Are our institutions really helping “develop” the global “poor”?

At first glance, it appears that the development industry has completely sincere aims. However, on closer inspection, when these goals are coupled with the neo-liberal aims of free-market economics, it seems that development is, in fact, often a system of exploitation under the veil of integrity. 

The lasting power relations of colonialism persist. It is easy to think that with decolonisation states immediately became independent. However, the scars of structural dependency remain and the Global North uses these as a route to access the markets and resources of the Global South.

In fact, do the Global South even need to become like the Global North? It seems the historical colonisers have essentialised the Global South as backwards and uncivilised in order to access their markets and to help them ‘modernise’, all the while imposing their own ideals and economic structures. The Global North has slyly disguised a world in which everyone believes that the Global South is static and that the North has the only rational and superior ideas, but this in itself is an intellectual form of colonialism.

So, in essence, neo-colonialism pervades in two senses. Firstly, it is easy to believe that the Global South is behind and that it needs to modernise to be just like the Global North. But neo-colonialism is also evident in the way that development takes place; institutions, for their own benefit, continue to exploit and disregard agency in the Global South, though this is masked.

Neoliberalism, which is hailed as a mechanism to kickstart the development industry by allowing states autonomy and freedom in the global economic market, is one such mask. Policies by the IMF and World Bank, institutions inherently founded on a neo-liberal ideology, used Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), which are loans, to help those dealing with the economic catastrophe after the debt crisis in the 1980s.

However, SAPs constrained economic development by forcing already struggling countries to adopt particular policies which were made conditional on foreign aid. These policies included currency devaluation, a reduced role of the state in the economy and the elimination of subsidies. Importantly, trade liberalisation was included in this. The argument that trade liberalisation allows countries to benefit from a free market is far from the truth. By making trade liberalisation a condition of trade, countries at the receiving end of SAPs could no longer protect their domestic economic market or terms of foreign trade, both of which became vulnerable to exploitation and undercuts by the more competitive global market. The Global North were doubly successful in using the resources from the Global South to boost their own economies. Neoliberalism was not the route taken by the wealthy states today, so why is it being promoted as a mark of success for other economies? Is this not a mirror image of colonialism?

On a more local level, grassroots development projects do have more sincere aims. However, historical colonial power relations still pervade. In Kibera, for example, a project looks at women’s safety in the informal settlement. More complex power relations within the community were ignored. The issues of rape and male violence were not discussed in relation to whether police corruption existed or in terms of the efficiency and dependability of the police. Supposed ‘expertise’ from the Global North, guiding and managing the locals, fails to involve the more subtle underlying issues that actually limit women’s safety in the slum. Despite the bottom-up approach, this strategy in Kibera continues to work within the confines of a colonial ideology which depended on ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’ (Spivak).

Development should not be abandoned. A new development discourse is required, one that looks at social and political equity rather than economic growth, in a way that bypasses the traps laid out from the colonial past. Solving poverty demands a political and social relationship, as well as the ‘de-colonisation’ of development theory - ‘it is no longer possible to simply accept development discourse without challenging its authority and the manner in which it constructs the world’ (Crush). The process of decolonising knowledge involves a starting point - the recovery of the lost historical voices of the oppressed, the marginalised and the dominated. But with this hopeful call for reform, the question remains: how can critical voices be effective within a neoliberal development agenda that seems so impassable in the current climate (Kothari)?