Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Berch Berberoğlu, The Political Economy of Development: Theory and the Prospects for Change in the Third World (SUNY, 1992).

Timothy Morris, The Despairing Developer: Diary of an Aid Worker in the Middle East (I. B. Tauris, 1991).

“Development” is a quintessentially American concept, smacking of the optimistic faith in change and material progress that characterized US culture from the period of expansion across the continent in the nineteenth century to the expansion around the globe in the twentieth.

The 1990s, however, have brought even North Americans to a jaded cynicism about “development” as we confront toxic wastes with no place to go and the hulking excess capacity of the 1980s real estate orgy. Yet the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development continue cheerfully to offer advice and support to countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and now also the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe, whose governments pledge to follow the path of market-oriented “development” programs.

Timothy Morris and Berch Berberoğlu, coming from two different angles, question the wisdom of this developmentalist faith. While Morris offers no answer, and Berberoğlu’s answer is not always satisfying, they provide a critical service by posing the question as they do.

Morris is an Arabic-speaking anthropologist who lived in Yemen and joined an aid agency to develop rural primary health care systems in the plateau region around Sanaa. He applies the anthropologist’s toolkit in recording his experiences, describing the social organization of the developers with as much amused distance as that of the objects of development. He does not romanticize Yemeni society and culture, but appreciates its strengths and respects the diversity of regions and subcultures within the complex nation-state.

Morris’ assignment is never completed satisfactorily, and this is the source of his “despair.” Obstacles are continually thrown up which give pause about “development” as a positive force. The first is the seemingly inevitable bureaucracy of even the most well-meaning aid agencies: impenetrable acronymic names; layers of overseers to report to in triplicate; formulaic evaluation procedures that take time and resources away from the projects themselves. More worrisome are the ringing recollections of colonialism, such as training aid workers in classical as opposed to colloquial Arabic, and the establishment of political authority without real accountability to local people who are to benefit from the project. Another major obstacle arises from the fact that contemporary Yemeni society has already experienced “development” along Western market lines. Many well-placed Yemeni officials and their allies in the business community do not want to be bothered with rural primary health care, such as vaccinations and family planning. Their private pharmacies can make a more handsome income selling drugs purloined from aid agency and UN supplies, while they pose as providers of “modern” health care.

Morris’ diary is rich with the vibrant detail of daily life, including his own emotional responses to events. The detail can get tedious and it is hard to keep straight all the characters, relationships and subplots. What the book lacks is an effort to discern some meaning from his report.

Berberoğlu, a sociologist of development theory, writes from the other end of the empirical-abstraction continuum. His book is composed of six relatively short theoretical chapters, four case studies of Turkey, India, Tanzania and Peru, and a conclusion. The format resembles a semester-length course in the sociology of development, and is too short for nuance or elaboration of detail. This is both a strength and a weakness. The theoretical chapters provide a handy synopsis of the debate over “development” in the sociological literature, and the periodization of ideas in the field as a reflection of global economic history since World War I. This critique of “developmentalism” nicely complements Morris’ descriptive treatise.

Berberoğlu argues broadly that what the Third World has been experiencing is its incorporation into the international capitalist system. Even a nationalist movement that appears to be putting constraints on international capital is actually deepening a society’s integration into a system dominated by core capitalist countries. Chapter 6 provides a strong and concise exposition of the internal class contradictions of state capitalism.

Berberoğlu argues that the new international division of labor has created a wage-labor force in Third World countries which is impressive in its size, its role in production of surplus value for multinational corporations, and its militancy in opposing repressive governments. Chapter 4 catalogs organized worker activity in four countries — Brazil, Mexico, South Korea and Taiwan — which appears to be on a scale and of a frequency unimaginable in the US, including direct confrontations with police and military forces that are rarely reported in the US media.

The power of Berberoğlu’s interpretation is compromised by the nature of substantiating evidence in the text. Data from various sources cited in Chapter 4, for example, are not accompanied by discussion of possible limits on comparability. “Salaried employees” are simply counted as “wage earners,” and no distinction is made between public- and private-sector workers, even though the former do not produce surplus value (the source of profits) for capitalists. An income distribution table on page 57 is titled “1980-1987” while the data is from the “early to mid-1970s” according to the footnote, and the textual argument on income distribution covers 1960 to 1987.

In Chapter 7, Berberoğlu gives the impression that the whole of Turkish agriculture was, and remains, dominated by landlords, and that no real land reform was implemented. Many sources, among them other Turkish Marxists such as Çağlar Keyder, have argued that large-scale landlordism had been on the decline since the mid-1800s and exists on a significant scale only in the Çukurova region. [1] Indeed, the forces of commercialism, capitalism and mechanization, plus a public policy promoting the expansion of agriculture via land reclamation and distribution to smallholders, actually encouraged the growth of the family farm and undermined the viability of the landed estates in the 1950s and 1960s.

Similarly, Berberoğlu argues that the Turkish state was under the domination of landlords and compradors (“the dependent industrial class”) since the 1950s, and that the three military coups (1960, 1971, 1980) served to keep these class forces in power and to repress popular and working-class opposition. This is effectively an “instrumentalist” vision of the capitalist state.

Marxian “structuralist” theory of the state, by contrast, sees the state as the guardian of the capitalist system as a whole — not the tool of particular capitalists — which has to secure both accumulation and legitimation. [2] Ensuring accumulation includes state provision of sufficient material and institutional support to agriculture to produce the food necessary to feed a growing industrial work force. Legitimation includes representative elections and labor relations laws. This view, in contrast to Berberoğlu’s, can accommodate the “progressive” features of the 1960s and 1970s regimes in Turkey.

Berberoğlu seems to be saying that meaningful reform cannot be wrested from the capitalist state, that only out-and-out revolution will really change workers’ conditions, and his language suggests that proletarian revolution is inevitable. While Berberoğlu’s vision may be borne out in the long run as the proletarianization of the world’s peoples continues apace, the growth of non-working class-oriented populist movements in the Middle East, such as Islamist movements, gives political outcomes a different cast for the coming decades. “Development,” like history, walks like a crab.


[1] Çağlar Keyder, “Paths of Rural Transformation in Turkey,” in Talal Asad and Roger Owen, eds., Sociology of Developing Societies: The Middle East (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), pp. 163-177.
[2] Bob Jessop, “Recent Theories of the Capitalist State,” Cambridge Journal of Economics 1 (1977).

How to cite this article:

Karen Pfeifer "Development Revisited," Middle East Report 185 (November/December 1993).