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The Anthropology of Development 101: The Discourse on Development and Its Effects


The Anthropology of Development 101 intends to review the contributions of anthropological knowledge to development theories and practices in ‘underdeveloped‘ and ‘developing‘ societies, as well as the critique of development as a social, economic, and political phenomenon. It critically examines the major theories, strategies, institutions, and the social consequences of global development while emphasising what development means in relation to particular places and people. By placing development theories and practices into broader historical contexts, these articles look at development as a dynamic phenomenon that is continuously shaped and reshaped by new social, economic, and political circumstances.

This 101 series is divided into six articles including:

  1. The Anthropology of Development 101: The Discourse on Development and Its Effects

  2. The Anthropology of Development 101: The Challenge of Participatory Approach to Development

  3. The Anthropology of Development 101: Neoliberal Approach to Development: Microcredits vs Unconditional Cash Transfert

  4. The Anthropology of Development 101: The Gendered Politics of Development

  5. The Anthropology of Development 101: The Development of Difference: Rethinking Indigeneity, Ethnicity, and Social Movement

The present article investigates how discourses of development are generated and what are their effects. Development discourses refer to the process of articulating knowledge and power through which theories and practices for social change are constructed and reproduced. The ways in which people have been talking and writing about development and the rules according to which they have done so have changed over time. Drawing from Foucault’s understanding of discourse, the article explores the origins of development discourse and shows the significant discontinuities that led to the recognition of multiple discourses.

What is Discourse?

From a Foucauldian perspective, discourse is a complex network of statements that are linked to a “referential” which is construed as “laws of possibility, rules of existence for the objects that are named, designated or described within it, and for the relations that are affirmed or denied in it” (Foucault, 1972, p. 91). Discourse serves to define what constitutes knowledge, delimits what can be said, or understood, and determines who has the authority to speak within that discourse. Discourse establishes the conditions of existence for any given statement. At the same time, it is transient, discontinuous, and situated within a history, making its alterations and disappearance possible (Foucault, 1972).

Michel Foucault (1926 -1984), French philosopher, historian of ideas, writer, political activist, and literary critic

Foucault’s insights into the importance of discourses, power, and knowledge have enabled scholars to undertake similar inquiries into development. Discourse is a structured practice that has real effects on the world; it produces practices that form the objects of which they speak (Foucault, 1972). The way things are thought about, described and spoken of profoundly influences and shapes development practitioners’ actions. For Fairhead and Leach (2020), the discourse has the ability to define problems and justify interventions in development institutions. Development practitioners use a particular form of language that follows specific rules and that is shaped by the “acceptable statement and utterance” within which they live (Ferguson, 1994, p. 18). Discourse on development identifies not only ways of practising development but also how practitioners speak and think about it; their actions result not only from the interest of several actors but also from the elaboration of this complex structure of knowledge.

The Discourse on Development

Drawing on Foucault (1972) and Said (1978), Escobar (1995) investigates how the “Third World” has been produced by the discourse and practices of development since post-WWII (p. 4). He argues that “thinking of development in terms of discourse makes it possible to maintain the focus on domination … and at the same time explore more fruitfully the conditions and possibility and the most pervasive effects of development” (Escobar, 1995, pp. 5-6). The emergence of the development’s discursive practice post-WWII was closely related to the professionalisation and institutionalisation of the field of development; it constructed an efficient apparatus for producing knowledge about and exercising power over the “Third World” (Escobar, 1995, p. 9). Discourse on development was embedded in a top-down, ethnocentric, and technocratic approach that considered peoples and cultures as abstract concepts and statistical figures to be displaced in the chart of “progress” (Escobar, 1995, p. 44).

Ideology and representation of development through discourses

Ferguson (1994) moves beyond the critique, which assumed that development was inevitably an expression of imperialist interests, to investigate how development work in specific historical contexts. The author shows that discourse portrays Lesotho in a highly distorted way so that development interventions appear as the only appropriate solution to the country’s problems. The World Bank Report on Lesotho describes the country as being a “traditional peasant subsistence society” that is “untouched by modern economic development” (Ferguson, 1994, p. 31). According to Ferguson, this distortion of reality is not the result of poor scholarship, but it is done on purpose. By describing Lesotho as a less developed country, this discourse emphasises the suitability of Lesotho for development interventions.

Production of knowledge about development

As development agencies produce knowledge about the causes and conditions of being “less developed”, they fail to recognise the actual economic, social, and political factors related to poverty. By addressing the issue of poverty from a technical standpoint, discourses depoliticise it. This echoes Li’s (2007) study on the rationale and effects of improvement programs in Indonesia. In her research, she explains how development — or improvement programs — are depoliticised by the discourse and actions of development practitioners. These actors identify “deficiencies” that need to be rectified and relate them to a solution in a systematic manner. Development agencies produce a particular type of knowledge about poorer countries that, when translated into actions, have effects that do not correspond to the project’s intended goal (Ferguson, 1994; Li, 2007). By focusing only on technical aspects in a quasi-systematic manner, development practitioners rarely provide solutions that correspond to people’s reality, needs, and wants, nor do they question the failure of most improvement programs or the further marginalisation of people.

The Multiplicity of Discourses

A too-narrow focus on the discourse of development, however, does not account for the “multiplicity of voices, [the] multiplicity of knowledge” (Cohen, 1993, p. 32). The risk here is to undermine the complexity of development, confine development institutions to homogenous and all-encompassing entities, and portray development as a monolithic enterprise. This also gives a certain understanding of development, as controlled from the top by the totalising power of its discourse, in brief, as all-powerful, unified, and beyond influence. In contrast, Hobart (1993) argues that there is not one singular discourse but several co-existent discourses of development.

It is now commonplace to hear that there are many paths to development, each built on a different cultural base, and using different tools, techniques and organizations. The assumptions underlying the view that it would be sufficient to transfer western technology and expertise no longer hold. It is not the ‘native’ who is backward, nor is it a failure to incorporate the ‘human factor’ which is at fault, but the essential inappropriateness of the western package that was on offer (Marsden, 1994, p. 41).

Preston (1994) further distinguishes three main discourses of development. The first discourse is the state-engendered order and the intervention of experts situated in UN agencies and embodied in multilateral and bilateral agencies. It is the post-WWII discourses, characterised by “elaborated authoritative, interventionist ideology” (p. 135). The second, the market-engendered spontaneous order, emerged in the 1970s. It is institutionally located in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Finally, the discourse of the public sphere is based on the affirmation of modernity and the “optimistic reason-informed pursuit of formal and substantive democracy” (Preston, 1994, p. 223). It is mainly found in university research institutes and NGOs.

The intersection of multiple voices in development discourses

Different, and often contradictory, views may come into conflict when planning and implementing a development project. Development is always negotiated by a variety of actors and has several, and unexpected, effects. Li (2007) proposes to take into account the perspective of different actors that are involved — directly or indirectly — in development projects, including missionaries, the local population, development practitioners, NGOs, and so forth and highlights the conflicts that emerge from these actors’ various interests.


Development discourses do matter. They offer a particular way to look at countries’ “problems” and provide technical solutions to improve people’s ways of life. More recently, development agencies have adopted a bottom-up approach to development, emphasising the social and cultural aspects of people’s lives (Escobar, 1991), or have broadened the concept of development to encompass empowerment, which stresses the social dimension of development processes as well as the individuals’ and local communities’ responsibility for their own well-being. While these approaches have their own limitations, they show nonetheless that there is no single development discourse fixed in time, but that development discourses are plural, overlap, and can be changed. Development discourses reflect development agencies, their philosophy, and their practices. Different structures of knowledge can shape different actions and thus produce different outcomes. A closer look at development discourses, as continuously constructed and contested, allows a better understanding of what development “does” in all its complexity and variation. It also raises the question of the future of development, how can discourse be framed, as an alternative to contemporary development models, in a way that responds to people’s needs?

Bibliographical References

Cohen, A. P. (1993). “Segmentary Knowledge: A Whalsay Sketch”, in M. Hobart (ed.), An Anthropological Critique of Development: The Growth of Ignorance. London: Routledge.

Escobar, A. (1991). “Anthropology and the Development Encounter”, American Ethnologist 18 (4): 658-82.

Escobar, A. (1995). Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fairhead J. & Leach M. (2020). Webs of power and the construction of environmental policy problems: forest loss in guinea”, in R. D. Grillo and R. L. Stirrat (ed.), Discourses of Development: Anthropological Perspective. London: Routledge.

Ferguson, J. (1994). The Anti-Politics Machine: 'Development', Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Foucault, M. (1972). The Archeology of Knowledge (translation A. M. Sheridan Smith). London: Tavistock Publications.

Hobart, M. (1993). “Introduction: The Growth of Ignorance?”, in M. Hobart (ed.), An Anthropological Critique of Development: The Growth of Ignorance. London: Routledge.

Li, T. M. (2007). The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Duke University Press.

Marsden, D. (1994). “Indigenous Management and the Management of Indigenous Knowledge”, in S. Wright (ed.), Anthropology of Organizations. London: Routledge.

Preston, P. W. (1994). Discourses of Development: State, Market and Polity in the Analysis of Complex Change. Aldershot: Avebury.

Said, E. (1978).Orientalism. London: Routledge.

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Valentine Hallard

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