Public-facing “Success Stories” in international development as text: A critical discourse analysis of historicism

Emily Springer

Social Justice and Human Rights, New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, Arizona State University or


Political discourse typically focuses on public oratory comments by politicians which are meticulously prepared and framed in advance, representing their political platforms. In the international development sector, there are few opportunities for conventional political discourse. Instead development organizations reach public audiences through manicured “success stories” which detail their programmatic interventions around the world. The focus of this study is on how publicly available documentation from international development organizations subtly reinforces a historicist understanding of global difference, with material consequences for which development agendas are able to garner legitimacy. Utilizing critical discourse analysis as a methodology, I use the case of the seven publicly available “profiles of progress” of African agricultural development projects funded by a recent large private foundation. As political discourse, these re-presentations of farmers serve political aims for promoting a particular version of agricultural development. I identify two strategies by which these profiles build epistemic legitimacy: (1) “scientizing” the profiles with the inclusion of quantified metrics and (2) using the voices of smallholder farmers to “authenticate” the narratives. I demonstrate that African smallholder farmers are presented in three possible roles: farmer-as-stagnant, farmer-in-modernity, and farmer-as-businessman. These re-presentations normalize the idea of Western superiority, ultimately serving the political needs of development donors to appear as legitimate benefactors. I argue that these profiles are not benign but serve as organizational contributions to an episteme concretizing around a particular political agenda: agribusiness as the solution to 21st century food security.

Keywords: Development, Critical Discourse Analysis, Historicism, Agriculture.


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