Development from Within? Southern Voices, Northern Reflections

Estimated read time 16 min read

Farokh Afshar, University of Guelph, Ontario
Guest Editor

I. The Theme, The Intent, The Process

I suggested this thematic issue based on my view that Southern voices were inadequately represented in our development field.¹ Casual empiricism — reviewing the authorship of various academic journals including recent CJDS issues — appeared to confirm my view. Whether true or not, given that the conventional view is that our development field “focuses on developing countries” and that we should view development through a “Southern lens” (Loxley 2004, 25), it appears incumbent on us to create as many opportunities as possible for people from the South to be heard. Consequently, the call went out for papers for this thematic issue. The issue was then titled “Development from Within? Discourse, Theory, and Practice from the Perspectives of Southern Countries, Minorities in the North, and Indigenous Peoples Everywhere.” The question mark indicated an early caution that the concept “from within,” not to mention the categories “North” and “South,” would be more complex than might first appear: a caution revealed appropriate as the papers came in.

The nature of the call required that we go beyond conventional channels, beyond publishing the call in other academic journals and reliance on word of mouth within Northern-related university and academic conference settings. We identified additional sources — individuals and institutions — that were particularly keyed into the subject matter and urged them to respond directly and/or identify other sources that might respond to the call. I am grateful to the regular editors of CJDS, Henry Veltmeyer and Scott Simon, and members of the CJDS editorial board for their energetic efforts in this regard.

In retrospect more could have been done to make the call known in appropriate places, particularly in Southern institutions and among specific Southern academics, practitioners, and community representatives. Experience for a future issue perhaps? Nevertheless some 16 papers were submitted. Twelve of these were Southern voices. The rest were Northerners closely attuned to the South. Countries and regions covered included the Caribbean, Palestine, Malaysia (2), Turkey, Colombia, Congo, Australia, Iran (2), Taiwan, Peru, India, Bangladesh, Mexico (2), and Canada.

The process of properly shepherding papers through a double-blind peer review is always a formidable, time-consuming task. Given the nature of the issue’s theme, intent, and target authors, it was particularly so here. For several of those who submitted, English was a second language. The structure of written communication considered acceptable in the North was less familiar to some.² What constitutes adequate standards for an academic journal in the North was a third layer of unfamiliarity for others. Finally, for some authors, certain topics had almost a priori value as a leading dimension of development (e.g., culture, particularly spirituality), a value less familiar to us more secular Northern development academics more used to privileging other topics (e.g., political economy).

Identifying appropriate reviewers was difficult. The topics ranged from Calypso to Islamic Revivalism. Also difficult was deciding when good content was masked by unfamiliar language structure. Constructive critique had to help guide some papers from good content to acceptable language to high academic standards. All this placed special demands on the reviewers, and on me as guest editor, especially one whose intent was to balance quality with space for Southern voices on Southern-valued topics.

Despite interesting topics, good content, and in some cases two and three iterations of the review process, half the papers did not survive that process. We hope these authors are able to take our comments constructively to further work on their papers to the point of publication. With less diligence on our part and that of the authors, the attrition rate might have been higher. Whether we finally met that balance between quality and space is left to the readers to decide.

II. Southern Voices, Northern Reflections

The issue is roughly divided into “Southern” Voices and “Northern” Reflections. I place these terms within quotes and qualify them as “roughly” because these are more symbolic than precise. They are certainly not precisely geographic. For example, the paper on the Dene may be considered a “Southern” voice in terms of underprivileged, marginalized groups. It emerges, however, north of where most Canadians live. The paper on Caribbean calypso transitioning to Toronto is a minority, Southern migrant voice raising issues straddling North and South and introducing a less familiar dimension into our development field.

A. Southern Voices

Under “Southern Voices” we start with “Agroforestry and Development: Displacement of Buddhist Values in Bangladesh.” Here Bijoy P. Barua and Margot Wilson argue for a recognition of the continuing importance of Buddhist values, perspectives, and knowledge as a guide for development in general and for agroforestry in particular. Drawing on the Lord Buddha’s own close relationship with nature (forests in particular) and the concept of value for all living things in nature, they contend that Buddhism has much to teach us with regard to an ecocentric approach to the natural environment, poverty alleviation, and development. In their case study of Buddhist communities in Bangladesh they are, however, quite candid about how a colonial and then a conventional capitalist mode of development fully displaced Buddhist values. These communities, for the most part now, appear Buddhist only by name and are none the better for it. While the authors end with an emphasis on education to re-instill an understanding of a Buddhist approach to development, one cannot help but muse whether it would take much more than that to fully tap and apply the great value that Buddhist wisdom offers our development field.

The second paper continues the theme of indigenous wisdom. The voice here is many thousands of miles closer to, yet north of, us, suggesting the robustness of this theme. Robert Wesley Heber tells us of “Indigenous Knowledge, Resources Use, and the Dene of Northern Saskatchewan.” He reminds us that Aboriginal peoples all over the world have from time immemorial managed their natural resources using their traditional knowledge and resource management systems. These practices, the natural resources, and Aboriginal communities are in more recent times under increasing threat from modernizing, particularly industrializing influences and activities. Heber uses the case of uranium mining in Dene lands to illustrate this process. He argues that while “traditional knowledge of land use and resource management remains within the teachings and cultural practices of the Dene,” the measures taken to date to draw on this knowledge within development projects fall short. What is needed is full co-management among the mining industry, the Canadian federal government, and the Dene, drawing on the indigenous knowledge the Dene have to offer. An unanswered question, perhaps for a future paper, is what obstructs such urgings from being implemented and what would be needed to remove these obstructions. This question is globally relevant as increasingly Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals meet over the issue of development.

A partial response to both preceding papers may lie in the third paper. Here Tung Chiou Huang recounts a successful case of “Sensitizing Students to Cultural-linguistic Diversity through English-Language Classes in a Multicultural Taiwan.” Taiwan is a multiracial, multicultural, and multilingual country. It has more than 10 Aboriginal groups in addition to the Han Chinese majority. The Taiwanese government has adopted a multicultural policy. Huang’s case is on how he incorporated Aboriginal language and cultural awareness through English-language teaching among Taiwanese high-school students of diverse backgrounds. With imaginative teaching and tangible results, Huang overcame initial scepticism among students and their parents. His method resulted in greater awareness and interest among these students, and their parents about the multicultural nature of their country and, in particular, the Aboriginal Taiwanese among them. All countries, including Canada, would benefit if from early schooling on, we more energetically and imaginatively inculcated an appreciation of the value of cultural diversity. Incidentally, Huang is his Chinese name and Akiyo Pahalaan his real Aboriginal name. Perhaps Taiwan would be truly multicultural when Akiyo no longer needs a Chinese name.

While many “Southern” cultures struggle for recognition in our North-dominated modernizing process, none perhaps more assertively makes its claims than Islam. Muhammad Mumtaz Ali presents “The Islamic Revivalist Perspective on Development.” He sets out three other current Islamic perspectives: Traditionalist, Modernist/Liberalist, and Reformist. While the last two may sit more comfortably with many of us more inclined to the modern, the liberal, and reform, the revivalist perspective is perhaps the most challenging. Revivalists do not primarily concern themselves with responding to modernity and the West. They focus more on setting out their own perspectives “constructed exclusively on an Islamic worldview” (as interpreted by them), with spirituality at its centre. At the same time, the author insists this worldview can lead to plurality and diversity and “serves as a basis for further investigation and dialogue.” Indeed in conclusion Mumtaz Ali concedes several weaknesses in revivalism. These include an overemphasis on ideology, hampering the articulation of a paradigm relevant to development in a multi-religious, multicultural, multi-ethnic society. Especially problematic is the marginalization of women. Revivalism needs to better respond to “social realities,” to “champion the cause of the oppressed, discriminated, and socially marginalized.” Again: what would it take for this to happen?

B. Northern Reflections

Given all the above, our first “Northern Reflection” is the appropriately titled “Whose Vision, Whose Rules? A Culture and Development Typology.” Robyn Eversole makes clear that the answer to that question must be the “target group — insiders” not the “outsider developers.” Eversole focuses on cultural differences as the key divide and a typology that goes beyond top-down, bottom-up. She identifies four approaches. She argues that the only truly participatory, appropriate approach is the one in which insiders determine both visions/goals and institutions/processes of development. Here, as is right, the outsider is playing a secondary role. This can still be a valuable one: such as when he or she legitimately offers some lacking expertise, resources, and support for policy and institutional change — helping spur, not usurp, “development from within.” The question remains, however: what, if any, is the outsider’s or developer’s role when the dominant insider vision, institutions, and processes are of an exploitative insider group supporting an apparently anti-development agenda?

Pierre Beaucage nicely (and coincidentally) continues this line of inquiry in the next paper, “Développement durable et intervention externe : le cas de deux zones caféicoles au Mexique.”He identifies three types of interventions: the modernist (traditional cultures are unproductive, needing modernization); the ethno-ecologist (indigenous practices are ingenious and external interveners need to present indigenous alternatives to decision-makers); and the intervener, who sees the ingenuity but also possible contradictions in indigenous approaches — contradictions that he must then present. Through the two cases, Beaucage reveals the playing out of all three types of interventions against additional external circumstances (commodities’ price variations, the state intervening, withdrawing), and the diverse responses of the indigenous peoples, including their intercommunity conflicts. Here again culture comes to the fore. Problems are blamed on state actions that affect culture, constructing barriers around sacred sources, removing divinities that guarded the mountains. The traditional culture of work and forms of property influence decisions at least as much as economic imperatives.

While the previous two papers focus on outsider developers (typically Northerners) and insider target groups (typically Southerners), all within the South, the final two papers take a Southern case and extend it to the North. Thus the thematic issue moves in conclusion from an exploration of “development from within” the South to “development from within” the North, and the links between the two.

Gary Malcolm’s paper does this by “Completing the Freiren Cycle: Linking Huichol Education with Global Education and International Development Studies.” Malcolm frames this link within the theories of Pauo Freire on the role of pedagogy and conscientization in helping the liberation of marginalized groups. The Huichol, an indigenous group in Central Mexico, has established its own locally based youth education programs. Such programs offer the youth an education true to their own culture and practices while also teaching them how to manage the non-indigenous dominant cultures of Mexico. All this is made possible within the larger context of social movements for progressive change within Mexico and globally. While acknowledging no direct connection between this initiative and educational programs in Canada, Malcolm argues that such examples and their larger context of social movements do spread globally. Introduced into grade school global education and university international development studies programs, they help Canadian youth also become conscientized as local and global citizens for local and global progressive change. They can thus complete the Freiren Cycle of conscientization and progressive transformation by bringing development back home.

In the final paper of the issue, Sara Abraham also brings the issue of development home to Canada (“Development and Calypso Culture: Caribbean Roots and Canadian Transformations”). She explores the developmental dialectic arising from an art form (Calypso) indigenous to the South (the Caribbean) moving to the North (Canada). Abraham uses the definition of development as “capabilities” à la Nussbaum and Sen. She demonstrates the political and social power (or capabilities) that calypso has in its native Trinidad. In Toronto, however, this powerful art form is diminished: limited to a minority, immigrant, ethnic culture and by insufficient radio play and state support. Abraham also illustrates the significance of different cultural contexts with a case suggesting that Toronto, ironically, appears less tolerant than Trinidad of critique through calypso. Calypso suffers in both countries from commodification and market values, challenging its development capabilities. The choice structure is, however, different in Canada, determining the nature of the culture and human development made possible. I would add that this case also raises the issue of how welcoming (or not) Canada is to the developmental contributions of immigrant, particularly Southern, cultures, helping Canada develop for the better.

And at the end we are left with Lynne Hately’s “View From the Field: Indigenous Culture, Development, and Language.” This is brief yet packed with value: a personal account of a Canadian living and working in a remote mountainous community in Laos. Here, this Northerner finds herself in many respects dependent on the community, whose friendship and support is not wanting, even as they struggle for survival — material and cultural. Reflecting on this struggle, Hately suggests the “integration”model — maintaining cultural identity while accepting the new culture — and the key roles education and language play. Once again, perhaps this time inadvertently, a Northern voice reflecting on the South benefits with insights on what we all must strive for: the capacity to help even as we struggle; the capacity to respect difference, even as we learn and evolve from it.

III. Concluding Ripples

So, what can we learn from our “Southern Voices and Northern Reflections”? Here I will restrict myself, and briefly, to three observations.³

First, in our increasingly globalizing world, categories such as “North” and “South” are increasingly fluid. Nevertheless, the voices of the South, however defined — the dominated, marginalized, underprivileged, under-consuming, overlooked — need to be more clearly heard and responded to. These are voices not only from the “South” in the “South,” but also those “Southern” voices among us here in Canada. This is so that we can not only do development better in the South; it is also so that we can do development better in the North. For these two are inextricably linked, as is the well-being of us all.

Second, the dimension of culture, including its spiritual component, is a key aspect of development. This is so, more than our conventional Northern, typically secular, political-economy dominated mindsets and development discourse sometimes concede (this includes myself). There must be a way for our distinct cultures, in mutual respect, to dialogue and draw closer. There must be a way for our spirituality, however defined, glowing deep in each of us, to burn brighter, be revealed, warm, and illuminate our collective soul.

Third, education for progressive, inclusive development, drawing on our collective wisdoms, far and wide, making empathetic local and global citizens of us all, is critical. But this education must begin early, woven into the psyche of our children and youth, and then on to university and throughout our lives. University is too late and too limited. And it must be an exploration, taught and learnt energetically and imaginatively, understanding and respecting cultures as distinct, and yet interacting, evolving, educating, and binding. It must not be limited to so many silos of multiculturalism in colourful costumes; nor to that tourist trip to that far-off exotic land.

Finally, as the experience of developing this thematic issue illustrated, to hear and learn from the voices of the South, and reflections on the South, requires a special effort, especially in the North. And a special effort comes at a cost. It is a cost we must all be willing to pay — for all our benefits. In a personal way, the cost of trying to help make these voices heard here, and heard well, and learning from them, included being unable to complete my own paper in time for this issue. It is a price I do not regret paying. Let us hope the reader agrees it was worthwhile.

My deep and sincere thanks for making this thematic issue possible to all those who submitted, to the reviewers, the regular editors, the editorial board, and, not least, the production team of CJDS.

1. For those confused about the distinction, a thematic issue is a regular issue of the CJDS, one of four per year, except it is on a specific theme. A special issue is an additional one on a specific theme.

2. Louise Dunlap, among others, has analysed how preferred writing styles and analytical structures vary significantly across cultures, from the linear to the zigzag to the spiral (Dunlap 1990, 57).

3. Restricted and brief, because of limited space, but also because I have more fully explored some of these and other observations in the paper I am close to completing.


Dunlap, Louise (1990). “Language and Power: Teaching Writing to Third World Graduate Students.” In Breaking the Boundaries: A One-World Approach to Planning Education, ed. Bishwapriya Sanyal, 56–81. New York: Plenum Press.

Loxley, John (2004). “What Is Distinctive About International Development Studies?” Canadian Journal of Development Studies 25 (1): 25–38.

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