Peeping under the Nuga-Leaf of Development


Many Ministries proudly sport ‘Development’ in their name. Development Studies graduates, called Development Stormtroopers are being mass manufactured and yet….

Many ministries have the word ‘development’ in their name. Development studies graduates, called Development Storm-troopers are being mass manufactured and yet….

Political economy appears to us much like sexual congress to puritans. Something best not bruited about at all. Certainly not out loud. Neither in company polite or public. If fumbled at, such analysis is usually befuddled beneath buoyant reams of the flimflam of fabric mislabeled ‘Made in Sri Lanka’. 

Yet like genitalia that sometimes stick out unscripted to parse the zippered symbolism of pious poets and parsimonious pervs, political economy can intimately lay bare not just the inactions and dysfunctions of our private and public leaders but the very throbbing roots of our social disquiet as well.

Politics AND economics interwoven as history is a relatively nouveau art and science. It suffers the usual quantum of charlatans and poseurs. And Political Economy is still overwhelmed by presumably sexier ‘cultural’ histories that explain the world through genes, heroes, villains, their quirky ideas and random deeds. 

It is no surprise: Henry Ford said “History is bunk,” yet his eponymous US Ford Foundation (behind which the corporation avoids paying taxes, simultaneously procuring to itself ‘goodwill’ as munificent philanthropists) has underwritten many gigabytes of histories. Albeit of the cultural kind, they rarely refer to the economic forces that perfuse our lives. Violence, ‘ethnic studies’ of conflict, women’s oppression, are all linked to some ‘original sin’ of human nature, and legion are the tomes that bewail our presumably primordial and ever-fractious backwardness! 

But what economic plan can undergird any resolution or platitude or holy communion? They have no answer.  A confessor’s taciturnity prevails. If and when Ford (or some foreign governmental ‘non-governmental’ front) does fund economic histories or commentaries on our countries, all the miasmic traumas they fulminate against are masked by that full-body fig-leaf of a trope: “Developing!”

Ever Emerging, Always Developing…but…

Much-mouthed and over-tongued is this English adjective: ‘developing.’ It is used to delineate the economies of our (and most) countries. The word is deeply loved by corporate and ministerial press-release publicists, bankers, NGO royalty, bureaucrats (UN and other) and their playthings: the politicians. Yet the word is indeed patronizing, let alone downright deceitful. 

“Babiarchchi is developing,” when recorded (wink, wink, wink) on the child Babiarchchi’s school report card, politely implies : “This little imp is brain damaged and possibly dangerous though much hope is still invested in distant possibilities (and assorted straitjackets – pharmaceutical or martial).”

And so with us. The word ‘developing’ is used to tranquillize ourselves and Babiarchchi’s parents that all goes well.

In the Jayavardana-Reaganite-Thatcherite 1980s, stockmarket croupiers and touts began to use the world ’emerging’ to flatter our economies. And, almost 4 decades later, ’emerging’ we remain, like a sun seen in a far distance that never leaves the horizon, a ship always sailing towards us, that never comes ashore!

But the words ‘developing’ and ‘development’ still get saturated play.

Corporations are proclaiming development of the sustainable variety! These sunny eco-salarymen and their Malthusian NGO shadows suggest the ‘development we have is “unsustainable!” “Sustainable development” is like those other fancy tags primped by imperialist intellectuals: “Postmodern” or “PostMarxist” – when we never got our mitts on modernism or Marxism to begin with!

‘Developing’ is repeated over and over again, as palliative and decorative, while its countering locution ‘underdeveloping’ is hidden away much like those cringing genitalia or our brain damaged kin Babiarchchi, lest it bring down the good name of the family.  ‘Underdeveloped’ after all suggests not lagging or cultural ineptitude but the active prevention of development.

The Lost Continents of Underdevelopment

Now it is one thing for the white man to fool us, or us them. It is another thing to fool ourselves, or Babiarchchi, who will one day make plans of her own.

Most countries in our world get this trope ‘developing’ tagged on like a permanent leg iron. ‘Developing’ joins other vocabulary like ‘ethnic’ and ‘jungle’ – only found in our parts of the world, and if located over there in them nether white lands, is largely an unwelcome export from here. No Englishman would ever refer to themself as ‘ethnic’ – unless paid a salary! And any cumulation of arboreal density there, is invariably a forest, or woods – though if uncultivated, dark, and given to shooting and hunting, they call it a ‘moor.’ Some jungles became ‘Rainforests’ – a tribute to capitalist theories not of ecology, but scarcity!

The word ‘development’ was rarely used prior to the 1930s. The popular English word for getting ahead was ‘progress.’ And when it came to our part of the world, the words used were ‘modernization’, or ‘Westernization’, and very briefly: ‘industrialization.’  

It was Karl Marx whose book Das Kapital (read by few, quoted by many, misunderstood by even more) first used the term ‘economic development’: “The country that is more developed industrially only shows to the less developed, the image of its own future.”

But the word ‘development’ used by the English historians of empire, came to camouflage the more rapid plundering of ‘natural’ resources. In 1929 the English parliament passed a Colonial Development Act, not for people, but for ‘resources’ they salivated to devour. When this booming ‘development’ (stealing of natural resources) seemed to have done little to ‘develop’ people over or around these resources, some suggested that the term ‘backward’ be applied to us, with development then referring to ‘non-human’ resources. Along the way of course workers came to be referred to as ‘human resources.’

Trying to locate the long-lost continents or plumb the deep subconscious of the Political Economy of Underdevelopment is not difficult (though the economist SBD de Silva’s classic of that name is a must-read book albeit very difficult to locate!) 

A Yaksha three-wheeler driver may note that the three-wheeler, made in India by bringing together hundreds of parts made in factories there, sell at least 20,000 product units to Lanka every month.  She may point to the also imported and whimsical ticker of time and money and declare: “Bankers need a meter more than 3-wheeler drivers!”

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