A question of ‘development’

We are currently working on a paper for the International Conference on Community and Complementary Currencies in Lyon. We’ve titled the paper “Deploying Timebanking for Human-scaled Economic Development.” A copy of our accepted abstract can be found here. We are collecting data on time bank organizing as part of this paper through an online form that can be found here.

One reader expressed concern about our decision to use the term ‘development’ in the title. In particular, they are worried that time banking risks becoming linked with the colonialist, neoliberal enterprise of developmental economics. This is no small matter, as ideas of modernization, progressivism (in the sense of transition from ‘primitive’ to ‘advanced’ states or pseudo evolutionary perspectives which assume ideal end points, not in the sense of political reform movements), and development have been consistently linked to the disempowerment of those on the fringes of society while enriching those in the center. Indeed, the idea of dependency theory emerged to draw attention to and address these effects of standard economic thinking.

The commentator states that time banking is “something that is fundamentally shifting the purpose and ethos of economics. For me, time-banking refers more to a restoration of communities, relationships, worker dignity, and environmental sanity, by slowing down, valuing our time, and building our economic system from healthy roots.” We completely agree with this. For us, time banking is particularly significant because it draws direct attention to those left behind by contemporary economic practice and offers a way to address the marginalizing and alienating effects of economics in our communities. It is a technology that has the potential to rebalance the relationship between edge and center through direct empowerment.

However, we are not yet prepared to jettison the term ‘development’ and abandon it to standard economic thinking. We could be wrong about this and we would like to hear people’s input, but we would like to lay out some of our reasons for keeping the term.

We are in a very real sense pursuing a project of economic development. Many who we intend to engage with –  in city government, academia, and community organizing – use the term. By using similar language, particularly with a project as radically different as time banking, we facilitate our ability to engage with those people. Other terms risk coming off as too associated with particular movements and narrow thinking. There is a need to distinguish between meanings of the term. However, we would rather the task of reclaiming and reorienting understanding than cede our ability to make claims within particular circles. In the process we would like to demonstrate how those doing developmentalist work can continue to do so only in a more humane, responsible, and meaningful fashion. We want to be on the side of those working on economic development while showing them that their work can be improved by focusing on value creation within our communities. Time banking is decidedly not an us-versus-them enterprise; it is a we-all-together one. This needs to include established institutions, too.

Development does imply a limited set of ideal endpoints. Indeed, one of my colleagues refers to progress as change in no direction except one. The one direction is towards the idea outcome. Anything else is simply change or deviation. Within ecology, restoration faces similar difficulties. Restoration is usually back to something specific. Perhaps, for instance, it is a pre-industrial or pre-1492 Americas ecology. It looks at what the ecology was at a particular time and assumes that as the goal. Often this is accompanied by estimating at the types and patterns of vegetation at that point and replanting in a corresponding fashion. This does not necessarily include consideration of the different in chemical, physical, and ecological conditions between that time and now.

Community restoration, therefore, is not a good fit. We don’t want to treat any historical moment as ideal and attempt to recreate it. We neither think there was an ideal point nor think that recreation is possible. We have considered the language of regrowth. This, for us, focuses more on the processes and interactions between people and their local conditions. It doesn’t assume a particular form of outcome as preferable, but rather a set of behaviors and their relationship. It is true that we have preferred outcomes, but we don’t want to adhere to them to such a degree that we prevent better ones from coming about. We believe that as long as processes of community interaction and engagement are in place, as long as we stress the value of everyone, and as long as maintain the importance of strong co-creating relationships, the ability to keep our economies aligned with our communities remains.

Regrowth and development are closely related, though. We can easily talk about plant communities and ecosystems as developing. In well-functioning ecosystems, development does not imply an ideal outcome but rather the ability to adapt to changing conditions while maintaining functionality. If we can remove particular goals from our concept of economic development and allow for development to be understood as strong functionality within and between different sectors, so that corporate enterprises need to account for strong communities as much as they do their most immediate trade operations, we can rescue developmentalism.

We may, of course, be mistaken. We are eager to hear your thoughts.

2 thoughts on “A question of ‘development’

  1. Development and restoration imply leaders holding the power which controls a follower. And as both these ideas are means, what is the ends. Shouldn’t the goal be community ecology or community sustainably?

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