Development Theories


After reading the work of my peers, it seems we all agree that “development” is a vague term mired in nuances. I face the complexity of this term each time I mention to someone that I study international development – to which the reply goes something like, “What does that mean?” This experience is one that I know many of my classmates encounter. Development is nothing short of complex. It is approached from a wide range of perspectives, and covers a myriad of topics in a plethora of countries. I will cease to emphasize its ambiguity here. Nevertheless, a topic of this breadth has naturally crossed the minds of many intellectuals who have all asked themselves that crucial question: what is development?

The most comprehendible theory to begin to answer this question is suggested in the book Why Nations Fail. Acemoglu and Robinson, the authors of this work, suggest that development is defined by economic prosperity, or lack thereof. Furthermore, they propose that economic prosperity depends on how inclusive a country’s institutions are (91), and that inclusive institutions are necessary for economic prosperity because they provide incentives and reward talents and creativity (76). These authors link economic growth and technological improvement to development. What is more, they claim that political inclusion and the enabling of the public to innovate is a crucial element of development.

This leads to the next key author in the development field – which many of my classmates have already addressed: Amartya Sen. In his book Development as Freedom, Sen articulates the unique perspective that freedom is defined as access to choices and expanded capabilities and that development is an expansion of freedom. Looking at the field of development through Sen’s capabilities approach dramatically affects related policies and outcomes. His definition of development and emphasis on increasing access to choices related to the point that Acemoglu and Robinson make about inclusive political institutions leading to more development. While these authors define development in a different way, they seem to agree with Sen regarding the means to develop through empowering more people to participate by giving them more options and more avenues for participation.

It is also interesting to mention a couple development theories that we didn’t discuss in class, such as dependency theory and modernization theory. While not widely referenced in modern literature, these two theories contextualize modern concepts of development by providing incite to how the topic was viewed in the late 1900s. First, dependency theory was developed by Raul Prebisch and asserts that economic growth occurs at a faster pace in industrialized, advanced countries than in poorer countries. According to Prebisch, this creates a disproportionate relationship that puts industrialized countries economically so far ahead of non-industrialized countries that they can rarely ever close the gap in development. The disproportionate relationship, Prebisch would argue, makes non-industrialized countries dependent on industrialized ones. Modernization theory is the next model to discuss. The main point of this theory is that the Western world has influenced ad to some extent guided the direction of development when we started searching for colonies.