For the last few decades, the West has been the dominant geopolitical and economic power in the world. Thanks to globalisation, absolute poverty levels have dropped significantly, school enrollment – especially for girls – has risen fast, and hundreds of millions have gained access to clean water in one of the stand-out achievements of the Millennium Development Goals. Violent murders are down, as Steven Pinker likes to remind us, while the penetration of internet and mobile phones has connected almost two-thirds of the planet's population, providing them with access to networks, information and financial services.
When the impact of Western international development is described in such terms, it's easy to accept the narrative that Western states, NGOs, academics, wealthy donors and multinational corporations have helped developing countries to make significant progress in human development. Opening new markets, empowering women and entrepreneurs, and encouraging foreign investment have all helped to promote economic growth, inevitably leading to improvements in education, health, wages, democracy and life quality for all. That's the story.
The problem is that while some of the above claims are broadly stated enough to be considered true, the narrative itself is a myth only made possible through cherry-picking context-free quantitative metrics, ignoring anything inconvenient, and claiming credit for the work of others.
To take one example, the halving of the number of people living in absolute poverty is certainly an impressive feat and, given the dominance of neoliberalism over that time, it's convincing, on the surface, to give it all the credit. Yet when the data is disaggregated by region, it's clear that the majority of the reduction in absolute poverty, some 700m people, is down to China. Given the power and influence the Chinese state retains over private businesses, and how the country resorted to industrial espionage against the West to leapfrog decades of research and development (technology transfer being something development practitioners had long fruitlessly advocated of the West), it's hard to imagine how neoliberalism could even begin to claim the credit for any of China's achievements. But they try anyway, because it's a central narrative used to justify their power.
Take China out of the equation and things quickly get awkward for the neoliberal development 'regime' (self-coined and adopted willingly, which should tell you something). While South Asia has seen some reduction in the number of people living in absolute poverty, this wasn't thanks to the disastrous actions of the IMF. From the start, the restructuring imposed was considered by some as 'the same old IMF austerity medicine, inappropriately dispensed to countries suffering from a different disease,' and that there is a 'kinder, gentler Asian way.'
In Latin America, the United States has spent decades covertly and overtly opposing left-wing governments, regardless of their democratic mandate or their achievements in reducing poverty and leading in sustainability, with calamitous results for human development that reverberate for generations. Yet despite development discourse generally viewing intentional political and economic destabilisation, death squads, corruption and rising inequality as negative for human development, some NGOs such as Amnesty International are happy to admit they have no interest in even considering such factors wherever the United States is involved. That's not social science. That's propaganda.
In the Middle East and North Africa, development efforts have been made near impossible by decades of conflict, fueled in large part by a U.S. geopolitical strategy inspired by Henry Kissinger in the 1970s and aimed at keeping the region divided. Subsequently, most of the weaponry involved is made and sold by the United States and the United Kingdom; much of the radicalization and destabilization created via their allies, Saudi Arabia, and decades worth of oil sold to the West without benefiting a majority of the people.
But it is sub-Saharan Africa that really undoes the regime's fantasy of being responsible for reducing global absolute poverty levels. Despite being heavily indebted to Western states – “Unfortunately the keenest borrowers are also the most feckless spenders,” explains the Economist – and despite the region being rich in minerals vital to the manufacture of technology products, the number of people living in absolute poverty has actually doubled. Meanwhile, after 30 years of toeing the neoliberal line as the price for ending apartheid, South Africa is now the most unequal country in the world.
When neoliberals are faced with these realities, numbers will – as ever – come to their rescue. The regime will focus on the fact that the percentage of people living in absolute poverty 'has fallen from 54 percent in 1990 to 41 percent in 2013,' so really 'Sub-Saharan Africa is not actually going backwards,' despite the fact that 'sub-Saharan Africa now drives the global poverty rate.' This is utterly inexcusable framing designed to cover for the fact that neoliberalism has systematically indebted, exploited and underdeveloped former colonial states.
Neoliberalism and Neocolonialism
I am hardly the first to say this. There is a huge amount of consistent, global, multidisciplinary discourse describing neoliberalism as neocolonialism, illustrating in detail the exploitation of developing countries, and how it has helped drive climate change while opposing and sabotaging attempts to address it. Yet for the same reasons Amnesty admits to disregarding the role of U.S. imperialism in human development, the regime has almost entirely ignored the neoliberal root causes that implicate their own governments and funders in ecocidal neocolonialism.
Despite how tenuous the justifications for neoliberal development actually are, the ideology has never before held such hegemony within the sector. Paper after paper recommends some variation of 'mitigating private sector investment risk,' or 'encouraging greater access to financial services,' or even 'encouraging private/public partnerships.' Anyone in the field will recognize the problem, and yet it's rare to come across analyses which question the consensus that profit-motive can be successfully employed in the task of helping the poor (despite ample evidence to the contrary from the United States). Ironically (or perhaps not), given the extent to which they are correctly a target for opprobrium, one of the few organisations to regularly speak up (and receive inevitable, dogmatic pushback) is Oxfam, possibly due to their now-ruined financial independence.
"Our development theories are monopolised by capitalist notions, which makes it is impossible for us to see the economic diversity that actually forms social life. Development in any discourse always stands for a deepening and a universalization of Western-style capitalist modernity." - AMARTYA foundation
How is it that a sector full of well-intentioned, intelligent people who really do want to help those less fortunate is still found sharing and promoting a neoliberal model of development that does not work as envisaged? What will happen to the industry as neoliberalism collapses? Those will be the questions for part two of this piece, but for now a recap.
The neoliberal development regime is not responsible for the reduction in global absolute poverty levels, nor is it a net-positive for human development. Everywhere neoliberal values have been pushed, the result has been ecocide, rising inequality and underdevelopment-by-design. Meanwhile, wherever alternatives are tried, the regime takes its cue to focus international outrage. While many practitioners strive to do good, their own governments, their own donors are systematically undermining all of their work, be it through the clandestine use of the private sector to inflame tensions and influence elections across the developing world; tying populations to disastrously-conditioned IMF loans agreed to by complicit politicians, or the support of occupation and genocide for geopolitical and corporate gain. The unaddressed reproduction of colonial-era power dynamics is so extreme, even human trafficking and child sexual abuse have become endemic in UN peacekeeping efforts.
China, while by no means perfect, is showing what development can achieve in today's technological age. By that comparison, the scale of the regime's failure is laid bare. It is time to accept that the neoliberal development regime is, and always has been, a tool for spreading and legitimising neocolonial empire, built on the foundational presumption that the West can, and should, shape the developing world in its own image.