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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 19 New Delhi April 27, 2019

Has ‘Development’ Ever Been Benign?: From the Perspective of the Last Person

Monday 29 April 2019, by Arun Kumar


Close Encounters of Another Kind: Women and Development Economics by Devki Jain; New Delhi: Sage/Yoda Press; pp. xxv+398; Rs 1095.

The book under review is by an influential economist who has consistently attempted to move the development debate away from its mainstream moorings. The Introduction itself begins with “The term ‘development’ — in my view, ... undermined if not destroyed the road to progress for the former colonies.” In Chapter 8, she argues that the development economists have been knowledge-proof. Even when things have not worked out, these economists have doled out more of the same rather than questioning their basic assumptions.

The volume is a compendium of fifteen essays written by Devki Jain between 1989 and 2014. From an anti-development stance she presents the twists and turns in the development literature since the 1950s. She says: “... ‘development’, like a robot, like an exterminator, was marching over the people.” She could see this clearly because she had a gender perspective which enabled her to see the marginalisation of women. She argues that mainstream macro-economic reasoning ignored the ground realities and needed to be rebuilt ‘from the facts, from the ground as studied and understood by the women’s movement’.

Chapter 9 narrates the author’s intellectual development over time and the Gandhian influence comes through as does the rich and varied experience she has had. Gandhi is a constant focus in her essays. The influence of her husband, an eminent Gandhian himself, is not mentioned but it must have been substantial. I had the honour of working with him in 1989 when we were working on the National Front Manifesto. Many of the issues raised in the book were discussed by us those days. I do not mean to imply a one-way influence but rather both ways and possibly stronger from her on him.

For her, Gandhi’s ‘last person first’ meant the woman in every group of society. Following this principle, she underlines: “ ... the importance of reconstructing economic theory, shedding the preoccupation with the GDP ... and that its rate of growth was not an enabling measure of a better life.” In Chapter 8, she argues, development has led to waste which often has not enhanced welfare even of the well-off sections. She echoes Marx when she argues that “inequality is perpetuated by the unequal distribution of power, and that the nexus between political power and economic power makes for an unbeatable adversary...”.

One of the most important questions con-fronting non-mainstream economists has been how to tackle inequality and how to break the nexus between political power and economic power. In spite of the author’s view in the concluding chapter, both inequality and the hold of international finance capital over politics has only strengthened in spite of the growing environmental and gender movements. Democratic movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street were short-lived.

Policies in the developing world are still largely subject to control by the IMF, Credit-rating agencies like Moodys and so on. Chapter 12 talks of the loss of the national policy space in the countries of the South. Greece capitulated rather quickly in recent years. In India too, the rapid increase in the number of billionaires testifies to the rapid growth of inequality, a point noted in Chapter 14. The missing element here is the black economy, which is the real cause of the inequality in India. (Kumar, 1999). In fact, the marginalised (women being the most important component) get even more marginalised by the black economy.

International finance capital managed to weather the global financial crisis starting in 2007. As noted in the concluding chapter, the global financial architecture enables the rich to circumvent national policies. The USA, where the sub-prime crisis started, suffered the least due to the dollarisation of the world economy. In fact, it has strengthened capital and weakened labour globally. While the author hopes that the emerging new world order presents the opportunity to build a feminist political economy and change things, the reality is that women have only got further marginalised. Their participation in work in India has declined.

Globally, there is a dramatic shift to the Right—the emergence of Mr Trump in the USA, Brexit in the UK, weakening of Merkel in Germany, emergence of Le Pen in France, political changes in Egypt, Brazil, India, and so on. This does not support the idea expressed in the concluding chapter: “Now, the location of economic energy has shifted to the South, giving an opportunity to feminists to transform develop-ment based on the ideas they believe in ...” China’s hegemonic global designs and shifts in Indian politics do not suggest a new dawn. Is this one more hope that is getting dashed by the domination of capital over labour?

Having women at the helm in South Asia has not helped bring about gender justice. Powerful Prime Ministers like Indira Gandhi, Sheikh Hasina, Bandaranayke and Bhutto have had only marginal impact on women’s position in their countries. Marginal immediate changes may look important at a point of time but over time, they may not amount to much as new issues arise. Big change requires mass move-ments that impact societal consciousness and takes time. In Chapter 14, the author notes, “... if the whole system is unjust, do we want to be included in it, or should we challenge it and transform it.” She illustrates this further by saying: “The engines of growth, even for those who consider GDP a misleading measure such as Sen and Stiglitz, are still constituted by Capital and Trade.” Thus, while holding out little hope, she suggests the Gandhian path: “Gandhi tried to enable his people to overcome such violence in moral ways, ....” A long term project for change but are its shoots visible?

Chapter 1 comments on poverty alleviation schemes with the plea to try policies for a while rather than hastily imitate them. The suggestion is for a long-term approach. It is suggested that NGOs have limitations and so do women-oriented approaches for more effective develop-ment delivery. But, the question is: can the market be the efficient mechanism for delivery to the poor? Chapter 2 points to the use or rather the misuse of vocabulary to distort social thinking of the public, especially the consciousness of the poor so that they begin to accept their own marginalisation. This happened also with the New Economic Policies in 1991 which were called ‘Reform’, a term generally used till then for pro-poor policies.

This theme emerges in Chapter 6 as well in the context of globalisation. This is a rich chapter with focus on international experience in the last few decades and the role of international institutions like the World Bank, IMF and WTO. But, three crucial issues that are missed out are: a) Is globalisation recent or a long-standing process with its different phases manifesting themselves over the millennia? b) What are the distinguishing features of the different phases of globalisation? c) What is the main characte-ristic of the present phase of globalisation?

Chapter 3 is a comment on a World Bank Report on Gender and Poverty in India. The author is critical of its attempt to give a macro perspective but it “... remained at the micro level. It pre-empted gender advocacy from influencing macro trends.” There is a plea for “a World Development Report based on the gender-differentiated analysis of development”. And “a ‘women’s plan for national development’ ....”. The issue that is flagged as one of the underlying propositions of the World Bank report, namely, “the market is the best engine of growth” has not been adequately discussed, especially, in the light of the argument that the present phase of globalisation is marketisation which is fundamentally marginalising (Kumar, 2013) and women are the most marginalised of all.

Marginalisation of agriculture is discussed in Chapters 7 and 11. Why agriculture is seen as a sunset industry and why food stocks rot while the poor go hungry? Seen in this context, right to food is critical but it is a palliative not a solution to the issue of poverty. All this is also linked to marketisation.

Chapter 4 also focuses on this when it is argued that “tools used were inappropriate and often destroyed whatever little belonged to the people at the bottom”. There is an admission that people with the ‘ear to the ground’ approach who were leading poor women into the ‘open world’ were doing disservice to them since the strategies adopted “were dangerous, even devas-tating”. Need for re-education is emphasised and Gandhi’s NaiTalim is mentioned but the lament is where are the ‘godly’ men and women which can make it work. The stance that seems to emerge is that it is not just education that is critical in building society but what kind of education? Education can reproduce society as it is or be an agent of change depending on its content. (Kumar, 2013)

Chapter 5 highlights the problem of free labour provided by women. Survey’s do not count them as working so that women’s actual economic contribution to family and society is not counted. Chapter 11 also raises this issue. The double burden on women in poor house-holds goes unreported even though at times they work 18 hours a day. Often the self-perception of women is that they are not working and this comes from the prevailing “dominant economic values” of our market dominated thinking about what is ‘develop-ment’.

Chapter 10, the longest in the volume, pulls together the various threads in the book in the context of the emerging new world order which is marginalising the workers. The focus on attracting foreign investments is leading to the decline of the trade union movement at a time when it is even more important to protect the rights of workers.

Recently Jack Ma, the founder of the Alibaba group, has approvingly talked about 996, signifying the growing exploitation of workers. Though there is a reaction to this, MNCs have been practicing this model globally. The large unorganised sector of the economy in India acts as the reserve army of labour. With growing automation, loss of formal employment is real and workers and managers are afraid of loss of employment and do not protest. The situation has turned even more adverse for the unor-ganised with demonetisation and GST with massive loss of employment and farmers crisis. (Kumar, 2019)

Chapter 11 talks of the linkages of growth, poverty and inequality and highlights the importance of changing the definition of poverty and making it multi-dimensional. It talks of the experience with local self-government and the need for a Gandhian bottom up approach. Chapter 14 focusing on inequalities suggests that the trickle down development theories need to be replaced by the ‘Bubbling up’ theory of growth. Chapter 12 suggests that non-alignment was a parallel journey for the former colonies and the women’s movement. Both were trying to escape oppression.

When every step that has been taken to alter the course of development to make it more equal and gender sensitive has failed in the last seventy years, the cause has to be deeper. It is perhaps the hegemonisation by the West which led to disruption of societies in the developing world. Further, globalisation as marketisation has brought about a philosophical change in thinking. Globalisation for the ruling elite in the developing world has meant joining the global elite which has increasingly sundered their connect with the local populations. What is completely missing from the volume is mention ofthe growing black economy (and illegality) and its impact on inequality, poverty, under-mining of national policies and people’s resistance to injustice.

The volume goes from optimism of the 1950s to the despair of the 1980s to the new round of optimism of the last decade where a new world order is seen to be emerging which offers the chance to create a more equal society. The present global political changes do not seem to suggest much hope for this but we need to strive. This rich volume is a must read.


1. Kumar, A., 1999, The Black Economy in India, New Delhi: Penguin.

2. Kumar, A., 2013, The Indian Economy since Independence: Persisting Colonial Disruption, New Delhi: Vision Books.

3. Kumar, A., 2019, Ground Scorching Tax, Gurugram: Penguin Random House.

Prof Arun Kumar is the Malcolm S. Adiseshiah Chair Professor, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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