The Concept of Development. Dominant Definitions and Their Historical Context


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Understanding the Concept: On Development of Development

“[Development] can mean just about anything and take almost any form” (Ziai, 2017, p. 72)

What can be read above, would be considered by most to be an unsatisfactory definition of what development is; in fact, it motivates one even more to ask: What does the term mean? While no unambiguous answer to this question can be found, a reflected understanding is key to retrace the concept. The historical path the term traversed on is essential for this. Having led to different meanings of development over time, the essay's aim is to contribute to an overarching understanding by showing dominant definitions embedded in their respective historical context and illustrating how this further contributed to the development of the term “development”.

After a first description of the term's ambivalence and roots, the essay highlights the shift of development approaches from economic ideas to agency-based strategies putting people into focus. Ultimately, it is shown how radical approaches complement this and what promising avenues future development holds.

Development: A Contested Concept with Deep Roots

The literature on development is characterized by a myriad of definitions, some precise, others general. In today's academic and colloquial parlance, the term “development” is understood as “a process of change [...], a policy and/or practice-related evaluative outcome [...] [and/or] as a dominant discourse” (Sumner & Tribe, 2008, pp. 757-758). These three intertwined but segregated approaches shed light on why development is contested. First, development includes various scales, ranging from individual to community-based, regional, national, and global levels. As such, the understanding of development can differ with respect to these scales (Willis, 2011, p. 8). The difference in scales suggests there is also a difference in agents involved in the development process (Sapkota & Tharu, 2016, pp. 13-14). While others perceive a demand for development, different actors evaluate the “problem” and its “solutions” differently, as the example of post-development rejecting development altogether illustrates (Ziai, 2017, p. 67). Understanding development is also influenced by its measurement (Willis, 2011, pp. 12-13). Certainly, the definition of development guides measurement methods, however, different results of measures can influence our paradigm of development likewise, thus forming a two­way road guiding the concept. All this leads to a path of confusion, cemented further by semantic labels, ranging from “Global South” to “Underdeveloped”, “Third World” and more.

These do not just blur the term “development”, but “illuminate the deeper ideas and beliefs underlying development [e.g. its ethics] practice and policies” (Schafer et al., 2017, p. 8).

While contemporary understanding of development is broad, various definitions throughout history used be narrow. The term “development” itself is relatively new, finding its roots centuries ago in euro-centric capitalism and its concomitant phenomena of industrialization and colonialism, exacerbating economic differences between individuals, groups and countries (Desai, 2017, p. 44). Ideas of progress emerged in times of industrialization understanding capitalism as a channel to give the majority of people access to various benefits, leveraging the state to an important agent (Desai, 2017, pp. 45-46). Ultimately, the effect of colonialism - leading to supraterritorial dependency, different power relations and structural changes on social, political, economic and cultural dimensions - formed todays perception of the “Global North” (the developed) and “Global South” (the underdeveloped) and influenced the term (Willis, 2011, pp. 20-21).

Economic Ideals Navigating Development

Building on these colonial origins reflected in the landscape of Western power-concentration in the 20th century, the term “development” emerged after World-War II under US guidance (Schafer et al., 2017, p. 5). As Desai describes it, “development was the product of the confrontation between capitalism and communism as much as of their interaction” (Desai, 2017, p. 48). Drawing on the momentum of post-war decolonization, looking at the 1930s depression and considering the emerging superpowers, the US and the UDSSR, development was understood to be a strategy for (former) colonial, and later ex-colonial, states to propel economic growth within the international setting (Leys, 1996, pp. 6-7). This shaped an understanding of development linked to economic growth, displayed by the theories of development economics, modernization, dependency and neoliberalism, building on their academic past developed in Europe from the 18th century onwards (Martinussen, 1997, pp. 18­33).

Starting in the 1950s under John Maynard Keynes, his work influenced the theory of development economics and implied development is a subject of economic growth to be reached by real capital investments. It recognizes that capitalism can materialize in cycles of growth and slumps, thus state involvement is essential to smooth these vacillations (Desai, 2017, pp. 50-51). For instance, in times of economic downturns the state could spur consumer purchases by investments, stimulating growth and wealth (Jahan et al., 2017, p. 4). Ongoing aid-focused development policies included Keynesianism as a channel to successful development guided by (hence legitimized) government interventions at national levels and foreign assistance at international levels (Willis, 2011, pp. 39, 49, 52). Still focusing on growth, modernization theory entered the public discourse in the late 1950s. Drawing on concepts such as Walt Rostow's Five Stages of Economic Growth (Rostow, 1959), the theory illustrates that development is to be reached by adhering to modern, that is Western, standards. Doing this, “underdeveloped” countries could surmount their burden of local and inherited traditions which impede their development, that is economic growth. Being criticized for its ignorance towards (colonial) history, its narrow focus on internal factors and its unsustainable endorsement of mass consumption, the dominance of this theory weakened after having legitimated US involvement in various development matters (Desai, 2017, pp. 51-54), such as the Alliance for Progress Program in Latin America (Reyes, 2001, p. 3) or wide-range industrial and agricultural top-down ventures (Willis, 2011, pp. 50-51). However, still today it influences US' understanding of the “Third World” (Desai, 2017, pp. 51-54). The critique towards modernization theory did not remain unheard, as the emergence of dependency theory in the 1960s proves. By taking the entire capitalist system and its influence on imperialism into consideration (external factors), it recognizes the global structural inequality, consequently segregating the “developed” and “underdeveloped” even more from one another. The example of resource exploitation in the “South” by states of the “North”, reselling finished products more expensively back to the “South”, illustrate these acts of neocolonialism which builds on historical power relations and strengthens them (Allina, 2017, pp. 28-29). However, even though dependency theory mirrored modernization theory based on its critique and provided development solutions by socialism, its focus on growth remained, even though it acknowledged developed countries could be “obstacles” to development (Desai, 2017, pp. 54­56).

How developed countries could increase the burden of developing countries, proved neoliberalism from the 1970s onwards. Neoliberalism is based on experiences of how state involvement could torpedo successful economic activities - and consequently development. Thus, the role of the state was questioned, leading to a sharp separation to former theories. Instead, market-focused-mechanisms, such as free trade, comparative advantage, deregulation, privatisation, and trickle-down economics (Thorsen & Amund, 2006) should boost development and mutual wealth. Development has been affected massively by this idea. Due to a strong decline of interest rates in the 1970s, an unprecedented boom in private lending to governments of developing countries was triggered. As the recipients understood this lending to be a development-vehicle for industrialization and growth, US attitude towards “monetarism” raising interest rates shattered these visions and drew the developing countries into massive dept default (Hanlon & Jones, 2017, pp. 266-273). The Bretton Wood Institutions worsened the situation: The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund imposed the Structural Adjustment Programs on the developing countries, which changed the dogma from industrialization and state-support to market-friendly solutions (Desai, 2017, p. 58). Virtually an imposition of neoliberalism (Kapoor, 2011, pp. 3-14), this led to devastating results such as the disasters in Jamaica, exacerbating existing inequalities. This reinforced the critique on neoliberalism from the 1980s onwards (Desai, 2017, pp. 57-60; Willis, 2011, pp. 51-63) and other state-favouring theories such as developmental states emerged (Desai, 2017, p. 60).

Changing Paradigms: Understanding Development Beyond Economic Realms

The past analysis, without having specifically described the theories of developmental states and institutionalism due to focus, shows how economic understanding dominated the discourse for decades and allowed the “developed” to guide the “underdeveloped”. Being in the phase of an impasse, it was recognized proper development requires more than economic success built on Western ideals. The limitations of the Gross Domestic Product as the main measure (Ziai, 2017, p. 71) and the missing link between poverty reduction and economic growth are ideal examples to understand why (Schafer et al., 2017, p. 9). Consequently, towards the 1990s alternative development became prominent. As Haslam et al. put it, it describes

People-centred, participatory approaches to development that seek to de-objectify the recipients of aid and involve them in the process of their own material improvement, in contrast to Western development models that are seen to impose "solutions" to "problems" on aid recipients. (Haslam et al., 2017, p. 576)

Alternative development tries to refrain from narrow economic approaches, such as development economics or dependency theory emphasizing macroeconomic change, and instead highlights the people's capacity to lead positive change (Pieterse, 1998, p. 345). As such, this approach draws on grassroot, participatory approaches being realized bottom-up instead of Western-led, top-down (Pieterse, 1998, p. 354), which has been the maxim of previous theories focusing on the state and developed nations as central agents. Instead, alternative development is linked to NGOs as more suitable development partners by letting the people participate (Pieterse, 1998, p. 347; Willis, 2011, pp. 114-115). Chamber describes these participatory approaches as a category of methods which “enable local people to share, enhance and analyze their knowledge of life and conditions, to plan and to act” (Chambers, 1994, p. 953). Even though participation certainly poses risks and depends on several parameters, for instance neutrality of NGOs or donor pressure (Willis, 2011, pp. 115-119), one can clearly see the shift from an (quantitative) economic understanding to a more (qualitative) paradigm considering elements constituting a “good life”, as it is often advertised by development agents (Bakewell, 2008, p. 1351). Living a good life, or a living a life one has reason to value, is since the emergence of alternative development and human development a guiding principle in the field (Sen, 1999, p. 10) and thus values criteria such as life expectancy, education and living standards. Today, this concept and its methods are more difficult to distinguish from mainstream development, especially since more sophisticated measures (e.g. Human Development Index) account for the theory's qualitative nature (Pieterse, 1998, p. 358; Roelen, 2017, p. 491).

Rejecting Development and Its Discourse: Post-Development and Critical Theories

While the analysis outlines the trend from economic development to people-centred strategies, critical schools were present too. Marxism criticizes the capitalist system and its exploitation as a theory deeply embedded in International Political Economy and Development Studies (O'Brien & Williams, 2016, pp. 16-19). However, more radical approaches entered the arena from the 1980s onwards, which reject development and its “biased” discourse altogether (Ziai, 2017, p. 66). Post-Development, besides post-colonial and feminist theory among others, reached a large audience. Being spearheaded by Arturo Escobar, Gustavo Esteva, Ivan Illich and Michel Foucault, this destructive approach combines an “interest in local culture and knowledge; a critical stance towards established scientific discourses; and the defense and promotion of localized, pluralistic grassroots movements” (Escobar, 1995, p. 215). Post­Development fully discredits the current development concepts because (1) development is an invention of the West giving it power and legitimacy (Ziai, 2017, p. 68), (2) development approaches' perception of reality is distorted by looking only through economic lenses (Ziai, 2017, pp. 70-71) and (3) development is misused as an instrument to further state interests by constructing the development problem based on institutional necessities and solving it through technocratic and apolitical interventions (Ziai, 2017, pp. 72-73). Eventually, alternatives to development are required, not alternative approaches building on the very same construct of Western ideals. By prophesying the “end of development”, grassroot movements and local communities already were to replace current concepts (Sachs, 1992, pp. 2-4). This approach met critique, predominantly related to romanticizing grassroot movements and local communities, ignoring progresses of (Western) modernization and the problems of cultural relativism (Ziai, 2017, pp. 78-79). But still, the theory entered reality, as the Zapatistas, a libertarian, self-governing group in Mexico, show with their successful “development- practises” based on community, self-rule, and anti-capitalism (Esteva, 2013).

Concluding Words - What Is Development?

The essay started with an implicit statement: The answer to what development is, how it can be achieved and what to surmount to do this, is embedded in the respective historical context development is discussed in. These contexts massively influenced the use and ethics of development, asking the essential questions: Who gains/loses?; Who decides/obeys?; Who is responsible/innocent? (Gasper, 2017, p. 557). While economic dimensions dominated the discussions of “problems” and “solutions” at first, its sobering outcomes spurred people- centred, qualitative concepts and radical ideas prevailing today. Today, yet again a new historical context, sustainability provides future avenues of development, perceiving climate change as a global threat and recognizing its link to poverty, inequality and other development obstacles (Pachauri & Mayer, 2015, pp. 64-65; Willis, 2011, p. 188). What does that mean for future understanding of development? To put it in Ziai's words: “just about anything” (Ziai, 2017, p. 72).


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The Concept of Development. Dominant Definitions and Their Historical Context
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