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Geometries of Development by Hemant Shah and Karin Gwinn Wilkin

Geometries of development refer to ideas underlying the practice of development.  This term, used in development discourse, describes the arrangement of three elements within a global system: spaces, key points and vectors. Space refers to various kinds of spatial actors such as nation states, regions and transnational configurations. Points refer to key institutional sites where development policies and programs are formulated and implemented, such as government ministries and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs). Vectors are linkages among institutional and spatial actors.  The interaction among these three elements determines the overall shape of the structure of development. The divisions, linkages and relations of power among actors and institutions characterize the overall shape of this structure.  The meaning of development is inherently unstable, and institutional actors in positions of power try to “fix” or stabilize it in ways that promote their own interests.

As an institutional practice, development began with a notion of an industrialized, modern “us” and a pastoral, traditional “them.”  Building from this assumption, formal development organizations based in industrialized countries (the North) initiated a planning process on behalf of traditional communities (the South). Over the years, such terminology has become dominant in development discourse. 

Grounded in a cold war context, this geometry of development created spatial distinctions between South and North (poor and rich), West and East, and Third and First worlds.  The underlying principle of the Cold War-era development approach, involving the transfer of financial, technical and human resources (vectors) among spatial and institutional actors, functions within a set of categories that distinguish donors from recipients with each transaction.  The dominant geometry of development articulates a vision of development that compartmentalizes communities divided along various types of boundaries.  In Cold War-era development circles, the world was neatly divided along political (communism in East versus democracy in West), economic (industrialized North versus agricultural South), cultural (modern versus traditional) and hierarchical (First = West; Second = East; and Third = South) lines.

We can trace the emergence of this geometry of development to the late 1940s.  While preparing his 1949 inaugural address, U.S. President Harry Truman’s staff agreed upon three central points regarding foreign policy: to continue support for the United Nations organization; to maintain commitment to the Marshall Plan; and to create a joint U.S.-European defense organization.  Almost as an afterthought, a midlevel civil servant suggested a fourth point: to expand existing Latin American technical assistance programs to the poor countries of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, thereby expanding an existing vector between the United States and countries of the South.  The suggestion was accepted and Point Four was included in the address:

Fourth, we must embark on a bold new programme for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas (Rist 1997, 71).

Unexpectedly, from the perspective of the Truman administration, Point Four received massive attention from the press and policymakers around the world.  As a result, government efforts in this area were intensified and over the course of several decades, new international actors were created, such as the forerunners to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), regional development banks and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).  Consequently, Point Four established in a very public, very global way the idea of underdevelopment as a synonym for what had been called “economic backwardness,” and demonstrated in a dramatic way the position of power held by the United States in defining the status of other nations.

At the time this framework emerged, the idea that development could be strategically planned and stimulated was notable for shifting away from the concept of intransitive social change (Rist 1997). Importantly, the Point Four configuration of international relations eliminated (at least rhetorically), the colonizer-colonized relationship by erasing discussions of unequal relations of power among nations.  Underdevelopment was now a stage in an inevitable, linear process towards development that all nations went through.  This development-underdevelopment continuum created the possibility of recognizing intervention as a humanitarian mission rather than one of colonization or imperialism.  Finally, mass media were assumed to operate as an appropriate and relevant means towards inspiring people in the “underdeveloped” world to emulate those in the “developed” West (Lerner 1958).  Many of these basic principles still serve as the foundations for development practice today, as international development institutions allocate resources to transfer knowledge and technologies to communities in nations with few material resources.

The geometry of development model offers a flexible analytical tool for analyzing development processes.  The abstract concepts within our geometry of development are not bound by nation-states as the key unit of analysis, though it recognizes that they are important actors.  Also, our geometry of development approach is not limited to viewing the flow of development aid in a “West-to-Rest” fashion.  The nomenclature involving space, points and vectors allows us not to only to critique various arrangements of development geometry—such as the one created by the United States after the Second World War—but also to consider alternative development arrangements that are open to incorporating a wide range of actors and in which there are no predetermined roles.  For example, we question the morality and validity of the American Cold War-era geometry of development that has come to dominate global development policy and practice up to the present time.  But also, based on an analysis of space, points and vectors in existing but less well-known development arrangements, we propose an alternative geometry of development.

We argue that the dominant geometry of development should be discarded, given the many limitations this model imposes on the idea of development and its policies and programs.  As has been suggested in many other reviews of dominant development models, this approach inappropriately justifies the positioning of wealthier states as a normative model and therefore legitimizes their intervention in “underdeveloped” areas.  This model has been critiqued for its ethnocentric and arrogant vision, collapsing diverse communities of the South with a wide range of cultural histories into a single monolithic space for development intervention.  Even the seemingly innocuous assumption that technologies themselves are inherently “neutral” belies an ethnocentric approach (Ito 2000).

The dominant geometry of development implies a vectorial relationship whereby interventionist policies and programs, created at various institutional points in countries of the North, are posed as being in the best interests of their target communities in the South.  Such views allowed many academics and policymakers in the North, without a trace of self-doubt or self-consciousness, to craft blueprints for “developing” the South in the image of the North.  The dichotomization of the entire global structure of development into modern and traditional spaces (even with a transitional category in between, as evidenced in Lerner 1958) obscures the intersections between and within practices in historical contexts (Melkote 2002).  These broad generalizations miss distinctions within countries (Rodgers and Starr 1995), essentialise groups into homogeneous categories (Melkote and Steeves 2001), typically at the level of nations rather than communities, and assume that experiences of poverty (Escobar 1995), gender (Mohanty 1991) and other social conditions are similar across historical and cultural contexts.  This kind of “spatial will to power,” as Escobar (1995) puts it, allowed domestic elites in South countries in the post-colonial era to represent their specific self-interest as a class as equivalent to the general interest of the nation-state as a whole (Alvares 1992).  More often than not, however, the interests of domestic elites in South countries actually were identical to the interests of development policymakers in the North countries.  As such, the South country elites replicated the dominant international geometry of development within the boundaries of South nations. This process has, in many cases, resulted in the abuse of minority and indigenous rights.

Another problem with this dominant geometry of development is that it conceptualizes the development-underdevelopment continuum in a way that fetishises geopolitical boundaries (Wilmer 1993).  Post-development critiques have illustrated the processes through which the development industry constructs “Third World” spaces through planning and implementing strategic intervention (Escobar 1995; Nederveen Pieterse 2001).  The dominant bilateral and multilateral development institutions are premised on a notion of stable geopolitical boundaries, and the development “target” becomes operationalised as the “Third World.”  Even in participatory models of development, despite the best intentions and dedicated work of many practitioners and scholars, “participation” serves more often to fulfill administrative needs of the industry than as an alternative to dominant development approaches (Huesca 2002).

In the geometry of development created by Point Four, since the primary unit of analysis was the nation-state, five-year plans, data gathering protocols, communication systems, infrastructure building, bureaucracy creation and other activities were all conceived as national projects.  For example, the primary measure of progress was Gross National Product, and data about media production and consumption were typically reported as nation-state aggregate measures (Lerner 1938: 86).  While these data may have been useful for certain large-scale planning and policy purposes, they missed recognizing the inequities in resource distribution among segments of a country’s population.  A tremendous amount of energy was expended on mapping territories and constructing borders of newly independent states.  Again, this information may have been valuable for building infrastructure, facilitating some forms of social interaction and creating certain kinds of economic growth (all with unequally distributed benefits), but another purpose of these activities was to monitor and constrain movement of minority and indigenous communities (Radcliffe 1999).

With regard to communication issues in the dominant geometry of development, the operative assumption was that nationally based media systems were necessary to distribute information efficiently and to mobilize people to become modern in the national interest.  As Lerner writes:

Central to this change (from traditional to modern) is the shift in modes of communicating ideas and attitudes—for spreading among a large public vivid images of its own New Ways is what modernization distinctly does.  Not the class media of books and travel, but the mass media of tabloids, radio and movies are now the dominant mode.  (Lerner 1958: 45).

Lerner and others assumed that identities fostered through national media systems would transcend other identifications within and across national boundaries, and that these larger media systems would be more efficient and sophisticated than other smaller media systems.  Even current development discourse, perpetuating this geometry, seems incapable of dealing with the contemporary vectorial realities of specialized transnational media networks created by diasporic communities.

Clearly, many writers are uneasy with the vocabulary of the dominant geometry of development, employing quotations and footnotes to signal their critical use of terms such as “Third World” and “development” (Mohanty 1991; Sturgeon 1999).  These scholars and practitioners are attempting to distance themselves from an ethnocentric vision of a hierarchical distinction between the Northern West as “First” and others as somehow lagging behind, in “Third” or even “Fourth” place (Melkote and Steeves 2001; Nederveen Pieterse 2001).             However, even these critical usages evoke a more-or-less traditional understanding of geopolitics.  For example, the term “Third World” was first posed during the 1789 French Revolution as a way to refer to a “third estate,” or people in poverty lacking political power (Melkote and Steeves 2001; Payne 1999), and since then has been critically used to denote spatial actors, such as communities united through shared experiences of oppression based on race, ethnicity, class or gender hierarchies (Melkote and Steeves 2001); of economic distance from or dependency on the global capitalist economy (Glassman and Samatar 1997); or anti-colonial political struggles (Chow and Lyter 2002).  Still, some of these distinctions can be misleading when considering the different political histories of many communities and nations, such as Thailand, when direct political colonization was not part of its historical experience.

Many scholars have recognized that dominant economic and political standards for categorizing countries are “hopelessly outdated and anachronistic” (Kamrava 1995), and distinctions across First, Second and Third Worlds no longer have relevance in a post-Cold War world (Kamrava 1995; Melkote and Steeves 2001).  The validity of this First, Second and Third World, or North-South categorizations is indeed in question, given a rapidly shifting structure of global political-economic contexts involving changing vectors of political and economic dominance among nations and other spatial actors, the strengthening of regional institutions and identities, the globalization of economic and communication systems and the privatization of industries (Hagopian 2000; Schuurman 2000).

In response to the limitations of the dominant geometry of development, we propose two approaches to reconceptualising a geometry of development.  First, we encourage new ways of thinking about development donors, highlighting, in effect, a set of vectors that is typically ignored in studies of the global structure of development. Little recognition has been given to the distinctions across donors, who are typically assumed to represent one monolithic approach to development work. Second, we view cultural space, territory, identities, progress and social change in ways that are not circumscribed by geopolitical boundaries that are the basis of most studies of development. Thus, we also encourage that the very idea of development be untethered from measures of Gross National Product and focus instead on notions of rights and resources for sociocultural groups, this opening up the possibility of linkages among spatial actors across geopolitical boundaries (Rist 1997). 

Instead of focusing on a geometry that limits development categories to national settings within north/south and east/west references, we advocate visions of development that focus on access to resources, seen broadly as a capacity to activate power through economic, political, social and cultural means. The concept of geometry offers an abstract conceptualization enabling alternative visions of space, points and vectors. An alternative spatial configuration of development means leaving behind an emphasis on geopolitical place, and instead turning our attention to the importance of sociocultural space, where specific histories and identities are paramount (Escobar, 2000; Escobar et al., 2002).  This shift moves from a discourse of development as benevolent aid to geopolitical entities, which threatens diversity, homogenizes local traditions, and encourages minorities to conform to White and western cultural practices, toward a discourse of rights and resources, which emphasizes self-determination and autonomy of minority communities and locally relevant cultural and social practices. Such a shift implies the introduction into the overall structure of development a new set of spatial actors bound to local transnational or regional territory, new points of policy formulation and implementation, and new vectors linking spatial actors and signaling decentralized.

In sum, we argue that the dominant geometry of development, rooted in historical articulations of U.S. foreign policy and grounded in current development practice, be discarded. The ethnocentric and hierarchical nature of first/third, north/south, and east/west divisions at the center of the global structure of development hold neither validity nor moral sway. Instead of essentialising diverse groups of donor and recipient nations, into broad geopolitical categories, we argue that new geometries of development consider other social groupings (i.e., new spatial and institutional actors), along local and regional lines, that resonate more clearly with cultural histories within particular contexts. New geometries of development might help us better engage a central tenet of development work, the attempt to improve the human condition.

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