Why do we think West is best?

Imogen Braddick


You only have to look at the case of East Asia to realise that every development path is highly context specific and there is no set agenda for any country, government or society. State-led development paved the way for much of East Asia’s rapid growth and development (East Asian Miracle: a myth or reality?), yet our Western free market ideologies would condemn this. You only have to look at how the Washington Consensus damaged the development of the global South to understand how entirely different our paths need to be.

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Yet because we, the West, industrialised, democratised and developed first (after many years of innovation, experimentation and failure, may I add) we believe we have the right to impose a specific discourse upon the developing world. We hold the view that the West represents modernity and that the rest of the world will soon turn to Western-style liberalism and capitalism.

We believe democracy is the best form of governance, right? Just take a look around at our supposed democratic society in Britain; our FPTP system is ridiculous and leaves half of our population unrepresented and unhappy. One half of our parliament is unelected. 75% of our senior judges are Oxbridge educated, as well as 59% of our cabinet and 47% of newspaper columnists. Do not even get me started on female representation. We called ourselves a democracy before women were even allowed to vote. Our representatives are not representative of our society; is that not what a democracy is supposed to be? Why do we want to impose this as an ideal way of governing a country when we ourselves do not have a fully functioning democratic state? Check out Democracy is Dead: The US Election from Lucia Wagner for more facts and figures surrounding the supposed ‘democracy’ the West lives in.

The idea of good governance varies across the globe. Authoritarian regimes are known to stimulate economic growth more effectively than democracies; they think long-term and implement policies more efficiently. What we must do is research how best to apply policy in these states. More often than not, what works for the West does not work for the developing world. Imposing ideology that is simply not replicable is dangerous and damaging.

The Washington Consensus caused major damage to many struggling states across the developing world; proposing neoliberal reforms and policy suggestions from the outside is a mistake and the West must be careful in causing more harm than good. The Washington Consensus is a form of imposing Western ideology where it is not appropriate; if we look at the context of the East Asian Miracle, where the use of developmental states was highly successful in encouraging economic growth and development, it is stunningly clear that there is not one model that fits all contexts.

“The West has intruded on other civilizations massively, by force of arms, by economic expansion, and through its unparalleled, relentless, and in many ways unpalatable powers of communication.”

Now, I am not suggesting that we withdraw all intervention in the developing world, because that brings moral and ethical arguments. Development aid? It’s context specific and often comes with its drawbacks. Is aid actually effective? That’s an entirely different argument that I will save for another post.

The argument here is that the world will not become “modern” and “Western” and why should it? Imposing our culture and our ideology upon other less developed nations is disrespectful and damaging. Look at this quote from Nkosana Donald Moyo – “through our actions and descriptions, we tend to put a lot of people in a state where they think they are poor.” Notice the word think. We often use the words “third world” and “developing” in a highly condescending manner and this often pushes societies further away from Western ideals, much to our delight. We need to build partnerships with these countries if we really want to make the world one big, equally developed nation, but imposing our Western ideology upon countries, where it just does not work, will never be the way forward.

Let’s talk about pollution. Or even child labour. You only need to watch Call The Midwife series or Suffragette to get an idea of what Britain was like less than 100 years ago. These emerging economies – China, Brazil, just to name a few – are experiencing this now. The counterargument is that we now have the tools, knowledge and expertise to offset these difficulties but does that excuse our stages of development when we were experiencing the exact same? Yes, we have the power and knowledge to preach about climate change but what about our own mistakes and failures during our industrialisation and development years? Yes, we are living in an era of globalisation but let’s chill, let’s allow these countries to industrialise and develop at their own pace. Policies will naturally evolve over time. Look at countries that transitioned from authoritarian regimes to democracies, of their own accord and according to the demands of their rising middle class, not because we demanded this was correct.

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It’s as though we turn development into a competition as to who can become most “Western”. I am fully aware of the positive impact our institutions and programmes have had on poverty, inequality and corruption in much of the global South. But don’t you think the success of this is due to policies and programmes that adapt to the specific culture and state regime? We are making a mistake by imposing what WE, the West, believe is correct and what worked for us.

I study International Development; you may call me a hypocrite. I am basically spending three years understanding how to help the developing world.

But I am not a hypocrite if I address this problem and I am aware of it. It’s something that we need to change within the International Development field. We must NOT impose our Western discourse when we ourselves live in a corrupt, unequal and exploitative society. If we do wish to help the “third world”, then we must understand their cultural norms, their way of life and how their current regime works. Do not preach about how wonderful the West is when many people (not all) are happy with the way their lives are. At least they used to be. Until the capitalist, globalised West decided to intrude on the rest of the world and impose their ideology.