This post launches The Toronto Review’s Development Insider column, featuring the critical, dissonant reflections of someone firmly ensconced in a major western capital’s marquee development agency. Their name, the name of the country, and the name of the agency shall remain nameless.

By Development Insider

And what about a politics of the body?

Major bilateral, multilateral, and private sector development agencies and institutions have pretty large budgets. At least compared to the coffers of the states in which they work. As in any social collective, large sums of money and/or power represent and have to answer to large constituencies with inevitable political motives at hand. Social collectives, with money and power at stake, express their interests and pressure their decision making bodies and political masters to further their political, social, and economic agendas.

Yeah yeah, that’s called politics.

In the modern Western world, the concept of development is reproduced in multiple social spaces in precisely the types of social collectives mentioned above, and therefore inevitably emerges as a nexus of political pressure and contested power. The aforementioned social dynamic begs the question, in a development sense, of whether or not “development agencies”, whether bilateral missions, NGO’s, or the for-profit private sector are able to maintain a politically neutral stance and adhere to their stated principles of promoting human well-being.

A rational deconstruction of the dynamics of those institutions would lead one to the conclusion that development agendas are not simply intertwined with local politics, but actually are politics. And the scope of their political economy is local, international, and of the most personal biological essence. The recipient of development aid is someone’s actual physical self, making development aid the focal point of contested bio-political interests, effectively rendering the biological body as the body politic; the body is politics.

If a development agency plans to address the health sector of Country X, it may focus on any number of aspects of the local well being. For instance, it is common for maternal and child health, HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, Malaria prevention and treatment, and the provision of robust primary health care to dominate programming in this sector, inexorably drawing in local and international agents of capital seeking to benefit from emerging markets and consumers.

“This politico-economic reality leads to a dynamic in which vested interests in the healthcare industry determine the needs of local communities and the solutions to their problems.”

For instance, major providers of health care products, drugs, and services from the private sector will take a stand with a major voice as to which health problems and risks should take priority, pressuring and lobbying congressional and parliamentarian law makers and private philanthropists with control of the purse strings to impose spending conditions.

This politico-economic reality leads to a dynamic in which vested interests in the healthcare industry determine the needs of local communities and the solutions to their problems, and even what their problems are , for that matter; effectively, this gives political interest groups thousands of miles away the ability to determine the fate of the physical bodies and well-being of subjects of development agency programming.

Simultaneously, we see reactionary forces seeking to maintain status-quo power relations by keeping particular segments of the population sick, feeble, and preoccupied with their own health and bodies.

It is undeniable that some developing country governments view parts of their own population as economic burdens, as unproductive and cumbersome liabilities, as cancerous time-bombs ticking away and endangering their autocratic privileges.

At times, particularly-entrenched despots view a healthier, more able-bodied population as a potential threat to their own grasp on power. The twisted bio-political discourse inherent in this view means a sicker population is more malleable, distracted from politics and power, preoccupied with staying alive and personal bodily (dys)functions as opposed to questioning authority and fighting for a more equal distribution of national wealth.

“The twisted bio-political discourse inherent in this view means a sicker population is more malleable.”

This sinister view feeds a bio-political dialectic between Western development agency agendas and host country governments when long-term strategic planning, budgets, and various other cooperative agreements are being negotiated at the bi- or multi-lateral and NGO levels.

Most bilateral agreements with development agencies, as well as conditions placed upon NGOs and other charities by host country governments, shape the agendas, conversations, focal points, popular medical discourse, and political rhetoric which determines the medical priorities, identifies the health ‘problem’ areas and industries in which money will be spent, and essentially shapes the psychology, needs, wants, and desires of the subject population.

Moreover, the bio-political shaping of the world’s development health agendas doesn’t stop at the limits of our physical bodies, either. The complex interactions of national agendas coupled with multi-faceted interests from private capital flows merge into a powerful political force shaping people’s decision making, feeling, and ability to perceive the world; that, in other words, which is our subjectivity.

By shaping the way people feel, think, and experience their own bodies and communities, development agencies — in collaboration with host country governments — begin an engagement in the bio-political meddling of desire and “want” at all levels of person-hood and society. The bio-political manipulation gets manifested in a number of ways, but is most obviously seen in the manner in which communities discuss social behavior.

As just one example, consider the way a fellow colleague of mine recently heard a group of rural African women discussing their young children’s rambunctious behavior while on a field visit. Rowdy behavior in public community spaces, especially of boys, which had never before been questioned, had suddenly assumed a rather curious linguistic lexicon and emotional reaction among the adults in the community.

That is, English words were being used. Hyperactive, attention-seeking, attention-deficit, overly excitable, and disorder had seemingly become common parlance within the local language when referring to the behavior of young people.

Anyone who has taken an introductory psychology class or overheard one conversation at a Western primary school parents’ night would associate this language with the psychological diagnosis of ADHD or Attention Deficit Hyper-Activity Disorder. A diagnosis typically given, and coupled with, a strict regime of psychotropic medication, to children ages 6-15 who seemingly have too much energy to sit at their desks for six hours straight learning multiplication tables or how to write book reports.

The social dynamic which must be deconstructed, is to what degree does the aggressive desire to market and distribute patented medications by major Western pharmaceutical companies, host country government bio-political schemes, coupled with social groupings of entrenched economic interests and the stated benign agendas of development agencies, come together into a complex nexus which effectively shapes the bodies and minds in development agendas.

The resulting health agendas have therefore been filtered through a multi-layered sieve of Western budgetary earmarks, NGO schemes, for-profit health industry profit-mongers, donor and host government priorities, and interests, resulting in a complex web of developmental bio-political intermingling, within which populations attempt to express and cope with their own agency through their bodies and minds.

The world of international development should, then, take its discourse beyond typical health statistics and deconstruct the complexities of its own agenda to engage with a progressive bio-political critique of how we address the health of the developing world.