What IS development?

As someone who studies INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT, I should be quick off the mark to explain- at the very least- what INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT actually means, right? Well, the international part is straightforward enough; between nations. But the development part is a little trickier, as experts in the field itself fiercely dispute among themselves as to what the term might actually be defined as.

From my first week of lectures and readings, I have been able to gauge just how different definitions for development can be; depending on the INTENT of the organisation or individual by whom the definition is given. For example, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) suggests that- with reference to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (or MDGs)- development involves ‘the IMF help[ing] poor countries achieve the sustained high levels of growth that establish the basis for poverty reduction'(1). For many, this instantly conjures up the ideals of “us and them”, “the West and the Rest” and so on and so forth. Of course, such a large organisation working on a global scale must maintain a level of generality, but the focus is, for the IMF, on facts and figures- leading to GROWTH, with seemingly very little attention being paid to the tangible thoughts and feelings of the people who make up the figures; those who are subject to this development.

Duncan Okello, Director of East Africa Regional Office, Kenya, shares this view; ‘development, however defined, should be about people. It is positive that this narrow view of measuring and labelling the progress of humanity was sufficiently challenged… however esoteric statistics may be, the more compelling thing to look at are the human faces behind those figures.’ (2) In other words, Okello is suggesting paying more attention to the ‘developing’ peoples’ views and emotions. It should be noted, too, that life experience can greatly change an individual’s perceptions- and therefore definitions- of development. ‘For Duncan Okello, executive director of Nairobi’s Society for International Development (SID), inequality is Kenya’s true Achilles heel’ (3) Living in a developing country with first-hand experience of a Kenyan lifestyle allows for an introspective standpoint on local development issues, whereas lives spent in developed countries do not.

Two conflicting ideas of what development is have already been mentioned. It is all very well to debate such contentious issues but the fact of the matter is that development, whatever that might actually entail is of high importance in our contemporary world, and may pose even more significance in the future. In the words of G. Rist:

‘The time has come – and it is indeed high time – to debunk the ‘development’ buzzword. To
do so means that we must define it properly – relying on actual social practices, rather than
wishful thinking.’

So, in order response to Rist’s paper, I read around to find the best definition for development that I could. Eventually, I found R. Chambers’ paper on his Personal Agenda for Development, wherein his personal definition for development fully embodied what I had ben trying to express in a simple phrase for months and possibly years:

‘The objective of development is well-being for


Put so simply, it eliminates the need to pinpoint whether the development is economic, social… Whatever. The point is that it is what a person, populations, nations NEED in order to develop. In order to be well. That, for me, is the objective of development and can therefore be considered what it IS.

1- Factsheet- The IMF and the Millennium Development Goals. August 24, 2012

2- (http://www.palgrave-journals.com/development/journal/v50/n1s/full/1100394a.html)

3- Kenya: Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence on Inequality
08 September 2009, allAfrica.com / SAIIA

4- Rist, Gilbert (2007) ‘Development as a buzzword’, Development in Practice, 17: 4, 485 — 491)

5- Chambers, Robert (1997) ‘Responsible Well-being: A Personal Agenda for Development’, World Development, Vol. 25(11): 1743-1754


Chambers, Robert (1997) ‘Responsible Well-being: A Personal Agenda for Development’, World Development, Vol. 25(11): 1743-1754


3 thoughts on “What IS development?

  1. Great piece! I liked the way you developed your argument, and found in Chambers’ definition something that is meaningful to you, in terms of your own perspective on development. I also thought it was good that you emphasise inequality, as some of the ways development is thought about don’t pay much attention to this. A tip: look at the rules for the use of semi-colons and see where you might change the way you use them.

  2. I thought that this was a really interesting piece, I like how you wrote as a student studying the subject and pointing out what a complicated term ‘development’ is, as our opinions change through this learning process and then finding a simple quote from Rist that really sums up your opinion.

  3. Thank you for your impressive blogging!!

    I thought your argument is really clear and meangful to read over.
    Moreover, I`m so fascinated with your reference such as Duncan Okello`s opinion.

    Looking forward to seeing your renewed blogging later on!!!

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