While doing research for an upcoming course, I found myself captivated by a tool developed by Google to analyze search trends called, you guessed it “Google Trends“. The way it works is that you enter a keyword like “community development” and it will generate a chart displaying search volume over time. The problem with Google Trends however is that the it only goes back 2004 and this doesn’t do you much good if you want to better understand the use of terms used in the field of international community development, the modern conception of which has its origins just after the end of WWII. I was aware of Google’s ambitious project to
scan all the books in the world, a project which has currently scanned about 25 million titles or 19% of the known books! So I was curious if they had developed a “trends” for Google Books. Low-and-behold they have and it’s called the “Google Books Ngram Viewer” and let me say – it is amazing – allowing you to search the use of phrases in books printed between 1500 and 2008! So I decided to search for some common terms in international development.
Now, a brief disclaimer. This is by no means is this a scientific analysis. For one, it’s still very incomplete (only 19% of known books) and there’s really no way of knowing Google’s selection criteria or where the gaps exist. Second, there’s no real way to filter only for books related to international development, so if a term is used in another subject area than those results will appear as well. I tried to get around this by using terms that (to the best of my knowledge) are only or mostly used in international development related fields.
So, onto the results.
I was first curious about when authors started writing about poverty in other countries. The reason I was curious is because some prominent development authors like Arturo Escobar, Jeffry Sachs, and Majid Rahnema argue that the “problem” of global poverty was not a concern for western countries until after WWII. After this time, the thinking started to shift to an understanding that the prosperity and stability of the rich countries was linked to the overall prosperity and stability of the world. This along with a general fear of Soviet/communist expansion and poor countries was fertile ground for communist thinking to take root. The data from Ngram viewer supports this assertion where prior to 1940 there was virtually no reference to “poor countries” and even less use of terms like “global poverty”, “world poverty”, “poverty around the world”, etc. But as you can see in the chart below, the use of this term skyrocketed around 1950, just as Escobar, Sachs and Rahnema argue.
The concern for “poor countries” would appear to wane in between 1990 and 2000 but a more likely explanation is that the terminology shifted. Shortly after the “discovery” of global poverty around the 1950s came new classifications for countries that would become the objects of this new discourse. These classifications were born out of wider discourses about the underlying pathology behind “poverty” as well as a ready-made cure which for the west could be summarized as “more capitalism”.
Through the Ngram viewer we can see the rise of the the two dominant and competing theories in the development discourse; modernization theory and dependency theory. The focus of Modernization is on particular countries and assessing which stage they’re in. Modernization is where the terminology of First World, Second World, and Third World comes from. First World being the free-market industrialized countries, the Third World being the so-called non-industrialized or developing countries, and the Second World are the lesser Industrialized Communist Countries. The strategy for modernization is to help countries progress to the stages of growth. The primary measure of this growth was GDP (Gross Domestic Product – the value of all goods and services generated within a particular country).
By the 1960’s another theory of Development started to gain traction, not necessarily among U.S. and European Policy makers but rather, among an emerging group of Third World scholars. It was called Dependency Theory and had its roots in nationalist thinking in India from the turn of the century. It gained traction as the promise of Modernization seemed less and less achievable, and as many in the Third World began to realize that this so-called “aid” from the rich countries came with a price. In many cases, the price was the loss of control over their economies and political systems.
Dependency Theory challenged the very premise of Modernization Theory arguing that the poverty in the south was NOT because their cultures were primitive and inherently non-scientific, or that their economic systems were backward but rather, these scholars argued that if you want to understand poverty in the south, you have to analyze their colonial and neo-colonial relationships with core countries. They argued that these relationships not only explain the great poverty in the south, but also the great wealth in the north. They argued that the rich countries got rich in the first place by exploiting the wealth and labor of poor countries … and that the new “development policies” and foreign investment were just a new form of colonization or “neo-colonialism.”
Much of development thinking after WWII was influenced by the broader thinking of the time which was dominated by scientific positivism and the promise of social engineering. In development this translated in the field into policies and practices drafted by so-called “experts” working in the newly air-conditioned offices far from the field. Localizing projects was formulaic based on data collected and analyzed by outside experts. There was very little room for local input in the planning of development projects. The dominant approach used to localize development projects was RRA or Rapid Rural Appraisal. However, the 1960’s and 1970’s brought-about broad-based and political upheavals – the war in Vietnam, the decay of “socially engineered” urban slums, the Civil Rights Movement, etc all contributed to a general questioning of long-held western superiority generally referred to as the rise of postmodernism. This general shift influenced developing thinking by forcing a reexamination of policies and practices. By the 1980’s and 1990’s the concept of participatory development became dominant approach – if not in practice, at least rhetorically. RRA was supplanted by PRA (Particpatory Rural and Action), where communities are involved in the data collection process which is being supplanted by (Participatory Learning and Action), where communities are doing their own data collection AND analysis.
This general trend towards greater local control over planning and action is also reflected in literature with the rise in the use of terms such as community-based development and community driven development.
In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote the book “Silent Spring,” which focused on pollution and pesticides in the United States and eventually lead to the banning of DDT. Then, two pivotal events happened in 1973: the first pictures were sent back from the Apollo missions depicting the earth as a tiny blue dot floating in space, a single planet lacking geo-political boundaries, and the Oil Crisis, which planted the seeds for the modern environmental movement.
For the first time, many people started to think about the finite nature and abuses of the earth’s resources. Neither Modernization nor Dependency theorists really took the environmental issue seriously. In fact, in 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm was the first real international conference that addressed these issues. It did not, however, address the gross inequalities in consumption and pollution between industrialized and non-industrialized countries. In April 1987, the Brundtland Commission, as it came to be known, published its groundbreaking report, “Our Common Future,” which introduced the concept of sustainable development into the public discourse. It defined sustainable development in terms of both protecting resources and ensuring equality in distribution.
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
“A world in which poverty and inequity are endemic will always be prone to ecological and other crises. … Sustainable development requires that societies meet human needs both by increasing productive potential and by ensuring equitable opportunities for all.”
According to the United Nations: “The wide-ranging recommendations made by the Commission led directly to the holding of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, which placed the issue squarely on the public agenda in a way it had never been before. Meeting in Rio de Janeiro, in 1992, the “Earth Summit”, as it came to be known, adopted its “Agenda 21”, a blueprint for the protection of our planet and its sustainable development.
Today, there are nearly 370 million people classified as Indigenous Peoples. While there’s no universally accepted definition, indigenous people are generally defined as ethnic groups that have historical ties to groups that existed in a territory prior to colonization or formation of a nation state. They also have generally preserved a degree of cultural and political separation from the mainstream culture and political system of the nation state within the border of which the indigenous group is located. They exist today, and historically, as the poorest and most vulnerable sector of the global society.
In terms of development, indigenous peoples have traditionally been viewed as obstacles, or “in-the-way” of progress. They didn’t fit into Socialist or Capitalist notions of development, do not traditionally pay taxes because of their reliance on production for consumption vs. consumption for cash. Because of this, the primary project for Capitalist and Socialist States has been the destruction and/or assimilation of indigenous peoples.
While they have historically resisted colonization, the modern Indigenous Rights Movement has its origins in the 1970s, growing in parallel with the democracy movements around the globe. But also, later in the 1970s and 1980s, indigenous peoples became co-opted by the environmental movement, used as a symbol for the Noble Savage who doesn’t litter or who protects the Amazon rainforest. This partnership between environmentalists and indigenous people was often at odds, since Western environmentalists originally saw protection of the environment as separating humans from it, which is a practice that often further marginalizes indigenous peoples from the resources upon which they have historically relied.
Today the Indigenous Rights Movement has served as a model for a decentralized movement which has influenced the anti-globalization movement and more recently, the Arab Spring. It has been theorized as injecting new ideas into a global system that can’t be saved by Capitalism or Communism. Indigenous people have lived close to the earth and have developed unique social and economic systems that have endured since time-immemorial Quite possibly they hold the answer, or at least part of it, for how human can live more sustainably and equitably.
What does viewing the use of common development terms teach us about international development? It’s hard to say, one thing for sure is that it provides us another window to understand its development and evolution. It makes clear that the West’s concern with global poverty exploded after WWII. It also reveals how connected it is with the broader shifts in thinking of a particular era vs. evolving gradually based on lessons learned in the field. Hopefully it also puts into perspective that discourses, such as the one surrounding international development are born, change and even disappear – where is the discourse on international development headed?