Photo by — @martinshreder

The New Developers in Development

Developers and the developed in the backwards future forward

Before reading this article I would like you to keep in mind that I support the development efforts by a wide variety of people in challenging situations. Development is a pragmatic field filled with measures of idealism, politics and practical application. This article is a critique, yet a critique may be necessary to stress the responsibility of technology companies that can be overlooked in a development context.

Introduction​ — the Millenium Clock

The argument in this article is that previous anthropological work can be used to critique and inform new decisions in the UNDP, and help to revise its current digital strategy. Within this scope historical contingency in development is argued to be of great importance. The core argument is that the digital is viewed far too much in perspectives of divides rather than both cultural and material terms. Thus engaging with the ‘Future forward’ strategy of the UNDP one has to engage with the enormous growth of the technology industry. One central argument in the technology industry is rapid scalability and therefore, this article will end discussing a theory nonscalability in relation to the current UNDP digital strategy. This article as a statement seeks to explore the history of development and anthropological writing from the last decades to then critique the UNDP digital strategy 2019–2021.

The notion and function of ‘digital’ has an increasing role in development, so much so that the United Nations Development Programme has launched a digital strategy for 2019–2021 (UNDP, 2019). The strategy is available online and their introduction says the following:

“Future forward: AI, the Internet of Things, Blockchain, Virtual Reality; the future is coming @ us, fast. UNDP is splicing digital into its corporate DNA — harnessing its potential to do good for more people, better and faster.”

In terms of what is valued by the financial markets (market capitalisation: share price multiplied by shares outstanding) — the most valued companies were all technology companies in 2019. Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Alphabet (Google) and Facebook dominated the top five (Desjardins, 2019). Therefore, with UNDP understanding that it needs to attract private and public funding. It is fair to say its communicative approach would be strange if it did not recognise this as part of the overall picture.

Development as traditionally framed is not only about inequality, yet it could be argued to be one of the central arguments as to why it is important. One does not need to start with inequality, but then again one could. If so, Jeff Bezos is now the third richest man in the world, and he owns most of the digital infrastructure in terms of digital storage and physical sales on the planet. One man, and his companies, has become an empire wielding enormous power in a variety of locations. A man who can make hundreds of billions of dollars in profit and build a $42 million Millenium clock (strikes once every millenium) on his private property (Gartenberg, 2018), while at the same time not being able to afford sick leave for his warehouse workers during the spread of the Coronavirus (Au-Yeung, 2020).

Modernisation is a key word in this essay, exploring in a sense what it can mean, and how anthropologists in a constructive manner can continue to engage with the future tense in the present. Before exploring the UNDP ‘future forward’ however, it might be worthwhile to explore part of the past notions of development. In particular I will examine the broad outline of development and anthropology in development before discussing the UNDP digital strategy and scalability.

1. Development​ — back to the future of past modernisation

Development theory is often described in terms of two somewhat oppositional grand theories or paradigms, theories of modernisation and of dependency (Gardner & Lewis, p. 18–19). This is a short historical discussion of the developers and the developed in development. To discuss the validity of the critique of development it could help us to some extent understand how the notions of ‘developer’ and ‘developed’ have changed over time.

In an ironic, and literal sense, modernisation is not new. Before the Internet, cold wars and world wars modernisation was exceedingly popular. In colonial times thinking of modernisation was inspired by Adam Smith (1723–1790) and other Scottish economists/philosophers who argued that all societies pass through a series of four stages: (1) hunting and gathering, (2) pastoralism and nomadism, (3) agricultural, and finally (4) a stage of commerce. Therefore, in the expansion of the British Empire part of the thinking was dominated by the idea of commerce as the ultimate stage and the United Kingdom as its center. In this manner the developed were from certain parts of Western Europe and the goal was to develop commerce.

The German philosopher Hegel (1770–1831) thought there was an evolution of consciousness related to God — the mind had not progressed and hunters could safely be treated as barbarians. The anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881) argued for a critical link between social progress and technological progress with his theories of ​social evolutionism​. Still, this theory was about three major stages: savagery, barbarism, and civilization — arguing that ​progress was possible​ and linked to certain technologies. The developed civilisations had to cope with the savages and assist in bringing technologies so they could progress further.

With Charles Darwin (1809–1882) proposing theory of evolution, natural selection and adaptation, an increasing focus became racial distinctions — white, black etc. The American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1942) spent much of his life working against notions of social evolutionism often related to culture or race. However, he became involved with salvaging and preserving cultures — being criticised for historical particularism. For some the developed were races that could adapt, yet others argued against biological or cultural evolutionism.

Around a similar timeframe the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942) argued for a functionalist anthropology to understand the functions in a culture and to aid with ‘indirect rule’ in the colonies of Britain although administrators and anthropologists had different ideas (Foks, 2018). This is of course a gross mostly eurocentric simplification of events containing centuries, yet early notions of development as such carried with it a combination of imperialism, evolutionism and religion. One can argue of course this has carried over into our present time to some degree, yet emerging aspects in the past are worth discussing. The developed were colonial administrators (in empires), and the people to be developed were in colonies or slaves. In one sense the less developed were used for the developed to progress further.

One important event for development can be argued to have happened right before the United Nations came to be in 1945. It was the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, where gross domestic product (GDP) became the main tool for measuring a country’s economy. As mentioned, ingrained cultural beliefs of commerce as the highest form of civilisation or evolutionary adaptation is not likely to have disappeared by this time. It established a system of monetary management with rules for commercial and financial relations among the United States, Canada, Western European countries, Australia, and Japan. These meetings established the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), which today is part of the World Bank Group. President Truman held a speech in 1949; where the fourth point was the scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. The developed were the largest economies with higher GDP with production of goods as important, and the less developed had a lower GDP .

“The old imperialism — exploitation for foreign profit — has no place in our plans. What we envisage is a program of development based on the concepts of democratic fair-dealing. All countries, including our own, will greatly benefit from a constructive program for the better use of the world’s human and natural resources. Experience shows that our commerce with other countries expands as they progress industrially and economically. Greater production is the key to prosperity and peace. And the key to greater production is a wider and more vigorous application of modern scientific and technical knowledge.”
Harry S. Truman, Inaugural Address Thursday, January 20, 1949 (Bartleby, 1989)

A discourse of economic growth, as key to ‘prosperity’, became prevalent and modernisation theory dominating in the 50’s and 60’s. Foreshadowing this may have been French Durkheim’s (1858–1912) industrialised ‘organic’ society, German Simmel’s (1858–1918) pervasive monetary economy and Max Weber’s (1864–1920) discussion of Protestantism alongside industrial capitalism (Gardner & Lewis, p.19–20). One of the leading texts in this discourse was Rostow (1960) ​The stages of economic growth: A non-communist manifesto.​ The progress this time paraphrased was from (1) traditional agricultural society; (2) preconditions to take-off with national/international manufacturing; (3) take-off, a short period of intensive growth and new industry; (4) drive to maturity with increased use of technology; (5) age of mass consumption. The last stage characterised by mass production and consumerism placed the US in the centre as the capitalist. The developed were the mass consumers, capitalists and the people to be developed were in traditional agricultural societies.

Development in this sense was seen as an oppositional force to Karl Marx (1818–1883) socialist revolutionary views. The Soviet state communism invested in development to spread ideology and a worker’s revolution — while the US were developing states into this fifth stage and spreading democracy. In America there was a growing resentment of neo-Marxism, and it was often labelled as communist. Anti-communist sentiments were at a high in the 40’s and 50’s and McCarthyism, the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence, was very much present. It can be argued that the binary or dichotomous opposition became the free market — part of these economics was neoliberalism​ particularly with Milton Friedman (1912–2006), who received the 1976 Nobel Memorial

Prize in Economic Sciences. He was greatly inspired by Adam Smith’s invisible hand, taking it further to argue markets should operate on their own, detaching themselves from the state. Later this became popularised with an influential documentary series and book called: “Freedom to Choose.” Both the President of the U.S Reagan, and the Prime Minister of the UK Thatcher believed in and advocated free market economics in their policies. In addition to this as late as 1983 the U.S President Reagan delivered a speech branding Soviet as the “evil empire”. There was a continuing backlash against neo-Marxism in the 80’s within state and academia, particularly in the US. In this manner the developed were the free market democracies and the underdeveloped had a lack of freedom, open markets and democracy.

In the 70’s, dependency theory and neo-Marxist discourses grew with the perspective that capitalism was exploitative. This is said to have started with the economic commission of Latin America established in 1948 by the United Nations. Samir Amin (1931–2018) and Andre Gunder Frank (1929–2005) criticised Rostow’s stages of unilinear development. Dependency theories were on the rise with Immanuel Wallerstein’s (1964–2019) model of the centre and periphery — a ‘core’ of capitalism and south as periphery. By these different standards the developers were imperialists in the ‘first world’ and the developed were located south in the ‘third world’.

All prior and latter paragraphs written within this essay could be critiqued in the way it presents a simplified view of history. Freedom, development, democracy and free markets were all words that were used by different actors. Discourses and power could be questioned since both the less or more developed hold power by shaping definitions. These words or narratives can be used by states or companies, and in the 90’s post-structuralists questioned these stories. Claude Lévi-Strauss’s (1908–2009) structuralism was aiming for a scientific understanding of the structure of the human mind. Post-structuralist criticise the view that societies are coherent entities. Michel Foucault (1926–1984) was an important influence with his view that dominant discourse frames the world to make it legible and intelligible. Foucault used history to show changing perceptions. Who constructs the notion of development or ‘the west’? How is it used to impose structures? How is this normalised? In this manner deconstructing the stories of what developer, developed or development means in different contexts became important.

2. Anthropology & development in the 90’s and 2000’s

Through the 80’s towards the 90’s with the shift to discourse analysis critiques became important, and in that sense an anthropology of development as opposed to development anthropology. There was to some degree a distinction between development anthropology (where anthropologists work on development projects) and the anthropology of development (which studies the field of development anthropologically). Escobar (1991) proposed it was important to understand development from the local perspective and cosmologies, considering Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s arguments about radical worldview (ontology), in this sense development was too ethnocentric. Escobar understood development as a means to control. Ferguson (1994) describes and analyses the world of development as a place where the interest of the developers were higher than the communities they intended to develop. After having worked in the development world he produced a critical analysis of development cooperation. He used an example of his time in Lesotho, seeing the reduction of complex anthropological problems to technical ones. He termed this: “The Anti-Politics Machine.” There were attempts to measure development thereby forgetting the informal sector and local limitations. In these Foucauldian terms the developer constructs the developed through self-sustaining projects.

With a dominant economic discourse of Milton Friedman’s free market theories development strategies had been shifting to a market orientation, where the state tended to be seen as an obstacle rather than a facilitator. This was worthy of critique according to many anthropologists, especially as these ideas of the economy became combined with concepts of sociality and participation. The developer as such empowering the developed to make their own decisions. One can take two such empirical examples thought to be bottom-up (as opposed to top-down): empowerment. Aradhana​ ​Sharma (2008) studied a project in India that was meant to empower Dalit (also known as untouchables, an ostracised miniority group), a project called MS (Mahila Samakhya) aimed to educate women to improve their lives. There were however, lack in material and social conditions needing perhaps land reforms and changes in how the women were treated at home. The study revealed the concept as double-edged, giving ownership to problems while removing external support. Another anthropologist Sian Lazar (2004) did fieldwork in El Alto, Bolivia studying microcredit systems that she often termed as micro-debt. Again in this case there was a difference in the logic that the nonprofits had and the reality: money was borrowed and spent on urgent needs, or if funding was done (small stalls for example) the downturn in the local economy was too severe. It made old inequalities worse and caused debt traps. The developer can use empowerment as a social construct and financial argument while forgetting the local conditions of the developed or empowered.

The micro-loans in Bolivia were initially inspired by a micro-loan concept implemented in Bangladesh, yet the concept had been ‘franchised’ and implemented somewhere else. One developer can choose to implement an already developed idea and implement it for another group to be ‘developed’ at a different location. Policy franchising through participatory project management seems to have become an increasingly common practice. Maia Green (2003) similarly observes this, looking at how development professionals involved in a project in Tanzania creates a process imagined in a document and facilitates participations. Project design becomes a play, a framework with a disconnect where charts and causality flourish. One could argue that Robert Chambers’ notion of participatory rural appraisal with decentralisation and empowerment do not always play out as intended — participation has a lot of room for interpretation. There is capacity building from well paid consultants to produce reports for developers managing finance and the developed are participants in this interplay.

Local conditions have many times been misunderstood, Fairhead and Leach (2005) argue that forest in Guinea and forests in Côte d’Ivoire were managed by organisations that misread the history of the region imposing their assumptions structurally on these given societies. The developer shapes history and the history of those developed is forgotten or many times ignored depending on the goals deemed important by the developer. Leys (2005) argues similarly to Ferguson (1991) that anthropologists research that which cannot easily be measured or modelled. Concurrently Leys argues for a broader based, more historical and more explicitly political theoretical effort. David Mosse (2005) agrees with Ferguson, yet argues development projects can work with the acknowledgement that there are trade-offs. There is a dynamic between institutional context and local knowledge that is affected by changing policy. Although a practical approach in anthropology and applications are important I would argue the anthropological critique is equally important. Anthropologists often point out scalar gaps. I suggest that the argument of nonscalability in this sense is an important concept with both historical and political connotations for the UNDP digital strategy.

3. Nonscalability​ — future forward backwards

Tania Li (2017) asks us to focus on three stories in development. The first is the teleology of development that things are getting better. The second is the ‘will to improve’ or help will come and you can help yourself. The third story is that something is not right and a critical stance that there must be an alternative. In this she argues that one must connect these and ask how problems are defined considering what elements are left out. She considers the ‘surplus’ population: those that are not relevant to capital at scale. There is a question of scale that has become increasingly important in development, and Li partly describes this question as that of ecological ruin — and recently it has been described as the climate crisis.

Six graphs from World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice (Ripple et al., 2017)​ , a report supported by 15,364 scientist signatories from 184 countries

Following on from the Rio conference in 2012 on sustainable development the 195 countries signed the Paris Agreement in December 2015 to deal with greenhouse gas emissions. The scale was planetary, yet at a similar time it was local and limited, it was this shifting scalar focus that the 17 sustainable development goals were supposed to help tackle. The developers were all the nations of the world together and the developed were located around the world working towards these same goals. Within these goals were 230 indicators to help measure the success of sustainable development. One of these goals was goal 17: partnerships for the goals, and since each goal has indicators I thought it would be appropriate to show that technology is integrated into these goals. (United Nations, 2016)

The last 20 years technology companies have grown rapidly to cover much of the planet with their applications and platforms. Examples are Microsoft (est. 1975), Apple (est. 1976), (est.1994), Google (est. 1998), Tencent (est.1998), Alibaba Group (est. 1999), LinkedIn (est. 2002) and Facebook (est. 2008). In the span of only a few decades these companies have grown to be present in some way or another in most of the countries on the planet. The share of the population across the world using the Internet has increased dramatically from 2000 to 2017 (Roser et al., 2020) as seen below.

In this sense, although inequalities across this map are blatant, these new developers in development are becoming important due to financial clout as well as control of digital infrastructure. Bill Gates is known for having warned about the Coronavirus pandemic, spending billions to lessen the spread of disease and so on (Leaf, 2019). The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) is the American private foundation founded by Bill and Melinda Gates (his wife). It was launched in 2000 and is reported to be the largest private foundation in the world, with holding of $46.8 billion in assets. As a comparison UNDP had $7.27 billion in total assets in 2017 (UNDP, 2018a). According to an internal report UNDP had $5.5 billion in revenue in 2018, yet it also ‘leveraged’ $6 billion from public and private sources for sustainable energy (UNDP, 2018b).

Simultaneously economic scalability was becoming a term in international business, particularly with the growing technology industry worldwide. With the Internet, smartphones and a series of new technologies development as a practice continued to change. As the agreement in Paris was being signed, in the fall of 2015, a computer science class called ‘Technology-Enabled Blitzscaling’ appeared at Stanford University. It was taught by Reid Hoffman who helped to found PayPal, was an early investor in Facebook and was the co-founder and executive chairman of LinkedIn. In an Interview with Harvard Business Review (2016) he says the following:

“Blitzscaling is what you do when you need to grow really, really quickly. It’s the science and art of rapidly building out a company to serve a large and usually global market, with the goal of becoming the first mover at scale. This is high-impact entrepreneurship. These kinds of companies always create a lot of the jobs and industries of the future.” (Sullivan, 2016)

In terms of scalability I think it is pertinent to consider a theory proposed by Anna Tsing (2012). Namely that of nonscalability. She describes her theory as an: ​“…analytic apparatus that helps us notice nonscalable phenomena.” ​Tracking these notions of scalability back to the making of the plantation in colonial times, investments were made abroad carrying crops and slaves to inhabit ‘cheap’ or ‘free’ ground taken from locals. The triangular trade has been described in many historical accounts as a triangle with raw materials, slaves (labour) and manufactured goods. Tsing is arguing that scalability was a notion that was made by the project owners constructed for the investors. “At best, scalable projects are articulations between scalable and nonscalable elements, in which nonscalable effects can be hidden from project investors.” (Tsing, p. 515). In doing so she argues nonscalability theory allows scales to arise from tracing the relationships between projects. She mentions that inventory is thought of as scalable, but labour and natural resource management are in retreat (p. 509). Part of this is historical contingency: that the world is interconnected, yet this is also what technology companies play into with their narratives of connectedness and scales. As such scalability benefits the technology developer and material, resource or labour constraints from the developed are to a great extent hidden. The narratives of progress and modernisations are so strong it grants the developer a ‘free pass’ or a colonisation of the mind (Brigg, 2002) to scale into new areas. One example is the production of Lithium incorporated in many electronic products.

The ​Administrator of UNDP ​Archim Steiner mentions trade-offs in his introduction of the UNDP digital strategy yet it is nowhere to be found in the overall strategy. Digital expansion with the connection or disconnection that follows, depending on your position, is certainly not without trade-offs. Every digital technology conceivable as an example has a strong mineral component and necessitates a vast expansive investment in mining operations, transportation, production etc. Mining practices are not straightforward, as Marina Welker (2009) demonstrates mapping the complex relationship between corporate social responsibility (CSR) and corporate security with the local agency following an attack on activists protesting mining. Dina Rajak (2010) similarly shows how mining corporations engage with health practices, HIV/AIDS in South Africa, yet the narrative is that of keeping human capital efficient, as well as privatisation of care. The life cycle issues that are apparent in other industries have become more visible recently in technology. One example is Apple taking ownership of a cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Turak, 2018) — and this is oddly enough one of the more responsible examples.

The typical narratives in development of infrastructure was worthy of appraisal with road projects, bridges etc (Harvey & Knox, 2012). Yet do we ask the same questions of digital infrastructure? Tsing (2012) describes ‘supply chain capitalism’ in these projects of scale. The lithium-ion battery is the most commonly used type of battery with cobalt being found in the cathode. Cobalt is also important in other battery technologies such as nickel-cadmium batteries (NiCd) and nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. It seems many digital technologies require cobalt. 60 percent of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Sanderson, 2019) — and technology companies to an increasing degree want to control this resource. It is integrated into most of their technology be it computers, servers or cars. One of the poorest countries in the world serves the richest technology companies and countries in the world, the irony here in a development context is rather stark when extractives (or trade-offs) receives little mention. It causes a dissonance in the strategy if read by anyone moderately knowledgeable in this area or practitioners working in development, sustainability and technology.


My main criticism of the UNDP Digital Strategy is that it holds few mentions of material relationships. The focus on the digital as a process of transfer may obscure the physical aspect of digitalisation such as e-waste, server energy usage and labour related to these aspects. How are these concerns sought balanced in the given strategic framework? Instead a binary relationship of the digital divide is constructed. This focus on digital divide that has proliferated since the 2000’s has to be a reason for pause. It has been shown in narratives such as these or even centres and peripheries that divide theories do not often represent the actual state of affairs. The term digital divide is useful for the new technology developer because it engenders a feeling of being left behind. Bold transformation is indeed possible, yet it seems mostly for the technology developer scaling business operations rapidly across the world. The critique that development projects often are benefitting the ‘developers’ and not the people meant to be ‘developed’ is still valid.


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This is #500daysofAI and you are reading article 371. I am writing one new article about or related to artificial intelligence every day for 500 days. Towards day 400 I am writing about artificial intelligence and racial inequality. To better understand how AI is demarcated I believe it is constructive to consider larger constructed inequalities within technology.



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Alex Moltzau

Alex Moltzau

AI Policy and Ethics at Student at University of Copenhagen MSc in Social Data Science. All views are my own.