Development Theory

Development is a broad, vague term that is comprised of a myriad of actors, institutions and a plethora of theoretical approaches. Development all too often renders images of post-earthquake Haiti or starving children in a continent that has been simplified into a country. However, as both “Development As Freedom” author Amartya Sen and “Why Nations Fail” writers Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue, development is much more complicated than the images that often surround us. According to Sen, development hinges on the individual capabilities, or freedoms, of a person to access a live that they have reason to value (18). This definition challenges the perceptions that development, and development theory, should focus solely on one indicator to measure development. Instead, development is a culmination of many factors working together to create a holistic system that allows individuals the right to access many capabilities and freedoms.

The right to access these freedoms is dependent upon the institutional foundations of countries during colonial periods (Acemoglu and Robinson, 9). While scholars have suggested a variety of other explanations for varying development levels across the globe, like the Geography Hypothesis, Culture Hypothesis and the Ignorance Hypothesis (48-67), Acemoglu and Robinson argue that the differences in a country’s level of development are heavily reliant on the political structures that formed the nation (9). During their in-depth analysis of Mexican and American political differences, they assert that it is the inclusive or extractive nature of the political, and consequently economic, institutions that set the neighbors on two drastically different development paths (74-81). One country was founded on the principals of citizen participation, land ownership and innovation, while the other was plagued with dictators, monopolies and inequality (30-37). While the citizens of Mexico are by no means helpless, their freedoms are severely trampled on by a government structure that does not allow full citizen participation in political decisions.

The importance of political structures is highlighted in both Sen and Acemoglu and Robinson’s work. They all recognize the fundamental importance of citizen participation as the cornerstone of development. If citizens cannot enjoy the benefits of inclusive political institutions, then their hopes of attaining economic or social freedoms are severely inhibited. Issues that haunt development workers, like poverty, access to markets and equal opportunities for education and healthcare are deprivations of basic capabilities that can begin to dissolve as political institutions start to structure themselves around citizens. As citizens gain a forum for discussion, communities can begin to enact policies that will positively influence their lives. This political freedom gives communities the agency they need to create a life they see value in.