Skip to content

What does ‘development’ actually mean?

February 25, 2017

(This was also posted by International Alert.)

What with all the attacks on international development aid of late, at least in the UK, there has been talk of reviewing the narrative about what ‘development’ actually means. In other words, what is this process – let’s simply call it progress – which aid is supposed to support?

After all, to those outside the aid bubble, it can be quite confusing – a complex mix of overlapping and competing ideas: poverty eradication (or is it reduction?), livelihoods, resilience, gender equality, ‘building back better’, better governance, peacebuilding, reducing fragility, building stability – and more recently calls for ‘no-one left behind‘ – to name just a few of the many tropes out there. And of course, some of history’s greatest thinkers have devoted their lives to the project of defining what a better society might look like, and how to get there: names like Plato and Marx spring to mind…

So I went back and looked again at the essay International Alert published in 2010 which unpacked this question. What we said then still seems highly relevant. And, perhaps deceptively, simple. We proposed that development was historically a process in which societies provided their citizens with increasingly fairer and more equal access to justice, security, economic opportunity, health and other factors of well-being, and a voice in decisions which affect them. These are the elements on the right in the diagram below, which was part of the essay I mentioned.

Looking at history, we identified a number of processes which appear to have enabled this kind of progress in the past – the elements on the left.  And we also said that leadership, values and institutions were crucial.



None of this is necessarily easy to achieve – history is a way of describing how things may have happened in the past, rather than how to make them happen again. But looking back on this 2010 narrative from the vantage point of 2017, it still seems substantially right.

So the question for progressives is, how to catalyse the kinds of processes on the left in the diagram above, while providing opportunities to strengthen institutions and leadership with the kinds of values which underpin the items on the right? And for those interested in aid: can overseas development aid help?

To both questions I say ‘of course’. Much of the development progress – and setbacks – in Latin America over the past decades can be seen in these terms, and in many ways aid has assisted this. The framework also helps to show how much further a country like – say – China can travel if is people so desire, despite its achievements to date.

One thing this narrative illustrates is that progress necessarily takes time to unfold in specific circumstances, and we need to have patience. For those seeking a more accurate way to describe ‘development’, I recommend a visit to International Alert as a source of ideas.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: