A Non-Liberal Account of Development
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For much the 20th century, development aid to the deeply impoverished nations of the Global South has taken the form of humanitarian assistance. Development projects have been motivated, first, by a humanist principle that all people everywhere deserve basic human rights and freedom from want; and, second, by the widely accepted belief that the Global South is entitled to receive extensive reparations for centuries of colonial exploitation. Together, these two views have made development work the near-exclusive province of liberal humanists, and thus most development projects are designed to advance ideological positions that are popular in Western democracies: individual liberty, equal social standing, fair opportunity, and fair political representation. But while the liberal-humanist ideology is valid on its own merits, it is neither the only nor the best available normative framework to underwrite development efforts. This paper argues that development workers—especially international NGOs and transnational activists—should design projects that incorporate a communitarian, morally particularistic, and non-liberal (but not illiberal) ethic that respects the collective determination of groups without requiring the affirmation of individual free agency. This proposal follows some recent collectivist shifts in the literature on Amartya Sen’s capability approach to justice, which is explicitly or implicitly adopted by many development projects based in the Global South. An increasing number of critics in the last decade have argued that the approach’s liberal-humanist foundations hinder rather than promote its usefulness in eradicating systemic poverty while respecting local communal values. This paper sides with these critiques and takes them a step further, suggesting that development workers who subscribe to the capability approach should commit more fully to a communitarian ethic founded on moral particularism.
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