We live in the era of the “great return to (national) planning”(1). In the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, most governments stopped trying to plan their economies and wrapped up their national development planning commissions. At the same time, empirical and conceptual research on national development planning practically ceased, ending more than half a century of work on a topic that had been a central theme of both development and growth economics. But for a decade and a half now, little by little, national governments in the Global North and in the Global South, in the East and in the West, have resumed their national planning efforts. In a dramatic turnaround compared to the previous three decades, over 150 countries containing over three-quarters of humanity published a national development plan between 2012 and 2021 (2).
What would our late colleague and friend Pierre Beaudet have thought of this “big return to planning” and how would he have analysed this emergent phenomenon? These are the questions that this article seeks to answer. This article offers an outline of a “Beaudetian” analysis of the new national planning, that is, an analysis inspired by the big themes of Pierre Beaudet’s thought and work, to the extent that such a thing is possible in his absence. Pierre and I had discussed these matters on a few occasions but had not formalised any research partnership on these issues by the time of his death.
The relevance of Pierre Beaudet’s thought and work
Pierre was a strong opponent of what he called “neoliberalism”, that new form of globalised capitalism that emerged in the 1980s and whose core ideological predilection was to convert just about everything into commodities that could be traded in the “free market”. Pierre’s analysis of this phenomenon was rooted in a Marxian analysis, while my own was rooted more in the work of Karl Polanyi (3) but we both believed in the importance of dialogue between differing intellectual traditions.
As several speakers noted at the celebration of Pierre’s life in April 2022, Pierre was a Marxist, but he always renounced the two mortal sins of Marxism: sectarianism and dogmatism. For Pierre, Marx – amongst others – was a source of inspiration, not the final word on anything. The Hegelian dialectic was a cornerstone of Pierre’s thought but unlike some of his comrades, he knew that the dialectical process is not a simple or predictable process. Contingent factors were important for Pierre; long-term social change depends on local, national and international factors. Pierre’s research was always grounded in a solid understanding of the realities on the ground, and he insisted on understanding the local context in all its specificity.
What is more, Pierre recognised the important tensions with the Marxian tradition on some key points, notably on the national question. A dedicated internationalist, Pierre was also a proud Québécois. One of his important works concerns the « Irish detour » and socialism, that is, the relation between the fight for national liberation and the fight for social and economic justice (4). And while certain more conventional Marxists clung to economic determinism, Pierre had carefully read Gramsci (5), the great Italian Marxist theoretician and political leader who insisted on the importance of social, political and ideological factors. Pierre spent his time studying civil society and social movements and was active in those movements.
For all these reasons, Pierre cast a skeptical eye on the Soviet model of socialism and its variants. An indefatigable activist against the white minority regimes in Southern Africa in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, Pierre did not attempt to hide his distaste for the abuses committed by the “Marxist-Leninist” regime in Angola against that country’s post-independence civil society (6), for example. For him, socialism had to be democratic, pluralist and participatory. While opposing the neoliberal “logic of the market”, Pierre also criticised the bureaucratic and authoritarian character of Soviet central planning, whether it was practised in the Soviet Union or elsewhere.
So, denouncing both the logic of the market and Soviet-style planning, what would Pierre have thought of the recent great return of national planning?
The great return of national planning: Three Beaudetian themes
Three aspects of the new national planning in the 21st century would have intrigued Pierre. The first is that the return of countries to national development planning is a basically subaltern and national phenomenon, a movement from below. The second is the fact that a good many of these plans have been developed not on the same basis as traditional Soviet planning – that is, statist, elitist, bureaucratic, centralised, rational – but based on a communicational or collaborative logic inspired in part by Habermas (7). Third, the return of national development planning is the result of a dialectical process, a reaction to the failures brought on by three decades of neoliberalism.
The return of national development planning: A subaltern and national phenomenon
First of all, the great return to national development planning is not the result of any grand international initiative pushed by donor countries, the international financial institutions or the UN. Governments in the South, like those of Egypt, Mexico, Mongolia, South Africa, Tunisia and Türkiye, and some in the North such as Bulgaria, Germany and Sweden, simply resumed planning their future development paths, without having been pushed to do so by the great international or western powers. Indeed, in 2016-17 when Chimhowu and his colleagues detected a resurgence in national development planning (8), they found almost no mention of this fact on any of the websites of the UN, the World Bank, the OECD (9) or the International Monetary Fund (10)!
The fact that some of the recent success stories in international development – most notably China, but also India, Malaysia, Thailand and Viet Nam – never totally abandoned national development planning has also no doubt inspired some other countries to reinstate their national planning efforts.
In our just published research, we did a content analysis of 175 national development plans from all continents; this analysis (11) shows the subaltern and national dimension of national development planning by bringing to light the main themes of this new generation of national development plans. These themes do not necessarily reflect the international consensus of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (12); many of these plans put themes related to economic and financial nationalism at the forefront. Building a national economy based on the needs of citizens, rather than those of the international market, is an important theme. Another theme is the need to build national economies that are sufficiently resilient to manage the shocks generated by a globalised capitalist economic system. We see these themes not only in plans produced by the socialist governments in Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Viet Nam, but also in plans produced by Brazil, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Türkiye (13).
Even those countries that started their return to national development planning via a “Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper” (PRSP) – a planning tool used by the World Bank as part of its Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative – have continued their national planning after that World Bank support ended; such countries have moved from PRSPs to medium-term multisectoral national development plans, without being forced by the Bank to do so (14). Since 2016, only two countries, Sudan and Zimbabwe, have published a PRSP.
Participation, collaboration and communication in 21st century planning
The second aspect relates to a fundamental change in the logic of the planning process. While national level development planning was disappearing in the 1980s and 1990s, planning theory and practice were being transformed, most notably amongst feminists (15) and urban and land use planners (16). Their common enemy was the previously dominant model of linear-rational planning. Both the Soviet Gosplan and American urban planners had previously adhered to the same linear-rational planning logic: some elite group defines the priorities and targets to be attained and then allocates resources accordingly; everything is managed with an eye to meeting those targets. According to this logic, all kinds of problems – from the economy to society to land use planning – could be solved if one applied this logic of inputs and outputs.
The postmodernists of the 1970s and 1980s savagely criticised this logic and this model of society but did not succeed in proposing any practicable solutions beyond a certain anomie and an atomistic libertarianism (17). Feminist scholars and practitioners and urban and land use planners responded with what Hamel calls the communicational trend (18) or what others have called “collaborative” or “communicative” rationality (19). This set of reflective actors (practitioners, intellectuals, activists) adopted a perspective that put the relationship between policy makers and citizens as the central concern (20). Popular participation, dialogue, the questioning of authority and the search for continuous improvement, rather than a pre-defined goal or target, are the main themes of this school of thought. The most important intellectual source of this thinking is of course Habermas, but Gramsci is also important here. The revolution is a long process that passes through civil society, not a specific moment in time.
Among the 262 national development plans published by governments between 2012 and 2021, 41 do no speak about the planning process. But the other 221 plans do talk about how they were put together and the results – again obtained from a conventional content analysis (21) – are interesting. Almost a quarter of these 221 plans (N=52) were developed based on a purely statist, linear-rational basis; according to their authors, citizens were not invited to participate in the planning process. In 45% of cases (N=99), the government consulted the public or other stakeholders during the planning process; such consultations usually took place after a first draft of the plan had been produced by government. And in more than 30% of cases (N=70), citizens and other stakeholders (for instance, private sector representatives, researchers, civil society organisations, and sometimes religious groups) played a significant role in the planning process. This participation included consultations before the main priorities were defined, that is, a real dialogue between leaders and citizens regarding the plan’s objectives; in such cases, we often see a series of consultations and feedback sessions – a dialogical process – and meetings both in person and online with thousands of participants.
Of course, certain regimes exaggerate the level of public participation and the contribution of such participation to the final content of the plan. For example, did the Sultanate of Oman really consult its people in such a transparent and democratic fashion? But even if these processes are imperfect in several respects – and no doubt they are – they are not unimportant. At a minimum, they help legitimise the voices of popular forces and social movements that are outside the strict control of the state. And they transform the planning process into a potentially democratic exercise.
The dialectic… and the end of the neoliberal era?
So, why did so many governments return to national development planning? The main reason can be found in the deficiencies of the famous Washington consensus (22). The Washington consensus suggests that three factors are key to promoting development: macroeconomic stability, microeconomic efficiency, and “good governance”. Excluded from this agenda – even in its most expansive forms – are all the questions that intrigued Pierre Beaudet: national liberation struggles, social classes, popular participation, questions of equality and equity, the role of civil society, as well as environmental and gender issues, and the coherence of public policy and public action.
In a dialectical process that Pierre explored thoroughly, the neoliberal thesis created its well-known antitheses: growing inequalities, environmental crisis, financial crises, the questioning of the legitimacy of the rules-based international order. “|The Western triumphalism of the nineties and noughties now has a hollow ring” (23) in the 21st century. But what does the synthesis inevitably produced by the dialectical process actually look like?
The large middle-income countries are no longer content to keep their old place in an international order created by the West: “Emerging countries want more say in the international order” (24); to get that, they have recently created or revitalised several international organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (25), the New Development Bank (26) and the Development Bank of Latin America (27). The “emerging economies play offence” while the dominant Western power “play defence" (28).
We see this same independent mindedness in the national development plans of the large developing countries. Certain countries like Bolivia, Mexico and Türkiye insist in their national development plans on the need to transform international norms, institutions, and organisations; in other words, creating a more egalitarian normative and regulatory framework for the world economy is now part of the national development agenda.
And it is no longer a question of integrating national economies into the international economy as it was in the 1980s; many of these national development plans seek to create integrated national economies! Many of these plans promote an economic dirigisme that we have not seen for a long time, for example, setting up of strategic national industries, promotion of both private and parastatal enterprises as “national champions” on the international scene, national development banks…
What would Pierre have made of all this? He would certainly have found it interesting, but the results achieved so far would be inadequate for him, even disappointing. Pierre would insist that we are far from seeing the end of global capitalism and perhaps that the new forms of national capitalism seen in the emerging economies are not necessarily any better that what went before.
Pierre would nonetheless have found certain aspects of the new national planning attractive, notably the diverse ways that so many of them demonstrate resistance by the states of the South to the diktats of the dominant countries. The involvement of civil society and the injection of collaborative and communicative rationalities into planning processes would have met with his approval, even if he would have shown some skepticism about the more performative aspects of such participation in some countries and regimes. For Pierre, the revival of national development planning would be a potential new space for contestation and for the promotion of the values of justice and equality; he would have insisted on the need for progressive forces to move into and to contest that space. But, with his Gramscian tendencies, Pierre would also have understood that the victory is never gained once and for all, that the struggle will continue in new forms and in new spaces, and that the final result is never guaranteed.
The big themes of Pierre Beaudet’s thought and work are and will remain relevant for the next stages of research and action on national development planning: democracy and civil society, dialectical processes, deep connections to local context, and the relation between the struggle for national liberation and the struggle for social justice. Pierre would have pushed us to deepen and extend our studies of the emerging phenomenon that is the new national planning, following these lines, in order to build a better world.
Even if we have not arrived at what Pierre would call socialism, we are far from the peak of neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s. As Gramsci knew well, societal transformation is a long-term struggle. Thank you, Pierre, for your intellectual and political contributions to these great struggles.
1. Jacques Sapir, Le grand retour de la planification ?, Paris, Éditions Godefroy, 2022.
2. Chimhowu Admos, David Hulme et Lauchlan T. Munro, « The “new” national development planning and global development goals : processes and partnerships », World Development, vol. 120, 2019, p. 76-89.
3. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Times. 2nd edition. Boston, Beacon Press, 2001 (1944). A heterodox economist and anthropologist, from Hungary Polanyi questioned whether certain concepts of liberal economics (e.g., the market, competition, commodities) are natural or not. For Polanyi as for Marx, capitalism has self-destructive tendencies, though the mechanisms are different. Polanyi insists on how an unfettered market society will destroy social connections and the natural environment.
4. Pierre Beaudet (dir.), Les socialistes et la question nationale : Pourquoi le détour irlandais ?, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2015.
5. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London, International Publishers.
6. Pierre Beaudet, « La société civile et la lutte pour la paix en Angola », Review of African Political Economy, vol. 28, n° 90, 2001, p. 643-648.
7. Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, in two volumes. Boston, Beacon Press. 1981.
8. Chimhowu et al., op. cit.
9. OECD: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
10. Lauchlan T. Munro, “The resurgence of national development planning: how did we get back here?”, International Development Planning Review, vol. 42, n° 2, 2020.
11. Hsiu-Fang Hsieh et Sarah E. Shannon, “Three approaches to qualitative content analysis”, Qualitative Health Research, vol. 15, n° 9, 2005, p. 1277-1288.
12. UN, Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, General Assembly Resolution A/RES/70/1, adopted on 25 September 2015.
13. Munro, op. cit. and Lauchlan T. Munro “Are the SDGs a hegemonic global development agenda? Evidence from national development plans”, Revue internationale des études du développement, no. 253, 2023.
15. Caroline Moser, Gender planning and development: Revisiting, deconstructing and reflecting, DPU60 Working Paper Series: Reflections n° 165/60, University of London, 2014.
16. Marie-Hélène Bacqué and Mario Gauthier, “Quatre décennies de débats et d’expériences depuis “A ladder of citizen participation”de S. R. Arnstein”, Participation, urbanisme et études urbaines, vol. 1, n 1, 2011, p. 36 à 66.
17. Pierre Hamel, “La critique postmoderne et le courant communicationnel au sein des théories de la planification : une rencontre difficile”, Cahiers de géographie du Québec, vol. 41, n° 114, 1997, p. 311–321. Christopher Butler, Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 116-118.
19. Judith E. Innes and David Booher. “A turning point for planning theory? Overcoming dividing discourses”, Planning Theory, 14(2), p. 195-213, 2015. Jean Hillier and Patsy Healey (eds.), The Foundations of the Planning Enterprise: Critical Essays in Planning Theory, Vol. 1, London, Routledge, 2008.
20. Hamel, op. cit.
21. Hsieh et Shannon, op. cit.
22. John Williamson, A Short History of the Washington Consensus, Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2004.
23. Lauchlan Munro, Emerging economies are reshaping the liberal international order (and what to do about it), Policy Brief No. 5, Canadian Association for the Study of International Development, 2021.
28. Munro, 2021, op. cit.
Lauchlan T. Munro is a Full Professor, School of International Development and Global Studies, University of Ottawa
Note from the author: I sincerely thank all my research assistants for their contribution to this research: Ninette Aboujamra, Bhanu Acharya, Vanessa Bejar Gutierrez, Éric Dupuis, Laurence Granger, Fatima Ezzahra Halafi, Maryam Hosseini, Kablan P. Kacou, Leyan Malhis, Laura Martinez, Lilith Murie-Wilde, Endang Purwasari, Rithikesh Sumbhoolaul, Jiadi Wu.
The original French version of this paper was published as « La nouvelle planification nationale : Une analyse beaudetienne » in Les nouveaux cahiers du socialisme, no. 29, printemps 2023. https://www.cahiersdusocialisme.org/