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Factors for Defining Development

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: International Studies
Wordcount: 1823 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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What is development?


‘Development seems to defy definition, although not for a want of definitions on offer.’

       (Cowen and Shenton, 1996, p. 2)

In 2015, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals came in to effect, replacing the Millennium Development Goals as the most widely recognised framework for international development. The goals are designed to be achieved by 2030 and include directives such as ‘End poverty’, ‘End hunger’ and ‘Achieve gender equality’ (United Nations, 2015, p. 16). The predictability of these clearly stated development goals implies that defining ‘development’ should not be difficult. However, as I will highlight in this essay, the term is in fact widely contested.

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Staudt (1991, p. 28) claims that ‘hundreds of definitions of development’ have been conceived and these definitions can often be separated into two categories: those which prioritise economics and those which prioritise human wellbeing. For instance, development is defined as the means to promote ‘economic growth’ and ‘the reduction or elimination of poverty’, whilst simultaneously being construed as people having ‘the opportunity to develop their fullest potential’ (Staudt, 1991, pp. 28-29).

Development is often associated with ideas of modernity and, according to Willis (2011, p. 3), ‘people defining development as ‘modernity’, look at development largely in economic terms’. Modernity generally refers to a state of being new or modern, but economically speaking it’s an idea which ‘encompasses industrialization, urbanization and the increased use of technology within all sectors of the economy’ (Willis, 2011, p. 3). This view of development in economic terms is still apparent in major international institutions. The notion is grounded in the belief that greater wealth necessarily generates benefits such as better health and education and, therefore, measures of national wealth are frequently used to represent development. For instance, Gross National Income (GNI) per capita – which is calculated by dividing a country’s total income by its population – is often used to place countries in development categories.

The suggestion that development is synonymous with economic growth has faced substantial criticism (Harris, 2014, p. 36). Most notably, Sen (1999, p. 14) argues that wealth only has value in terms of ‘the things that it allows us to do’ and, thus, development should be considered instead in terms of human beings’ ability to attain ‘things that he or she may value doing or being’ (Sen, 2009, pp. 231-232).

According to Sen’s position, then, ‘development can be seen . . . as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy’ (Sen, 1999, p. 3). Arguably as a result of critiques from Sen and others, development has progressed from an idea concerned mainly with wealth to one which incorporates human wellbeing more often; a change which has also places more emphasis on individual freedoms as Sen advocates. Reflecting these changes, the United Nations Development Programme now presents Human Development Index (HDI) data in its annual report alongside GNI per capita, as an alternative measurement of development (United Nations Development Programme, 2018). According to Hopper (2012, p. 11), the HDI operates on the basis that fundamentally people should be able to ‘lead long and healthy lives’, ‘be knowledgeable through access to education’ and ‘have the necessary resources to achieve a decent standard of living’. This does not mean that economic growth is no longer deemed a significant determinant of development – and the HDI does continue to include a measurement of per capita wealth – but clearly there is a greater emphasis on human wellbeing.

Conceptualising development is made even more challenging by the diverse range of actors involved in the development process. International organisations, governments and individuals are just a few of the agents which can influence the development process which, as Cowen and Shenton (1996, p. 3) observe, means that development can be understood ‘in a multiplicity of ways because there are a multitude of ‘developers’ who are entrusted with the task of development’.

Despite the many actors, Alan Thomas (2000, p. 774) warns that development is increasingly seen as only concerning ‘multilateral development agencies’ and ‘state agencies such as those of the United States and its allies’ that merely view development in terms of ‘alleviating problems’. Whilst these agencies undeniably have the potential to affect positive change, such as the reduction of poverty, Thomas believes that by accepting this as its main meaning, development becomes simply ‘whatever is done in the name of development, and development is now used to mean practice more than vision or process’ (2000, p. 777). In other words, this narrow approach to development denies its inherent ambiguity and also threatens to overlook the fact that dealing effectively with complex issues, such as poverty, sometimes requires deeper structural change.

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Development is thought of in a range of different contexts. For instance, it can be considered at the level of the individual, or a regional, national or global level – and definitions of development may differ as a result. Analysing development data at the national level for example, offers no insight to whether there is inequality between different regions in the country. Furthermore, as Willis (2011, pp. 8-9) notes, even where GNI per capita and HDI are impressive nationally, it is likely that ‘not everyone in the country will have access to that level of income or standard of living’.

Inequality is not just apparent in certain geographical contexts: social inequality can also be very important to the notion of development. For instance, women historically are often not able to access many of the benefits of development. Momsen (2010, p. 2) explains that ‘Women often lose control over resources such as land’, whilst ‘Male mobility is higher than female’ because ‘women are being left alone to support children’. Over time, according to Willis (2011, p. 12), persistent social inequalities can lead to ‘a decline in self-respect and self-esteem’ amongst those groups that have limited access to the benefits of development; as such, considering how to manage social diversity is a very important issue in development theory.

Whilst debates about how development is defined and how it can be achieved endure, in the last few decades an entirely different approach to development has risen to prominence: post-development theory. Post-development theory holds that the idea of contemporary development simply reflects Western global hegemony. Escobar (1995), using Colombia as a lens through which to consider the development process, offers a persuasive argument for this approach. He claims that before the ‘problematic involvement’ of development organisations – such as the World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development – poverty did not exist and thus there was no need for development (Escobar, 1995, p. 15). By artificially imposing external Western norms on Colombia, the country could be viewed ‘lacking’ development (1995, p. 23); and this lack could then only be addressed by ideas of development that were grounded in Western assumptions. According to post-developmentalists, this diffusion of development ideas has ‘helped incorporate large areas of the globe into an economic and political system which has destroyed indigenous cultures, threatened the sustainability of natural environments’ (Willis, 2011, p. 32).

In conclusion, the concept of development is clearly contested and does ultimately defy definition, both in terms of what form of development is most desirable and in terms of how it should be achieved. Post-development accounts are compelling, however more consideration of contemporary trends – such as globalisation and climate change – would be needed to seriously gauge the impact and scope of the spread of Western development ideas. Ultimately, though, ideas of development can have a profound impact on the objectives of international institutions and, thus, on the future trajectory of the so-called underdeveloped world.




  • Cowen, M. P. and Shenton, R. W. (1995) ‘The Invention of Development’, in J. Crush (ed.), Power of Development. London: Zed Books, pp. 25-41.
  • Cowen, M. P. and Shenton, R. W. (1996) Doctrines of Development. London: Routledge.
  • Escobar, A. (1995) Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Oxford: Princeton University Press.
  • Harriss, J. (2014) ‘Development Theories’, in B. Currie-Alder, R. Kanbur, D. M. Malone and R. Medhora (eds.), International Development: Ideas, Experience, and Prospects. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 35-49.
  • Hopper, P. (2012) Understanding Development. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Momsen, J. (2010) Gender and Development. London: Routledge.
  • Sen, A. (1999) Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Sen, A. (2009) The Idea of Justice. London: Harvard University Press.
  • Staudt, K. (1991) Managing Development: State, Society, and International Contexts. London: SAGE Publications.
  • Thomas, A. (2000) ‘Development as Practice in a Liberal Capitalist World’, Journal of International Development, 12 (6), 773-87.
  • Willis, K. (2011) Theories and Practices of Development. London: Routledge.
  • United Nations (2015) ‘Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ [online]. United Nations. Available from: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/21252030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development%20web.pdf [Accessed 10 November 2018].
  • United Nations Development Programme (2018) ‘Human Development Indices and Indicators: 2018 Statistical Update’ [online]. United Nations Development Programme. Available from: http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/2018_human_development_statistical_update.pdf [Accessed 10 November 2018].


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