Faulty Foundations: Modern Foreign Aid Disenfranchisement and the Long Shadow of Modernization Theory

Jonathan Peter vanDenbrink Voigt

2019 may seem like an odd year to dust off an old copy of Seymour Martin Lipset’s 1960 book on Modernization Theory, Political Man, with the intent to parse its pages and write a counter piece to it, but with attitudes towards foreign affairs getting increasingly isolationist throughout much of the Western democratic world, I feel that its relevance has survived the thorough academic beating it has taken over the past 50 years. The objective of this paper is to explore the link between Modernization Theory and the growing dissatisfaction with what is seen as the failure of foreign aid. With this refreshed utilization of the theory, it is useful to return to the original criticisms levelled against it in the 60s and 70s and see if their criticisms still hold up, or if this renewed interest has grown out of some later realization in the inapplicability of those criticisms. Of greater importance is the internalization of some aspects of the theory by members of the general public – even after it has been largely discredited – and the way that this affects the foreign policy of various Western democracies. The problem is that although Modernization Theory has been debased academically, its highly intuitive nature has let it cling on in the realm of the general public’s assumptions about how countries develop, to the detriment of those countries and their own.

A note on the usage of ‘third world’ throughout this paper: I have chosen to use the now somewhat outdated term ‘third world’ to refer to states who, for any variety of reasons, are less developed politically, economically, and socially than those within the Western industrialized world because of all the various other terms used to describe these kinds of states, ‘third world’ is the most abstract and thus most useful. For example, the Global South has an inherent descriptive edge which implies that a state’s lack of development is in some part dependent on its geographic location in the southern hemisphere, even if this is not the term’s actual definition. Thus, it seems inappropriate when describing a country in, for instance, central Asia. Developing countries or underdeveloped countries are both inaccurate by way of their vagueness: Kazakhstan boasts a fairly well-developed infrastructure and high literacy rates far above many other states labelled as developing, however, it itself is far from developed. The abstract nature of the term ‘third world’ speaks to the vastly different number of circumstances and reasons for why a state may be underdeveloped. Within the purview of this paper, the more abstract term speaks to the vastly different ways states experience underdevelopment and emphasizes a definition primarily based upon being different from Western industrialized democracies.

Although Lipset’s Modernization Theory rapidly began to lose credibility not long after it was published, it dominated within various circles associated with the rapidly expanding phenomena of decolonization throughout the non-European world. Lipset initially proposed the groundwork of what would become Modernization Theory in an article in 1959 before going on to expand and further develop the concept in his 1960 book, Political Man. While a considerable amount of work was created off of the foundation set out by this book, for the purposes of this paper this later work will be ignored in both the interests of time and simplicity. This is possible because, as stated in the introduction, the core idea of this paper is that while the theory itself has been thoroughly discredited in both an academic and political context, it still has lingering remains scattered throughout the popular zeitgeist, which, given the relation between popular consciousness and political action, means that it still influences the way developed states in the Western world interact with the less developed states of the third world.

With this in mind, it becomes necessary to understand the core concepts which underpin Modernization Theory along with Lipset’s rationale for why they are the case. The core idea of Modernization Theory is that as a state develops economically and socially it also develops politically, and thusly produces a democratic system of government. The democratic systems that are produced in these conditions are seen as legitimate and functional by the members of the society. After establishing the sociological background from which he is drawing in the first chapter, Lipset begins to breakdown the mechanics of this idea in the second chapter.

The reason that Lipset’s work was selected over all the other various early contributors to Modernization Theory is because he brought in his work on political cleavage, which helped develop the argument in favor of Modernization Theory to its highest point, where it was still an idea being absorbed by the general public. Afterall, Political Man was a highly influential and award-winning book. Modernization Theory’s core idea is that societies are inherently progressive in a Western sense and that they follow a generally similar upward trajectory, eventually producing an industrialized, well-developed liberal democracy. This progressivism is played out through various stages of development which are based on these seven key areas: economic development, educational development, urbanization, industrialization, the development of bureaucratic systems, the rise of mass media, and eventually democracy.

The basic idea is that a country’s economy grows and becomes more complex as a result of industrialization. Consequently, there is a need for a better educated workforce and more available resources for education which, in turn, produces a population that has both increasing wealth and a higher degree of education. Concurrently, this government must develop a more complex bureaucracy in order to manage the increased demands of industrialization, a more educated population, and the subsequent urbanization which accompanies both of those things.  Industrialization and an expanded government bureaucracy are both fundamentally predicated on the concept of rationality in their operation and given their expanded role in society, this is thought to eventually trickle out into the rest of society. Given that the reason society is developing in the first place – a result of industrialization – and the reason it is able to continue developing is bureaucratization which manages said development (Lipset). What this is claimed to produce is a population of people who are educated and economically comfortable, who will in turn demand to have a better idea of what is happening in the state around them, thus producing a need for a mass media. With a mass media able to report on the happenings of the state they will want to have some sort of stake in what is happening and thus over time democracy begins to emerge.

That best-case scenario presented in the previous paragraph is Modernization Theory at its most simple and base form, stripped of its complexity to a degree that almost renders it useless, save for providing a framework upon which to hang the much more complicated elements of the theory such as those produced by Lipset. There are three important things to hang onto this framework; the first of which is that the extended family structure, massively important within a vast number of societies across the world, becomes increasingly less important as a result of urbanization and expanded lines of communication and travel. Secondly, the spread of bureaucratization is in more areas than just government. It is supposed to occur in all aspects of society as more complex social and economic organizations develop to support the growing industrialization, in the case of trade unions and social organizations, as a result of the mix of improved communication, education and urbanization (Lipset).

The third and most developed in reason, at least in Lipset’s work, is that of political cleavages. These are the various divisions which run through a society, taking on any number of different forms, often overlapping and playing a crucial role in how an electorate votes and what members of a society will consider legitimate or illegitimate activities. The most common kinds of cleavages are economic, between workers, the middle and upper classes, religious, linguistic, and ethnic. Due to many developing states being the postcolonial entities they are, by nature, filled with cleavages, therefore, effectively managing these cleavages is a crucial part of the development of the state according to Modernization Theory. For Lipset, a democracy can only be considered successful if it contains political parties that bridge over cleavages to promote cooperation (Lipset 13). According to Modernization Theory, it is precisely because of cleavages that the development of a democracy is supposed to happen in gradual stages.

This is because the shock of rapid industrialization is likely to drive a rift between one of the major cleavages in any society (the upper and lower classes) in such a way as to drive workers into more radical industrial unions. Conservative members of the existing upper class will feel threatened by this new challenge to the status quo, becoming more likely to back repressive measures against the new threat. Flowing from this is the fact that a new regime must be careful to both assure the supporters of the old regime that they are not going to be alienated from the new regime, while also delivering on promises made to the supporters of the revolution (Lipset 66). As stated previously, for a democracy to develop successfully it needs to develop a middle class, which usually necessitates the creation of a modernized socialist-esque welfare state. However, it is in this that the danger of a communist takeover early in the development of the state presents the greatest danger: if communists take over they are more than likely to generate a considerable backlash to actual reasonable and necessary socialist policies from the upper classes which in turn triggers a reactionary violent pushback that delegitimize these policies to the detriment of the young democracy (Lipset 65). There is also the potential for a new democracy to produce its own set of cleavages or enflame existing ones in ways that may not be readily apparent.

The inherently redistributive nature of democracy, initially in the form of redistribution of power and eventually in the form of wealth redistribution through the creation of a welfare state or any of the other broader wealth reforms required to build an equitable enough society for democracy to take root, means that there must actually be enough to go around if the upper class is not to back reactionary measures (Lipset 51). Additionally, any new regime, especially a new democracy, must be able to ‘deliver the goods,’ so to speak, if it is to be viewed as legitimate, or at least not as a threat by major power bases within a society such as the armed forces and major business interests. What delivering the goods actually entails varies widely from place to place, but broadly speaking, it requires that the government bureaucracy has enough resources that it does not feel the need to use its powers purely to support itself by extracting rents or bribes, which has the double effect of massively hampering economic development and delegitimizing the bureaucracy as a valuable organ of continual democratic governance (Lipset 64).

As the previous paragraphs have laid out, for Lipset’s take on Modernization Theory, the non-democratic state will become democratic if it becomes more economically developed; that economic development requires societal developments which in turn fosters democracy. This illuminates one of the most important aspects of Modernization Theory which is its highly progressive and stage-based nature. Although Lipset rarely states it explicitly, Modernization Theory suggests that one of the core stages in the development of a democracy is that a lot of what will underpin democracy later on, such as a solid bureaucracy and robust economy, require a period of authoritarian non-democratic government in order to be established. This, and the various assumptions which underpin it, are the first of several major criticisms of Modernization Theory which will be addressed in the next section.

As far as major political theories go, Modernization Theory had a relatively short lifespan. It was already under major critical attack by the mid-1960s from scholars such as Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein with their works, Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America published in 1967 and The Modern World System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the Sixteenth Century, published in 1974 respectively. The body of work criticizing Modernization Theory is vast and nuanced but for the purposes of this paper I will only pay specific attention to the criticisms which have fallen the hardest on deaf ears with relation to the general public.

The biggest criticism of the theory, and the one which underpins almost all of the others, is that it is highly ethnocentric. In the eyes of Modernization Theory’s boosters, other cultures and societies must adopt Western modes of doing things if they are to get ahead – their own local ideas about economics, politics, and social organization being obviously insufficient to bring about betterment. Even the ideal end of the progressive chain of developments that Modernization Theory predicts and advocates cannot escape this: the merits of whatever form of government a society may have felt were legitimate prior to colonization are totally discounted in favour of Western notions of democracy. This ethnocentrism permeates the theory much further: the society which democracy is supposed to develop out of is seen as one which is fundamentally doomed to major problems, such as corruption and violence, unless it develops into a mirror image of an industrialized Western state.

This Eurocentric view feeds into the fact that the whole program of industrialization and middle class growth, which modernization theorists view as essential to the creation of a stable long lasting democracy, was largely made possible for the democratic West by circumstances which cannot be replicated by underdeveloped states. Chief among these circumstances, and somewhat ironically, considering the principal cause of most underdevelopment in the states Modernization Theory is targeted at, is that the Western industrialized democracies were able to industrialize and support a large middle class and comfortable working class largely off the backs of their colonial possessions. These imperialist states could extract raw materials cheaply and easily from their colonies while also having massive ready-made and totally dominated markets for the goods those materials would be turned into, in a way that is quite impossible given the current stratification of the postcolonial world. Furthermore, the legacy of the exploitation, which enabled the colonial metropole to sustain the conditions necessary for democracy in the eyes of the Modernization theorists, left behind obstacles which the same colonizers never had to deal with on their home soil while they developed further.

With these particularly damning criticisms, it is not unreasonable to question why anyone should devote any more time to Modernization Theory, either through applying it in an analytical sense or critically analyzing it. However, Modernization Theory remains relevant because some of its major concepts have remained stuck in the popular zeitgeist, which in turn has caused it to trickle upwards into the realm of political decision making. It does not remain insofar as people feel that it or some of its tenets are fundamentally correct, but instead, it remains as a core part of the preconceived framework through which many people view developing countries. The very intuitive idea that as a country becomes more economically prosperous and educated, like countries in the democratized Western world are, the more it should become like us in the democratic West frames how people view the developing world on a very fundamental level, even if the same people espousing views that have this basis do not realize it.

One of the best examples of the long shadow of Modernization Theory and the progressivist cultural mindset which produced it is the way in which foreign aid is talked about, especially negatively, in the Western world. It does not take much more than a quick perusal of the comments section below any online news article about foreign aid to see any number of people calling it a waste and a sham. Second only to the complaint that the government would even consider sending money to another country while a single person remains homeless within their state, is the annoyance that the government would keep sending money when it seems so obvious it makes no improvement. The idea that sending financial aid does not do anything is, in many cases, completely reasonable. Billions of dollars in aid are squandered throughout the developing world through mismanagement and corruption every year, so this cynicism is not without foundation. The problem with this worldview is not an issue of its basis in reality, instead in its perspective: it is fundamentally predicated on the idea that a state naturally improves as it gains more money. As established earlier, this is a falsehood. The dissatisfaction that a belief in this falsehood generates within the general political body makes it considerably less likely that the average person of whom it is comprised will actually turn that dissatisfaction into reasonable criticism of the aid program, instead of simply writing off the use of foreign aid entirely.

Even if the general public who foments this view are not doing so using the exact cause and effect mental framework I have postulated here, they are doubtlessly seeing the development trajectory of other states as having a Westernized democratic endpoint in terms of progress. This means that when the seemingly ready-made development trajectory of the dispensing of foreign aid does not produce its preordained conclusion, people become disenfranchised with the entire program. Although there are a multitude of factors besides Modernization Theory that explain why people subscribe to this progressivist view of development, the long cultural aftertaste of Modernization Theory is among the most prominent.

If democracy cannot take root in places such as Kazakhstan, where by its own metric all things seem to indicate that it should have, why has the general public not abandoned it entirely? The answer can be found in the idea of universal values and its strange interaction with Western notions of acceptance and toleration. The basic problem is that most people in the Western world are brought up to believe, at least on some level, that many of the ideas which underpin democracy are universal. This arises from the internal doublethink that many people in the Western world, especially within the political class, are afflicted by which is caused by simultaneously wanting to see the world through a culturally relativistic lens while also seeking to remake it in their own image.

The problem is that the idea of universal values implies a superiority of those values while the idea of cultural relativism requires a removal of valuation when observing or interacting with cultures with different values, which means that neither concept can really coexist with the other on an intellectual level. The glimmer of hope in this rather tenuous position is that these sorts of fundamental contradictions in thought are usually outside the purview of the average person’s understanding of the world. Fundamental contradictions in one’s worldview are only as big of a problem as a person wishes to make them, especially when a substantial amount of reduction is needed to reach the point where the two opposing points become obviously contradictory. What this means in practical terms is that most people who hold both views do not see any real contradictions in those two positions, especially if they believe, like most people, in the universalism of democratic values, which has arisen naturally from their upbringing and socialization.

It is from these more base contradictions that the tendency for people to write off foreign aid grows. If more of the general public were cultural relativists through and through, they would likely not have any issues with foreign aid not magically generating democracy by improving the economies of the third world states its distributed to because they would recognize the cultural landscape as being fundamentally different to their own. It is because, on some level, the universalism of values from those within the Western world fails to fully realize that other cultures are not predicated on the same fundamental values as our own, and in turn, they may not develop in the exact same way. The difficulty in articulating this self-contradictory view speaks to the problems within it, especially when very little research has been done to define this view specifically. With this in mind, articulating the basic problems with this universalism of values is important in order to highlight the foundational role that it plays in the various ways that Modernization Theory has influenced how people view the third world. In practical terms, the Western general public seems to believe that while all cultures are different, they share some sort of fundamental values with the Western world, which results in that same public’s disenfranchisement when those cultures fail to uptake Western values on a higher level, such as in the political realm, despite economic and military assistance.

Work Cited

Lipset, Seymour Martin. Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. 1st ed., Doubleday, 1963.


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Tinge by Jonathan Peter vanDenbrink Voigt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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