Discourse and Power in Development

By Vedika Inamdar.

This article examines Arturo Escobar’s applications of Michel Foucault’s insights on discourse and power to the field of development and the relationships between the Global North and the Global South.

The Global “Rich” North vs. The Global “Poor” South (Source: UCL)

One of the most prolific French philosophers and social theorists, Michel Foucault (1926-1984), provided fundamental insights on discourse and power. His work has been applied to various fields of study within the social sciences. One such application is the work of Arturo Escobar who applies Foucault’s insights onto discourse, power, and knowledge in Western societies to the development of the Global South.

For Escobar, Foucault’s insights allow for two main critiques: Development as Western disciplinary and normalizing mechanisms in a variety of fields to the Global South, and the production of discourses by Western countries about the Global South as a means of effecting domination. 

Developing the ‘Underdeveloped’ 

After the end of the second World War, Western institutions became increasingly occupied with the problem of dealing with ‘underdevelopment’.  With the invention of development, new types of power and knowledge are deployed in the Global South which try to ensure the conformity of its peoples to a certain type of economic and cultural behaviour. Not only the economic, but also the socio-cultural and political systems of the Global South are being permeated and appropriated by the socio-cultural systems of the ‘advanced countries’. For example, Western expectations of working hours that don’t fit labour patterns in the Global South. 

During the post-war years a whole new strategy for dealing with the problems of what came to be known as the ‘underdeveloped world’ emerged. All that was important in the social, political, economic, and cultural life of the poor countries (population, processes of capital accumulation, agriculture and trade) was adopted into this new strategy. Experts were sent out with the purpose of formulating ‘comprehensive’ development programs and the mushrooming of different development agencies and their strategies began. The historical context under which this strategy arose began with the reorganisation of power at the world level (breakdown of the colonial systems of power, march of Communists to power in China, and the ‘Cold War’). Important changes were taking place in the structure of production, which required accumulation of a capitalist system (capital accumulation for profit maximisation is the aim of the system), where the countries of the Global South played an important part. It was only a matter of time till the ‘underdeveloped’ became ‘developed’ due to the technology and the strategy of the Western countries that would ensure global progress and happiness. 

The Structure of Discourse 

The elements with which development began to concern itself were all-encompassing, guiding all areas of life across all spatial levels. Development was the result of a convergence of theories, institutions and intervention strategies towards one fixed status quo. The arrangement and systematic assembling of these various elements provided a unity and resilience to the discourse of development, making it sustainable and adaptable. For Escobar, there exists a need to examine development as a discourse to understand how the West constructs, creates, and manages the Global South. Historical conditions under which discourses arose, the structure of the discourse itself, relations of power and knowledge made possible by the deployment of development are important for the study of development in the context of the Global South. For Escobar, there exists a need to examine development as a discourse to understand how the West constructs, creates, and manages the Global South.

The Deployment of Development

The discourse formed around development brought with it the problems of ‘underdevelopment’, ‘malnourishment’ and ‘illiteracy’ that had to be managed and reformed. This problematization required information gathering and report-writing. Escobar calls this the ‘field of intervention of power’. 

Through the professionalisation of development, Western institutions deployed the study and practice of development abroad. To deal with the problems through the field of intervention, subfields and subdisciplines within the practices of development were developed. These areas of study eventually became scientific and more technical, hence more removed from the larger political environment. This led to the formation of a ‘field of control of knowledge’ that was influenced and dominated by economics. 

The institutionalisation of development is made possible with the creation of international organisations such as the IMF, World Bank and various UN bodies. These bodies become agents of deployment of development though the ‘dispersion of centers of power-knowledge’. With those strategies the discourse of development has succeeded in creating a type of underdevelopment that is manageable. Escobar claims that Development as a discourse is a real historical formation, articulated around a fictitious construct (underdevelopment). This discourse reproduces a set of power relations that are maintained through development organisations such as the World Bank, the United Nations, and the International Monetary Fund. The power that the discourse of development provides is visible through the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programs that most countries of the Global South had to adhere to. 

Escobar claims that Development as a discourse is a real historical formation, articulated around a fictitious construct (underdevelopment).

Why must we look at the Global South? 

Foucault’s ‘totalizing character of power’ that power is all encompassing inevitably took on a global form and spread across all societies, and hence they must be analysed. The tools to analyse power make it possible to study the discourse of development. There are important connections between how power is exercised and resisted between the developed and the developing world that need to be analysed. 

Why should we care about the discourse of development?

For Escobar, only by writing a ‘history of the present’ can we develop a ‘historical awareness of our present circumstance’. A strategy against Western domination involves working on a ‘new economy of power relations’ by taking resistance towards different kinds of power. The aim is to study those forms of resistance which question the status of the individual, the privileges of knowledge, various forms of exploitation, domination, and subjugation. To the multiplicity of power relations the strategy must respond with multiple localised resistances and counter offences. Localised resistances must be of a radical nature to confront the reality of power. Rather than a massive revolution, counter offences must be developed by a network of struggles, points of resistance and should be scaled to a global level. 

Counter-discourses and Resistances: Participatory Action Research as a Way Ahead

A crucial historical juncture made possible the deployment of development that led to the social control of the Global South. This also led to the formation of opposing discourses. The leaders and intellectuals of the Global South (such as heads of State) started adopting the same method of the advanced Western countries to speak on behalf of their own people. These counter-discourses operated within the same field of power as the dominant strategy. However, these counter-discourses are ineffective in resisting the domination of Western institutions because they reproduce the same power relations.

Escobar highlights the importance of Participatory Action Research (PAR) as a strategy of resistance: from a philosophical point of view PAR is concerned with the question of popular power i.e. the investigation of the mechanisms necessary to develop counter-power for social transformation and their relation to the production of knowledge. PARs are open ended and dynamic, everchanging to adopt to new needs that arise for the people. It also branches out into new directions and rejects the idea of ‘objective’ knowledge. 

Thus, for Escobar – applying Foucault – the discourse of development must be dismantled if the Global South hope to overcome the problems of poverty, unemployment and inequality. Only by analysing how through the discourse of development power is maintained and reproduced can we hope to achieve an emancipatory movement against forces of social oppression. It is also equally important to realise how the deployment of development under the garb of ‘underdevelopment’ seeks to maintain the underdeveloped status of the Global South for the sake of global capitalist expansion. 


Vedika is from India, where she completed an undergraduate degree in sociology. She worked at an academic research organisation between finishing her undergraduate degree and starting her Masters in Poverty and Development at IDS. She is interested in the anthropological and sociological sides of development and the application of social theory in the field of development.


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