Alternative Approaches to Community-Based Development in the Global South

The term “development” is highly contested and means very different things to different people.  Despite the ambiguity surrounding the concept, scholars of development have identified patterns in the way people imagine, talk about, and pursue development goals.  Among the most common definitions of development in use today are those associated with a perspective known as “neoliberalism”, which asserts that human well-being can best be advanced by the promotion of strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade (Harvey 2005: 2).  Neoliberal theories of development place limitless faith in what Lesley Gill (2005) describes as the “magic of the market” to fix all social problems, suggesting that because government bureaucracies do not operate according to the same market forces, they are inevitably more corrupt and less effective at delivering services to people than private enterprises.  Development can best proceed, therefore, if government officials get out of the way and reduce their role to creating an environment conducive to the growth of free market capitalism.  Neoliberal development discourses emphasize the primacy of “empowering” individual citizens and civil society through enhanced market participation.

Neoliberal development initiatives have had disastrous effects throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, magnifying social inequality, degrading the environment, and undermining democratic institutions.  My work explores the effects of neoliberal development in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, which began in the 1980s with IMF- sponsored structural adjustment programs (SAPs) and continues today in the guise of the state-sponsored Vision 2020 national development plan.  Specifically, I investigate the role faith-based non-government organizations (NGOs) have come to play in community-based development.  My research, based on nearly 10 years of ethnographic fieldwork with local Rastafari activists, suggests that although such civil society groups are hailed for their autonomy, the state deploys subtle techniques of regulation, intimidation, and surveillance in order to maintain some degree of control over their actions (Alvaré 2010).  This can be problematic for faith-based NGOs, which typically consider their development work to be a religious act, inspired by their particular worldview.  If a faith-based organization’s program appears to contradict or threaten the state’s vision of how community development should proceed, that organization can lose access to public funding streams and become subject to increased scrutiny, harassment, or the denial of required licenses and permits.  This helps account for NGOs’ penchant for enacting palliative measures that lack the potential to threaten the structural basis of the status quo. 

Such was the case for the National Rastafari Organization (NRO) of Trinidad and Tobago, a small, grassroots Rastafarian faith-based NGO whose development goals, discourses, and practices were directly inspired by the words of their God, Ras Tafari Makonnen, more commonly known as Haile Selassie I, who ruled as emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 until 1976.  In my early work (Alvaré 2009), I explore the radical transformation the NRO underwent as it attempted to bring social justice to its community through NGO-based participatory development.  I illustrate that as the bredren who administered the NRO committed themselves to attaining official NGO status, they transformed their organization from a progressive, informal association of volunteers with a loose organizational structure based on traditional Rastafari eldership to a rigid, definitively hierarchical NGO with permanent offices, codes of conduct, set meeting dates, formal voting procedures, and a mandatory dues system that divided the membership (Alvaré 2010).  The practices and responsibilities involved in the formation and ongoing operation of an official transnational NGO, as opposed to a loose association of volunteers, raised new concerns and produced new forms of self-discipline that disposed the bredren to dramatically alter the ways they perceived and pursued their social development goals.  In my latest work (Alvaré 2014), I investigate the ways hegemonic fields inform everyday practices, subjectivities, and forms of consciousness.  To do this, I offer an analysis of how faith-based NGO activists’ immersion in hegemonic social fields leads them to re-interpret sacred texts in a manner that resonates with the official discourses of development in circulation at the time.  As a result of this process, the NRO ended up producing a local development program that was at once Rastafarian, in its being grounded in Haile Selassie’s teachings, and neoliberal, in its emphasis on individualized participatory development designed to prepare the poor and unemployed for the labor market.  While these ideologies might seem antithetical, especially given the destructive impact neoliberalism has had on the very class of “sufferers” with whom Rastas typically identify, the NRO’s leaders managed to find common footing for each in Haile Selassie’s gospel of development.   



2014. Haile Selassie and the Gospel of Development: Exploring the Role of Hegemony in Faith-Based Development in Trinidad, West Indies.  Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 19(1):126-147.

2010. ‘Babylon Makes the Rules’: Compliance, Fear, and Self-Discipline in the Quest for Official NGO Status.  Political and Legal Anthropology Review 33(2): 178-200.

2009. Fighting for ‘Livity’: Rastafari Politics in a Neoliberal State In Bridging the Gaps: Faith-Based Initiatives Across the AmericasTara Hefferan and Julie Adkins, eds. Pp. 51-68 Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Gill, Lesley

2000  Teetering on the Rim: Global Restructuring, Daily Life, and the Armed Retreat of the Bolivian State. New York: Columbia University Press.

Harvey, David

2005  A Brief History of Neoliberalism.  Oxford.

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