The Ideology of Underdevelopment

Ari Altun/Greetings

Dominant ethnocentric worldviews and policies are internationally enforced through a variety of methods including the use of physical force that can attract much global attention while the discreet use of ideology through discourse achieves a subtle yet effective means of compliance.  The power of discourse to apply value-laden concepts such as “underdevelopment” enables superior states to manipulate and legitimate actions for capitalist intervention upon inferior societies that serve the best interests of outside parties as local communities suffer the consequences.  To classify an area as underdeveloped rather than pristine subjects people to believe that it is natural and acceptable to restructure or develop it for the extraction and commoditization of resources.  The ideology of underdevelopment creates an overall hegemonic acceptance by Western societies for the unjust practices on indigenous populations and the environment as a whole.  This paper must clarify the often misunderstood concept of ideology in order to explain how underdevelopment becomes associated with many negative connotations with a focus on how this is exemplified in the upland regions of Indonesia.

The concept of ideology tends to be deducted and simplified by state officials as merely a set of ideas or a worldview but it is far more profound and harmful.  The Collins Dictionary of Sociology defines ideology as “any system of ideas underlying and informing social and political action which justifies or legitimates the subordination of one group by another” (Jary 1995:306).  The term underdevelopment is an ideology used by the dominant powers or the state to negatively portray certain landscapes and communities in justifying their subordination as they benefit from the future development process.  It was Karl Marx and Frederick Engels who explained that ideologies present a picture of the world through the point of view of the ruling class and it is their best interests considered and not of humanity in general (Jary 1995:306).  Enlightenment and imperialism and arguably globalization and development benefit only select groups of people.  The rest of society is to be convinced it is a natural progression and not a strategic plan with the subtle enforcement of a false consciousness.  Underdevelopment is a powerful ideological term that purposely carries many negative associations to promote development objectives as noted in many areas in the third world, in particular the uplands of Indonesia.

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that indicates how the term underdevelopment has been used in Indonesia by state and foreign officials to legitimately subordinate local inhabitants.  The spread of colonialism and Islam around the coast of Indonesia sought to create conformity to religious and state policies but it was difficult to achieve in the higher elevated upland regions where residents were labeled backward and stubborn to change (Li 1999:3-4).  In areas such as west Kalimantan, plantation managers would brand Dayak tribesmen as backward, primitive and undisciplined since they lived a life that was free and nomadic (Dove 1999:211).  These negative stigmas along with the fact that the upland regions contained highly productive farming systems encouraged the state to “devise mechanisms” for resource expropriation (Li 1999:7).  Policies and laws were created to accommodate these intentions as the terms backward, impoverished or “trouble zones” were accompanied with the term underdeveloped as part of a discourse to mask the social, economical, political processes and the unequal operation of power (Li 1999:34).  Such discourses can be classified as “development narratives” that devalue the uplanders lifestyle as policy makers continue to filter out contradictory data to legitimate specific forms of intervention (Li 1999:11).  Research of the past two to three decades has tried to focus on ecological inadequacies of areas such as Java’s upland soils but these types of biased findings date back to the nineteenth century in the Sulawesi regions where the land was reported to be worn out but is still productively used to this day (Li 1999:28-29).  Many misconceptions and false accusations contribute to the ideology of underdevelopment and serve to fulfill the desires of the dominant powers to not just commoditize all the land and resources but also the labour of the entire population.  In 1989 the Mangkiling people were reported in newspapers that they were unfamiliar with cash and markets as Tsing notes to be an “absurd” claim to promote negative stereotypes associated with underdeveloped backwardness to implement “dominant capitalist systems of labour exploitation and production” (Tsing 1999:169).  Such observations make it clear of state intentions to turn uplanders into landless labour workers resembling the livelihood of coastal inhabitants.  Javanese people of the lowlands are shown TV images of wild upland people to confirm their “superiority of modernity” while encouraging the underdeveloped ideology to prevent, dismiss or ignore uplanders land claims (Li 1999:18-19).  State intervention has increased through the post colonial period and as Li mentions, has been “framed by discourses of marginality and the need for development” (Li 1999:15).  The ideology of underdevelopment is complimented by the ideology of evolutionary progression where dominant powers convince society that old traditions and customs of an underdeveloped era must give way to the linear advancement of the developed era.  An example comes from Schrauwers who explains that the Dutch colonial government and the present Indonesian state refer to the people of Pamona (To Pamona) as persistent of their traditions to the point that hinders the creation of an “economically rational peasantry” and because of this “they are the source of their underdevelopment” (Schrauwers 1999:127).  The term underdevelopment is regarded in the highest of negativity, useful for pro-capitalist discourse and detrimental to traditional culture specific lifestyles and pristine environments.

Although Indonesian upland societies see development as disruptive, they do not seek to revolt, but rather receive their fair share in agreement with the state.  Many failed promised benefits and uneven distributions have occurred but they still recognize and desire some positive aspects of development such as citizenship rights, better access to roads, education and health care (Li 1999:21-22).  It is Li who points out that uplanders must try to turn discourse for their own end to gain better terms of involvement in the local market state (Li 1999:24).

Negative connotations will always exist with the term underdevelopment because it was created and instated as a form of ideology to legitimate the subordination of communities for the economic gain of the state and foreign officials.  It would be ideal to examine Indonesian upland cultures or other cultures on their own terms and under their own unique methods of developed livelihoods. It is unfortunate that the term development is only acknowledged globally with Western definitions and prerequisites.  Under these standards we are constantly informed that third world nations are lesser developed and therefore of less environmental or cultural value.  Western involvement in countries through earlier imperialism and colonialism were translated as a progressive mission under the concept of development.  Western intervention in the third world has not shown much evidence of development.   There are no real success stories of foreign aid through the IMF, World Bank or NGOs.  Much of the benefits of Western economies through development are not clear as growth destroys the environment and the gap between the rich and poor increases daily.  New social movements are needed while universal ideological terms such as underdevelopment must be abolished where each society must be appreciated on their own terms.  It is a mistake to see one society’s viewpoint as wrong and another’s as right.                 

Works Cited

  1. Dove, Michael R., 1999, “Representation of the “Other” by Others: The Ethnographic Challenge Posed by Planters’ Views of Peasants in Indonesia” in Transforming the Indonesian Uplands: Marginality, Power and Production, edited by Tania Li, pp203-224. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.
  1. Jary, David & Jary, Julia, 1995, “Ideology: Definition” in Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 2nd ed., pp306-307.  HarperCollins.
  1. Li, Tania M., 1999, “Marginality, Power and Production: Analysing Upland Transformations” in in Transforming the Indonesian Uplands: Marginality, Power and Production, edited by Tania Li, pp1-35. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.
  1. 4.  Schrauwers, Albert, 1999, “It’s Not Economical: The Market Roots of a Moral Economy in Highland Sulawesi, Indonesia” in Transforming the Indonesian Uplands: Marginality, Power and Production, edited by Tania Li, pp105-127. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.


  1. Tsing, Anna L., 1999, “Becoming a Tribal Elder, and Other Green Development Fantasies” in Transforming the Indonesian Uplands: Marginality, Power and Production, edited by Tania Li, pp159-199. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.