Beyond the Rhetoric of a Right to Development



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    • ***LESLYE OBIORA has taught at several U.S. law schools. She will be a Fellow at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies in 1997-98. She has published on questions of human rights, gender and the law, and social change and customary law.

  • *Thanks to Jesus for grace; Richard Corcoran, Uche Egemonye, Amy Madigan, Carol Arnold, Amy Wheeler, and Sharon Miller for research and secretarial assistance; Ron Krotoszynski, Sylvia Wynter, and anonymous reviewers for their constructive criticisms.

**University of Arizona College of Law, 1202 E. University Boulevard, Tucson, AZ 85721-9900. Telephone: (520) 621–1498; fax: (520) 626–2050; e-mail:


Paul Simon's popular lyric about these being “the days of lasers in the jungle” reflects the stark contrast, contradiction, or even exploitativeness of conventional strategies of development. Once paraded as the ultimate recipe for progress and the solution for poverty, the idea of development itself is now being criticized for its poverty of substance, as well as for its impoverishing and regressive propensities. Apparently, development as we know it has been indicted for the social production of poverty because it can only exist in symbiosis with conditions of underdevelopment. Within its capitalist framework, it is impossible for all to be “developed” and there can be no rational distribution of resources across the board; massive one-sided accumulation and the co-existence of surplus wealth with severe poverty are more consistent with the present process and reality of development. Increasingly, people are questioning the very paradigm of development and its dominant blueprint which is predicated on a presumption of the superiority of the Western system of production and signification. Some critics advocate alternative development and others reject the concept entirely, arguing instead for alternatives to development. My reading of the controversy surrounding development suggests that it is largely a critique of the discrepancy inherent in its unidimensional conceptualization and implementation.

Even as oppositions to established discourses and practices of development are gaining ground, the most (dis)affected, the so-called lesser developed countries (LDCs), are agitating for redress through the recognition of a right to development. How do we interpret, and respond to, this initiative or subversive act by those who were never given the option to elect out of (mal) development, but were forced to put up with its effect? Do we continue to disregard it or do we engage it as a forward to a tentative proposal - a point of entry for inclusion, or as an invitation to begin to explore what development should be by revisiting and revising problematic orthodox models and modes? Can we see it as a challenge to idealized conceptions of human rights and a case for harnessing the human rights regime to make it more actualizable and sustainable? At the very least, can we approach claims about the right to development as seeking to secure the dignity and well-being of the human subject? If seen in the light of conquering poverty and protecting the physical environment for the general good of humanity, would the right to development be better appreciated as a prerogative of and a mandate for both the North and South. After all, communities in these places that once “marginalized the economy” and achieved relative equilibrium are now violently compelled to contend with the colossal hunger, scarcity and social disintegration dictated by their place of insertion in the world economic structure? Could the right to development be seen as espousing the entitlement of the dislocated and disempowered to a reciprocation of the benefits of development and/or to compensation for the sins of (mal) development? What are the possibilities for the emergence of a concept, devoid of the baggage traditionally associated with development, that caters to the aspirations of the “LDCs” to equitably compete and exercise their full potentials in the context of the modern world; how do we facilitate the development of an under-developed concept?

Several reasons have been proferred to explain why the right to development has failed to attain definitive status and effectiveness as a rule of law. By and large, it appears that the right to development has not been widely embraced because of concerns which, while valid, are not beyond containment. Meaningful implementation of the right to development requires committed clarification and strengthening of its conceptual framework. Primarily, a feasible paradigm of development must go beyond simplistic dichotomizations, polarizations or prioritizations. At the same time, it must celebrate the realities and possibilities of reciprocity and dependence among processes and phenomena. In this article, the resounding argument revolves around the reciprocity of paradigms, relations, rights and responsibilities. It posits the principle of reciprocity as rudimentary for (re) interpretations and (re) appropriations of the idea of development, and as both a norm and a justification for the recognition of development as a human rights ideal. The over-arching thesis is that conceptualizing and analyzing development from the perspective of the metaphor of reciprocity attenuates many of the problems of articulating it in terms of the conventional rhetoric and politics of rights. With particular emphasis on the norm and functioning of reciprocity within the context of gift and return, the article ultimately delineates the ubiquity of varied ranges of reciprocity as an anchor for a claim to development.