What is development?

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In multiple academic writings concerning development, the author begins by stating that defining Development is a ‘contentious issue’ (Chang 2010). Most then go on to disparage the vague nature and unknown expanse of Development and the consequential, inevitable critique of their chosen definition by those from other areas of expertise that ‘development’ encompasses.

Some, as Cornwall identifies, such as Chambers, Uvin and Toye, are progressive and forward thinking in their definitions, using terms such as ‘good change’, ‘responsible well-being’[i], ‘sustainable change’, and ‘rights based’[ii]. These academics are countered by more retrospective views (Leal, Mkwandawire; participation and good governance)[iii] and Rist and Sachs’ pessimism in which development is a ‘vague’[iv], ‘myth’[v]. Rist and the World Bank, to challenge Chambers’ idea of ‘sustainable change’, label it an oxymoron, recognising that the traditional idea of economic and social growth is ‘inevitably unsustainable’[vi].

Furthermore, a multitude of disciplines and specialisms can be found within ‘development’ and also result in a sense of ambiguity in classifying the term. Whilst I, for example, may consider development to focus on non-income dimensions of human welfare in the same way as UNDP’S ‘Human Development index’[vii], encompassing religion, education, healthcare and community, others may regard development as a sphere of economic growth. The British public, it is said, tends to regard development and aid in this manner; ‘the role of governments and individuals in rich countries in helping poor people in developing countries’[viii], the focus being on the economically undeveloped connotations of the ‘poor’. From this stems a further criticism of the Chambers’ altruistic, theoretical understandings of ‘development’; increasingly, there is a view that development is actually a harmful force and that ‘even the best development programs… were very damaging for their supposed beneficiaries’[ix].

This range of disciplines, for some, results in a profession within which a wide range of experts can effectively amalgamate their specialisms. On the other hand, Rist and others claim that this results in the arena of development being too ‘vague’[x], perhaps even to the extent that it ceases to be a definable, functioning practice, instead a ‘set of beliefs and assumptions’. However, I would challenge Rist’s cynicism with the example of the World Bank that, even as a dominant economic body, incorporates ‘quality of life: access to education and health care, employment opportunities’[xi] and so on into their definition of ‘development’.

To conclude, I would agree with Friedrich Nietzche’s statement; ‘all things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth’[xii]. The ambiguity of development, for me, provides a benefit and a weakness; it may allow for a wider expanse of progression and exploration into new methods of progress but also, as Nietzche is implying, may allow for the exploitation of the term to justify actions that are, essentially, counter-productive and possibly harmful.


1 Chambers, Robert (1997) ‘Responsible Well-being: A Personal Agenda for Development’, World Development, Vol. 25(11): 1743

[ii] Cornwall, Andrea and Eade, Deborah (2010) ‘Deconstructing Development Discourse

Buzzwords and Fuzzwords’

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Rist, Gilbert (2007) ‘Development’, Development in Practice, 17(4-5):485-491.

[v] Cornwall, Andrea and Eade, Deborah (2010) ‘Deconstructing Development Discourse Buzzwords and Fuzzwords’

[vi] World Bank (2004), ‘What Is Development’

[vii] Chang, Ha-Joon (2010) ‘Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark: How development has disappeared from today’s‘development’ discourse’, (2010) in S. Khan & J. Christiansen (eds.), Towards New Developmentalism: Market as Means rather than Master (Routledge, Abingdon)

[viii] Glennie, Alex, Straw, Will and Wild, Leni (2009) Understanding Public Attitudes to Aid and Development, London: ODI and IPPR

[ix] Paget-Clarke, Nic (2005) ‘Interview with Gustavo Esteva’, The Society of the Different, Part 1: The Center of the World

[x] Rist, Gilbert (2007) ‘Development’, Development in Practice, 17(4-5):486

[xi] World Bank (2004), ‘What Is Development’

[xii] Cornwall, Andrea and Eade, Deborah (2010) ‘Deconstructing Development Discourse

Buzzwords and Fuzzwords’: 12

Image source: http://capreform.eu/the-development-angle/

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One response »

  1. Oh, you’ve knocked me down with your words! You’ve got a great writing style, that I find myself envious of. Nietzsche’s an interesting bean; I think he goes on about this interpretation of ideas in Genealogy but I could be wrong. Might just have to go and find out!

    Great post (:

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