Development Identities: Identity, ‘development’ practices, and the (re)creation of power structures


In this essay I consider the discursive categories of ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ states within the frame of International Political Economy (IPE) taking a poststructuralist theoretical approach. I argue that the discursive construction of developed/underdeveloped identities attempts to depoliticise structural imbalances and inequalities in the global economy and present these identities as pre-existent and natural. In the first section I argue that the concepts of development and underdevelopment are mutually constitutive and that one is contingent to understanding the other. Drawing on the theoretical work of Gilbert Rist (2002), I argue that development is a normative practice-based process that ‘entails necessary integration into the world economy’ (Rist 2002: 85). In the second section I argue that development discourses obscure the structural imbalances of the global economy, depoliticising what are in fact very much political practices of exclusion. In the third and final section I draw on the work of Martin Coward (2006), and argue that the world economic order is performed through political-economic practices framed within reified identities of ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’.

The discursive construction of development/underdevelopment

The structure of the contemporary international political economy can partly be defined by the concepts of ‘development’ and ‘underdevelopment’. Before one can ask questions of how, when, or why a state may become ‘developed’ it is necessary to problematize and deconstruct the notion of ‘development’. The consequences of employing such concepts within the discourse of International Political Economy (IPE) find very real manifestations in the world, in that a particular normative agenda occludes the possibility of difference. The practices of ‘development’ seek to order and (re)define the nature and structure of the global economy, based upon what, ‘one person (or set or persons) pictures [as] the ideal conditions of social existence’ (Rist 2002: 10). The underlying logic of ‘development’, as it is understood today, is the promotion of the market and of globalisation (Fine 2009: 897). Assimilation into the global market is necessary to begin the process of ‘development’, and any state practicing economic principles that are do not fit with the neo-liberal economic programme are not working within the frame of ‘development’ practices. Such neo-liberal practices are epitomised by the World Bank, which is treated as the ‘knowledge bank’ (Fine 2009: 897).

I wish to consider ‘development’ and ‘underdevelopment’ as identities within the global economy, so as to better understand how and why such terms may be used to define the economies of states. Firstly, it is worth noting the obvious fact that the terms are closely related. They exist in a binary relationship to one another, each being necessary for the existence of the other: they are a categorical pair. To speak of an ‘underdeveloped’ state is to identify and place that state within the analytical framework of ‘development’. If a ‘developed’ state were to refer to an ‘underdeveloped’ state, it would be engaging in a process of alterity, or ‘othering’, in which it was defining a subject by considering the attributes of a certain variable (such as gross domestic product – GDP) which, when applied to itself, would reveal difference. As David Campbell has argued: ‘As the vocation roused by alterity, deconstruction’s onto-political claim is that our condition can be characterised by the problematic of identity/difference, where neither term can be understood except in relation to the other’ (Campbell 1998: 509). Therefore, to define the identity of oneself, one must construct boundaries between, ‘self and otherness, identity and difference’ (Coward 2006: 71).

This process of alterity does not only shape the identities of individual states, but constructs the basic structure of a global economic order, one that is defined by productive output. Rist argues that the choice of economic variable to define ‘development’ was GDP because this would reveal that the, ‘United States stood at the top’ (Rist 2002: 76). Historically, the emergence of the categories of ‘development’ and ‘underdevelopment’ appears after the Second World War, as the Allies sought to define a new economic order. Arturo Escobar has suggested that, to define this new economic order, ‘The notions of ‘underdevelopment’ and ‘Third World’ emerged as working concepts in the process by which the West (and the East) redefined themselves and the global power structures’ (Escobar 1988: 429). Within this new order, a state that wished to engage in development could only achieve their right to self-determination, ‘in exchange for a right to self-definition’ (Rist 2002: 79). In this way, identity can be seen to be having a huge impact on the structure of the global economic order.

Drawing on the statements by Escobar and Rist made above, I would suggest that identity, achieved through a process of alterity, defines the structure of the global economic order. The structure is not monolithic, but is constituted by interaction, which is determined by identity, which in turn is constructed by a process alterity. This is to suggest that the global economic structure, understood as an economic space, is constructed discursively, by processes of naming and (re)defining. The neo-liberal conception of the global economy is of, ‘an autonomous realm of ‘natural’ regulation’ (Daly 1991: 90), in which the agency of actors is constrained by economic structures. But, in his famous 1991 paper, Glyn Daly argues that the identity of economic space can have no meaning within such a foundationalist approach, suggesting that, ‘its identity will fully depend upon how it is articulated with a set of categories and practices within a relational framework’ (Daly 1991: 90).

In this section I have attempted to suggest how identities of ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ exist in a binary relationship, in which each is constructed to define the self as much as the other. I have also argued that the discursive construction of identity, in turn, constructs the global economic order, defining what economic space is and how it can be used. In the next section I suggest that ‘development’ discourses attempt to depoliticise the structural inequalities that ‘development’ addresses, but that such imbalances are in fact deeply political.

Development discourses and the de-politicisation of structural imbalances in the global economy

Discourses surrounding development have tended to present it as an apolitical and technical process that attempts to provide technical-economic solutions to problems which exist naturally and separate from political processes. Rist has drawn on President Harry Truman’s ‘Point Four Program’, derived from his inaugural address of 1949, to suggest the roots of this technologisation of development practices: “[Point Four] made out that it had only the common good at heart, and presented ‘development’ as a set of technical measures outside the realm of political debate” (Rist 2002: 78). This depoliticising of development goes hand-in-hand with a broader contention that the realm of economics is purely technical and is thus apolitical. This is certainly the view of the dominant strain of neo-classical/neo-liberal IPE, which contends that the economic realm is autonomous and not significantly structurally affected by political processes. I drew on Daly in the last section to argue against this view. Also, if one accepts my argument that the identities of ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ are discursive constructions, we can begin to see how economic identities such as ‘underdeveloped’ are in fact extremely political.

Taking a poststructuralist approach to IPE can allow for a deeper investigation of the processes of knowledge production and a greater conception of economic processes (and structures) as being political in their nature. As Marieke de Goede has argued: ‘Understanding techniques of truth production as profoundly political is of crucial importance to the study of the IPE, for it opens up technical and depoliticized economic practice to political scrutiny’ (de Goede 2006: 7). Such political scrutiny can reveal ‘development’ as being constructed as a ‘problem’ in the global economy, which must therefore be met with ‘solutions’. A purely problem-solving approach to economics, which claims that structures are immutable and cannot be significantly altered, fails to question how structures are imagined, constructed, and represented.

Daly has suggested that the, ‘economization of the political […] comprises the standard ideological attempt to present the economy in thoroughly depoliticized and naturalistic terms in which the keeping of economic order is viewed as a purely pragmatic and technocratic enterprise’ (Daly 2006: 178). This would suggest that economic processes occur separately to political processes. Writing about the Homo Economicus, Jenny Edkins has suggested that: ‘It is at this point that economics becomes separated from the discourse of morals – value is analysed in terms of cost, not need. It becomes depoliticized’ (Edkins 2000: 32). This depoliticisation, in the context of discourses of ‘underdevelopment’, occludes the possibility of suggesting that ‘underdevelopment’ is the result of power relations.

If one were to re-politicise ‘development’, then it would be possible to see the power relations involved in ‘development’ as being exclusionary processes in which the materially and politically ‘strong’ states of the West control the structure and nature of the global economy by excluding the possibility of difference. This exclusion could then explain the structural inequalities and imbalances in the global economy in a political manner, rather than a purely technical manner. The basis of ‘development’ and ‘underdevelopment’, as they are generally understood today, is of inequality that is unfortunate but natural, due to the immutable structure of the global economic order. But, I would argue, the ‘problem’ of ‘underdevelopment’ emerges directly from the practices of neo-liberal IPE and institutions such as the World Bank, not from some imagined monolithic economic structure. As Escobar has argued: ‘To examine development is to examine practices about specific problems that emerge from existing theories and institutional apparatuses, not independent from them’ (Escobar 1988: 433).

This approach would aim to re-politicise theories of development and move beyond a focus on intractable and integral problems of ‘underdevelopment’, moving the focus to the political nature of the construction of such problems. Such a shift would not be possible when working in the stagnant identity politics of ‘developed/underdeveloped’ that we see today. Inequality can only be addressed by problematising the discursive construction of the identities involved and granting voice and agency to those states deemed to be ‘underdeveloped’, opening up the global economy to allow space for difference and plurality. A different figuration of politics would be necessary to reach an ethics of inclusivity in the global economy. As David Campbell has suggested, it is one, ‘in which the overriding concern is the struggle for – or on behalf of – alterity rather than a struggle to efface, erase, or eradicate alterity’ (Campbell 1998: 513 – italics in original).

The performance of the world economic order

I have argued that ‘development’ and ‘underdevelopment’ are discursive constructions of identity that exist as part of an ideational framework that moves issues of economic development out of the realm of the political and into a technological realm of discourse. While the categorical pair, ‘developed/underdeveloped’, are constructed discursively, they have manifestations in the real world through the hierarchical power relations that result from the construction of their ‘knowledge’. In this short final section I wish to briefly consider the power relations that result from the discursive construction of ‘development’ identities.

Writing about practices of aid, Jenny Edkins has argued that, ‘The political economy of intervention is  racist in character, due to the way developmentalism ignores the production of relations of power or reads them in terms of pre-existing ethnic or racial groups’ (Edkins 2000: 138). If developmentalism is indeed racist, it is because it reads discursively constructed identities as identities that are materially derived. In the normative context of ‘development’, ‘underdevelopment’ is placed at a lower end of the normative hierarchy, suggesting it is inferior and must transform. It is this hierarchy that concerns the relations of power that Edkins notes. As developmentalism does not, perhaps cannot, see ‘development’ identities as discursive constructions, it must explain ‘underdevelopment’ through pre-existing identities that are not shaped by power relations.

The processes of exclusion that I have alluded to earlier in this essay are directly concerned with the contingent relations of power that are created by the process of alterity involved in development discourse. The process of development, applied to ‘underdeveloped’ states by ‘developed’ states and institutions such as the World Bank, control the economic activities of ‘underdeveloped’ states at the international and domestic levels. As Escobar has noted: ‘The poor countries became the target of an endless number of programs and interventions that seemed to be inescapable and that ensured their control’ (Escobar 1988: 430). One may note that it is not just processes of ‘naming’ and defining states as ‘underdeveloped’ that constitutes the nature of that state’s identity, but also material practices, such as the programs that Escobar is referring to.

These development programs can be seen as a ‘performance’ of ‘development’. Martin Coward has suggested that:

‘Performances of separation are only successful insofar as they naturalize an imaginary and stable limit between self and other, identity and difference. Such a separation is never a real gap, never the opposition of two positive terms (present in and for themselves), but rather the relational encounter of two identities constituted in and through a shared, relational threshold’ (Coward 2006: 73).

In the context of development, the ‘relational threshold’ is that of the paradigm of developmentalism. Processes of constructing identity are manifested in the practices that make real the ‘imaginary’ limits between one identity and another, and within the frame of developmentalism, the practice of aid, for example, makes the boundary of identity more ‘stable’ and real. While the practice of aid, to stick with this example, is generally presented as being fairly benign, even altruistic, it is in fact a process deeply imbued in the power relations that one can see in development. Edkins has stated: ‘In the same way that the penitentiary concerns itself with the whole life of the delinquent, the specialism of ‘development’ concerns itself with the life of the ‘vulnerable’’ (Edkins 2000: 100). The power relations present in aid practices, therefore, cast the recipient as a ‘victim’, who is essentially lacking in any agency. This is carried out by a ‘developed’ state performing ‘development’, defining itself and the recipient and solidifying the boundaries between them. This performance also creates clear relations of power between the two, placing the former in a primary position in a ‘development’ hierarchy.


In this short essay I have attempted to suggest that contemporary concepts and practices of development emerge from reified identities that are discursively constructed through processes of alterity. This is significant, because if these processes of identity formation go unproblematised, then we risk accepting that their construction, and the resultant structure of the global economy, are technical in nature and non-political. I have argued that developmentalism is inherently political in its nature, and that economics cannot be viewed as a completely separate realm to that of politics. In the final section I argued that practices of development, as well as acts of ‘naming’, construct identities within the frame of ‘development’. These practices, in a sense, ‘perform’ the ‘developed/underdeveloped’ identities, as well as the structure of the global economy more broadly.



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