The right to development. Do we need it?

A political project, a democratic deepening at a global level, a practice of contradiction and distribution

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Talking about development is no longer obvious. Since “development” was replaced in the 1990s by “poverty reduction” it has become a kind of empty signifier. The big international organizations are probably the only ones that do not admit the failure of the great post-war project of the rich countries.


However, it has not been forgotten. The United Nations Human Rights Council has launched a proposal for a binding convention on its “right to development”, a 1986 declaration in which development is defined as “a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process aimed at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals”. In fact, this declaration was the hinge between the 1960s conceptualization of national economic development, on the one hand, and globalization in which the economy as such disappeared, on the other hand. The reference to human rights has served to mask the shift from development economics to a “mono-economy” —a single model— described by Hirschman.


The Declaration on the Right to Development reiterates the obligation of States to promote respect for human rights, speaks out against colonialism and in favor of the self-determination of peoples, and states that “the human being is the central subject of development”. It is the responsibility of States to “create the conditions for development”. The right to development is an inalienable human right. The draft Convention repeats and confirms these points.


The exercise is surprising, given that the failures of past development have been noted, confirmed and amply analyzed, and given that critics of poverty reduction policies have highlighted their neo-liberal bias and that, within progressive social movements, there is a near consensus on its rejection.


So, what is the UN looking for? Is it unaware of the rejection movement, largely inspired by the ecological crisis and the demands of indigenous peoples? Does it want to go beyond that? Does it want to prove that its starting points, more than half a century ago, were the right ones? That despite doubts and failures, the UN and its Human Rights Council want to continue to insist on opportunities for poor countries to “develop”?


If the latter is the case, then this is a good thing, as a re-reading of old UN General Assembly documents, resolutions and declarations is always a source of pleasant surprises.


It is true that there never was a consensus on “development”. From the beginning, i.e., as early as the 1950s and 1960s, when development theories were emerging mainly within the UN, relevant criticisms of its validity were voiced. The denunciation of development practices in the newly independent countries of Africa or in revolutionary Cuba was relevant. One only has to refer to the writings of René Dumont to understand the problems.


In the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC), following the “structuralism” of Raul Prebisch, dependency theories were developed, refuting Rostow’s progressivism and linearity. Underdevelopment, according to Gunder Frank, was rather a consequence of development efforts, i.e., of the integration of peripheral countries into the world trade system. And while development was, according to the first UN “development decades”, a project of economic modernization at the national level, the ILO was keen to defend social development. After Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio, more and more attention was devoted to people as the real recipients of development.


Then, with the emergence of postmodernism after 1968, authors such as Ivan IllichSerge LatoucheArturo EscobarGustavo EstevaWolfgang Sachs and many others attacked the project itself, demonstrating its perverse effects. In analyses where the theory and practice of development were confused, development was presented as a myth, the dream of the white man, a westernization, a concept of the past...


The rejection of “development” became even more serious with the ecological crisis. It is true that despite the rhetoric, an exaggerated, if not exclusive, emphasis was placed on growth. After the Rio Conference on Development and Environment in 1992, and even more so after Rio+20 in 2012, it is modernity as such that is rejected, especially in Latin America, as being responsible for colonialism and racism, extractivism and the permanent denial of the interests of native peoples. In fact, in many cases today, the critique of development has become anti-development and anti-modernity.


The criticisms are not without relevance. It is true that the practices of so-called “cooperation” have always been dominated by the former colonizing countries and have not put an end to relations of dependence. It is also true that the economic interests of the countries of the North have always been at the forefront and that no demands from the so-called “developing” countries have been met. Let’s not talk about the promise of 0.7% of development aid... Finally, who can deny that cultural diversity has never been taken into account? Ancestral knowledge has simply been ignored, at the agricultural as well as the cultural level. It is therefore only natural that demands to take into account the “epistemologies of the South”, as formulated by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, are put forward.


However, a serious caveat is in order. It is one thing to reject an “alternative development” in favor of an “alternative to development”, it is another thing to propose such an alternative. Till now, this is missing. While serious social problems —hunger, poverty, misery— are a reality and economic development in any form —agriculture, industrialization or micro-enterprises— remains absent, no realistic alternative proposals to the UN projects have been made to improve the living standards of the people of Africa, Asia or Latin America. On the contrary, financial capitalism continues to make its way, free trade agreements multiply and debt accumulates. Above all, the emancipation that was so desired and necessary is missing. Although industrialization in Asia has accelerated, its social consequences are still to come.


So how do we leave this blind alley?


Is “development” really a “concept of the past” as Wolfgang Sachs puts it? If the state of the planet and the misery of almost half of its population can be attributed to “development failure”, are these the errors of a theory or of a practice? If exploitation and oppression can be condemned, are they a logical and inevitable consequence of that same theory? Or are they the consequence of a denial of its principles or of a perverse interpretation?


While some of the principles on which modernity is based may need to be critically examined in the light of knowledge about their failings, they may still be valid. Indeed, it is not enough to advocate development “from below” and to note the unsustainability of the Western model, followed by a desire to “return to the past”, to achieve a fairer world. The objectives of progress and emancipation not only retain their value, they are also the core of the demands repeated by the peoples. They are more necessary than ever.


This is why it may be useful to re-examine old discourses, to look at the basic ideas proclaimed by the UN in the years of the emergence of development theories, especially at the economic and social levels.


In 1974 the UN General Assembly adopted a Declaration on a “New International Economic Order”, followed by a Charter of Rights and Duties of States. The task of the UN, the Declaration says, is to promote the economic and social advancement of all peoples. For this, it is necessary to eliminate the last vestiges of foreign and colonial domination, foreign occupation and racial discrimination, which are obstacles to emancipation.


The current international economic order, the text continues, is in direct contradiction with the evolution of political and economic relations in the contemporary world, which demonstrate the reality of interdependence. Each country must have the right to adopt the economic and social system that it deems best suited to its own development. Thus, it must be possible to regulate and supervise the activities of multinational companies and to introduce rules for the reinvestment of profits.


Similarly, the Charter says, economic relations must be based on mutual and equitable benefit. It is the duty of states not to seek hegemony and spheres of influence and to promote international social justice.


At the social level, the 1969 Declaration on Social Progress and Development states that it is “convinced that man can only fully satisfy his aspirations in a just social order” and that international peace and solidarity must therefore be ensured. There is an urgent need to reduce inequalities in the context of an integrated development strategy.


Therefore, the Declaration promotes the equitable distribution of wealth, the right to work and to form trade unions for collective bargaining, the elimination of all forms of foreign economic exploitation, improved people’s participation, social protection programs and social services, including for migrant workers.


The UN also set to work on developing an integrated economic and social concept, which unfortunately failed. But the preparatory texts (E/CN.5/477 of 1972) are illustrative of the will to eliminate compartmentalization, to reduce inequalities, to promote transformations from below. “Development styles” were proposed, linking the structure of a national society to the structure of its economy in order to orientate strategies. Deliberate political and economic domination was to be countered also because of its cultural impact. Development was seen as a collective and societal choice, reflecting the values and preferences of social forces. It is not a magic formula for uniform change. More important than internal conditions is the appropriate international framework.


Hard to believe! This language has become totally unthinkable at the beginning of the 21st century. Of course, the documents do not talk about ideologies, but today no one ever mentions international power relations, the importance of planning and controlling the economy and multinational companies or monitoring investments.


Looking at the current situation in African, Latin American and even Asian countries, one cannot but notice that geopolitics has an enormous influence, just as every material progress needs economic and social modernization, needs a State to plan and control and to enforce human rights. At the international level, States need a system of solidarity, beyond aid, and a sharing of opportunities for wealth creation according to the needs of the whole planet.


However, “development” cannot be “exported” or imposed from above. It can only be an encounter of knowledge and practices, the result of a long process of acceptance and rejection. It must come from below, based on a collective project and on an ownership of the objectives to be achieved. Development as we have known it was a “transplant without land”, as Uslar Pietri said. To conclude that these ideas were wrong is a step too far, unless one accepts to lock a large part of the world’s population into a state of submission and misery. The peoples of the Third World have been deprived of the possibility of appropriating development and modernity, of giving them a meaning that would inevitably have been different from the Western one, but that would have allowed them to make choices and effectively take control of their destiny. The challenge goes beyond “respect for cultural diversity” but commits all parties concerned to meet, to consider the validity of each other’s discourses and to accept dialogue.


In contrast to the standardization of the West and the destruction of the natural environment, development can be seen as a political project, as a democratic deepening on a global level, as a practice of contradiction and sharing. As a political project, development is everybody’s business and the “right to development” can be made meaningful. If the UN succeeds in developing its draft convention with this openness, the exercise can become extremely interesting. For no one needs a nostalgic return to the past when emancipation was rarely on the agenda.


22 September 2021


- Francine S. R. Mestrum has a PhD in Social Sciences from the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. She worked at the European institutions and several Belgian universities.

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