Modernization Theory – A Steady Record of Failure

Greece being the latest casualty, as demonstrated by sociologist Costas Panayotakis in the New York Times Examiner:

“Writing this column has heightened my awareness of how often and how quickly the representation of social reality by The New York Times is contradicted by the facts.  In such cases, the journalist whose past reporting has proven to be widely off base continues reporting like nothing had happened.  Now s/he presents a completely different picture of reality, one that completely contradicts the picture s/he had given just a few weeks and months earlier.  The optimistic explanation of such phenomena is that the reporters become chastened by the failings of their previous reporting and change their story to more closely fit the facts.  The less optimistic explanation is that they understand journalism not as an effort to capture reality as accurately as they can but rather as a form of entertainment, where self-contradiction is not a problem as long as one can keep churning out colorful stories that will kill readers some time as they commute to and from work.  Given how frequently I find myself having to debunk articles by The New York Times that cover Greece, I have to admit that it is the latter, less optimistic explanation that seems more plausible to me.

The trigger for these thoughts was a recent article reporting on Greek protesters pelting a German diplomat with coffee. (i)  The article rightly links this incident to a statement by German “Chancellor Angela Merkel’s special envoy to Greece, Hans-Joachim Fuchtel” who said that “1,000 German local government officials could do the work of 3,000 Greek officials.”  The article then points out that, at a time of high unemployment in Greece, “Mr. Fuchtel’s comments were seen as tone deaf.”  It also quotes Nikos Xydakis, a columnist for a conservative Greek newspaper, who suggests that Mr. Fuchtel seems to have no understanding of the suffering Greek people are currently undergoing and to “[lack] ‘the flexibility and the diplomatic skills’ to speak more carefully”.


It should be added here that both articles by The NYT are informed by a ‘modernization’ theory of development.  This theory, developed after World War II by American academics who were often members of the Cold War anti-communist establishment, blamed the great inequalities in the global capitalist economy on the failure of poor countries to follow the good example of those countries that purportedly became rich through the adoption of modern institutions, such as market capitalism and liberal democracy.  In this model, poor countries that emulated the institutions of rich countries would catch up with them, leaving behind problems, such as intense poverty and deprivation.  Needless to say, development strategies based on this model did not lead to a closing of the gap between the global North and the global South, leading to alternative understandings of the origins of global inequalities, which point out the ways in which the technological advances and wealth of the rich countries is to some extent the product of the intense exploitation of people in the less affluent countries.

By focusing on the “[m]entoring and … know-how” that Mr. Fuchtel brings to Greece and by identifying his mission as one of making Greece “a bit more efficient and perhaps a little more German,” Mr. Kulish in effect adopts the modernization narrative.  The problem, however, is that Greece’s present state was the product of a period in which the country had converged more closely to the institutional realities of advanced capitalist countries than it had ever done in its past.  Hence, Greece is only the latest example of the failures of modernization theory and the latest example of the ways in which great global inequalities, with all the human suffering they entail, cannot simply be blamed on domestic institutions and cultural attitudes.  Instead, they have to be seen as a regular and predictable product of global capitalism’s exploitative nature.”

Modernization theory is indeed the basis for the disastrous structural adjustment programs that the IMF pushed on developing countries that led to the lost decade. And that is the underlying narrative when development gets discussed in the media.

And it does not work.

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