Why do development institutions and practitioners continue endorsing neo-colonial projects? There are many explanations. In this essay, I propose one: ‘development’s inclusionary complex’.
Development specialists are aware of the global issues derived from the unequal distribution of resources caused by global capitalist expansion and colonialism (Cardoso and Faletto 1979, Chang 2014, Mazzucato 2021, Putzel 2020, Wade 2006). However, development practice sanctioned by international institutions and national governments continues to fuel the same dynamics of extractivism and unequal accumulation that have caused poverty, precarity, and inequality in the ex-colonies. Most recently, development projects have embraced self-help schemes that give the poor the responsibility to alleviate their economic poverty by participating in a financialised global economy (Mawdsley 2018a & 2018b, Schwittay 2011). These initiatives follow the current development consensus reached at Addis Ababa in 2015, which looks to ‘leave no one behind’ while further incorporating the private sector as a development actor. According to their public messages, leading development institutions are set to follow the same development paradigm in the upcoming years.
In October 2022, World Bank President David Malpass opened his Annual Meetings Press Conference by reporting a grim scenario of 70 million people falling below the extreme poverty line because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In his brief speech, Malpass linked the current development crisis to the world’s economic decline due to high inflation, high-interest rates, and low capital flows. Malpass’ emphasis on the relationship between development and global economic growth is framed within the World Bank initiative to maximise finance for development by moving ‘from “billions” in official development assistance to “trillions” in [private] investments to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).1 At the same event, one of the Annual Meetings addressed ‘inclusive growth’ as ‘the key for a lasting recovery’. During the meeting, the Managing Director of the Center for Financial Inclusion, Mayada El-Zoghbi, defined inclusive growth as shared prosperity and identified digital finance as a critical tool for distributing wealth through trickle-down economics.
Inclusive growth has become a buzzword within development institutions that aim to achieve welfare through economic growth, financialisation, and private accumulation. For instance, a recently developed United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) search engine, Artificial Intelligence for Development Analytics (AIDA), shows 20,173 results for ‘inclusive growth’ for the 2022 UNDP reports only. Despite its popularity, inclusive growth is not as benevolent as it might seem. The assumption within international development institutions, like the World Bank, that economic growth will benefit everyone through trickle-down economics contrasts with the observed rise of inequality within growing economies.2 Inclusive growth through financialisation has tended to be about making profits and accumulating wealth through cheap labour and expensive debt. Also, the financialisation of the global economy has contracted the real economy, and it is widely reported that the financial crises have hit the poor the hardest.
Nevertheless, the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have endorsed inclusive growth through microfinance, micro insurance, and pyramidal market inclusion schemes (Cross and Street 2009, Dolan 2012, Elyachar 2012, Lazar 2004). Under these schemes, the impoverished have become desirable for private capital circulation and absorption.3 Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) initiatives have accumulated wealth in the hands of investors, corporations, and a few local entrepreneurs. For example, in Mexico, the non-profit financial organisation Compartamos, inaugurated in 1990, became a commercial bank in 2006 and is now the largest microfinance bank in Latin America. Yet, a 2015 study found that ‘the overall effects of [Compartamos’ microcredits] do not appear large or transformative’ (Angelucci, Karlan, and Zinman, 2015). With projects like Compartamos, financial inclusion looks very much like financial extractivism.
Simultaneously, environmental extractivism remains a development strategy across the Global South, including countries like Ecuador and Bolivia, that incorporated the indigenous notion of ‘Buen Vivir’ into their governments (Gudynas 2010, Radcliffe 2012, Walsh 2010). The extractive nature of development can be traced back to the Empire’s ‘civilising’ missions that followed capital and industrial growth to ensure the reintegration of wealth back into the metropole, as Hannah Arendt showed in her 1946 essay ‘Expansion and the Philosophy of Power’. Inclusive development has a colonial background. Today, economic growth through extractivism and financialisation are the main mechanisms to foster ‘inclusive growth’.
Put simply, developmental inclusiveness is based on a vertical division of the world according to which poor and ‘developing’ nations run behind the rich and ‘developed’ ones. The less developed are expected to make themselves doable to developers who come from or have been educated in the Global North. In this sense, conventional discourses conceptualise development as the successful integration into the dominant economic system, thus legitimising the durability of its unequal structures.
Development’s verticality exemplifies what Lomnitz (2005) calls ‘asymmetric negative reciprocity’, when an exchange results from coercion or exploitation, in this case, dating back to the colonial encounter. The record shows that development practice has had one direction only, from North to South. A project led by, let us say, Malawi to foster the development of, let us say, the UK has proved inconceivable to fellow students with whom I have discussed this speculative scenario. Development scholars like Chang (2014) and Mkandawire (1988) have shown how such vertical exchanges reproduced a colonial model of development where knowledge travels from North to South and wealth flows in the opposite direction while local populations carry the burden.
The inconceivability of a South to North development project derives from inherited colonial hierarchies of value and knowledge and a capitalist notion of progress as maximised growth and accumulation. Imagining a reversed developmental project can be profoundly disruptive; however, flipping the developmental ladder would preserve its inherited verticality and asymmetry. Such issues have been long discussed by critics like Escobar (1991, 2010), who invites us to think ‘post-development’, where difference meets equality, and Li (2017), who believes that instead of development, we should talk about justice, political conflict, and redistribution. However, these critics have not managed to overturn dominant development paradigms. I aim to contribute to this debate by illuminating ‘inclusion’ as a concept driving development’s coloniality today. I call ‘development’s inclusionary complex’ the latest update of a longstanding dynamic observed by Cardoso and Faletto (1979) in their essay on Dependency and Development in Latin America, where they linked ‘under development’ to colonial path-dependency.
Development experts are conscious of the colonial and capitalist background that explains the historical exploitation and impoverishment of marginalised groups and minorities, including indigenous groups, rural communities, the working classes, and slum dwellers. Despite specialists’ best intentions, development persists as a vertical and extractive enterprise. Why? I argue that contemporary development practitioners are constrained by a fundamental misconception: that the impoverished have been excluded from the global economy instead of unequally included. They have been misguided because contemporary development practice is heavily oriented towards inclusionary projects aimed at groups that have already been marginalised within the economic system. Historically, unequal inclusion is the problem, not the solution. In sticking to the inclusionary complex, development practitioners seek to solve the problem by prescribing its cause.
Inclusion is such a benevolent concept it might seem harmless, but it actualises development’s colonial and capitalist roots. Development’s inclusionary complex is an epistemic apparatus that frames inclusion as prosperous for all when it is not. As a conceptual tool, the inclusionary complex restricts development work to reproducing vertical and exclusionary projects and replicating development coloniality in its current neoliberal paradigm. As an obscuring mechanism, the positively charged notion of inclusion has helped reproduce development’s coloniality by hiding its exclusionary mechanisms through benevolent policies. However, history illuminates a different story.
At the fringes of the global capitalist system, but within its borders, more autonomous communities, often indigenous, have long been articulated with extractivism and the market economy. For example, Tutino (2018) shows how, as far back as 16th-Century Spanish rule, communities in the Mexican heartland lent their labour to the colonial silver trade. According to Tutino, their work sustained modern capitalism in Europe. These communities have been embedded in global capitalism since its beginnings but have not benefited substantially. After centuries of economic development, many are part of the disadvantaged countryside or the Mexico City slums. The same dynamic has been replicated throughout the colonised world. Nowadays, poor peasants and marginalised dwellers in the Global South are targeted by financial inclusion schemes that aim to achieve inclusive growth. These initiatives miss the point because, historically, the issue is not if people have been included but how. One could argue that financial inclusion today shares a similar logic to the silver trade in 16th-century Mexico.
The inclusionary fixation is conceptual but has visible consequences best explained through a geographical perspective. The global disaffected have not been excluded from capitalist development; they have been assimilated, varying in levels (and forms) of autonomy and exploitation. Anthropological perspectives show that development has underestimated the creative potential of difference by excluding alterity. Like Blaser (2019) and De la Cadena (2010) have shown in Paraguay and Perú, respectively, Other human and more than human ecological networks are often made uncommon to developmental projects. From the edges of the economic system to its core, economic development has included some and left behind others across concentric frontiers, namely the indigenous, the rural, and the urban.
At the indigenous frontier, development has reduced nature to raw materials,4 ontological and ecological alterity to cultural traits,5 and complex ownership regimes to enclosed private property.6 At the rural frontier, peasants that have successfully adopted what Li (2014) calls ‘capitalist relations’ (competition, accumulation, and growth) have faced the financialisation of the rural economy, increasing levels of debt,7 and displacement by the agroindustry.8 Under these circumstances, younger generations have fled to the growing cities, consolidating their inclusion into the modern economic system and becoming, as Davis (2017) shows in detail, ‘surplus populations’ at the urban periphery. Ostracised, the urban poor inhabit the core of the inclusionary promise, but they are not prosperous and embody deep exclusions and inequalities. People are pulled closer to the system’s centre so capital can circulate faster and with more significant returns.
As a neo-colonial mechanism of assimilation through dispossession, development must be addressed from a decolonial perspective and language. Inclusion fetishism obscures alternative vocabularies that respond to historical realities and might push development towards reparative and redistributive action. Writing epistemologically from the South, de Sousa Santos (2014) argues for the centrality of ‘cognitive decolonisation’. Throughout his text, de Sousa Santos uses a vocabulary suitable for rethinking development beyond inclusion while addressing the historical exclusions and violence of colonialism, capitalism, racism, and patriarchy. He uses simple terms like ‘undoing’, ‘liberating’, ‘recognising’, ‘deconstructing’, and ‘reconstructing’.
I argue that acknowledging development’s inclusionary complex and addressing its exclusionary aftermath are vital steps in building what de Sousa Santos calls an ‘ecology of autonomous knowledges’ (2014). Furthermore, undoing the inclusionary complex by adopting other languages might contribute to decolonising development practice and reorienting its resources to the service of horizontal and redistributive paradigms. Local spaces and communities are creative and productive in many ways that escape today’s emphasis on extractivism and financialisation. In a decolonised development landscape, there are otherworldly alternatives for achieving a good life across human and more-than-human ecologies.
1 World Bank 2015 Development Committee paper From Billions to Trillions: Transforming Development. Finance. Also: The United Nations’ Inter-Agency Task Force on Financing for Development.
2 According to data from the World Inequality Report 2022, https://wir2022.wid.world.
3 For a paradigmatic example of the BoP’s rationality see C.K. Prahalad, The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid.
4 For instance, Tsing (2005) uses the term ‘resourcification’ to describe the transformation of nature into marketable resources in South Kalimantan, Indonesia.
5 Blaser (2019), for example, describes how an NGO accepted Yshiro socio-cosmic ecologies as cultural but not ecological and productive realities and alternatives in the Chaco region of Paraguay.
6 For a revealing discussion on the transformation of Amazonian Shuar property regimes as the result of development encounters see Walker (2020).
7 Schuster (2021), for instance, shows that the microfinance boom constitutes a ‘zone of risk’ for farmers in Northern Paraguay.
8 See Hetherington (2020) for a historical description of different ‘agribiopolitical alignments’ in Paraguay.
Alejandro Porcel Arraut studied International Relations at El Colegio de México (2014-2018) and worked at the Mexico City Transport Department. He left for the UK in 2021 to study for an MPhil in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge (2021-2022), and stayed for the PhD program thanks to the William Wyse Studentship. He currently researches labour formalisation, collective organisation, and the social reproduction of public bus infrastructures in Mexico City.
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