Modern and postmodern developmentalism

For a good sense of what “development” today is and isn’t, you can do worse than to read this excellent if troubling New York Times article on Chinese business practices in Zambia:

As in many other African nations, the Chinese are an enormous economic presence in this impoverished but mineral-rich country…. Chinese investment here amounted to $1.2 billion in just the past year, according to the government. Nearly two-thirds of new construction involves Chinese-run companies, said Li Qiangmin, the Chinese ambassador in Lusaka, the capital. In this nation of 12 million where a small minority of workers, perhaps one in 10, have salaried employment, the 25,000 jobs provided by Chinese-backed businesses and projects are badly needed.

But many Zambians complain that these powerful foreigners are permitted to play by their own rules, plundering the country more than developing it and abusing workers as they go.

You see here the direct backlash against “thin” forms of extraction, in contrast to the “thicker” forms of development that existed in the past. The standard early postcolonial relationship of extraction was that the foreign investors got the minerals and/or cheap labor, and the locals got “development” in return, the latter understood in terms of the building of institutions and infrastructure that would direct the nation-state as a whole toward eventual attainment of a liberal welfare state.

Even if this noble idea was more honored in the breach than in the observance, it was a deal that made a certain kind of mutual sense – both sides were clearly supposed to be getting something worthwhile out of the relationship. This arrangement, this ideological ideal, is what I refer to as “modernist” developmentalism – that is, it was a form of development that aimed at creating replicas of the modernist ideal-type limned by the New Deal-ish United States.

That modernist vision of development is long gone, killed by decades of secular economic decline, and officially buried by structural adjustment programs promoted by the neoliberals at the IMF and the Bank. (For more on this historical shift, consult James Ferguson’s orAchille Mbembe‘s work.)

What replaced the classic postcolonial development discourse is what I call a “post-modernist” forms of developmental practice of the sort sketched in the New York Timesarticle quoted above. We still have a foreign power – a Chinese state-controlled company, in this case – extracting minerals, but there is no longer any pretense about providing a wider, deeper, “thicker” kind of development to benefit the Zambian people and nation as a whole. On the contrary, with the Chinese bringing in their own labor and their own technology, their impact on the local economy is more or less ring-fenced around the minehead.

And while the Chinese like to present this form of investment as a sign of their respect for the “sovereignty” of the local peoples, it’s not at all clear what the local (in this case) Zambians get out of this sort of deal. A few jobs, I guess, but that’s hardly the same thing as thebackward and forward linkages which were at the economic heart of the classic modernist developmental paradigm. Hence the backlash.

Crossposted from Small Precautions.

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