A review of post-development and its alternatives to development


The dramatic turn of events towards the end of the twentieth century – the reunification of Germany, the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, and the gradual ascent of China as a global superpower, to name a few – have significantly altered the way development is viewed. The collapse of communism has almost discredited most left-wing ideologies, while capitalism has been viewed as not living up to its promises (Parfitt, 2011). These events opened a plethora of new concepts and ideas which consequently gave rise to a new paradigm of development now known as post-development.

Pioneered by the likes of Sachs, Escobar, and Esteva, post-development took its cue from the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault (Brigg, 2002; Ziai, 2004). Post-development scholars have used Foucauldian concepts to ultimately reject the notion of development; it is viewed, in a Foucauldian sense, as a ‘particular discourse which does not reflect but actually constructs reality’ (Storey, 2000). Furthermore, post-development thinkers view development, especially the Western model, as a globalised bureaucratic force explicitly capitalist in agenda (Lie, 2008), used by the global North to perpetuate the global South’s dependence towards them.

Just like any other forms of discourse, post-development theory is not spared from its share of both supporters and critics. Whereas the critical literature offers a plethora of critiques of post-development theory, ranging from the somewhat sympathetic to the scathing, most of the supportive literature centre on the idea that development has failed the world. This paper aims to present a critical examination of the alternatives to development as suggested by most post-development scholars. Specifically, this paper attempts to present the following arguments:

  1. There are no actual alternatives to development.
  2. Since there are no alternatives to development, post-development is just a reactionary critique to development.
  3. The ‘alternatives to development’ highly favours resistance and not emancipation.
  4. Post-development has turned into a mere language game.


No actual alternatives

In their rejection of the entire paradigm of development, post-development scholars have argued for finding alternatives to development rather than alternative forms of development.  But rather than explicitly suggesting what these alternatives are, post-development thinkers pointed out that alternatives to development should offer the following characteristics as enumerated by Escobar (1991):

“a critical stance with respect to established scientific discourse and … a rejection of the ethnocentric, patriarchal, and ecocidal character of development models; a defense of pluralistic grassroots movements, in the  belief that these movements, and ‘new social movements’ in general may be providing a new basis for transforming the structures and discourses of the modern developmentalist states in the Third World; and a conviction that we must work toward a relation between truth and reality different from that which has characterized Western modernity in general and development in particular.”

This then begs the question: how can one reject a particular concept without actually presenting any substitute or alternative? Though Escobar’s arguments on offering what characterise an alternative to development may seem persuasive (as are the arguments of other post-development pioneers such as Sachs and Esteva), a closer examination of the arguments would reveal that such a line of thinking constitutes only rhetoric and no constructive propositions. A more sardonic argument against the lack of alternatives of post-development was provided by Pieterse (2000). He viewed that post-development theory is a paradox in itself; and the proposal to find alternatives to development is ‘misleading and misrepresent the history of development’. He further suggested that the term alternatives to development ‘is a misnomer because no such alternatives are offered’.

Ziai (2004), however, points out that since the emergence of post-development there are several alternatives to development, albeit fragmented, if not under-reported in literature, such as community solidarity and direct democracy. However, these alternatives are merely a reminder of previous criticisms of development such as the accounts of self-reliance and community development (Aguilar, 2005; Sidaway, 2007).

But is the lack of clear alternatives the real dilemma? The ambiguity created by the lack of clear alternatives to development is addressed not in literature discourse, but in actual application of the theory in fieldwork. This implies that the alternatives to development actually vary from society to society, contrary to what critics of post-development expects.  McKinnon (2008) has used the Foucauldian concept of governmentality in her work in Northern Thailand and identified where the concept would prove to be not useful. Janzen (2008) has employed grassroots techniques while working with the women of Agabaya in Bolivia, which she found helpful in empowering local people while remaining respectful of local culture. Similarly, the historical analysis made by Grischow & McKnight (2003) of Ghana and Uganda found local empowerment as a means of employing post-development alternatives in the field. These examples provide rough evidentiary support to the argument that post-development scholars have actually suggested alternatives to development centred on decentralised power, grassroots movement, community solidarity, and empowerment at the local level.

Essentially, post-development theory suffers not from the lack of clear-cut alternatives to development, but from ambiguously defined suggestions. The lack, or at least ambiguity in definition, became evident throughout the discourse because 1) post-development in itself is resistant rather than emancipatory in nature (Pieterse, 2000); and 2) post-development thinkers have applied the term ‘development’ to only the Post-WWII ideologies of development (Matthews, 2004).


A mere reactionary critique to development

Post-development is succinctly clear in its rejection of the entire development paradigm. More specifically, it rejects the ideologies put forward by modernisation and neo-liberal theories that flourished during the Post-war era. Post-development thinkers view that development, with its link to modernisation, becomes an avenue for the West to impose its dominance over the developing world. Rapley (2004) describes the origins of post-development thought as a ‘series of discreet innovations emerging from varied intellectual traditions, albeit mostly on the left.’ But is this rejection validated? Or is it merely a reactionary critique to the notion of development?

The previous section notes that despite the strong rejection of post-development to the notion of development, it has failed to provide clear alternatives to the notion they are rejecting, or have, at best, provided an ambiguous proposal for such. Again, the failure to provide clear alternatives led critics to dismiss post-development thought as merely a critique, but is at least presented constructively, which development practitioners should carefully take into consideration (Ziai, 2004). Pieterse (2000) sees where the problem lies: post-development has used discourse analysis as an ideological platform and not just a methodological basis; his argument reflects what he sees as Escobar’s broad and oftentimes improper use of discursive language.

A much stronger argument than the claim that post-development is merely a critique of development is that post-development’s criticisms against the concept of development are nothing new. Kiely (1999) argues that the set of criticisms put forward by post-development thinkers are ‘already evident within critical writings and thinking about development.’ Pieterse (2000), probably one of the staunchest critics of post-development, argues that post-development criticisms towards development are already espoused in both dependency theory in terms of seeking autonomy from external dependency, and alternative development (as opposed to alternatives to development) in terms of radically critiquing mainstream development.


Resistance over emancipation

Along with the argument that post-development, in offering alternatives to development, became a mere reactionary critique rather than a completely different ideology is the criticism that post-development and its alternatives to development espouses politics of resistance rather than emancipation. This argument was put forward by Pieterse (1998), in which he argues that post-development is ‘premised on an awareness of endings, on the end of modernity.’

The concept of resistance as espoused by post-development theory is largely attributed to the works of Foucault. The Foucauldian concept of resistance is viewed as a standalone concept independent of the notion of emancipation; Holloway (2002) argues that:

“in Foucault’s analysis, there are a whole host of resistances which are integral to power, but there is no possibility of emancipation. The only possibility is an endlessly shifting constellation of power and resistance.”

Pieterse (2000) sees this use of resistance as ‘quasi-revolutionary’ in the sense that it does not espouse class struggles in the same way as Marx had, but advocates firm resistance to capitalism. In this light, post-development is seen to engage in the ‘romanticisation of resistance’ (Abu-Lughod, 1990) in the sense that it ‘celebrates diversity which may be politically progressive in neither intent nor capacity to effect change’ (Storey, 2000). Moreover, the favour towards resistance over emancipation of the alternatives to development is linked to its reactionary nature. Parfitt (2011) argues that in its rejection of modernisation, and subsequently modernisation’s emphasis on planned and managed development, post-development essentially creates ‘a reactive position [that] is couched in terms of protest at the destruction that planned development entails’.

Post-development scholars, however, have started to present counterarguments to what Pieterse has forwarded. Kippler (2010) has argued that new social movements ‘are a sign of the fragmented postmodern society that we live in and… are contributing towards emancipation from the homogenising global project of development by repoliticising collective life.’ Furthermore, McKinnon (2007), through her study of the discursive practices of development professionals in Northern Thailand, showed how post-development practice can be conceptualised where ‘social justice and emancipation can coexist alongside the messy realities of development work.’


A language game?

The issue of resistance over emancipation that plays out in the debates over post-development is essentially linked to the way post-development proponents use language. Critics are quick to point that post-development thinkers are oftentimes ‘sloppy and indulgent’ with their use of language (Pieterse, 2000). Even post-development thinker’s critique of the notion of development shows evidence of the misuse, if not abuse, of language; in this light, critics argue that post-development, in their rejection of the concept of development, has actually standardised the very idea by allowing the idea to encompass only the modernisation theory of the Post-war era (Matthews, 2004; Lie, 2008).

Post-development’s dependence on Foucault’s discourse analysis strategy has essentially backfired on its proponents. Pieterse (2000) has lamented on how post-development has seemingly resorted to a mere language game rather than an analysis. The overuse, if not misuse and abuse, of Foucauldian concepts and language placed post-development in a position wherein power ‘does not simply emanate from the state or institutions, but is to be found in everyday, local, and self-evident relations’ (Ziai, 2004); this Foucauldian view of power effectively gives rise to the post-development idea that power has to be decentralised and must remain at the local level. Furthermore, post-development espouses a view of power in a Foucauldian sense as ‘the more or less stable, yet continually renegotiated, coagulation or ossification of sets of relations (Brigg, 2002).’ Ironically, less radical critics of post-development gives a more fundamental view of how proponents of post-development have misused language. Parfitt (2011) notably used the Derridian concept of il n’y a pas de hors texte, or being imprisoned within discourse or language, to describe post-development thinkers’ use of language in the discourse.


Where to now?

After giving much thought about the criticisms to post-development theory, one would rather ask: where does development discourse go from here? If post-development theory has vehemently rejected development as an entire concept, and these criticisms present post-development theory as a rather problematic school of thought, how would discourse move forward? The reality that there is a lack of alternatives presented by the proponents of post-development effectively provides the answers to these questions.

The less scathing criticisms of post-development offer their proposals to post-development in the absence of the school of thought’s clear alternatives. Storey (2000) is rather theoretical in his approach. He recognises the political value of the post-development and proposes that rather than insisting on the alternatives to development, post-development should focus on ‘contributing on the increased awareness of the social context of discourse formation’. Development is both a discourse and reality, and though post-development thinkers may point out the ills of this notion, one cannot just simply dismiss the successes it was able to generate throughout the course of history. In this light, it is wrong to assume that, in post-development terms, development is ‘singular, hegemonic, and invariably negative’ (Storey, 2000).

In a more constructive approach, Jakimow (2008) proposes the notion of a reflexive development that is centred on approaches that:

“reflect on development processes, challenging previous assumptions and instilling dynamism in discourses; incorporate multiple voices through a critical view of power relations; facilitate the creation and actualisation of multiple approaches at the local level; and create opportunities for these local imaginings to be synthesised at regional and global levels to enable a better understanding of global issues and advocate for the transformation of global regimes.”

The reflexive approach to development proposed by Jakimow puts the knowledge agenda of development discourse in a pivotal position, which effectively becomes a foundation for ‘alternatives to engage with the mainstream’. She further argues that ‘as a normative approach, reflexive development becomes a frame of reference for a process, rather than a strict criterion for implementation’.



Post-development theory, as a school of thought in the discourse of development, is a rather radical view of how development played out in the course of history. Proponents of this school of thought have convincingly and vehemently rejected the very notion of development and proposed that alternatives to development should take its place. But rather than clearly proposing what these alternatives are, proponents, notably Escobar, ambiguously provided what characteristics these alternatives should have. It is this ambiguity that has given rise to several other criticisms against post-development theory and its so-called alternatives. Most notable of these criticisms is that the lack of alternatives actually renders post-development theory as a mere reactionary critique to neoliberalism and modernisation theories rather than a separate school of development thought on its own, noting further that even the criticisms put forward by post-development thinkers are nothing new. Furthermore, in offering these ambiguous alternatives to development, post-development has been seen as favouring resistance to development without the notion of emancipation. Lastly, in the absence of clear alternatives to development, post-development has been seen as reducing itself to a mere language game by overusing, if not misusing and abusing, Foucauldian concepts in which the theory has anchored itself on.  In the theoretical sense, post-development offering alternatives to development has shown potential. But for it to fully maximise its potential to effect social change, it needs to be ‘more than just a critique and counter-critique… development debate must remain relevant to development practice to maximise the potential for each to influence the other’ (Jakimow, 2008).



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