Humility: What the “Developed” World Needs to Know

The distinction one makes between the “developed” and “developing” worlds hinges on the definition of development one assumes. For this presentation, I rely on Peet and Hartwick’s (2009) definition of development as simply “making a better life for everyone” (p. 1). Based on this definition, my presentation will explore four ways in which the “developed” world needs to learn humility as it considers the practice of development for those living in the “developing” world. Learning this humility means letting go of the prideful assumptions which typically influence development practice. Therefore, each section of this presentation will first problematize these prideful assumptions and then proceed to offer ways in which development can be practiced from a more humble posture. Specifically, these four sections argue that development is an intentional process that does not proceed “naturally” along a single path; that the “better life” of development cannot be reduced to a Western vision of the good life because all knowledge is inherently situated; that extreme damage is done when economic growth becomes the only means of development’s “better life” because economics has lost its connection with everyday life; and, finally, that development cannot be for a few but must lead to a “better life” shared by all. The hope for this presentation is to inspire in the “developed” world the kind of critical self-reflection that leads to a more honest self-knowledge and, therefore, a more humble development practice in and among the “developing” world.

According to Peet and Hartwick’s (2009) definition, development is “made”; meaning it is something freely produced through an intentional process of social, cultural, political, and economic change by individuals and communities. This concept may seem obvious, but it has not always been recognized as such in development discourse. According to Gustavo Esteva (1993), there was a time in the not-so-distant past when the West arrogantly conceived of development as a process of “social evolution” towards “a necessary and inevitable destiny” typified by its own modern industrial societies (p. 9). This “naturalist” view of development was buttressed by the modernization theory of the mid-20th century in which the “rise of Europe is endowed with a natural inevitability so that… global history is reduced to a series of copies made from distilling the experience of the West” (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 131). According to this understanding of history, development is not “made” – it is a pre-determined outcome built into the social fabric of every society but achieved first and most spectacularly by the West. “Developing” nations need only discover and follow the “natural” patterns of rational thinking, free markets, mass consumption, and the “worship of commodities” (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 132) in order to “evolve”, i.e. “develop.” This blatantly biased, Eurocentric view of history proudly positions “developed” nations as the pinnacles of human civilization and makes development into a condescending, paternalistic game of “catch up.”

This self-aggrandizing, naturalistic conception of development based in modernization theory must be strongly rejected. Even though there are significant material differences between the lives of those who live in so-called “developed” and “developing” nations, these differences do not lead to the conclusion that the “developed” world has achieved the kind of life that should be desired by all nations. Geographer James Blaut debunks the West’s supposed “natural” rise in standards of living by demonstrating how the “European miracle” had more to do with Europe’s superior military might and their arbitrary geographical advantage which they used to plunder resources from North and South America, Asia, and Africa from 1492 through colonial times (as cited in Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 134). This was not an “evolutionary” process and therefore Western nations have no basis upon which to suggest that it is the “natural” way for other societies to seek a better a life.

Instead, development should be seen as an ongoing process happening every day in every society – “developed” ones included – in which human individuals and groups must make informed decisions about the kind of life they desire and the best way to achieve that life. Even though this decision-making process should not rely on the so-called “natural” pattern of development proposed by modernization theory, it can and should be guided by what Peet and Hartwick suggest is the best tool that modern societies offer: “a basically rational scientific attitude toward the world… in terms of carefully formulated, logical, and theoretical thinking about issues of utmost importance” (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 281). The work of development should empower nations and communities the world over to utilize this powerful tool of modernism to create beautiful, diverse versions of the “good life” which can serve as alternatives – maybe even better alternatives – to the assumed “good life” of the West. The first step of humility is realizing that all communities and nations are in the process of developing and, most importantly, that development is not a singular, linear, or “natural” process.

The Eurocentric notion of development advocated by modernization theory gives “underdeveloped” nations only one option for a “better life”. As Esteva (1993) says, “to escape from [underdevelopment], [‘developing’ nations] need to be enslaved to others’ experiences and dreams” (p. 10). In particular, “developing” nations need to seek after a society which finds its fulfillment in the amount of goods and services it consumes because that is the goal of “developed” society as seen in the U.S. (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, 133). According to Tom Sine (1981), this societal goal has become a matter of personal identity for Western individuals who “derive significance and meaning for life from their ability to produce and consume” (77). The imagination of the West may be consumed by consumption, but the second dimension of a humble posture towards the “developing” world is in recognizing how its vision of the “better life” is only one particular vision among many others which are imagined within very different cultures, histories, and places.

However, this second step of humility requires an epistemological shift – a new way of thinking about knowledge and how knowledge is produced and validated. Modern ways of thinking arising from the Enlightenment are primarily rational, i.e. based on reason. As previously stated, this is not necessarily bad; it can be a powerful tool for decision-making as long as “reason” is accompanied by the freedom to think one’s own thoughts based on one’s own history and experiences. However, history has shown that this is the exception – not the rule. As Peet and Hartwick (2009) note, “modern reason metaphysically grounds its image of universal humanity in traits culturally specific to the Europeans – that is, reason claims to speak for everyone when, in fact, it is really speaking for the European minority in the world” (204). When the particular, European type of reason is made to be normative for the rest of the world, the “developing” world becomes trapped in the dreams of the West which, for many of them, have turned out to be nightmares. In addition, this universalization of European-style reason means that grand, universal plans and programs for development can be thought up by anyone from anywhere (but mostly Western development “experts”) and implemented in any place among any group of people without any regard for that people’s particular way of life.

This god-like, transcendent, top-down approach to knowledge needs to be relinquished in favor of a much more humble, localized, bottom-up approach. This epistemology sees knowledge as “situated” – i.e. arising from the embodied nature of human persons whose ability to know is always enmeshed in particular social, cultural, historical, political, and economic webs of meaning from which they cannot escape (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 249). In other words, what we “know” is indelibly shaped by who and where we are and it is therefore impossible to know anything with absolute certainty or completeness. Reason is not universal – it is particular. The way a Euro-American, middle-class man sees his world and thinks about it is exceptionally different from the way an impoverished African woman sees and thinks about her world. These differences present a serious, but not impossible, challenge to the practice of development, especially in cross-cultural situations.

Recognizing the situated character of knowledge means that there are no universal or permanent solutions to the problems which development attempts to solve. It requires development practitioners to leave the familiarity of their “developed” lives in order to “listen to peoples varied experiences, particular circumstances, and varied needs and desires to construct ‘situated developments’” (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 250). This denotes an ethnographical approach which seeks out a “thick description” of life from the “native’s point of view” in a particular place and time (Klamer, 1990, p. 31). These situated developments require the input, direction, and participation of local people who have a more complete understanding of the problems they face. Peet and Hartwick (2009) describe this process as “indigenization”: “deriving scientific theories, concepts, and methodologies from the histories, cultures, and consciousness of non-Western rather than Western civilizations” (p. 213).1

The power of indigenization is harnessed by the set of development practices known as participatory rural appraisal (PRA). According to Chambers (1997), PRA “seeks to enable local and marginalized people to share, enhance and analyze their knowledge of life and conditions, and to plan, act, monitor and evaluate” (1747). The results of PRA practices affirm what an epistemology of situated knowledge has already suggested: “local people have again and again presented values and preferences which differ from those of outsiders or those supposed for local people by outsiders” (Chambers, 1997, p. 1747). A posture of humility means that the “developed” world recognizes the situated character of its vision of the “good life”, and, instead of assuming that the “developing” world will share its vision, it seeks first to listen and understand the “developing” world on its own terms.

The “developed” world has not only attempted to monopolize the end goal of development – it has also sought a monopoly on the means to that goal, namely, economic growth. H.W. Arndt (1981) recalls how the term “development” entered the English language with the translation of Marx’s Capital in 1887 which “gave development a specifically economic connotation” (p. 458-9). However, by the end of World War II, “development” had merged with “economic development” and was considered to be “virtually synonymous with growth in per capita income in the less developed countries” (p. 465). Also writing in 1981, Sine can claim that “at the very core of contemporary development is a notion that the better future [for all] is synonymous with economic growth” (p. 74). Instead of “making a better life for everyone,” development was narrowly defined as economic progress defined in modern, Western, capitalist terms.

While the means of development have broadened beyond economic growth since 1981, the West’s relentless pursuit of economic growth in the guise of “development” has had disastrous effects. In the striking words of Gustavo Esteva (1993), “the emergence of economic society is a story of violence and destruction often adopting a genocidal character” (p. 18). Sine (1981) documents one instantiation of this economic violence as he describes the increasingly powerful role of multinational corporations (and the “developed” nations which support them) in the cultural, social, and economic lives of poor people in “developing” nations (p. 81-2). Peet and Hartwick (2009) describe how scarcely imaginable levels of income inequality which continue to increase are another consequence of this singular pursuit of economic growth (p. 7-8). What is more, if this pursuit continues in its current form, Peet and Hartwick (2009) fear that “human history will indeed end – in environmental catastrophe” (p. 278). The equating of development with economic growth has been a terrible mistake with destructive effects that are now deeply embedded in the lives of billions of people in the “developing” world.

A more humble posture begins by seeing economic growth as only one dimension of the “better life” that development seeks. However, as Daly and Cobb (1994) describe in sharp detail, putting economic growth in its proper place is not enough because there are serious flaws in the way this growth has been conceived by discipline of economics. They present several ways in which it suffers from the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”: in its very successful pursuit of an ever greater level of scientific purity, the highly technical practice of economics now relies on a series of “conclusions [that] are drawn about the real world by deduction from abstractions with little awareness of the danger involved” (p. 35). The core assumptions underlying economic theories about the market, economic measures, human persons, and land are so far removed from reality that economics has lost its ability to guide communities and nations towards a “better life.”

Economics has been swallowed up by chrematistics: “the branch of political economy relating to the manipulation of property and wealth so as to maximize short-term monetary exchange value to the owner” (Daly & Cobb, 1994, p. 138). The problem with chrematistics is the way it “abstracts the market from the community and seeks unlimited growth” (Daly & Cobb, 1994, p. 158). In chrematistics, the market becomes an end in itself, and, as its growth continues beyond sustainable, physical limits, it works against the well-being of communities.

Peet and Hartwick (2009) are correct when they say that “development is fundamentally economic” and that “all theories of development have significant economic aspects” (p. 23). However, for economics to regain its proper place in development practice, it must be divorced from the abstract world of chrematistics and be re-rooted in the “management of the household so as to increase its use value to all members of the household over the long run” (Daly & Cobb, 1994, p. 138). In this way, the discipline of economics can move away from science in order to “come back into the conversation of mankind” by relocating itself in the realm of history as a form of storytelling (McCloskey, 1990, p. 73). The “developed” world is in desperate need of humility to see how it has made economic growth the only means for achieving the “better life” of development. Only then can those in the “developed” world begin to take responsibility for the massive amounts of human suffering caused by their singular pursuit of this diseased kind of economic growth that failed to serve its proper, life-sustaining place in the community.

Finally, development is not just “making a better life” – it is making a better life for everyone. This prepositional phrase leads to the fourth and final dimension of humility I present for the practice of development. If development is not complete until the better life is shared by all, the existence of a “developed” and “developing” world makes little sense. The world – as one – is either one or the other, either “developed” or “developing”. When a minority of the world calls themselves “developed”, they assume that their lives are totally disconnected from the lives of those in the “developing” world; that they are immune from the “undevelopment” of others.

The “developed” West must let go of this prideful assumption because development works toward community: an ideal existence where space is made for all to participate in democratic decision-making processes, where the mutuality and interdependence of all created life is affirmed and embraced as individuals begin to see how their own well-being is interwoven in relation to the well-being of others, and where the equality and uniqueness of each person is valued and celebrated (Daly & Cobb, 1994, p. 172). As Daly and Cobb (1994) point out, these types of communal relations are equally important to a society’s external relations with other societies as they are to its internal relations (p. 188). The work of development remains woefully incomplete if it only means “better life” for the few. The “developed” world needs the kind of humility that sees how its own life is deeply dependent on the life of the “developing” world so that it might accept the call to live in authentic community with the “developing” world.

My goal in this presentation has been to explore the notion of development defined as “making a better life for everyone” (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 1) in a way that illuminates the ways in which the “developed” world needs to learn humility as it relates to the “developing” world. This humility has four dimensions: rejecting the West as the “natural” goal of all development process and recognizing the ongoing nature of development in all societies; acknowledging the situated character of knowledge and therefore allowing the possibility of other visions of the “better life” to co-exist alongside the dominant Western version; admitting the grave mistake of making economic growth the only means to a “better life” and seeing its need to recover economics from chrematistics; and finally, accepting the call for development to work towards authentic community where the “better life” is shared by everyone. The “developed” does not need more knowledge about the “developing” world; what it needs is a much more robust, wide-eyed knowledge of itself that will lead towards transformation for its own good and the good of the “developing” world.


Arndt, H. W. (1981). Economic development: A semantic history. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 29 (3), 457-66.

Chambers, Robert (1997). Editorial: Responsible well-being – A personal agenda for development. World Development,25 (11), 1743-1754.

Daly, Herman E. & Cobb, John B. (1994). For the common good: Redirecting the economy toward community, the environment, and a sustainable future. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Esteva, Gustavo (1993). Development. In Wolfgang Sachs (Ed.), The development dictionary: A guide to knowledge as power (pp. 6-25). London: Zed Books.

Klamer, Arjo (1990). Towards the native’s point of view: The difficulty of changing the conversation. In Don C. Lavoie (Ed.), Economics and Hermeneutics (pp. 19-33). London: Routledge.

McCloskey, Donald N. (1990). Storytelling in economics. In Don C. Lavoie (Ed.), Economics and Hermeneutics (pp. 61-75). London: Routledge.

Peet, Richard & Hartwick, Elaine (2009). Theories of development: Contentions, arguments, alternatives. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Sine, Tom (1981). Development: Its secular past and its uncertain future. In Ronald Sider (Ed.), Development Toward a Theology of Social Change (pp. 71-86). Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

1However, as Peet & Hartwick (2009) note, indigenization does not entail a “wholesale rejection of Western science, nor does it abandon notions of a common humanity, nor even universal knowledge” (214). It simply puts all forms of knowledge on an equal playing field which means lessening to some degree the overstated importance of Western forms of knowledge so that there is room for indigenous knowledge to take shape and be heard.


2 comments on “Humility: What the “Developed” World Needs to Know

  1. Rick Blaine says:

    Hello, Joe! Mike Morrell asked me to contact you because he really appreciates your blog and thinks you’d be an excellent candidate for his Speakeasy Blogger Network. Do you like to review off-the-beaten path faith, spirituality, and culture books? Speakeasy puts interesting books in your hands at no charge to you. You only get books when you request them, and it’s free to join. Sign up here, if you’d like:

    • joe d says:

      Hi Rick, thanks for the heads up on Speakeasy! That does sound like something I’d be interested in (if I can squeeze in any “books for fun”!). I’ll definitely check it out. Thanks for reading.

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