The Urbane Ecologist

What is development?


I’ve started my one-year master’s at UCL in Environment and Sustainable Development! The move to London was filled with excitement and I don’t feel quite moved into my bedroom yet, but I definitely feel the closest thing to “home” (whatever that is) in this city. But I’ve noticed that a lot of people outside of my program have been asking me “what is development?” As a matter of fact, one of my first lectures this week tried to address this. I think a fitting way of restarting updates on my blog is to (try to) answer that question.

Development is like a fly–the harder you try to pin it down, the more elusive it becomes. In no way will my blog post come close to fully capturing the tomes that have been written on how to define it and think about it. But I hope, for those of you who have no inkling of what the title of my master’s program means, this blog post will be somewhat informative.

At its most simplified, “development” is the attempt to reduce inequality and bring everyone in the world to some acceptable standard of living (i.e. to “eradicate poverty”). When most people think about development, they think of UN or other NGO workers going to developing/Third World/poor/Global South countries to do work like setting up schools, bringing up water pumps to villages, or promoting women’s rights. One author has described it as a “global promise of generalised happiness” (1). People from Médecins sans Frontiers, UNICEF, WHO, and similar organizations who go to countries in crisis from war or famine or some other catastrophe are known as “aid workers” and their job is different from development. Aid workers swoop in during or shortly after a catastrophe in an attempt to patch up the worst damage and try to get people (often literally) back on their feet. Development workers are committed to more long-term efforts to help get countries more educated and industrialized and less poor–although they are often funded by Western “aid” money as well.

Although aid and development work is most commonly associated with international NGOs such as the UN, there are many avenues by which to perform this type of work, including private companies, university-related work, or individual efforts. Although most people think of development as something that occurs when people from richer, industrialized countries go to poorer less industrialized countries, it can occur locally within poorer countries or even within richer countries. Working with people who live in slum areas in London, for example, would classify as a type of development work.

I struggled internally when applying for my program because I grew up (in Abuja, Nigeria) seeing and listening to the parents of my schoolmates, many of whom were “development people”, and I did not admire what they did for a variety of reasons. I thought them too optimistic and unrealistic. I saw how projects were often started and left unfinished or unmaintained. I witnessed so many opportunities being missed due to basic cultural and situational misunderstandings. I resented how they lived in what I perceived as disrespectful wealth (they have pools in their compounds?!) while going out in the morning to supposedly help people who didn’t even know how to read or had never gone to sleep without worrying about the following day’s food. My emotional and cerebral attitude to development has changed and become more complicated since I was a schoolgirl, but it is interesting that many of my criticisms growing up are actually many of the criticisms that many other people have made of development work.

Criticisms of development include:

  • Development work can impose Western cultural values upon other communities. It can also have a homogenizing effect upon regional cultures–this can be related to, but is not the same as, Westernization.
  • As an industry, development work promotes capitalism. Capitalism, in turn, cannot solve inequality or poverty because it needs a certain proportion of people living in poverty to sustain itself. The World Bank is particularly notorious for it pro-capitalism policies.
  • People from developed/First World/rich/Global North countries who move to less developed/Third World/poor/Global South countries to perform development work can fall into the old trap of glorifying poverty or the exotic, thus hindering their ability to perceive things clearly and help properly.
  • Despite decades of development work, the majority of people living in many poor countries are not that much better off than they were before.
  • The development field lacks a sense of its own history. When many people describe it, they place its origins after World War II, with efforts like the Marshall Plan. However, the efforts of groups of people and governments to improve the living conditions of lower socioeconomic classes go further back than that. By seeing the field as so new, we may be missing out on the lessons of history.
  • For the people who are the targets of development work, the field defines them based on the things they lack or the things they are not. And when development professionals come in to help them, they can be left with the impression that the solutions to their problems belong to other people and ways of thinking (2).

There are, of course, counter-arguments to all these complaints about development. They include:

  • Development work doesn’t just boss people around and impose its whims upon people from other cultures. Many communities in less developed/Third World/poor/Global South/I-need-to-figure-out-a-way-of-saying-this-concisely countries around the world have shown agency and are getting development work done on their own, without backing from international or foreign organizations and without spectacular funding.
  • Culture naturally changes over time, so pressuring cultures to change in a particular fashion is not always unnatural or does not always spell the death of a way of life.* For example, I firmly believe in gender equality. I fully support equal rights for men and women, and I believe that people of a non-strictly heterosexual mindset or lifestyle have the same rights to determine how to run their lives as heterosexual people. I encourage means to change cultures that do not promote those same ideas. However, I don’t think that the way to go about it is to come in and keep screaming until something happens–because it won’t. Framing arguments in a sensitive way and taking action in a way that makes sense locally or regionally is crucial.
  • Development is not a homogenous, negative, overpowering force. It is done by a variety of people from a variety of places and in a variety of contexts. Some development work is quite good.
  • In other words, we can be so focused on all the ways development has failed us in creating the perfect society that we lose sight of the many material benefits and other good development has given to a lot of people who would have not had these things otherwise. A common example is immunization programs. As one author put it: “There is a disturbing tendency…to see poverty in terms of the social construction of a deficient world rather than the material reality of absolute deprivation in a deficient world.” (3)

To reiterate, I can in no way hope to elucidate all the definitions of development, and explain all the back-and-forth that has gone on since its existence. This is just the bare bones. However, a good source to introduce yourself to the history of criticisms of development–and the criticisms of these criticisms–and to learn all the -isms and philosophical movements that go along with these ideas is McGregor, A. (2009). “New Possibilities? Shifts in Post-Development Theory and Practice”, Geography Compass, vol. 3, no. 5, pp. 1688-1702.

* Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains this quite eloquently in the last quarter or so of her famous “We Should All Be Feminists” TED talk.


Literature Cited

(1) Rist, G. (2007). Development as a buzzword. Development in Practice 17 (4-5), pp. 485-491.

(2) Esteva, G. (1992). Development. In: Sachs, W. (ed.) The development dictionary: a guide to knowledge as power. London: Zed Books, pp. 6-25.

(3) Peet, R. and Hartwick, E. (2009). “Critical Modernism and Democratic Development”, Theories of Development: Contentions, Arguments, Alternatives (2nd edition), Guilford Press, New York, Part III Ch. 8, pp. 275-291.


3 thoughts on “What is development?

  1. First of all, being a fellow student on your current programme of study – as you already know – I’m amazed that you have the time to blog (and that I have the time to reply). That said, I can see blogging as a good method of thinking about and internalising the programme’s content as well as critically self-reflecting on one’s own development (this should be of use for ES3) so to speak. Perhaps, I would do well to start my own one! Anyway, I digress. In common with you I often find myself referring to the so called under developed countries of the world interchangeably as the Global South, the developing world and the like. However, my favourite and what I like to believe is not only the most succinct and concise reference to this grouping but also the most descriptive is the “periphery”. Also in common with you I often find myself referring to what I like to call the over developed countries of the world interchangeably as the Global North, the developed world and the like. However, my favourite and what I like to believe is not only the most succinct and concise reference to this grouping but also the most descriptive is the “core”. So called “development” and “aid” from the “core” to the “periphery” is often anything but “development” and “aid” as you so rightly and insightfully alluded to in your excellent post. When I hear people talk about how much aid the “core” sends to the “periphery” I like to let them know – just in case if they don’t already – if you add up all of the exports from the “periphery” to the “core” and subtract from this all of the exports from the “core” to the “periphery” inclusive of “development” and “aid” if is the “periphery” that is providing “development” and “aid” to the “core”. This relationship can be seen in terms of high quality proteins (for example). Anyway, you’ll being reading a lot about this in ES1 😉 Irrespective of all of this briefest of analysis, I do believe like I’m sure that you do also that if done right “development” and “aid” can make the world a better place.

    • Hello, Christian! Thanks for taking the time to comment (and not once, but twice)! Your suggestion to use “core” and “periphery” is very good. I’m wary, at this point anyway, of picking a single set of terms to use. Each pairing has its own advantages and disadvantages, and while “core” and “periphery” are quite descriptive, I do worry about the heavy economic focus of the terms. Perhaps the time has come for some sort of acronym that includes all the common terms! Although I do hate acronyms… Please do keep checking in and offering your suggestions and commentary–I like blogs to have a bit of discussion, and mine is a bit lacking in that aspect.

  2. there is a typo in my above comment – please correct if you can as “if you add up all of the exports from the “periphery” to the “core” and subtract from this all of the exports from the “core” to the “periphery” inclusive of “development” and “aid” if is the “periphery” that is providing “development” and “aid” to the “core”” should be “if you add up all of the exports from the “periphery” to the “core” and subtract from this all of the exports from the “core” to the “periphery” inclusive of “development” and “aid” it is the “periphery” that is providing “development” and “aid” to the “core””, i.e. “if is” should be “it is”. thanks

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