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The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith

The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith

by Gilbert Rist

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This is the third edition of a classic development text, which has both defined and changed its field.


This is the third edition of a classic development text, which has both defined and changed its field.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"If you want to understand the ideological forces that have shaped North-South relations for half a century, you need this remarkable book."--Susan George

"Compelling and exciting reading…Rist's books, written with deliciously mild irony, is an account of the most crucial moments in which the rites of a belief embraced by millions were elaborated and canonized"--European Journal of Development Research

"This book does an outstanding job"--Journal of Developing Areas

"This book is one of the mist astute of its genre available today...exact in its scholarship and profound in its clear account of the philosophies and consequences of the Western example"--Rapport

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Zed Books
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Revised Edition
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5.42(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.87(d)

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The History of Development

From Western Origins to Global Faith

By Gilbert Rist, Patrick Camiller

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2001 Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78360-025-0




When psychologists speak of the development of intelligence, mathematicians of the development of an equation or photographers of the development of a film, the sense they give to the word 'development' is clear enough. Its definition is shared by everyone working within the same area. The situation is quite different, however, when it comes to the use of the word in ordinary language to denote either a state or a process associated with such concepts as material well-being, progress, social justice, economic growth, personal blossoming, or even ecological equilibrium. Let us take just three examples.

1. Under the general heading 'développement', the Petit Robert dictionary (1987) contains the following entry (among the meanings close to growth, blossoming, progress, extension, expansion): 'Developing country or region, whose economy has not yet reached the level of North America, Western Europe, etc. Euphemism created to replace underdeveloped.'

2. The Report of the South Commission, produced under the chairmanship of the former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, was supposed to sum up the aspirations and policies of 'developing' countries. It defined development as 'a process which enables human beings to realize their potential, build self-confidence, and lead lives of dignity and fulfilment. It is a process which frees people from the fear of want and exploitation. It is a movement away from political, economic, or social oppression. Through development, political independence acquires its true significance. And it is a process of growth, a movement essentially springing from within the society that is developing.'

3. The Human Development Report of 1991, published by the United Nations Development Programme, stated: 'the basic objective of human development is to enlarge the range of people's choices to make development more democratic and participatory. These choices should include access to income and employment opportunities, education and health, and a clean and safe physical environment. Each individual should also have the opportunity to participate fully in community decisions and to enjoy human, economic and political freedoms.'

We might comment at length on these definitions and demonstrate their various presuppositions: social evolutionism (catching up with the industrialized countries), individualism (developing the personality of human beings), economism (achieving growth and access to greater income). We might also show how the definitions themselves are either normative (what should happen) or instrumental (what is the purpose), and register the abundant use of intensifiers (e.g. 'more democratic and more participatory') which actually point to things presently 'lacking' or deficient. The most important question, however, is whether these really are definitions.


We cannot go over here the conditions necessary for something to be defined. Let us simply note that for a definition to be operational – that is, for it to allow us to identify an object without the possibility of error – it must first of all eliminate all 'preconceptions', 'the fallacious ideas that dominate the mind of the layman', and then base itself upon certain 'external characteristics' common to all phenomena within the group in question. Or – to put it more bluntly – we must define 'development' in such a way that a Martian could not only understand what is being talked about, but also identify the places where 'development' does or does not exist. It is thus understandable why talk of 'realizing people's potential' or 'expanding the range of individual choice' does not help us to reach a definition – for it refers to individual (context-bound) experience that can never be apprehended by means of 'external characteristics'. At most, a normative injunction might be regarded as a kind of compass allowing us to hold a certain course. But to continue the journey, we may need to know where the North is without having any intention of proceeding there.

The principal defect of most pseudo-definitions of 'development' is that they are based upon the way in which one person (or set of persons) pictures the ideal conditions of social existence. Of course, these imagined worlds – laid out according to the personal predilections of those who produce them – are often inviting and desirable, and it would be bad form to attack those who dream of a more just world where people are happy, live better and longer, and remain free of disease, poverty, exploitation and violence. This way of proceeding has the huge advantage of assembling a broad consensus at little cost and on the basis of unchallengeable values. But if 'development' is only a useful word for the sum of virtuous human aspirations, we can conclude at once that it exists nowhere and probably never will!

Yet 'development' does exist, in a way, through the actions that it legitimates, through the institutions it keeps alive and the signs testifying to its presence. How could it be denied that there are developed and developing countries, development projects, development co-operation ministers, a United Nations Development Programme, an International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (better known as the World Bank), institutes for development studies, NGOs responsible for furthering development, and many other institutions and activities with the same stated aim. In the name of this fetishistic term – which is also a portmanteau or 'plastic' word – schools and clinics are built, exports encouraged, wells dug, roads laid, children vaccinated, funds collected, plans established, national budgets revised, reports drafted, experts hired, strategies concocted, the international community mobilized, dams constructed, forests exploited, deserts reafforested, high-yield plants invented, trade liberalized, technology imported, factories opened, wage-jobs multiplied, spy satellites launched. When all is said and done, every modern human activity can be undertaken in the name of 'development'.

For conventional thinking, the quest for a definition therefore oscillates between two equally irrepressible extremes: (a) the expression of a (doubtless general) wish to live a better life, which seems deliberately to ignore the fact that the concrete ways of achieving it would run up against conflicting political choices; and (b) the great mass of actions (also often conflicting with one another) which are supposed eventually to bring greater happiness to the greatest possible number. The weakness of these two perspectives is that they do not allow us to identify 'development': it appears in the one case as a subjective feeling of fulfilment varying from individual to individual, and in the other as a series of operations for which there is no a priori proof that they really contribute to the stated objective.

To escape from this dead end, we must return to Durkheim's twofold requirement of a definition: that it should cover all the phenomena inquestion, and that it should include only their external character istics. In other words, it is necessary to identify sociologically, by reference to practices that anyone may observe, what allows us to say that certain countries are 'developed', while others are 'developing'. The point is not to contrast two different sets of countries by showing that one has more of this (schools, roads, currency reserves, average calorie consumption, cars, democracy or telephones) but less of that (illiteracy, cultural traditions, children per family, 'absolute poor', time, skilled labour, etc.), while the other set has the reverse. Rather, the process at the root of this contrast needs to be brought into the light of day – a process whose rhythm differs in the two sets of countries and which transforms them, both quantitatively and qualitatively, in ways that cannot be reversed. For 'development' does not concern only the countries of the 'South', nor only operations conducted under the auspices of 'development co-operation'. It is a global, historically distinctive phenomenon, whose functioning first needs to be explained before it can be detected as either present or absent.


To satisfy the methodological requirements outlined above, and to embrace all the phenomena entering the field in question, our definition will have to describe the ubiquitous mechanisms of the contemporary world that determine social change in accordance with a special structure-creating logic. It is not enough to say that in the end 'development' boils down to social change, for social change has been a constant feature of life in every society since the dawn of humanity. What has to be shown is the characteristic of 'developmental' change which distinguishes modern societies from those which have gone before.

Our starting point will be the following definition: 'Development' consists of a set of practices, sometimes appearing to conflict with one another, which require – for the reproduction of society – the general transformation and destruction of the natural environment and of social relations. Its aim is to increase the production of commodities (goods and services) geared, by way of exchange, to effective demand. Let us look in turn at each element of this definition.

The 'practices' in question (economic, social, political and cultural) correspond to the 'external characteristics' that Durkheim invoked to exclude from a definition any normative aspect stressing what is hoped as against what actually occurs. The facts, then, should not be considered on the basis of one or another currently available theory of 'development', for we know that what is envisaged in a theory does not necessarily happen in practice, and that similar practices can lay claim to opposing theories. This is why, as we have already noted, these practices are innumerable and appear at first sight to contradict one another. At the level of economics, for instance, some practices are geared to profit (direct investment, technology 'transfers', trade, etc.), while others involve a degree of generosity (loans on favourable terms, all kinds of NGO assistance, etc.); some foster international trade (raw material exports, cash crops, industrial relocation, etc.), while others hold it back (import restrictions as part of a restructuring drive, import substitution, customs duties, etc.); some aim to enhance the role of the State (creation of nationalized corporations, subsidization of basic commodities), others to limit it (deregulation, privatization, etc.); some have the effect of increasing external debt (new loans or rescheduling of old ones), while others seek to reduce it (cancellation, agreements playing the environment off against external financing).

'The reproduction of society.' To put it simply, these practices enable the world system to reproduce itself by expanding the area within its grasp, so that it assures the existence of societies (or social classes) included within the system, and washes its hands of those excluded from it.

'The general transformation and destruction of the natural environment ...' The economic process which, for example, transforms ore into steel, oil into exhaust gas, or forest into 'resources', necessarily entails destruction. A previously available resource is thus converted into an object or a product whose recycling is either problematic (requiring new energy costs) or impossible – with the result that the destruction of the natural environment becomes worse still (pollution). This entropic phenomenon is by no means new – indeed, it accompanies every physical process on the planet – but its effects have grown considerably since the Industrial Revolution. Simplifying a great deal, we could say that industry has been producing energy by replacing watermills or windmills (which use naturally renewable sources) with 'fire machines' (steam engines, internal combustion engines) which, besides mainly using non-renewable resources, irrevocably disperse a large part of the resulting energy in the form of heat. Whereas 'normal' economic science considers the industrial process only in terms of production, it must be stressed that every phenomenon of production always involves destruction, and that for roughly two centuries this has been increasing in importance (though it went unnoticed for a long time). It is also the case that the transformation of nature takes other forms bound up with the transformation of institutions and techniques: the simplest such example was the original appropriation of the land, or the creation of dams which allowed control and, consequently, market exploitation of hydroelectric resources; the most complex has to do with genetic engineering, which makes it possible not only to control but also to manipulate nature or living organisms, and then to patent the results (for example, to compel farmers to buy new seeds each year). Space itself does not escape this process, as access to geostationary orbits becomes a matter of dispute. Of course, these are mere illustrations of a worldwide process spreading to the whole of the natural environment; the economic–financial power of transnational corporations is also part of this generalization, which is today synonymous with globalization of markets.

'... and of social relations.' Social relations are not free from the rule of the commodity and exploitation – that is, from exchange-value determined by supply and demand. In this respect, the most important change took place with the appearance – and gradual generalization – of wage-labour in modern societies. It was a major revolution, since every service – from childminding to walking the dog – now had a price, and the new American thinking did not hesitate to extend the 'economic approach' to family relationships, including marriage, domestic production, fertility, and even altruism. Whereas Marx wrote indignantly that the bourgeoisie had 'torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and reduced the family relation to a mere money relation', the 'new economics' actually exults that 'no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest' remains. This revolution in the way of approaching social relations is expressed in many different ways. It can be seen, for example, in the massive expansion of the leisure market or in the new possibilities offered bymedical science. Things that used to be personal and intimate, supposedly outside the realm of the market, can today be the object of a contract for paid services. The practice of womb-leasing or drawing on sperm banks clearly shows that the commodity form is continuing its march into every area of social relations; now everyone is expected to learn how to 'sell themselves', in a system bordering on generalized prostitution.

'To increase the production of commodities (goods and services).' The process is geared to increased production, on the assumption that 'more' necessarily means 'better'. Many instances do, it is true, tend to confirm this postulate, but it should be borne in mind that all production necessarily involves destruction. This is largely covered up by the dominant trend in economics, which most often abandons any reckoning of the 'external costs' of production, or passes them off as an extra gain. The most serious aspect, however, is that the process cannot be interrupted without endangering the social reproduction of those who benefit from it. It is therefore entirely focused upon production of the maximum rather than the optimum – for it can exist only by spreading extensively (geographically) or intensively (into new natural or social domains). In other words, growth is not a choice but a necessity, as is amply demonstrated by the numerous strategies to 'reflate' the economy and (ideally) create more jobs.

In most societies other than modern society, the circulation of goods is organized according to relations of kinship or hierarchy, and this confers on things a special role in which they are subordinate to social ties. Certain goods (e.g. those set aside for a dowry) can be exchanged only between certain persons (the eldest of the family), and only in precise circumstances (restricted exchange); in other cases, the social bond is expressed through the exchange of identical goods; or the 'big men', in order to maintain their prestige, have an obligation to redistribute goods obtained through the fruits of their labour, and so on. These numerous and diverse practices are not unrelated to bargaining, where the (not yet defined) rate of exchange corresponds to the 'value' that the two parties attach to each other. Quite different, however, is the system that appears together with the commodity. Now people are considered free in relation to one another, and their isolated mutual dealings are mediated through objects whose autonomy is established by a market price insensitive to any individual intervention. In market exchange, individuals encounter one another not directly but 'around' an object sold by the one and bought by the other – after which each is all square with the other and resumes his initial freedom. This autonomization of the object legitimizes the autonomization of economics, which now strives to keep itself free from political, ethical and personal 'interference'. Once again, this is a major feature of modern society.


Excerpted from The History of Development by Gilbert Rist, Patrick Camiller. Copyright © 2001 Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Gilbert Rist is a Professor at the Graduate Institute of Development Studies (IUED) in Geneva.

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