Working Group 4: Re-Thinking, Re-defining, Re-positioning: “Development” and the Question of “Alternatives”

Kristina Simion, The Australian National University, (
Paola Minoia, University of Helsinki, (
Julia Schöneberg, EADI and University of Kassel, ( 

Critiques of development of the last three decades have clearly pinpointed the many flaws in the way development is theorised and practiced (Escobar 1985, 1992; Esteva and Prakash 1997, 1998; Ferguson 1990; Kothari 2005; Kiely 1995; Munck 1999; Rahnema and Bawtree 1997; Sachs 1992; Schuurmann, 1993; Ziai 2012, 2016). We are well aware that established and conventional ways are leading to a dead end.

This may be the reason why debates about development are constantly claiming to rethink and re-position established ways of defining and practicing “development”. Attempts are proposing “alternatives”, meaning new actors and approaches, and formulate challenges to conventional ways. The suggested “alternatives”, however, seldom constitute more than a re-branding of conventional methods of development that are based on colonial power relations and hegemonic structures. The alternatives fail in fundamentally questioning underlying paradigms from a decolonial and critical perspective.

This session explores “alternatives” as they are variously defined by conference organisers, donors, and researchers from a decolonial and critical perspective.

We invite contributions dealing with one or more of the following questions:

  • Is it time to abandon the term “development”, rather than continue attempts to redefine alternatives to it? Is “transformation” an adequate substitute concept and, if so, why?
  • What do “alternatives” really mean? From whose point of view? Who defines the “other” choice and for whom is that choice? Alternatives to what and by whom? – Does “alternative development” imply special/specific ontologies, research paradigms and methodologies?
  • How do we as researchers (and practitioners) practically approach issues of alternative knowledge (co-)production, expertise and representation? Whose knowledge counts and why?
  • Can alternative approaches and actors receive institutional recognition, how, and is it important or would be more relevant to work beyond state-based institutions?
  • Are there practices of alternative/transformative projects that have worked fostering changes on human rights, social and environmental justice etc.?

Selected participants have been asked to prepare a poster or some other kind of visualization. During the session we will do a walkabout of all pieces before coming together in a plenary discussion involving all contributors and session participants.

EADI Working Group on Post- and Decolonial Perspectives to Development (


1. Blog post: Has development failed? Some conceptual musings. Rebecca Gutwald, Munich School of Philosophy.

“Africa is like a person who’s fallen into a hole. Someone is telling her, “I’ll throw you a rope, so you can get out”.” While the rope provided is never quite long enough for her to her to grab on to it, it’s long enough so she has a hope of reaching it. At the same time, the person holding the rope has thrown down a spade, and is encouraging the person in the hole to dig herself in deeper.” Wangari Maathai, Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, thus paints a vivid picture of how years of development aid for Africa have achieved the complete opposite of its objective.

Given the precarious state of many African countries, it is easy to argue that development has not worked. In his post-development studies collection “The Development Dictionary” Wolfgang Sachs claimed that “the idea of development stands like a ruin in the intellectual landscape”. Do we need an alternative? Transformation, as well as trendy new concepts like resilience, seem more promising. If we could transform societies as a clumsy caterpillar transforms into an elegant butterfly, wouldn’t that be great?

What, though, would it mean to transform? Transforming means change in composition or structure. New fields like transformation studies work at the interface of social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences to grasp the complex dynamics of social change in a globalized world. And yet, the question remains whether transformation should replace development as a paradigm.

Looking at the history of development studies and ethics, the term has undergone a considerable change, shifting the focus from the increase of GDP to human development on a broader scale. Ongoing debate and critical scrutiny is not a sign that a concept should be thrown in the historical dustbin. Rather, development theorists and ethicists need to be in dialogue with other disciplines, e.g. transformation studies, in order to find more plausible ways to fill out a concept that remains alive and kicking precisely because of an ongoing debate. After all, the main goal is not a conceptual war in which a winner is crowned: it is not giving enough rope to the person in the hole for climbing out.

Suggested artwork: I would like to use painting or collage of “poverty porn” or similar material to highlight the problems that Maathai describes. I want to combine this with some visualizations of resilience and transformation (butterflies, plants that grow under adverse conditions) to highlight how the discourse can inform development ethics and studies.

2. The end of EU development policy. Jan Orbie and Sarah Delputte, Ghent University

The European Union (EU) is widely recognized as a major player in international development. European policy-makers rarely fail to emphasize that the EU is the world’s largest donor. Also within the discipline of EU studies, a growing number of scholars have focused on development policy. However, following a period of enthusiasm about the EU’s ‘unique’ contribution to international aid effectiveness in the 2000s, recent accounts emphasize the severe challenges that face EU development policy.

Through a critical realist lens, we argue that these challenges cannot be fully understood without accounting for the existential crises of the notion of ‘development’ in Europe. In doing so, we aim to bridge the EU studies literature with the de-colonial turn in development studies.

First, we describe the multiple crises of development policy. Relying on existing studies, these are summarized as the triple-i challenges: (i) institutional (limited legal competences, difficult political coordination, and bureaucratic turf battles); (ii) impact (limited poverty eradication, decline of EU ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power); and (iii) instrumentalization (development tools used for security policy, trade and investment purposes).

Second, we argue that one needs to analyze the underlying debates that constitute the current malaise of EU development policy. Beneath the triple-i challenges lies a series of existential debates about (a) what development is, (b) what development cooperation is, and (c) why we should have a development cooperation policy. While critical scholars and activists have longer raised these issues, we show that they have come to more and more to affect mainstream debates in European development policy.

Finally, we reflect on how this heralds the end of EU development policy and on the likelihood and desirability of alternative scenarios.

Our poster will provide a graphic visualization of the triple-i challenges, the existential debates beneath these, and how EU studies can be enriched with insights from the de-colonial turn.

3. The Other in Me (I). Juan Telleria, University of the Basque Country.

Looking for alternatives to development, there is a tendency to look at the Other. In the search for inspiration to overcome our own limitations and constitutive contradiction, we focus our attention on different ways of thinking, living, feeling, designing, and acting. “The key for alternatives to development may be in those who did not shape the concept” (implicitly or explicitly) we assume. However, in this way we tend to fall in the same old epistemic contradictions: idealization of the other, objectification of the other, knowledge-power dynamics, etc.

This presentation proposes the opposite assumption: the key for alternatives to development may be in those who shaped the concept. If the actual conceptualization of development is rooted in the intellectual, political, economic, cultural history of the West, we could find within this history the elements to challenge our own understanding of development. What disruptive turns did not happen in our own intellectual history? How things would be if we re-think our concepts by forcing those turns to happen? Perhaps the alternatives are not in the Other as such, but in the Other that I could have been (but I do not). The alternatives to the One I am may be in the Other in Me.

The Other in me (II)

My presentation focuses on the two interlinked assumptions that mainstream development thinking could never get rid of: (1) Essentialism: human beings have a natural essence; and (2) Fulfilment: development is the process of fulfilling such essence. In other words, development is the process of overcoming the problems (conflicts) that impede the fulfilment of humans’ natural essence.

The work of Laclau and Mouffe challenges these assumptions: (1) there is not such natural human essence; and (2) identities are constituted through the conflictual and paradoxical internalization of the other – the Other in Me. Accordingly, conflicts are not “problems” to overcome, but the constitutive element of contingent identities. How we think the future within this ontological framework? How we deal with problems starting from these alternative assumptions? Is “development” the answer? Development of what?

4. Re-Thinking Urban Development Through Re-Defining Informal Urbanization. Toktam Ashnaiy and Erhard Berner, ISS Erasmus University.

Imagining capitalism without proliferating urban development is hard. Urbanization is pushed toward the production of a rational physical and social landscape for capital accumulation and has played a crucial role in the dynamics of capitalism. As a result of the urbanization of capital, the underprivileged and marginalized people who suffer foremost from this process are dispossessed of any “right to the city” (Lefebvre). They are deprived of living formally in the city. That is why informal urbanization is increasing rapidly. Urban development has been accompanied by the discovery of informal space as a contrasting perspective. Hazardous and miserable spatial and social forms of urban settlements which are described as slums, shantytowns, squatter settlements are rapidly growing. Urban marginality represents the “unplannable” city and is considered a problematic phenomenon. Building on paradigms of decolonial and critical perspectives, the informalized poor are presented as “heroic entrepreneurs” (De Soto) and urban informality as “a new way of life”( AL Sayyad), “production of space” and a “practice of planning” (Roy). In fact, it is declared as an alternative and autonomous urban order rather than a problem. Urban informality is presented as an “invisible revolution” (De Soto) of a grassroots uprising against top-down planning. Also, it is understood as flexibility, negotiation, and a constant struggle for self-development. The new perspectives on informality have redefined an alternative for organizing space, negotiating the right to the city and a form of “deep democracy” (Appadurai) even though it is not a distinct and bounded sector of labor or housing. This asserts informality as an ingredient of a post-capitalist order. There is a conceptual shift from informality represented as a marginalized sector to informal urbanization as Do-it-yourself urbanization. By applying the post-development approach to this paradigm shift, the aim of this paper is to translate this shift into possibilities of re-thinking an alternative to urban development arising from the local contexts of Tehran (Iran) from the viewpoint of the grassroots experience of communities. Although it is not a universally applicable alternative, the results could help change the beliefs and understanding of urban development and informality.

5. Feast Zuleika Bibi Sheik, ISS Erasmus University Rotterdam.


I am hungry for it.

With gluttonous abandon,

I devour it.

Leaving you depleted.



Still you come back for more.

Why? Because I promised you something.

A piece of paper.


A seat.

A table.

Ah…your ancestors fell for that too.

So many generations, yet so little learned.

Once a coolie, always a coolie*.

You say you are doing this for them.

But you did not heed their warning.

Silly, they could not read,

what’s your excuse?

A print too small.

You can stay here you know, and feed off the knowledge of others as I do.

Drain them, deplete them, leave them worse off than before.

Call this research.

We will reward you, praise you, hell we’ll even give you that piece of paper.

Go on then…this is what you came for.

Cannibalise yourself in the pursuit of knowledge.

Gnaw on the bones of your ancestors.

Drink their blood spilled in the (sugarcane) field.

So that you may arise, anew…in my own image.

And…whilst we drown you in a black gown.

Think not of your ancestors draped in the kala pani.

Think not of their sweat fertilizing the soil.

Think not of their tears watering the sugarcane.

Think not of their backs broken to sweeten my tea.

Think instead that you are one of us now…and feast.

* Coolie is an unskilled labourer employed cheaply, especially one brought from Asia.

Kala pani means black waters, referring mainly to the Indian Ocean. By crossing this ocean many

Indians feared they would loss their caste, social standing and cultural identity.

This poem is an attempt to start thinking about the ways in which a decolonial bio-graphical sensing can be used to challenge the universality of theological (Renaissance) and egological (Enlightenment) politics of knowledge production.

It draws attention to colonial wounds in order to trace the geopolitics of knowing/sensing/believing and the body-politics of knowing/sensing/understanding (Mignolo, 2011) and in doing so liberates sensing and the body from Cartesian ways of knowing. The medium of poetry is used here in Audre Lorde’s (2017: 1) words as “that distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding”.



Lorde, A. (2017) The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. Penguin Classics, UK.

Mignolo, W.D. (2011) ‘Geopolitics of sensing and knowing: on (de)coloniality, border thinking and epistemic disobedience’, Postcolonial Studies, 14:3, 273-283.

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