On February 12th 2016 Rebecca Hollender spoke to our International AFE class about Alternatives to Development. Ms. Hollender is a PhD Candidate at The New School’s Milano School of International Relations and Public Affairs. She has over a decade of international experience, including six years in Bolivia working at grassroots and political levels. She was chosen to represent the Bolivian Delegation at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 17), Durban, South Africa (Nov-Dec 2011) and U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). She facilitated a working group of 50 Bolivian NGOs engaged in climate change, and has authored numerous academic and popular publications on climate change, environmental politics, and extractivism in Bolivia.

As Friedman students, we are used to sinking our teeth into concrete international development research and methods. Thus it invigorated us to consider the more ideological aspects of development. Typically so enmeshed in how best to implement development, we seldom step back to consider whether we should do it at all. Ms. Hollender shared a number of counter models to development that are emerging from (for lack of a more appropriate term) “the developing world.” The various Alternatives to Development models range in scope, but share a number of critiques of modern development. They consider development practically and conceptually flawed in the following ways:
1) Development is clothed in a concept of modernity as defined by Western civilization: a modernity that aspires toward wealth, economic growth, industrialization. Modernity is not equal to well-being, especially not for all sectors of society.
2) Development is top down. In many instances the goals of funders undermine the goals of the communities they purport to serve.
3) Development is a tool used by certain systems of domination, namely colonialism and capitalism. Development’s colonial remnants re-traumatize societies and inhibit their self-actualization. It is impossible to separate capitalism from its history of exploiting people and resources. Furthermore the boundaries of our planet cannot survive capitalism; inherent to capitalism is more and more consumption, often of finite resources.
4) Development is contradictory to its own goals. It causes many of the problems it purports to remedy. It exacerbates co-dependence, both poorer nations dependent on foreign capital in place on their own interior resources, and wealthy nations dependent on low-cost commodities and labor supplied by developing countries.

For our internationally-minded IAFE group, those were disquieting critiques, yet not completely foreign to us. Many of our IAFE class members have experienced the bitter side effects of development, having lived in communities whose well-being and goals were neither understood nor effectively supported by distant funders. Obviously quality of life and economic growth often go hand in hand. But because economic growth so often occurs at the cost of exploiting people or natural resources, Alternatives to Development questions its primacy, invoking other definitions of well-being. Based on each distinct culture or community, a definition may or may not include: leisure time, time spent working side by side with family, material goods, time outdoors, land ownership, communal spiritual health, sleeping well, sitting down for meals, access to travel, access to technology, access to education, economic wealth, among others. Development leans toward a more narrow set of priorities defined by external agendas, instead of self-determined by the “served” community.

So if not development, then what? Ms. Hollender exposed us to some alternatives, of which I’ll name only two:
1) The Buen Vivir alternative comes from Andean Kichwa, Quechua and Aymara populations. This indigenous model has found its way into progressive social agendas, even political discourse and legislation in some Latin American countries. In contrast to modern development, Buen Vivir seeks to change the market’s role in defining how humans relate to one another economically. Buen Vivir emphasizes human well-being, the fullness of life, spiritual health, and honoring the intrinsic value of nature by living within its physical limits.
2) The Post-Extractivism model decouples a society from the most dangerous or unethical extractive industries, while incorporating social-cultural measures to moderate materialism and consumption. Extraction and export of primary materials maintains subordination to industrialized countries and transnational corporations. Many material commodities are subject to price volatility, further weakening the export country’s economic independence. Recognizing that extractive industry dependence fails to address underlying causes of poverty as well as the climate crisis, Post-Extractivism reforms larger economic systems through a progressive elimination timeline.

Similarly to many development agendas, these models aim to improve peoples’ quality of life. However, the alternatives seek to do so outside of the presumption of economic growth, always discerning why, how and where growth needs to occur. They emphasize the distinction between success economically and success culturally, spiritually and ecologically.

Proponents of Alternatives to Development stress that they are not out to merely reform development, nor create a one-size-fits-all proposal to replace an antiquated system. Alternatives to Development allow for the possibility of multiple solutions. In many cases they are not solutions-oriented; they are open ended with no clear end-goal in sight. This rubbed our IAFE class a funny way. Rooted in our Americanism, we have been trained well to assert clear goals and strategies. Yet this cultural clash was perhaps the most important realization of our lecture. It unveiled the cultural limits of our understanding. How easy it would be for us well-intentioned outsiders to set goals for a foreign community – goals that were of no interest to them.

It seems like a distant utopia to imagine an international development scene independent of large funders tethered to their agendas and those of foreign governments or corporations. Current development structure and global markets make it difficult to break the co-dependence of developed and developing nations. But we learned from today’s lecture and readings that small-scale alternatives are making headway and pushing their way onto the international scene. Regional partnerships are enabling communities in developing nations to set agendas more appropriate to their local populations, without the interference of foreign manipulation. Even though reform of the present development system is not the goal of Alternatives to Development, their bottom-up influence has resulted in reforms: many development methods now utilize more balanced measurement tools (such as the Genuine Progress Indicator) for calculating true quality of life improvements. Finally, more and more organizations are emboldened to reshape the system. We saw this in our discussion last week with Aaron Ebner, who has challenged development funders by redefining “scaling up” to mean building long-term viability instead of short-term expansion. His organization, Andean Alliance for Sustainable Development, has rejected the traditional development (and its funding), which proved detrimental to the sustainability of their local work.

Alternatives to Development are emerging as viable options in a world where endless economic growth is no longer sustainable. Since many developing countries face intense pressure for growth from development agencies and investors, less quantifiable cultural, spiritual and ecological values are a challenge to safeguard. As outsiders we lack the sense of belonging to fully understand and defend those values. But today’s lecture was a glimpse into the myriad of possibilities beyond our imagination. Going forward, I think our entire class will be more apt to slow our pace when assessing the needs of a community. We will be more conscious of the cultural backbone that exists between the lines of economic progress. We will allow ourselves to think with our hearts in attempt to understand the communities we aspire to serve. For those of us who enter into development work we will more astutely consider whether our funders’ goals align with the communities’. Hopefully we will seek the help to understand those community values lest, blinded by our well-intentioned goals, we miss them altogether.