more easily,” and postdevelopment theory ignores “the very tangible achievements” of many development programs (1997, p. 185; see also Simon, 2006, pp. 12–13). Kiely said that postdevelopment is a kind of reverse Orientalism that “turns all people from non-Western cultures into a generalized ‘subaltern’ that is then used to flog an equally generalized ‘West’” (Chow, 1993, p. 13, cited in Kiely, 1999, p. 47). Likewise, Corbridge accused postdevelopment theory of presenting the West as “inauthentic, urban, consumerist, monstrous, [and] utilitarian” and Westerners as “lonely, anxious, greedy, and shallow” (1998a, p. 144). A related criticism of postdevelopment theory is that it romanticizes the non-West, the peasant, the traditional way of life, and, in the case of ecofeminist writers, women and nature (Corbridge, 1998a, p. 145; Gidwani, 2002; Molyneux & Steinberg, 1995, pp. 91–92; Storey, 2000, p. 42). Indeed, Kiely (1999) went so far as to ask if postdevelopment theory is “the last refuge of the noble savage.” Postdevelopment theorists are thus criticized for exaggerating the benefits of the non-Western way of life and underestimating the appeal of the Western way of life to non-Westerners.

Perhaps the most common criticism of postdevelopment theory relates to critics’ sense that postdevelopment theory does not provide an adequate alternative to development. Blaikie held that the deconstruction of development offered by postdevelopment theorists “leaves only fragmented remains . . . an agenda-less program, a full stop, a silence, after the act of deconstruction” (2000, pp. 1038–1039), while Nederveen Pieterse accused postdevelopment theory of being all “critique but no construction” (2000, p. 188). Some critics avoid accusing postdevelopment theory of completely lacking a future program, but criticize the alternatives on offer of having “a high New Age-like content clad in Third World clothes” (Schuurman, 2001a, p. 6) and of seeming “romantic and utopian” (Berger, 1995, p. 725). There is a feeling among critics that the alternatives presented by postdevelopment theorists lack detail, are unlikely to be realized, and are ultimately less constructive than the alternatives offered by alternative development approaches.

A final criticism of postdevelopment theory centers on the ethics and politics of postdevelopment theory. For many critics of postdevelopment theory, development is ultimately about addressing the terrible inequities evident in our world by emancipating the underdeveloped from their condition. The failure of past development initiatives only makes this task more urgent, and makes the postdevelopment theorists’ contemplation of the ultimate desirability of becoming developed seem like immoral navel-gazing. While a position that is critical of past development theory but supportive of the idea of development enables further action to bring about development—and is, therefore, a politically feasible position—postdevelopment theorists’ focus on discourse, ideas, and images, as well as their questioning of mindsets and philosophies, seems to some to pause, if not to halt, action in favor of improving the lives of the underdeveloped (see Nederveen Pieterse, 2000; Schuurman, 2000, 2002). For many critics of postdevelopment theory, the postdevelopment position seems nothing less than indifference to the suffering of distant others, a shirking of duty, or an unwillingness to assist those less well off. It does not seem to many critics that this position is of any use to those in the Third World—to those who Simon said “can still only aspire to safe drinking water, a roof which does not leak and the like” (1997, p. 184). Postdevelopment theorists are thus not only politically, but also morally, irresponsible. Corbridge argued along these lines when he suggested that postdevelopment theory is “ethically deficient” because insufficient attention is paid to the “costs and disbenefits” that the “alternatives to development” suggested and that the “end of development” would entail (1998b, p. 35). Similarly, Fagan (1999, p. 180), Mkandawire (2005, p. 37), and Simon (1999, p. 18; 2003, p. 7) have a sense of moral discomfort about the idea of rejecting development from the position of a person who has access to all the benefits of a modern, developed life.

One of the apparent problems with the politics of postdevelopment theory is its stance in favor of the “local” and the “grassroots” and its concomitant suspicion of the state. Postdevelopment theorists see the improvement of the lives of those in the Third World as more likely to result from the activities of local groups and from local strategies than from the initiatives of the state or suprastate organizations, but critics question whether the “local” can really offer a solution (see, for example, Schuurman, 2001b). A further problem with postdevelopment theory’s focus on local and grassroots movements is that some postdevelopment theorists seem naively to believe that local and grassroots movements will necessarily act in the interests of the poor and marginalized, yet, as Nanda (1999) and Storey (2000) showed, such groups may not necessarily be pro-poor and may even have sexist, ethnocentric, or racist aims. Kiely called this faith in local social movements “Pontius Pilate politics” (1999, p. 45): because postdevelopment theorists do not provide clear criteria for the identification of the kinds of groups that can help improve the lives of the poor in the Third World, they are actually washing their hands of the fate of the poor.

These, then, are some of the criticisms that have been directed against postdevelopment theory. That postdevelopment theory has been the target of so much criticism indicates that there are some serious shortcomings in some aspects of postdevelopment theory. However, it also indicates the postdevelopment theory has touched a nerve and has triggered much lively debate.

Future Directions

Postdevelopment theory received a great deal of attention around the turn of the century, but the debate has since abated somewhat, although there is certainly ongoing interest in postdevelopment theory. However, it seems fair to say that debate about postdevelopment theory was most robust in the 1990s and early 2000s. Along with the abatement in interest in postdevelopment theory has come a slight change in emphasis on the part of some of the key postdevelopment thinkers. Escobar, perhaps the best known of the postdevelopment theorists, has more recently been writing about social movements, (anti)globalization, and coloniality (see Escobar, 2004a, 2004b; Mignolo & Escobar, 2013). While his key postdevelopment writings focus predominantly on critique, his new work is more concerned with building alternatives to current economic and political practices. Two other prominent postdevelopment thinkers, Sachs and Latouche, have also shifted focus a little. Sachs’s recent publications focus on the environment and sustainability, and he was involved in a large critical discussion forum related to the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (see Sachs, 2000, 2002; Helfrich, Kuhlen, Sachs, & Siefkes, 2009). For his part, Latouche has been writing about and campaigning for something called la décroissance (“low growth” or “degrowth” economics; see Latouche, 2004, 2009, 2010, 2011). He and other proponents of décroissance oppose infinite economic growth and believe that we should work toward the creation of “integrated, self-sufficient, materially responsible societies” (see Latouche, 2004). These shifts in focus on the part of Escobar, Sachs, and Latouche are slight, with their recent research building on their earlier work. Their more recent work is more moderate and forward-looking and all three authors now collaborate with a variety of alternative development thinkers who do not necessarily embrace postdevelopment.

The new focus on the part of such thinkers, their willingness to work alongside other critical development theorists, and their shift away from a focus on critique help resolve some of the key criticisms directed against postdevelopment theory. Some of the recent writings of Escobar, Sachs, and others are less open to accusations that they are “all critique and no construction” (Nederveen Pieterse, 2000, p. 188) than their earlier work. Furthermore, there is now a growing body of literature that responds to, and builds upon, postdevelopment theory, with the aim of making more particular and often more practical and detailed suggestions on how to improve upon past development practice—see, for example, the recent volume edited by Ziai (2007) and articles by Dinerstein and Deneulin (2012), Gibson-Graham (2010), and McGregor (2009). These more recent works move away from a focus on critique and suggest more concrete ways in which alternatives to development can be worked out.

While this more constructive work is to be welcome, some key challenges remain that advocates of postdevelopment theory need to address. First, the relationship between those who advocate postdevelopment and those who advocate some kind of alternative development needs to be thrashed out more thoroughly. In an early postdevelopment text, Latouche (1993, p. 149) described alternative development as being even more dangerous than “true blue” development, but recently several postdevelopment thinkers, including Latouche, seem more willing to cooperate with those who do not share their antidevelopment stance, and writers like Gibson-Graham (2010, p. 227) suggested that postdevelopment is actually all about imagining and practicing development differently. If this is so, does postdevelopment theory not really belong beside and on a continuum with alternative approaches to development?

A second challenge to postdevelopment theory is the continued desire for development evident in the global South. The death of the idea of development predicted by some postdevelopment theorists has not happened, and it is precisely those in the Third World—imagined by some postdevelopment theorists as becoming disillusioned with development—who have been keeping the idea of development alive. In a new introduction to The Development Dictionary, Sachs (2010, p. viii) acknowledged that “the South has emerged as the staunchest defender of development.” If development is indeed such a “poisonous gift to the populations it set out to help” (Rahnema & Bawtree, 1997, p. 381), then why is it these populations themselves who remain keen to acquire it?

Third, given that the idea of development itself is arguably being eclipsed by discussions about globalization, it is important for those who have adopted a postdevelopment stance toward development to turn their critical eye on discourses around globalization. Ziai (2015, p. 106) argued that it is globalization, rather than development, that is now the “buzzword” in the social sciences: What can be said about globalization from the perspective of postdevelopment theory? Some of Escobar’s recent work (see, for example, Escobar, 2004a; Mignolo & Escobar, 2013) might be helpful in this regard, but there is certainly room for further reflection on what postdevelopment theory’s critique of development means in an increasingly globalized world.

In closing, postdevelopment theory provides a useful and thought-provoking critique of past development theory and practice. It has been very helpful in stimulating an invigorating and important debate within development studies. This ability to spark debate is perhaps the greatest strength of postdevelopment theory, with its weakness being the lack of careful argumentation and the vagueness of the positive program outlined by postdevelopment theorists. Postdevelopment theory is relevant not only to those interested in development theory, but also to all those interested in thinking of alternatives to the capitalist, industrialized way of life that has for so long been held up as an ideal toward which all should strive.


This chapter draws on Ph.D. research conducted at the Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham. The author acknowledges and thanks Reginald Cline-Cole for his supervision of this research.


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Online Resources

While there are few, if any, websites dedicated exclusively and explicitly to postdevelopment theory, there are plenty of online resources focused on attempts to rethink development in a way that is compatible with at least some versions of postdevelopment theory. Here are some examples of such resources.


Those interested in postdevelopment theory might also find value in the many online interviews with prominent postdevelopment theorists. Some examples can be found here: