Are you a ‘progressive development thinker’?

I’ve noticed the increasing use of the term ‘progressive’ attached to a particular analysis of development, aid and especially the role of the market recently. The latest to lay claim the term is Owen Barder in a blog on the Centre for Global Development website: ‘progressive development thinkers’, he argues, ‘support the partnership between governments and the private sector’ in the manufacture and distribution of vaccines, against the ‘minority of NGOs’ (presumably they are whatever the opposite of progressives are – regressives perhaps?) who question the logic of jumping into bed with Big Pharma.

I’m rather unfairly picking on Owen, from what is actually an interesting and well-thought out blog. And he’s not alone in linking progressivism with a particular set of approaches to development. Browse the websites of social enterprises engaged in development and poverty reduction, and the word appears again and again. It has been attached to Dambisa Moyo (although I don’t know whether she herself would lay claim to this badge).

This attempt to colonise the higher ground is not new, nor confined to development. Look at the politicking before the 2010 general elections in the UK in which all three political parties sought to define themselves as lying at the heart of progressive politics. So whilst Gordon Brown declared the future for British politics to be the ‘progressive alliance’ of the Lib-Dems and Labour, Nick Clegg in turn described the Coalition government as the ‘new progressives’. Cameron himself announced ‘we are progressives’ in positioning the post-Thatcherite brand of conservatism in this increasingly crowded space.

So what is ‘progressive development thinking’? The current usage, borrowing from political discourse, reflects a more market-focused approach to development: encouraging partnerships with private sector actors; a less critical (but not necessarily uncritical) approach to market-based solutions to development problems; economically (as well as frequently socially) liberal. But there is also an implicit (and sometimes explicit) link with the positivism of Comte, Mill and Spencer – an attempt to portray itself as empirically-minded, based upon hard evidence and statistics, against the woolly-minded qualitative value-driven theories of those it would criticise. Thus the fact of the private sector’s greater contribution to poverty-reduction and saving lives than, say, aid, or the state, is presented as fact, not theory. It’s not that simple, of course. ‘Progressive development thinking’ to adopt the current usage, is as value-based as the ideas it seeks to criticise. Nor are critical approaches necessarily less evidence-based.

Does it matter? Of course people try to brand their own ideas and theories as not only practically, empirically, demonstrably correct, but also morally just. In this, those on the left, or those who critique pro-market orthodoxies from other perspectives, are no different from their ideological counterparts. But the shifting nature of what counts as progressive does make it increasingly difficult to define oneself. For ‘progressive’ has a long tradition within the politics of the left. Today’s ‘progressives’ may have been yesterday’s ‘radicals’, and heading for tomorrow’s ‘conservatives’.

So what are you? Did you think, perhaps you were a progressive before the ground upon which your ideas were based shifted? And if you are no longer progressive, what are you: post-progressivism anyone?


Development thinking  – a quick (and admittedly rather simplistic) guide:

Modernist: Planned ‘Development’ will make the world a better place

Post-development: No it won’t, just better for the already rich and powerful. There’s no such thing as development.

Alternative development: Well, you’re right that ‘development’ as it currently stands isn’t really working. But I still think it could work better if we did things in a different way. But we agree that neo-liberalism and market-based solutions are wrong

Positivist: Now your being naïve. Let’s face it, the private sector has done more good than aid in reducing poverty

Post-positivist ? Hmmm, hang on a minute. I can see a role for the private sector, but the state is also important you know. And you can’t trust those big companies really.


About Mike Jennings

I am Reader in International Development and Head of the Department of Development Studies at the SOAS, University of London. I research, teach and write on Africa, and the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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