Twenty-Six Years Later

Ivan Illich in conversation with Majid Rahnema

This conversation was published in The Post-development Reader compiled and introduced by Majid Rahnema with Victoria Bawtree (Zed Books, Fernwood Publishing, 1997).


Majid Rahnema: Ivan, I was already "contaminated" by many of your ideas on development and education, when I first read your talk on "Development as Planned Poverty," later followed by your other great essay on the Epimethean Man. Like your other writings, those papers continued to display the laser quality of your mind which allowed you to pierce through many of the opacities of your times. Yet, the "developer" in me was then in great difficulty, considering your attack on the new myth as nothing more than a skillful provocation. But now their prophetic dimensions have prompted me to bring at least one of them to the attention of the younger generation as an important contribution to the history of the present.

Yes, as I was coming to see you here in Bremen, I felt it would be a more exceptional gift to the readers if I could offer them your views on development, some twenty-six years later, especially as "The Post-development Reader" is intended to help them better understand the post-development era. And now that you have so kindly agreed to break your long silence on development and allowed me to engage in a friendly yet open conversation on the matter, I would like you to satisfy my curiosity on a couple of questions.

If I am correct, you have never been interested in the kind on actions in which missionaries, developmentalists or Marxist and other social intervenors generally take pride; namely, to extend care or assistance to those who are presumed to suffer or need help. Unlike them, you seem to consider this attitude as both unloving and unrealistic, arrogant and counterproductive. By contrast, you have always been concerned with the art of suffering, in particular the history of different cultures in coping with their sufferings. And you have deplored the fact that modernity has affected this art very negatively, while it has created new and perhaps more intolerable forms of suffering.

This position has led some of your critics to argue that you are interested more in the history of the arts of suffering than in actions aimed at reducing or eventually eliminating different forms of sufferings. Hence, the following set of questions: To what extent do you believe that human solidarity implies that one has to somehow respond to suffering, eventually with a view either to reducing it, or to transforming it into an elevating exercise that is the opposite of its dehumanizing forms? And if so, could these be achieved in a meaningful and dignified manner?

Ivan Illich: Majid, there is something unsettling about your inquisition. Here we are, seated on my futon with a steaming samovar in front of us, relaxing in my mansard in the Bremen house of Barbara Duden: You soon to depart to celebrate the 75th birthday of Dadaji; I to teach one more class on the history of iconoclasm at the university. Just last night, with my students who are also your readers, we celebrated your 70th birthday. Thus I cannot very well reject your request. Further, I speak with pleasure, for your questions are a poignant reminder of a conversation that has been a true enquiry. I know this is so because I remember it as controversial and polemical in character. Now we are both older; each of us had to advance along his own road to reach a level where we can find ourselves in agreement.

You are correct in your belief that I had qualms about the notion of economic development early on. From my first encounter with it, when I became vice-chancellor in charge of "development" at a university in Ponce, Puerto Rico, I had doubts. That was exactly 40 years ago, 12 years before you were made Minister of Education, 17 years before each of us overcame his timidity and we met in Tehran, where we sucked on an ablambu, a huge pomegranate, at our first meeting. Intuition guided my initial rejection of development. I only learned to formulate true reasons gradually, over the stretch of time that coincides with our growing friendship.

During a decade or more, my criticism focused on the procedures used in the attempt to reach goals that I did not then question. I objected to compulsory schooling as an inappropriate means to pursue universal education -- which I then approved (Deschooling Society). I rejected speedy transportation as a method of increased egalitarian access (Energy and Equity). In the next step, I became both more radical and more realistic. I began to question the goals of development more than the agencies, education more than the schools, health more than the hospitals. My eyes moved from the process toward its orientation, from the investment toward the vector's direction, toward the assumed purpose. In Medical Nemesis, my main concern was the destruction of the cultural matrix that supported an art of living characteristic of a time and place. Later, I increasingly questioned the pursuit of an abstract and ever more remote ideal called health.

Majid, it is only after those books to which you just referred -- that is since the 1970s -- that my main objection to development focuses on its rituals. These generate not just specific goals like "education" or "transportation," but a non-ethical state of mind. Inevitably, this wild-goose chase transforms the good into a value; it frustrates present satisfaction (in Latin, enough-ness) so that one always longs for something better that lies in the "not yet."

Majid Rahnema: This morning, I conveyed to you the message of a younger friend who asked me to thank you for having left a deep mark on his life, since the first time he learned from you the need constantly to question his certainties. Although the lesson had enriched this friend's inner life in many ways, it has also, I guess, acted on him as a destabilizing factor, actually discouraging him from continuing to take an active part in social life, as he did before. Thinking of him, I sometimes wonder whether the joy and indeed the inner clarity gained by this type of questioning does not sometimes hinder one's capacity to relate to the outer world and to participate in a meaningful social life.

To help you grasp the depth of my question, I think of a beautiful answer you gave to David Cayley when he asked you, "Once one has laid bare these certainties and becomes aware of 'needs,' 'care,' 'development' -- whatever these cherished concepts are -- once one has investigated them, once one has seen... how destructive they may be, what next? Is your counsel to live in the dark?" You emphatically said "No" to him, and then added: "Carry a candle in the dark, know that you're a flame in the dark."

To me this is a Buddhist answer, the kind of comment which makes me sometimes believe that, despite your resistance to the idea, you often come close to the Buddhists in some important areas on thinking and action. But, closing this parenthesis, I remembered you saying yesterday that Buddhists who use meditation or other "spiritual" exercises tend to focus more on their navels than upon the possible consequences of their belief in their oneness with the world. So, in the name of eliminating the causes of sorrow, you said, they actually sever themselves from other people's sufferings rather than experiencing them.

Now, coming back to your advice to David, how do you think one could be a candle in the dark and still develop, at a social level, the type of compassion and love of the world which permeates all your thinking? I know that, for you, friendship is perceived as a way of reconciling the two, but is it possible to extend the grace of friendship to everyone?

Ivan Illich: Majid, your queries are like challenges, more stimuli than questions. Now you ask something which just fits the sense with which we concluded our first session. Tell your friend the story of Saadi's Golestan, the story you related at the celebration last night: "In the annals of Ardashir Babakan, it is told that he asked an Arabian physician how much food one should eat daily. He replied, "A hundred dirham's weight would suffice." The king pressed him further, "What strength will this quantity give?" The physician answered, "This quantity will carry you; and that which is in excess of it, you must carry."

"Enough" is like a magic carpet; I experience "more" as a burden, a burden that during the 20th century has become so heavy that we cannot pack it on our shoulders. We must load it into lorries that we have to buy and maintain.

The story is true of things, be they food, or ideas, or books. But it does not apply to friends. Friendship cannot be true unless it is open, inclusive, convivial -- unless a third is fully welcome. The candle which burns in front of us also lights up our pipe; a match would serve just as well. But a match would not let us see the continual reflection of a thirdone in both our pupils, would not remind us of this persistent presence.

Now, Back to your questions. I worry about minds, hearts and social rituals being infected by development, not only because it obliterates the unique beauty and goodness of the now, but also because it awakens the "we". As you know better than I, most languages have several differently sounding words for the first person plural, for the we, the us. You use a different expression for saying: "You and I, we two." The Greek or Serbian dualis, and another for designating "those of us who sit around this table" -- to the exclusion of others; and yet another to refer to those with whom you and I live our daily lives together.

This refinement of the first-person experience has been largely washed away wherever development has set it. The multiple "we" was traditionally characteristics of the human condition; the "first person plural" is a flower born out of sharing the good of convivial life. It is the opposite of a statistical "we", the sense of being jointly enumerated and represented in a graphic column. The new voluntaristic and empty "we" is the result of you and me, together with innumerable others, being made subject to the same technical management process -- "we drivers," "we smokers," "we environmentalists." The "I" who experiences is replaced by an abstract point where many different statistical charts intersect.

Assure your friend that neither naval gazing nor flight from the city is appropriate; rather only a risky presence to the Other, together with openness to an absent loved third, no matter how fleeting. And remember that there is no possibility of achieving this so long as the candle near our samovar stands for "everyone". The most destructive effect of development is its tendency to distract my eye from your face with the phantom, humanity, that I ought to love.