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  • Potentials for Democratic Development in Timor-Leste: A Critical Modernist Perspective
  • Azlan Tajuddin (bio)


Having survived four hundred years of Portuguese rule, twenty-seven years of Indonesian military occupation, and decades-long civil strife, Timor-Leste finally joined the world community of nations as the 191st member of the United Nations on May 20 2002. After more than a decade of independence, however; 40 percent of Timor-Leste’s 1.1 million people still live in immense poverty. Despite its location in a rapidly industrializing Southeast Asia, Timor-Leste remains overwhelmed by mass deprivation, political turmoil, and widening inequalities. The question arises as to whether the country is destined toward an inescapable path of underdevelopment that has beset many other countries. This paper suggests that this “fate” can be avoided, that there are potential areas in the country’s current development in which a socially-just, democratic, and modern society can transpire. Such an approach however, will require a shift in paradigmatic thinking away from traditional theories of development to a perspective that is radically participation-centered.

Development and the Critical Modernist Perspective

Conventional discourses articulated within the modernization, dependency, and world system schools tend to analyze development through a Universalist and structure-centered [End Page 83] methodology. In response, scholars from the post-structural and post-development perspectives contend that the complex and diverse nature of the world today should entail rigorous analyses at the micro-social level instead.1 They further assert that the development industry virtually constitutes of neo-imperialist projects serving to promote and sustain the profitability of western capitalist interests in the developing world.2 Post-structuralists also argue that in order for poorer citizens to benefit from economic projects; mainstream approaches, concepts, and narratives of development must first be de-constructed. This will open up spaces for alternative, non-modern, and localized approaches to development, through which the poor are able to adopt practical and tradition-based strategies relevant to the needs and desires of their respective communities.3

Such a “localized” discourse in development, however, has drawn criticisms from those who feel that abandoning structural level analyses is theoretically unrealistic while the idea of de-modernizing development is self-defeating for communities in dire need of basic social and economic help.4 Consequently, a body of scholastic literature has emerged to combine elements of Marxism, feminism, and post-structuralism into a cohesive theoretical perspective. Proponents call it critical modernism. Like its post-structuralist cousin, this perspective premises its theoretical critique on elite monopoly of resources, oppression of minority groups, patriarchal dominance, and hegemonic narratives. Critical modernists also agree with post-structuralists on the significance of micro-level analyses in the study of development, but only as complementary to structural-level analyses. Importantly, critical modernists tend to focus on the potential in, rather than the practice of, current [End Page 84] development. This serves as a basis for moving a country or society toward one that is truly modern and democratic.

Primarily, critical modernists are highly distrusting of any privileged group and its versions of histories. Instead, they invaluably favor the opinions of marginalized peoples. Critical modernists therefore prioritize the use of logical analyses and documented experience to form the basis of their theories.5 However, unlike post-structuralists who propose an “alternative to development” model, critical modernists believe in scientific modernity as the foundation for development. They explain that there is nothing bad about modernism; it has been capitalism, through its corollary of human exploitation, resource waste, and various forms of social divisions, which has corrupted the process of modernization.6 Hence their argument that capitalism and modernism are not the same as far as democracy is concerned. A capitalist system may be modern but its democratic development has been limited to only advancing the market-driven interests of elites.

Critical modernists propose instead that the driving force behind modern development should come from a set of ethical principles. Unlike post-structuralists who tend to analyze development and its problems along socially-constructed and localized definitions, critical modernists use internationally-accepted norms of equality and justice to theoretically assess the goals and outcomes of modern development. The basis for this moral...


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pp. 83-114
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