Growing the Embryo of “Good”: Deciphering the Meaning of State Development in the Periphery

The notion of “development”, when used in a discussion of addressing human needs, is frequently understood to be a “good” both in the economic sense of the word (as something which has intrinsic value through its ability to satisfy a want) and in the moral sense of the word (as something which is virtuous – the right thing to do). Because it is frequently discussed in these terms (as a “good”) it is also typically thought of as “a worthy deed”. If then one is to conceive of the ostensibly worthy deed that is “development” as a “goal” (that is, something to be strived towards), then it seems to follow that one has chosen to view the object of development (say, society) as an object which is capable of “progress”. In this imaginary, “development” is a desired end-state, a goal that is envisioned at the beginning of a teleological timeline, where everything in between the formation of the goal and the goal being achieved is simply a historical sequence of decision-making that will lead to something better. Being also a “desired end-state”, “development” is here thought of as something that is better than it was, a state of progress that stands in stark contrast to the dark times of before. The past is bad (or at the very best it was just “OK”) and the future is good. Indeed, here development is progress and regressed Man belongs to the before-times.

“Progress” as an idea and as a belief system is at least as old as Western liberal philosophy – much of history’s social change has occurred because it was thought that the change being implemented would mean progressing the human condition.

According to Nisbet, the idea of progress “holds that mankind has advanced in the past – from some aboriginal condition of primitiveness, barbarism, or even nullity – is now advancing, and will continue to advance through the foreseeable future” (Nisbet 1994: 4). In this model of histiography, the division of labor might be seen to have occurred so that people would more efficiently have had their basic needs sufficed, cultural change emerges because the cultural practices of the past are untenable in the specific set of conditions offered by the present. At least since the emergence of Spencerian evolutionist views of society, much of the discourse of change has also been wrapped up in discourse of “progress”.

In economic terms, “progress” might be taken to mean “an increase [in productivity]” (Solo 1968: 391), where a society grows its capacity to produce more and have more of a “wanted good”. What this “wanted good” might mean for a society – “better healthcare in rural areas”, “an increase in wealth” or “the expansion of road networks” – are crucial to how “development” is formulated as a goal, as a step toward a better human condition. “Progress” then, like its practicable corollary “development” is thus taken to mean “a growth in good”.

Splicing this economic metaphor of “growth in good” with a biological one, this “progress” line of reasoning might view society as an embryo, a eukaryote of potential in the earliest stages of development – a scarce quantity of resources (comprising membrane, nucleus and organelles) which can be grown into something bigger and better. In practice, the development of this “embryonic good” in society begins in one place and is seen to grow outwards – education begins with a school; prosperity begins with a micro-credit loan to buy a goat; capital is moved from the “developed world” into the “developing world” – the economic and political core of a society “develops” the periphery. What biology calls cell division, the economic discourse of progress might call the replication of “good”.

            This paper will examine the concept of state-run development programs while keeping in mind the analogy of the embryo – as something which “grows” (which in the vocabulary of the economist pertains to an “absolute benefit”) as well as something which “expands” (that is, something which grows relative to something else). In this sense, this paper will ask if the very project of development, when enacted by states, can be understood simply as the expansion of “absolute good” (eg: a dearth in suffering) or the expansion of the core into the periphery (the terms here, borrowed from World Systems Theory).

While the asking of this question is perhaps contingent on the assumption that the project of development has an ulterior meaning or that it represents something other than simple beneficence, this is not to suggest that all development projects are necessarily nefarious, nor is it to assume that ulterior motives in aid work are the sole domain of the State. Indeed, as the history of many religious movements shows, aid work is, historically, an effective means for conversion and expansion (Griffin/Horan 1986: 147). As such, rather than resort to the simplistic nomenclature of imperialism when describing state behaviour we shall settle with a more banal description of the state’s objectives comprising nothing but “the elimination of non-state spaces” (Scott 2011: 10) within a defined area – that is, the consolidation of control within recognized territorial borders upon which the notion of sovereignty (the essence of the state) is hinged. With this assumption in mind, one can begin an inquiry into the nature of state development and whether at it its core, state development represents another manifestation of this simple eliminative goal.

            Beginning the discussion with an outline of some concepts in World Systems Theory, theorists such as Samir Amin and Immanuel Wallerstein argue that in the world system an inequality exists between entities at the economic “center” (what this paper shall refer to as the “core”) and those at the “periphery” and that within this hierarchy one sees the former profiting at the expense of the latter (Amin 1974: 13). The “core”, in this diagram, is the core of wealth, the “global North”, while the “periphery” is comprised of the poorer countries who owing to their exploitation by the core remain where they are on the bottom rung of the global economic ladder. In many ways, dependency theory might be likened to a mechanism of “the Matthew Effect” where “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” (Merton 1968: 2-3).

            Leaving aside for a moment the debate over whether the transfer of capital from the “periphery” to “core” is the most valid explanation for observed structural inequalities in the current global system, if we are to borrow this theoretical geography of “core” and “periphery” and apply it to a study of development aid, one observes a basic mechanism where the core (that is, the rich, the urban, the global North) develops the periphery (the poor, the rural, the global South) in order that the periphery might more closely resemble the core. This process of core replication in the periphery often goes beyond the economic (eg: the creation of new markets in non-capitalist societies) into the domains of the social and cultural. On a global level, this might be observed in Western donors providing aid to women’s education in Pakistan so that the education in Pakistan more closely resembles their own or to “close the gap” in healthcare (that is, to make one resemble the other) between Indigenous Australian communities and the urbanised East coast.

When development aid takes place within the State, it typically takes the form of “the core” embarking on a program to boost access to HIV/AIDS in rural areas or to engage in grand infrastructure projects so that “clean water” (read as water obtained from a well or village tap rather than rivers or lakes), electricity and paved roads are available to the peoples of the periphery.

At face value, the growth of a given good (better healthcare, access to education etc) seems a reasonable goal and indeed one must be careful to avoid undue criticism of the ostensibly well-intentioned logic that may underpin some of these goals. At the same time however, as has been oft-noted in discussions of the emancipatory logic underpinning 19th century imperialism, it seems equally important that power relationships in development projects, particularly in this context (when they are operated by the state), are given due consideration. That is to say, while the development of grand infrastructural schemes which include the building of hospitals, schools and roads, can be seen to provide obvious benefits to their users, what else might these projects mean when contextualised into the paper’s core-periphery model of State geography?

Scott, in pointing towards alternative meanings to state development schemes, argues that in certain city neighbourhoods such as Arab medinas or Parisian banlieues the organic processes of functionality have created a sense of disorder which creates a spatial unintelligibility in the eyes of an outsider (Scott 1998: 25). According to Scott, the relative illegibility – that is, the quality of the terrain as being undecipherable to outsiders – has thus become “a reliable resource for political autonomy” (Scott 1998: 54) since it can be difficult to assert control over something which is not understood.

As such, urban peripheries like their rural analogues in the hills, deserts and marshes of the world, have distinctively anarchic ecologies (“anarchic” is here understood to pertain to the absence of state institution) which in turn presents a problem of control for state bodies seeking the elimination of feral spaces.

The response to this, according to Scott’s logic, are grand development schemes orchestrated by state-sanctioned city planners who seek regimentation (eg: grid-like networks of roads à la the military barracks) and simplification of the organic into something which is digestible to organs of state control (Scott 1998: 58). A perfect example of this might be seen in comparing the archaic medinas of old Damascus and old Jerusalem with the urban sprawl of the new cities, whose aerial appearance conforms to geometrically regular patterns. While it is explicit in the discourses of these grand schemes that with simplicity and “user-friendliness” comes improved access to essential services, it is implicit that on some level submission to the structuring logic (read as, “control”) of the state is the condition upon which these services can be obtained.

            Thus, one might argue, one consequence of state development practices in the periphery is not only the “growth of good” available to the peoples of the periphery but an expansion of “the core” (the urban and peri-urban center of state control) into the periphery.

The expansion of road networks as a “development project” is perhaps the best example where one can envision the core’s expansion into the periphery being played out. Since ostensibly, roads tend to be links between population centres (where bureaucratic control has been consolidated) and peripheral, more sparsely-populated areas (Scott’s “non-state spaces”) one might see a dual consequence of the building of a highway into a rural area. The first consequence, the economic consequence, is the obvious – new roads mean easier transportation which in turn means increased possibilities for economic engagement with the core by peripheral groups. Farmers may bring their produce to market, itinerant merchants can act as trade conduits between two geographically-isolated cores.

The second consequence of the road, however, might also be tied to the accumulationist logic of imperialism since while roads mean that the periphery can exploit the opportunities of new markets in core areas, they also present obvious opportunities for the core to exploit the periphery. Thus one arrives at the corollary of the adage that “all roads lead to Rome” – all roads bring the Romans.

The “developed core”, in this model is thus an embodiment of the Miliarium Aureum (the golden milestone of ancient Rome to which all roads led) and the underdeveloped periphery is Gaul – the uncivilised, ungoverned lands awaiting governance.

Hobart, in this regard, paints a similar picture of the meaning of road-building in his Pied Piperesque discussion of a dam-building project in East Timor. “The dams had been built in the best places in to build dams… coincidentally or otherwise, the dams were mostly near roads. So, if people migrated to where the water was, the government would be able to keep an eye on them, rather than their remaining in the hills where no one could easily check what they were up to” (Hobart 1993: 3). The dam, therefore, rather than a simple embodiment of governmental goodwill also became a symbol for state expansion into rural areas.

A similar logic underpins the counterinsurgency strategies of Western military forces in Afghanistan, where “armed social work” (a term which describes a securitised development strategy of clearing, holding and building an area) (Kilcullen 2006: 8) is thought to be the counter-insurgent’s best weapon at suppressing internal rebellions against state entities.

According to the US Army’s Counterinsurgency manual, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (combined civil-military development and security taskforces) “were conceived as a means to extend the reach and enhance the legitimacy of the central government into the provinces of Afghanistan’s when most assistance was limited to the nation’s capital” (US Army 2006: 2.12). Enumerated this way, developing peripheral areas is thus equated with expanding the state’s control into peripheral areas in order to create a “legible” environment and to exercise primacy over the area.

Given Scott’s discussion of “state legibility”, Hobart’s observations of Timorese dams and the above references to Rome’s imperial roads, much that is encased within the project of “state development” as a whole might seem veritably Foucaultian – a perverse re-rendering of the surveiller et punir concept and the metaphor of the panopticon (Foucault 1995: 203-205).

At this critical juncture, however, one must give pause when it comes to thinking holistically about “state practices”. Indeed, as Midgal reminds us, when talking about the state one must be careful not to fall into the common trap of reifying and anthropomorphizing the state, that is “treating it as a unitary actor that assesses its situation strategically and then acts accordingly to maximise its interests” (Midgal 1994: 8). Or, in other words, while it might follow a conventional wisdom to envision “the State” in its totality as comprising a sentient, authoritarian entity, since states are comprised of nothing but collections of individuals (sometimes called “bureaucracies”) what is one then to make of the true meaning of state development? How is one to reconcile the logic of liberalism underpinning development (that is, the virtuous task of improving conditions for one’s fellow Man) with what seems, in practice, the simple expansion of the state core into the periphery.

In other words, just as it is probably inaccurate to characterise a dam-building initiative by the East Timorese government (still in its pre-natal stages) as imperialism incarnate, it may also be erroneous to typecast any development projects which involve military actors as being necessarily linked to some grand imperial design – though of course, this may, in some cases, be the truth.

Ultimately, it seems that the true meaning of state development lies in appreciating the multiplicitous meanings of the word “good” as it is conceived in development discourses. While “good” might pertain to the simple improvement in human conditions it might also pertain to the restoration and-or consolidation of order – of which state institutions are sometimes seen to be the purveyor.

Keeping this in mind, the next task is to determine whether the maintenance of order as it is created by the state, actually constitutes a “good” in and of itself, and whether this negates or complements the virtues of the initial reason for development – to achieve ostensibly better conditions for peripheries undergoing development.

This paper has taken as its object the very idea of “development aid” as it is enacted by states and state development actors. Borrowing the basic geographic concepts of “core” and “periphery” from World Systems theory, it has sought to comprehend the true nature of “grand development designs” giving due consideration to the dual meanings of “growth” as a “wanted good” that might be either absolute (that is, “good for me, good for you, good for everyone”) or relative (that is, “good for me, not so good for you”).

Specifically, this paper has sought to determine if “aid” is really aid when enacted by state entities in contexts where political and military objectives are inherently connected.

In considering the hypothesis that state-run development assistance can operate as a means for the consolidation of the control of a rural periphery by an urban core, much remains to be said about the true nature of humanitarian aid when it is enacted by non-state actors. What can be said categorically from this study, however, is that the very concepts of “aid”, of “development” and finally of “growth” should (as they are), remain the subjects of careful scrutiny – that the replication of the periphery to resemble the core, may mean absolute growth for the core and the opposite for its other.

            Or, as Schuler neatly puts it: As the ‘end’ of history set down by Kant rushes upon us, it gets harder to trust.” (Schuler 1995: 527)



  • Amin, S. 1974. ‘Accumulation and Development: A Theoretical Model’. Review of African Political Economy. 1(1). Pp. 9-26.
  • Brinkley, J. ‘Money Pit: The Monstrous Failure of US Aid to Afghanistan’. World Affairs Journal. January/February 2013.
  • Foucault, M. 1995. Part Three: Discipline, 3. Panopticism in Surveilleir et Punir: The Birth of the Prison. NY: Vintage Books.
  • Griffin, K and Horan, M. 1986. ‘Protestant Missionaries as Change Agents in East Africa: The Impact of Religious Orthodoxy’. Journal of Asian and African Studies. 21(3). Pp. 147-158.
  • Hobart, M. 1993. An Anthropological Critique of Development: The Growth of Ignorance. London: Routledge.
  • Merton, R. ‘The Matthew Effect in Science: The Reward and Communication Systems of Science Are Considered’. Science. 159(3810). Pp. 56-63.
  • Midgal, J. 1994. ‘State in Society: Studying How States and Societies Transform and Constitute One Another’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Scott, J. 1998. ‘Cities, People and Language’ in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale: Yale University Press.
  • Schuler, J. 1995. ‘Reasonable Hope: Kant as Critical Theorist’. History of European Ideas. 21(4). Pp. 527-533
  • Scott, J. 2011. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale: Yale University Press.

Nisbet, R. 1994.


3 thoughts on “Growing the Embryo of “Good”: Deciphering the Meaning of State Development in the Periphery

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