Wandering Thoughts

September 2, 2009

Utopian Thinking for Development Folk

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:27 pm
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Development work is arguably the death of utopianism. You enter it wanting to save the world, after a few years you’re just happy if your spreadsheets reconcile.

More seriously, development is a business of enforced pragmatism, compromise and incremental change – there isn’t that much room for dreaming of utopia. Nevertheless, Erik Olin Wright’s guidelines for utopian thinking provide a useful schema for development thought.

Wright suggests thinking about Utopias in terms of desirability; viability; and achievablity.

Is your utopia desirable – i.e. would it actually be a nice place.

It it viable – that is, would it ever work – would the constraints of human nature ever allow it to exist.

And is it achievable – could we ever get there from here.

Something similar works for development:

In the case of desirable – you can ask ‘what do you really want from development?’ What will the end goal look like if everything goes well? Is it simply material wealth; or human development; or are you unsatisfied with these and seek one of the alternative developments the post-development people talk about. Maybe you think development is an undesirable objective full stop.

So ‘desirable’ is treated more or less the same. But viable and achievable are shifted from descriptive criteria to questions about change.

In the place of viable – what you really want to ask is: what does country/region/community X need to do to get to this desirable state? What needs to change?

And in place of achievable, what you want to ask is what can we as external agents do to contribute to what is needed. It’s this last question that is, I think, the real kicker for aid agencies. It’s not that hard to envisage what a better development state might look like for most places; its also not that hard to describe what needs to change. It’s much, much harder to outline just what you can realistically do to bring about this change.

Ok – enough rambling for the evening…

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1 Comment »

  1. […] Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should strive to equalise global income as a tool to eliminate poverty. Let’s consider that proposition using Eric Olin Wright’s 3 criteria for utopian thinking. […]

    Pingback by Meanwhile on the back of a very small envelope… « Wandering Thoughts — October 4, 2009 @ 1:42 pm


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