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The term Post-Development denotes a school of thought in development theory which is fundamentally critical of the very idea of 'development' and promotes alternative ways of thinking and acting beyond this idea.

Post-Development (PD) was inspired by Ivan Illich and is usually linked to the works of Gustavo Esteva (1987), Wolfgang Sachs (1992), Arturo Escobar (1995) and Majid Rahnema (1997). Sometimes Vandana Shiva (1989), Gilbert Rist (1997), Serge Latouche (1993) and others are also seen as part of PD. Most PD writers are collaborating with indigenous and social movements in the global south, especially Escobar with the Proceso de Comunidades Negras in Colombia and Esteva with the Zapatistas and others in Mexico. Their central aim was to expose 'development' as an ideology originating in the Cold War and thus to pave the way for alternatives. According to PD, 'underdevelopment' was 'invented' in the post-WW-II-era by the West in order to promise material improvements to the global south to advert the threat of Socialism and to legitimise economic expansion. Through investments, transfer of technology and 'development' experts, the poor countries were supposed to 'catch-up'. PD denounces this view as Eurocentric, as it reduces countless ways of living in different cultures to following the footsteps of the industrialised capitalist countries. The non-western other was merely seen as a backward and deficient version of the self: as 'under-developed'.

However, a few decades later, at the end of the twentieth century, the PD authors claimed that the era of 'development' was coming to an end, for different reasons: First of all, the rising ecological awareness had led to the realisation that the Western way of life was oligarchic. Due to its resource use and pollution it could not be universalised and therefore by no means be seen as a model for other societies. Then, with the end of the Cold War the rationale which gave rise to the 'development' promise was obsolete and therefore it could be abandoned. Thirdly, as the gap between rich and poor countries had been growing during the 'development decades', the project had proven to be a failure. And lastly, more and more people were coming to see the concept of 'development' with its implicit agenda of westernising the world as dubious in the first place.

Just here, the authors argue, a post-development era had begun, because people in grassroots movements and communities in the South were turning away from the false promise of 'development' and looking for alternatives: by reclaiming politics from the state through radical democracy, by reclaiming the economy from the capitalist world market through practices of reciprocity and solidarity, and by reclaiming knowledge from science through building on traditional knowledge.

PD has been sharply criticised in the academic debate (see Kiely 1999, Corbridge 1998, Nanda 1999, Nederveen Pieterse 2000). The central points of criticism were that PD would romanticise local communities and cultural traditions, engage in dichotomies ignoring the positive aspects of modernity, legitimise oppression through cultural relativism and yet again prescribe ways of living to the people in the global south. A closer inspection reveals that these criticisms are correct only for the neo-populist variant of PD (Rahnema, Alvares, partly Esteva), not for the sceptical variant (Nandy, Marglin, partly Escobar; see Ziai 2004).

Yet, none but the most ardent critics would deny that PD has undoubtedly shown that the concept of 'development' is eurocentric and legitimises relations of domination between 'developers' (be it the typical white male or other versions) and those 'to be developed', and that PD paved the way not only for more nuanced critiques of 'development' discourse, but also for alternative conceptions of human societies (on this debate see Ziai 2007). Their shortcomings notwithstanding, they have 'slain the development dragon' (Escobar 2000).

Aram Ziai

Please cite as:
Ziai, Aram. 2012. “Post-Development.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/p_Post_Development.html.


Corbridge, Stuart. 1998. "'Beneath the Pavement only Soil': The Poverty of Post-Development", Journal of Development Studies 34 (6), 138-148.

Escobar, Arturo. 1995. Encountering Development. The Making and Unmaking of the Third World, Princeton.

Escobar, Arturo. 2000. "Beyond the Search for a Paradigm: Post-Development and beyond", in: Development (SID), 43 (4), 11-14.

Kiely, Ray. 1999. "The Last Refuge of the Noble Savage? A critical assessment of Post-Development Theory", The European Journal of Development Research 11 (1), 30-55.

Esteva, Gustavo. 1987. "Regenerating People’s Space", Alternatives 12 (1), 125-152.

Latouche, Serge. 1993. In the wake of the affluent society: Explorations in Post-Development, London.

Nanda, Meera. 1999. "Who needs Post-Development? Discourses of Difference, Green Revolution and Agrarian Populism in India", Journal of Developing Societies, 15(1), 5-31.

Nederveen Pieterse, Jan. 2000. "After Post-Development", Third World Quarterly 20 (1), 175-191.

Rahnema, Majid with Bawtree, Victoria (ed.). 1997. The Post-Development Reader, London.

Rist, Gilbert. 1997. The History of Development. From Western Origins to Global Faith, London.

Sachs, Wolfgang (ed.). 1992a. The Development Dictionary. A Guide to Knowledge as Power, London.

Shiva, Vandana. 1989. Staying Alive. Women, Ecology and Development, London.

Ziai, Aram. 2004. "The ambivalence of Post-Development: between reactionary populism and radical democracy", Third World Quarterly 25 (6), 1045-1060.

Ziai, Aram. 2007. Exploring Post-Development: Theory and Practice, Problems and Perspectives, London.

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