The human: an alternative ground for ‘development’

Anthony Bogues argues that we need to move beyond focusing on development with all its historical baggage and focus instead on the ‘human’, which would mean rethinking human life itself and the sustainability of human life on this planet.

Development: a conception rooted in an evolutionary line of thinking

The idea of development emerged in the post-1945 period in the early aftermath of political independence for many colonies. This period marked the formal end of the European system of colonial empires. It is well known that colonialism did not create formally integrated local economies, nor did it create fully resourced human infrastructures that dealt with health, education and even literacy for the colonized. Moreover, the various colonial regimes oftentimes constructed deeply problematic ethnic identities. At the moment of political independence, one of the major issues that faced the new nations was: how would it tackle all the legacies of the European colonial project? From the perspective of many of the formerly colonized, political independence as a real project of decolonization meant designing a possible future that would meet the deepest aspirations of their populations.

On the other hand, within many of the former colonial countries, a discourse emerged with specific claims around development. By the 1950s and early 60s the Cold War was under way, and geopolitics revolved around Soviet communism versus liberal capitalism. It was within this context that W. W. Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non–Communist Manifesto became one dominant conceptual frame for thinking about development, which became primarily focused on economic growth, constituted through the workings of a liberal market economy.

Many of us have called this form of economics the ‘mirror’ method of economic thinking. It ignored the economic and social conditions existing in the newly independent countries and seemed to be more concerned about the geopolitical positions that these former colonies would take. In thinking about development as a historical concept, one needs to briefly recall the historical ground of its emergence and its framed arguments, debates and practices about what constituted ‘development’.

Many newly independent nations followed this model of ‘mirror development’. However, it quickly became apparent that the structures of economic and social life in many former colonies required rethinking. That this was done by political personalities and thinkers from these newly independent countries has been erased from the historical story. I wish to reference two individuals: the first is Julius Nyerere, whose extensive writings on the relationship between development and freedom have been forgotten. He argued that for Tanzania in the 1960s and 70s the key to creating sustainable economic life was the capacity of the country to feed itself and also to transform the educational system by making all Tanzanians literate. He also made it clear that ‘development’ was about freedom and being human. The second figure is Michael Manley who, as a political thinker and political personality, often made the point that ‘development’ was about human equality and freedom. For both Manley and Nyerere a critical dimension of development required changing the world economic order. In this regard they became central figures at the United Nations, advocating for what became known as the New International Economic Order.

Thus, in the midst of all the debate about what development is, there emerged a set of arguments and concepts from the newly independent countries that argued against a purely mechanistic economic view of society. The dominant view mapped development around the character of a country and an economic model based on the so-called ‘advanced’ countries. Alternatively, the tradition of thought and practices from some newly independent nations posited notions of equality, freedom and a different geopolitical order. For Nyerere, development already meant ‘human development’. 

Now, the present is not yesterday, although yesterday influences the contours of the present, so what would a so called ‘human-centred development paradigm’ look like? 

Even though it is clustered around an idea of human capacities or capabilities, I think there are aspects that are missing precisely because this conceptual frame is rooted in a certain evolutionary line of thinking, which goes back to exploring the ways in which economies differ from one another and then positing categories of ‘advanced’, ‘underdeveloped’ and ‘developing’.

One may ask then: how do we put the emphasis on the ‘human’ rather than ‘development’? To my mind, today this means rethinking human life itself and the sustainability of human life on this planet. In other words, while at the level of policy it is, of course, necessary to have different options, at the conceptual level we are faced today with foundational questions about the forms of human life we have created. Inequality in all its forms ravages the world; we are faced with the potential catastrophic effects of climate change; we are faced with the fragility of human life and now need to think carefully and hard about what we are as humans, and what we have become. The question of human development is not simply about the so-called ‘underdeveloped nations’, it is about us living as a species on this planet. 

In line with this, there is a second group of issues that emerges when we think this way, which relates to the idea that liberal economics brings all sorts of technological advances, which often are accompanied by extraordinary forms of inequality. In my view, even if one detaches the questions of health, which is a human right, or education, another human right, even if one thinks through the lens of human capabilities, there is a need to go beyond these frames and think about what circumstances actually constrain those capabilities in the first place.

Inequalities: interconnectedness and the dynamics of structural differences

It is clear that as human beings, to cite the Caribbean thinker Sylvia Wynter, we are ‘narrative beings’, which means we live in language. This means that we need to begin to raise critical questions about our various forms of contemporary life, and break away from a narrative of a certain kind of evolutionary process, which is expected to bring us somewhere – somewhere that is not precisely defined.

As such, the key questions are: what is human life in the 21st century, on this planet, about? I have been struck over the past years by protests in which people demand to be treated as human beings and where there is a claim for dignity. We need to ask ourselves, what do these proclamations mean? What are they telling us? We also need to think about the question of inequality in profound ways because it is an issue that is closely connected to questions of freedom: what does it mean to think about personal freedom? This question does not only rely on a certain attachment to ‘capabilities’. Rather, it is about a set of relationships we have – both between ourselves and with the state. So, one should ask: what forms of ‘governance’ and rules do we need to allow people to participate in decisions that shape their own lives? Doing this means we begin to think about different forms of democracy. In my work, I have been arguing that the heart of politics is not the political right to vote, as important as such a right is, and as much as it needs to be defended: the core of politics at this moment resides with trying new forms of common association, which directly links to forms of solidarity. Forms of solidarity are extremely important because they allow us to explore different practices that are not xenophobic, not driven by racial ideas, nor by patriarchal notions but driven by an understanding that somehow, we are all connected and that a society is about these connections. There is a remarkable phrase in the work of Frantz Fanon, an important thinker about human life and possibilities of freedom. Writing in the middle of the 20th century, Fanon asked: ‘Was my freedom not given to me then in order to build the world of the YOU?’ In other words, one issue that faces us is that of building a different set of relationships between us, one that takes account of colonial history, but at the same time seeks to establish a different basis for living. In this regard, I think it is important to think about how elite power works, and the relationship between power, forms of inequality, domination and freedom. 

Human development: in what direction?

What I am arguing is that we need to move away from an understanding of human development rooted in a certain kind of economistic understanding of human life and that comes in categories with a certain kind of historical investment in all of them. I think it is safe to say that part of the problem that we have in relationship to the biosphere is due to the fact that we think we are masters of the planet, which we can bend to our will. Of course, we can trace this historically to specific ideas within the various European Enlightenments. We also need to map this kind of understanding of mastery over the Earth to the ways in which colonial practices created ideas of property and a crude utilitarian (and quite frankly unscientific) view of science.

Closely connected to this is the question: what do we really mean by progress? Do we mean progress as a certain mastery of the universe, a mastery of technology or do we mean progress as our capacity to have certain kinds of relationships and solidarities with each other? Do we not need to rethink the meaning of progress? 

Over the last few hundred years, our particular conception of what it means to be human has been essentially organized around what some people would call homo economicus: humans as primarily economic animals. This is a framing in which individual competition and self-interest congealed into a social system in which profit ruled over all things. That particular conception, I would argue, has been disastrous for the Earth and human life. The conception has driven us fundamentally, whether we were in the North or in the South. It has also created a certain kind of masculinity. Indeed, the question of gender, and how patriarchy functions, becomes central in thinking through any new conception. Alongside this is how dominant conceptions and practices of human life are also shaped by racial categories. Racism consolidated as a form of hierarchical human classification has been a crucial feature of human life since the colonial moment. What is now important is to begin to have a set of discussions about what it is that we are, not as a question of identity: to have discussions not about some kind of fixed human nature, but rather about what we might become, what our collective responsibilities are, and how they are challenged by material provisioning, economic life, technological changes and artificial intelligence.

As much as it is critical to address challenges such as health, education, poverty and political participation, such discussions need to be underpinned by a rethinking of what we are, as humans. Indeed, this reframing allows the raising of other dimensions of critical importance: our relation to the biosphere and other inhabitants of the Earth, as well as our role and place within new technological systems.

What is it to be human?

I would say to be human is to have the capacity to be creative, to be able to recreate oneself, and to do that with a certain amount of freedom, not a freedom that is fixed and frozen but one that constantly emerges from the horizons of those who are unfree. I would also underline that we are not isolated individuals but actually social beings. Therefore, the question of being human is always related to the possibility of creativity and the question of doing things, but always in equal relationship to others.

This particular situation in which we now find ourselves due to COVID-19 shows us how much of a challenge (apart from the social and economic conditions that make it difficult for a significant number of the world’s people) it is to have social distancing, and to find ways to cut or minimize contagion. It tells us that on this planet, we are social beings and as such, the question is: how do we construct societies in common association that recognize and acknowledge the decisive need to break away from inequalities, forms of unfreedom and domination, and for us to live in a different way?


Photo: Brown University

Anthony Bogues is a writer, curator and scholar. He is the Asa Messer Professor of Humanities and Critical Theory and a Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University. He is also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg and the author/editor of nine books in the fields of political thought and critical theory, intellectual history and Caribbean art. 

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