The Matrixes, Traps and Tricks of the Development Discourse
The development discourse is riddled with cold, dry, monotonous, impenetrable and, above all, neutral language.
Could this possibly be why there is no development?
What logic and what risks are hidden behind such oft-repeated phrases?
José Luis Rocha
For some months now a document known as the "Estrategia Reforzada de Reducción de la Pobreza" (Reinforced Poverty Reduction Strategy) has been circulating in Nicaragua. Save a few fleeting declarations by politicians and intellectuals, the de rigueur seminars sponsored by multilateral institutions and some articles on newspaper opinion pages, this document, presumed to be the guide for Nicaraguans’ lives for the next five years, caused little stir. It would not be presumptuous to assume that few Cabinet members have read it cover to cover, a laziness not without its logic. It can only be viewed as yet another document, one more strategy to add to the huge pile of paper we’re all accumulating, an attitude produced by what the document’s own rhetoric would term a "devaluation due to oversupply." It is fair enough that the new book of memoirs by Gioconda Belli, El país bajo mi piel, got a better welcome in these same weeks and has undoubtedly had more readers and presentations.
One size fits allThe poverty reduction strategy document exhibits, for neither better nor worse, the same attributes as its un-reinforced forerunner. It suffers from pompousness bolstered by statistical fiction—reduce extreme poverty 25% by 2005, for example—carried to a ridiculous extreme by a meticulousness that drowns the crudity of the injustices in a limbo of statistics: by the same year, reduce maternal mortality from 148 to 129 per 100,000 live births, infant mortality from 40 to 32 per 1,000 live births and the mortality of children under five years old from 50 to 37 per 10,000 live births. The pillars of growth and of poverty reduction are, for better or for worse, the same and, lest we get confused, are explained in the same terms: broad-based economic growth and structural reform, more and better investment in human capital, better protection of vulnerable groups, good governance and institutional development. Of course, the structural reform is not about changing the tax system from a regressive to a progressive one, but rather about more privatization. Raw truths such as this, however, are diluted in correctly high-sounding terms.
The voluminous document drips with expressions such as modernization, investment in the human capital of the poor, improvement of the incentives for rural development, competitive advantages, key aspects of the transport network, basic infrastructure, rehabilitation of health centers, anomalous or inadequate conduct, adoption of better practices, financial incentives, inter-institutional coordination, ecological deterioration, vulnerable groups, civil society’s progressive participation, culture of integrity, exposure of the national deficiencies, enjoyment of essential services, targeted efforts, implementation of new systems, evaluation units, multiple measures needed, transformation of the health sector, formulation and revision of the strategy in a consultation process, and on and on… Some figures change and interweave, together with adverbs and prepositions, to knit these concepts into a sequence of permutations and combinations barely oriented by the section headings.
In the end, the result is a colorless, odorless and insipid brew, a discourse that could be presented anywhere else as easily in Managua—one size fits all. It could be put forward by someone of the extreme left or someone of the most recalcitrant right and, skipping over some of the figures, it is just as true for today as for fifteen years ago. The development thinkers aspire to impose their colorless representation of reality with this discourse’s sterile universality.
It is not totally surprising that this document triggers skepticism even among some of the authors’ own colleagues. Its opaque, dry and monotonous quality, very much like that of the overabundance of other reports of this ilk, makes most of the new generation yawn. Steeping themselves in this rhetoric and thus molding themselves into recognized professional development promoters presents no great difficulties, but they see their best efforts flattened in this "thinking style."
Something rotten in these pagesSince in most cases the development discourse is currently conveyed in this make of vehicle, its concepts, logic and social base must be analyzed. Of course there also is a loftier "pedigree" discourse, but the more common one, the one whose edges are getting worn beyond recognition by daily overuse, is the one of reports, conference papers, seminar discussions, training workshops and gatherings to "exchange experiences." It is the one of mass outreach and translates the findings of First World academics and politicians into tropicalized versions. It is a discourse in which it is most often impossible to distinguish between what is government issue and what is being proposed by the NGOs in Nicaragua that have become shelters for independent thinkers, or at least for those not dependent on the party in power. The government’s documents and those of the self-styled alternative sectors are indistinguishable by style, tone, concepts, words or even logic, save a few strategic elements—including the "asphalt option" characterizing the Liberal government—that offer marked differences.
The confusion began when the Left renounced Marxist rhetoric, which gave it a clear identity, when it even foreswore calling itself leftist and adopted "legitimate" language in order to be heard, received in forums and applauded in debates to gain scientific solidity and the capacity to persuade. The new unipolar socioeconomic system wants one line of thought supported by a Johnny one-note language. This language is invading us all and there is no linguistics customs house to stop it at the border. Why is this way of talking so contagious? Because it links us to the exercise of power, because it is a discourse that feeds both the Left and the Right. Of course some differences grow out of the inclination to one side or the other and skirting them assumes choosing a deliberately unjust path—or a simplifying one, if one prefers to call it that. But there is no question that something is rotten in pages in which, whether from left or right, a poverty reduction strategy can be discussed without even mentioning those who produce the poverty. It is thus a strategy hobbled from the starting gate. In any case, the analysis that follows does not deal with the rights and wrongs of the development discourse; in other words it does not take up the issue of its truth value. At most, the approach implies a moral valuing, a pondering of authenticity.
Lethal memes, theoretical stuffingDevelopment rhetoric has been very prolific in producing terms aimed at confining, revealing, unmasking, coloring and pealing away reality. Some of these terms are extremely prosperous "memes" in this current of human thought. According to English biologist Richard Dawkins, memes are in thought what genes are in biology. They are ideas, visions of the world, cultural constellations that propagate, seeking to replicate themselves in an undefined form, and occasionally suffering mutations. Like genes. The prosperity, survival and even success of some memes—and the failure of others—is not directly proportional to their veracity and/or their beneficial effects. Throughout history, many ominous memes have had devastating success. There are also many successful but sterilizing memes in development discourse, memes that are lethal to living thought because they say nothing important yet are replicated ceaselessly, stealing away the literary, acoustical and mental space necessary for other memes, bearers of new approaches. In other words, the development discourse is full of platitudes and commonplaces.
Theoretical "stuffing" is also frequent, vacuum-packed products whose universal character annihilates sensitization. Clichés sprout up and multiply like mushrooms: development strategies, empowerment, appropriation, accompaniment, transparency, advocacy... These concepts are sprinkled through development texts like recipe ingredients: steep 10 oz. of transparency in something that sounds better the vaguer its definition; add a half-pound of empowerment and 3 quarts of "ownership" (a term used instead of acceptance or some other less impressive local term) and, voilà, one has a consommé fit for the most demanding development gourmets.
A considerable portion of the discourse is reduced to repeating a batch of key words—the crutches of this discourse—and slogans. They are small, prefabricated formulas, indivisible blocs of thought and words. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu correctly noted that this property confers a conceptual universality on the words, but also gives them an air of a memorized lesson and of unreality. This is precisely the characteristic of many of the dissertations we hear in the conference rooms of so many luxury hotels in Managua these days.
Language is an instrument It is sometimes impossible to conceal the stinginess that stands out in the use of words as patches aimed at covering over all the black holes of vocabulary, repeating them endlessly. The desire to impress and be received in the select group of thinkers creates a strong temptation to produce linguistic rarities. According to Spanish linguist Lázaro Carreter, everyone appropriates the most spurious uses of a language motivated by the "awareness, perhaps diffuse but evident, that a rare language is a tool of subjugation. Many of those who act in public fields do not vacillate, when speaking that way, in taking their own side rather than the people’s side. They want to persuade but first and foremost to show off their attributes." The use of certain concepts allows them to recognize each other as members of the same club. Lázaro Carreter points out the advantages of certain words and usages with respect to the term "positively (or negatively) value." His conclusions are valid for the whole package of development rhetoric that abounds in Nicaragua, a country with such scant development: "1. It is a technical term appropriate only for professionals. By using it, together with others of its stripe, they mark the enormous distance that separates them from the common citizen. 2. Its neutral nature, with nothing emotional to value positively or negatively, allows them to introduce a cold courtesy into relations with those who differ. 3. It saves mental effort, exonerates them from seeking nuances, leaves the gray matter at rest, causes no alteration of the digestive process."
of power and domination
Neutral words that Petulance and laziness of ideas thus corresponds to petulance and laziness of language. The effects of discourses are to fascinate, confuse, impress and neutralize. The development discourse has triggered a globalization of certain terms and of a way of using them. It has set its own rhetorical style, operating under the aegis of a contagion of concepts. The most sustained custom of all is to speak of sustainability. All participate in the participatory pretensions. And there is no institution that does not advocate institutionality. The recurrence of certain words and their sense in the context of this discourse reveals not only their erosion, but also the precepts of the thought. The concepts are laden with special senses in a different context. As with other rhetoric, development rhetoric particularizes words.
must end up inoffensive
The same thing happens in Marxist writing, in which, according to French semiologist Roland Barthes, even metaphors are severely codified. Marxist rhetoric provides identity, permits stability to be imposed on explanations in which "each word is only a meager reference to the whole set of principals that supports it without admitting it." For example, the word "imply" in Marxist writing does not have the neutral dictionary sense, but rather a political density. Words acquire a qualifying weight. "Cosmopolitanism" is the negative word for "internationalism." Words in Marxist writing acquire such value as to annul the distance between naming and judging. For example, the objective content of the word "deviationist" has a penal nature. It contains a condemnation within it.
The current development discourse is sheltered in the antipodes of Marxist discourse: the concepts have been neutralized to make them inoffensive. Writing thus functions as a conscious instrumentalizer: the peasants from a given district are reduced to the neutral and functional condition of "local agents"; a loan of seeds to a given group of rice growers has to be presented as a "development intervention" or a "reactivation strategy" for this crop. Speculators do not swindle but rather introduce "distortions into the market." And being a distorter of markets is not as serious a crime as it once was to be a deviationist. In fact, it isn’t even a crime. It may even by that distortions exist but not distorters. The neutrality of this language is based on its euphemizing properties.
A language so un-alternative Woe betide those who do not adopt this tone or use these terms. They are disqualified and their propositions ostracized. The designers of this discourse become the distillers of its language, exercising alchemy to recycle terms and make them legitimately considered as scientific. It is as if someone concrete, let’s say Juana Gutiérrez, passes through the sterilizing room and comes out a "local agent." These shifts also have their function in the strategy: they inflate results by metamorphosing three pineapple patches into the "effects of development intervention."
that it doesn’t generate alternatives
Only these concepts provide access to the sancta sanctorum of knowledge about development. The dominant use of language has a legitimizing but also a censuring effect. Opinions must be formulated in their terms to be considered legitimate. The dominant language discredits other languages and imposes the recourse on spokespeople versed in it. The dominant use of language is the use of dominant language, the language of the dominant. As Pierre Bourdieu noted, the dominated, faced with the lack of a political language—the lack of the instruments of production of their own discourse—adopt the language of the dominant, which does not represent their interests as the dominated. The more the memes of the dominant are replicated, the more the situation of dominion is guaranteed.
It is necessary to speak this way to obtain a passport to forums, seminars and debates. It is the lengua franca, the legitimate language, a neutralizing language. Hence, there is no protest, just a flow of opinions. The class enemy is diluted into "adverse circumstances"—that faceless chaos that hinders the peasant from getting better harvests and better prices for them—and "the market"—that faceless god with a sinister, albeit invisible hand. For the moment, the only spontaneous and authentic expression of the dominated in Nicaragua, in Central America, seems to be the argot of the teenage bands. Their problems are summarized in it. That is why they adopt the artifice, when interviewed, of adopting the language of the imposed problematic. The phrases, the clichés, the reality described in terms of the interlocutor who is asking the questions appear immediately. But that is another theme for another time. Right now, what is clear is the form in which the development discourse makes us all prisoners of certain categories that do not let us think outside of, above or around them, about any other reality than the one they want to stuff into us. Having no alternatives even in language partly explains why there are also no alternatives in willingness, in representation or in actions.
A logical reaction and a These concepts serve a logic, a way of presenting reality. What does this language game consist of? What are its rules? What does it allow and what does it prohibit? They are themes that have not been looked into deeply enough. Words circumscribe what can be thought through, but certain fences and canals are built in accordance with the forms of reasoning considered licit or censured. And that jurisprudence of thought has some precepts that go unperceived and are unconsciously, and thus more strongly, accepted. To articulate this new language game, many changes have had to occur in the world, changes that with delays, contradictions and high quotas of provincialism we are experiencing now in Nicaragua. The end of the Cold War is not one of the lesser of these changes. They have encouraged some internalized proposals—the fundamentalisms are now more religious than political—that are neutral because there are no longer two sides confronting each other and are technical because the sciences have the solution.
humanist but limited logic
From Marxist "materialism" and "collectivism," the discourse has now shifted to an emphasis on the internal: human values, self-esteem, appropriation, attention to expectations, sense of belonging, identification, empathy, transparency… Some of these terms have been imported from the spiritual and psychological rhetoric. "Participation"—arenas for individuals—is the individualizing correlate of the obsolete "mass movement." "Empowerment" is the socially and scientifically admissible and extra-lite version of the "dictatorship of the proletariat." The combination of ecological concerns and this new intimacy makes way for a constellation of thought that Catalonian sociologist Manuel Castells calls the "re-greening of the I." It is a humanist kind of logic, an atmosphere in which the petty bourgeoisie feels at home, for better or for worse. In any case, it is worth noting as a reaction to that logic of the traditional Left: the annulment of concrete individual men and women in favor of great causes, very much in the Hegelian vision of the unfolding of history in which individuals are only knots in the great social fabric that the absolute spirit is weaving. The new proposals imply a return to the needs of those concrete men and women who were forgotten by the mega-projects (Socialism, Catholicism, Liberalism) and whose voices were diluted in the great collective cry.
Down with complexity and up with neutralityThis inward retreat, which coincides in Nicaragua with the decline of unions, professional associations and mass movements, is occurring within a mollifying process, a sidestepping of conflict. The development discourse attempts to offer neutral descriptions, in which one perceives neither good nor bad, where there are only imbalances, distortions and anomalous situations, which corresponds to a more functionalist view of things. It belongs to a reality presumed to be insufficient but not conflictive, because it can be verified that conflict does not coincide with its goals, which are assumed to be of common interest. It is a haughty antiseptic discourse, a neutral one proclaiming itself free of interests as if having reached epoché, that prejudice-free vision capable of tidy descriptions. In fact, the majority of the development thinkers are adopting what Bourdieu calls the "aristocratism of disinterest."
This asepsis, obsessed with neutrality, aspires to merely technical solutions. Macroeconomic indicators are proclaimed and political economy is avoided like the plague, as a not very scientific way of laying out the issue. A version of the social situation is peddled that implies agreement with the established order or at most with the proposal that everybody should have a little bit more than they have. In this version, the social strata are static, have existed virtually forever and are not the result of a process of class struggle.
Science is the solution because it is based on a vision of history as a one-way road toward progress in which human knowledge applied to transforming nature will achieve ever greater improvements. An eagerness to instrumentalize arises because the solutions are technical. Business administration re-engineers human resources. Direct and mechanical relations are sought between groups and properties. Diverse theories were invented as a mechanical artifact to bolster this vision of the social apparatus. One of the most successful such theories reduces the problem of local development to the design of adequate incentives so that local agents can function well. It appears to be inherited from the Skinner approach, which views human beings as skilled machines in a reward and punishment system.
There is nothing bad about employing these instruments. The problem emanates from their near-deification, from considering them more than instruments and from ignorance of their assumptions. These theoretical stuffers have a following because it is more comfortable to reduce social conflicts to a series of arithmetical devices that can be expressed in strategic plans and to "desist" from complexity. Anything to avoid full submersion in reality, to switch hermeneutic places and adopt the position that would make one see that what appears as "common sense" is not so common through others’ eyes, since every point of view is a view seen from a point. Hence, the divine pomades, ad hoc recipes and ingenuous positivist optimism make one believe that by adding one concept more and measuring, one has the panacea. The fact gets lost that, particularly in the social sphere, the sense that certain actions have for individuals is vital to understanding what is going on.
The paraphernalia of graphics and statisticsThe deification of the sciences is accompanied by the instruments of the measurable, the materializable. The paraphernalia that accompanies these forms of reasoning permit one to dazzle others, to become gurus, or Delphi oracles of development. One graphic can be the crystal ball in which one can observe the present, past and future—the projections—of reality. But, like reading the lines of one’s palm, this method contains signs that only the initiated, the experts, have the privilege of interpreting. This is what it’s all about: excluding the plebeians. The paraphernalia has been inflated by the power of the new communication technologies. Videos and computers have achieved the hegemony of image over word. Instead of speaking, presenters project charts and graphs and comment on them, thus covering up the weakness of their rhetoric. Piling up graphics hides the fact that nothing more is going on than the juxtaposition of data without any analysis to stitch them together. It is an art of persuasion not based on the sustained consistence and rhythm of arguments, like those dialectic games and exercises in polemics very much in vogue in the medieval universities, where participants put the breadth of their knowledge, expository capacity and mental agility to the test. US economist Paul Krugman, who is familiar with the current media, has consistently warned that a rash of statistics hides a banal argument. Faced with a dearth of ideas, Power Point, acetates, slides and loudspeakers come to the rescue.
Where the language games are headedIn a marvelous display of humor, Italian historian Carlo M. Cipolla included two essays in his book Allegro ma non troppo that parody the type of work social scientists are doing today. "The role of spices (and pepper in particular) in the economic development of the Middle Ages" and "The fundamental laws of human stupidity" both poke fun with keen irony at what many academic institutions are selling as social science.
In the first text, Cipolla explains how Europe avoided falling into the Malthusian trap because the profit rate from pepper sales grew faster than the population growth, which was climbing due to pepper’s own aphrodisiac properties. He buttresses his "scientific" demonstration of this phenomenon with graphics and equations, one of whose most standard variables is pepper’s aphrodisiac constant. Even more hilariously, he ends up citing an apocryphal author who in 27 pages of algebraic annotations shows that the Malthusian trap was avoided by turning to a pre-Protestant version of Weber’s Protestant Ethic, according to which pre-Protestant cities opened up accounting schools that allowed them to notably improve their position with respect to the cities dominated by aristocrats dedicated to horseback riding, hunting and dueling.
Cipolla is doing nothing other than using the same logic, the same language games made fashionable by academia to show the degree to which they can lead to ridiculous and utterly useless reasoning. In case anyone were to think he is exaggerating a lot, or even a little, it is worth citing the fact that one of the most conspicuous World Bank economists very boastfully put forward an anti-corruption formula in a teleconference broadcast in Managua that was such a resplendent equation of neatness that it would have put Newton’s Binomial to shame. In Nicaragua, nothing would please us more than that the mathematizing of our principal headache could serve to get rid of it. In a country in which the only applicable and applied math is that of reduction to the absurd, one can only hope that the formalizing rigor of algebra could describe our tribulations when the parallels cross.
The myth of objectivityWithin these pretensions of forcing mathematical formalizations nestles an ingenuous positivism that often poorly dissembles a lack of theoretical capital. A scientifistic or technocratic fundamentalism is installed, an asepsis or detachment of those who shoot for something beyond social goods and ills and say they are not "contaminating" their statements with any kind of ideological conditioning, when in itself this position contains ideological assumptions that presuppose and opt for the existence of neutrality, objectivity.
The charts and graphics and statistical tables are instruments that feed the myth of objectivism: the belief in the existence of an objective truth that corresponds to an objective and external reality that can be understood by the individual. It is assumed that the graphic or the table of data reflects reality in the most immediate and faithful form. It is generally forgotten, as philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend observed, that history is also made up of "ideas, interpretations of facts, problems created by a conflict of interpretations, scientists’ actions, etc." and that the worst that can happen to science is the rationalist simplification of its processes, where well-trained scientists live enslaved by a master called "professional conscience" to preserve their professional integrity, so their imagination must be restrained and their language must stop being their own.
Reflecting on poverty in luxury hotelsFalse language is right at home in an artificial atmosphere. Development thinking gets presented in a series of seminars, workshops and reports in luxury hotels, huge convention centers and VIP lounges that require brittle etiquette. No one seems to perceive the slightest contradiction between the theme (poverty) and the meeting locale (a luxury hotel). The appropriate sites for "reflecting on development" seem to be chosen under the supposition that the greater the distance from the object of study the greater the objectivity, neutrality, asepsis and impartiality.
Only at such a distance from poverty can one presume to have captured its essence and propose solutions. Colorless reality is made inoffensive, is castrated and one can throw around words to mask what is being ignored and the empty concepts of their content. In the course of so much discourse, concepts are indeed emptied of their content, because there is no intuition behind them, just the hollow phraseology of those who have not lived what they describe or had their soul touched by it. At bottom, they lack experience, so they can do nothing but skate over the same worn-out phrases. This is why the seminars, conferences and workshops teem with hollow concepts, removed from reality and from the concrete men and women for whom they have supposedly opted. Of course there is no lack of consumers for such events. As US economist John Kenneth Galbraith once observed, people are ready for anything as long as they are not obliged to think. And this is where the repetitions and vain concepts, and the congresses, symposiums, conventions and hotels come in. The consumers of these products also feel very satisfied when they hear the same thing—the problem put forward in the same terms and with the same solutions offered—because it preserves the established order.
Stain-free professionalsIn the arena of this thought one finds consultants, advisers, promoters and officials from the government, NGOs and the multilateral agencies, all middle-class professionals making notable efforts to breathe life into their social standing. They are the consumers, creators and disseminators of this line of thought.
The promotion of development and the resulting market for consultancies and advisory services has managed to expand the middle class and its purchasing power. We are talking here about a market that has its illusions, such as the illusion that something really is being done for development, independent of whether it is or not. They believe what they say thanks to a Berkelian vision of the world, according to which the social being is nothing other than the being perceived, the mental representation of a theatrical representation. These professionals have swallowed the development discourse and learned to juggle the concepts because they have to justify their climb: discourse provides them the means and schizophrenia the license to forget.
Due to their class origin they are beneficiaries of social mobility, as an exposition of the before and after of their introduction into the "bubble" of funds from external cooperation would reveal. The adviser wants to appear to be a minister, the director of an NGO feels at the head of a business. Generally incapable of a meatier cultural production, the drafting of reports, minor articles and papers for seminars, conferences and workshops allows them to create, maintain and expand the relations that are indispensable to the exercise of their profession. This strategy helps them increase their economic capital, maintain a certain status as "thinkers" and expand their social capital. Their investment is made in debates, interviews, colloquia, receptions, etc. Hence is generated their social capital. They will never confess that they are seeking money, because, as good representatives of the middle classes, they would boast of an option for symbolic goods: changing the world, academic formation, literary best-sellers, movies "with a message," songs "that tell it like it is"… The possibility of consecration in this market depends on these tastes: what one reads, what one thinks, what feathered bird one flocks with. It is bad form to be a radical. In any case, moderation, being one of those that "don’t get involved to avoid getting stained" is the pose that assures them the rank of intellectual.
Authentic language leads to authentic thinkingAchieving authentic thought is indispensable if we are to make any progress finding new proposals. This road passes through a search for alternative language because, as the lucid Italian thinker Gillo Dorfles pointed out decades ago, our way of being in the world is directly subordinated to the language we speak, "to the use we make of that language, to the point of permitting or preventing certain knowledge and experiences due only to a more or less appropriate linguistic instrument." There will be inevitable skews and prejudices, but it will be a notable advance to have a framework of thinking that recalls the Kantian apothegm according to which intuition without concept is blind, but concept without intuition is vacuous.
An authentic language would start with concepts full of experience, coined by intellectuals who do not just repeat but who read, contrast and are aware of what is going on in reality. Who are capable of having their own opinion and not entirely coat tailing the dominant language and sham. They will be recognized by the complexity of their proposal and the clarity of the presentation. They will present reality not in gelid abstractions, but in living flesh, because, as Bourdieu wrote, it is not enough to demonstrate; it is necessary to show objects and even people and take those who, accustomed to saying what they think they believe but do not yet know what to think of what they are saying, into a popular cantina or a baseball field and make them touch these things with their fingers—which does not mean point at them or just put them in the table of contents.
One last note: As is obvious to any clever reader, these pages are guilty of the same sin they criticize: a dense and heavy style, a language not free of academic turns of phrase, and a certain dose of quotes from authoritative thinkers to legitimate the thesis. Not even as a critic do I manage to be alternative in my argumentation. Perhaps I was driven by the desire to be read, perhaps to impress…but these are mere apologies. A lot of courage and a lot of imagination are needed to sidestep language’s temptations and, in an atmosphere as mutilating as the current one in Nicaragua, seek "development" so we can speak our words without prostheses.