Review of Gilbert Rist, The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith

The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global FaithThe History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith by Gilbert Rist
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I bought this book purely by chance. While visiting—with no particular intention to buy any book—the main bookstore in Ljubljana, I came across this book. It was discounted from €25.23 to €16.99, so I thought this was a good opportunity. Especially because at my doctoral study I have a subject titled: Environmental and sociological aspects of sustainable development, as one of our core courses, presented by professors Katja Vintar Mally and Drago Kos

The first thing that caught my attention was its title. Why the history of ‘development’, why not a history of ‘sustainable development’, that is such a buzzword these in last decades. After reading this book, I’m actually convinced that my subject at the doctoral program should use the word ‘development’ and not ‘sustainable development’. The author—who considers himself to be an advocate of ‘post-development’—very convincingly presents the case for the history of development and not for the history of sustainable development, for example. Namely, sustainable development is only one stage in the very intriguing history of development. It remains to be seen if it is the final stage or the hyped impactful stage, as the Rist sees it.

Regarding the title of the book, in my opinion, it would be even more suitable to call it a: The Critical History of Development. But the subtitle is more than appropriate, as the author really is describing the field of development from its western origins to global faith. Rist with this book questions the main purpose of the process of ‘development’, first of all, this idea to relieve the misery of others—both in North and South—by structural measures, no matter if others are living in a different continent. Job more than well done.

As I mentioned, Rist is approaching the history of development within a critical perspective, whereby as ‘critique’ he understands in its Kantian sense of free and public examination and not in the ordinary sense of unfavorable judgment.

In my opinion, the best job Rist does at the beginning of the book, in the first chapter, where he defines the term development. He starts by defining what is a good definition? And this explanation serves him very well throughout the book, where he examines various stages of development endeavor and is though able to evaluate them set by these criteria set at the beginning of the book. Rist offers its own definition of development, and explains it quite in detail, for which I can only say that it is realistic but that it sounds rather depressing.

To me, two things stand out in the book. How the author, through Aristotle, defines the meaning of the word development. And another, is the first use of the word development in modern times in the field of high politics. For Aristotle, science was supposed to be coextensive with nature. And the origins of the word ‘nature’ in Greek happen to come from the verb phuo (in Greek φύω), which means ‘to grow’ or ‘to develop’. I checked in Wikipedia, and it doesn’t mention the meaning ‘to develop’, but it does mention ‘to grow’ and other meanings like ‘bring forth, produce, generate’, ’cause to grow’ and ‘to beget’, ‘give birth to’ among several others. And the latter—the first high profile mentioning of the word development—, is supposed to be common knowledge actually, but I didn’t hear it from my professors (as they were lecturing us about sustainable development). President of the USA, Truman, famously mentioned ‘development’—in order to justify the process of decolonization—in its inaugural address in January 1949—, an infamous ‘Point Four’. Very convincingly throughout the book, Rist explains that Point Four inaugurated the ‘development age’. President Truman spoke in that Point Four—the first three points being the continuation of the backing of the United Nations Organization; the Marshall Plan; and the creation of NATO—about economic developments, about a program of development, capital investments in areas needing development, about cooperative enterprise for the achievement of peace, plenty and freedom. Noble goals, no doubt about that.

The main focus of the book is to critically explain the development of the development initiatives after the second world war. Rist explains all the stages and all the initiatives taking place. And critically examines them. Rist does the job by examining decades, not necessarily in completely linear order. The 1950s was the decade where the United Nations build its agenda around three related issues: human rights, decolonization and ‘development’. Times of the cold war, the 1960s begin with the widely acclaimed success of Rostow’s book, The Stages of Economic Growth. Rist goes to some length to examine the shortcomings of this book but recognizes its influence. Of particular interest to me was the examination of the French-speaking authors in the book, such as Francois Perroux, who has defined growth as ‘the combination of mental and social changes in a people that make it fit to increase its total real product, cumulatively and durably’. Risk brings out also a little article, which he digs from near-total obscurity, from Dudley Seers, titled ‘The Limitation of the Special Case‘. Seers’ propositions—for example, to fund a new discipline called ‘development economics‘—were mainly overheard by the corporation of economists of its time.

The 1970s brought the Second Development Decade, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly. And with it the New International Economic Order (NIEO), proposed by the heads of state and government of the non-aligned countries. NIEO was supposed to promote ‘development’ as envisaged in mainstream economics—economic growth, expansion of the world trade, and increased aid by the industrial countries—but instead of combating dependence, the NIEO in Rist’s opinion only confirmed it. Rist examines also an approach from the What Now report, where its authors—more than a hundred people who favoured a critical approach to development and gathered in small groups in Uppsala, The Hague, and Algiers—acknowledged that there is no universal formula for ‘development’.

Rist summarizes the 1980s in two words: structural adjustment or also as the ‘lost decade’. The end of the 1980s brings us the ‘sustainable development’, that Rist examines like a cover-up operation. It is supposed to allay the fears of the effects of economic growth and so not to allow for any radical change. New Millenium has brought as Millenium Development Goals—and now also the Sustainable Development Goals, which Rist does not cover, but I’m quite convinced he would very critically examine them too—, so nothing is new, really. This fifth edition of the book has also a new chapter by Rist, but I was not so impressed by it, as its sources are mainly from newspapers and magazines and not journals. It is impressive though that this book is in its fifth edition, which only confirms that the foundation of the book has been really well laid.

What came as the biggest surprise to me in this book? That Rist on several spots mentioned Bruno Latour and his book We Have Never Been Modern. Rist does not go into detail to explain Latour’s position but nevertheless, he does warn us in the right places of the book of the unnecessary dichotomies at the interface of nature and society. This strength of Rist’s book presents also its weakness. In terms that Rist’s references come really from wide fields, so it’s not possible to cover them all in details.

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