Post-Development Perspectives

Last Updated on February 6, 2017 by Karl Thompson

The Post-Development Perspective became popular in the 1990s. Theorists from within this perspective are critical of Western models of development, arguing that development was always unjust, that it never worked, and that developing countries should find their own pathways to development.

Post-Development as a Rejection of the West
Post-Development as a Rejection of the West

Escobar (2008) criticised modernisation theory for being ethnocentric. He argued that it was only ever interested in making poor countries like rich countries and was dismissive of many ancient philosophies and traditions which had worked in poorer countries for thousands of years. According to Escobar this is both arrogant and disrespectful, and created the potential for opposition and conflict.

Escobar argued that the Western model of development justified itself by claiming to be rational and scientific, and therefor neutral and objective. However, in reality, modernisation theory was a top-down approach which treated people and cultures as abstract concepts and statistical figures to be moved up and down in the name of progress. Modernisation theory effectively denied people within developing countries the opportunity to make their own choices and decisions.

Sahlins (1997) argues that Western Aid agencies often incorrectly assume that people who lack material possessions are in poverty and are unhappy. However, he argued that people in developing world may have few possessions, but this does not necessarily mean they are poor. They may actually be happy because they belong to a supportive community and they have the love of their family. This idea has been practically applied in Bhutan where development is measured in terms of Gross National Happiness, rather than Gross National Product.

Other post-development thinkers argue that modernist explanations of underdevelopment have rarely sought contributions from sociologists and economists who actually live in the developing world. McKay argued that development strategies are too often in in the hands of western experts who fail to take account of local knowledge or skills and that development often has little to do with the desires of the target population.

Post-Development sociologists further argue that Western models of development have created a diverse set of problems for the populations of developing societies. Indigenous peoples have been forcibly removed from their homelands, grave environmental damage is being done to the rainforests, children’s labour is being exploited and aggressive marketing of unhealthy products is taking place all over the developing world, all in the name of achieving economic growth and the name of progress.

Some post development sociologists conclude that development is a hoax in that it was never really designed to deal with humanitarian problems, rather it was about helping the industrial world, especially the United States to maintain its economic and cultural dominance of the world.

Consequently, post-development thinkers argue we need alternative models of development rather than the industrial-capitalist model promoted by western countries.

Post-Development Perspectives – How should developing countries develop?

Korten (1995) argued that development needs to be more ‘people centred’ – which means given people more of a say in how their communities (and countries) develop and getting them to play more of a role in the process of development.

Similarly Amartya Sen (1987) argues, development needs to be about giving people independence so they have real power and choice over their day to day situations, it shouldn’t be ‘top down’ coming from the west, via governments and then trickling down to the people.
People Centred Development theorists also have a much broader conception of what ‘development’ could actually mean. They don’t believe that development has to mean them becoming more like the West and development shouldn’t be seen in narrow terms such as industrialising and bringing about economic growth, development projects should be much smaller scale, much more diverse, and much more coming from the people living in developing countries.

Because of its support for diversity, there are many different paths to development within the Post Development/ People Centred Development perspective. Examples include:

  • Socialist models of development – where governments control most aspects of economic life – such as in Cuba
  •  The Islamic model of development – adopted by Iran – where ‘development’ means applying Islamic principles to as many aspects of social life as possible, rather than focussing on economic growth as the primary goal.
  • Indigenous peoples maintain traditional lifestyles, effectively rejecting most of what the west has to offer is also something post-development perspectives support, as in the example of Bhutan


Appropriate Development

Post-development perspectives aren’t against charities or western governments giving aid, but they want aid to be ‘appropriate’ to local communities where development is taking place. Thus this perspective generally supports the thousands of small scale fair trade and micro finance projects around the world are good examples of PCD style projects embedded in a global network.

Criticisms of Post-Development Perspectives

All the other theories argue that, eventually, if a poor country really wants to improve the lives of its people en masse in the long term, it needs money, this can only come from industrialisation and trade, is it really possible to improve standards of living through small scale projects?

Focussing solely on small scale development projects still leaves local communities in developing countries relatively poor compared to us in the West, is this really social justice?

In a globalising world it simply isn’t realistic to expect developing countries (such as Bhutan or groups living in the Rain Forest) to be able to tackle future problems if they remain underdeveloped – eventually population growth or climate change or refugees or drugs or loggers are going to infiltrate their boarders, and it is much easier to respond to these problems if a country has a lot of money a well functioning state and a high level of technology.

Post-Development perspectives are too relativistic – is it really the case that all cultures have equal value and diverse definitions and paths to development should be accepted? Do we really just accept that patriarchy and FGM are OK in places like Saudi Arabia and Somalia because that’s what their populations have ‘chosen’?

Related Posts

‘People Centred Development’ is closely related term to Post-Development – for the purposes of A level sociology, you can effectively treat them as the same thing!

Modernisation Theory was one of the main theories of development which Post-Development perspectives criticise:

Further Reading

Arturo Escobar – a post-development thinker to be reckoned with (Guardian Article)

This is a useful blog post on post-development perspectives


This post was mainly written using the following source:

Aiken D, and Moore, C (2016) AQA A Level Sociology Student Book 2, Collins.



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