Development Theory

Development, as so many other terms in the field of International Studies, is not easily definable. It has many interpretations, argued by extensive academics and practitioners with diverse backgrounds. Traditional development studies were largely based on the concept that development was directly related to development. Acemoglu and Robinson uphold this focus on economics for development in their recent work, Why Nations Fail, along with the concept of strong institutions. For this pair, these two concepts are the fundamental keys to whether a nation will prosper or, as titled, fail. While there are strengths to their arguments, their conviction in the economic model of development did not do much to change the minds of most development scholars and practitioners who have come to largely accept more humanistic approaches to development.

Thus far in my studies and work experience, Amartya Sen seems to be the leading figure in explaining what it means for a nation to be “developed.” Sen challenged the traditional beliefs that development is directly related to economic prosperity and income levels by proposing that, instead, development is much more dependent on freedom. In his own words, “Development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency. The removal of substantial unfreedoms, it is argued here, is constitutive of development” (xii).

This view was innovative in that it essentially supports individuals as actors who contribute to the overall development of a nation and, more generally, the world, as opposed to policy-makers and national leaders. Additionally, Sen’s concept is very inclusionary as it supports freedom for all and recognizes the need for representation from every group in a country, not just the usual elites who lead decision-making. Acemoglu and Robinson do make mention of the importance of inclusion, explaining, “Inclusive economic institutions…are those that allow and encourage participation by the great mass of people in economic activities that make best use of their talents and skills and that enable individuals to make the choices they wish” (74). However, their exploration of inclusion is limited by the emphasis on economic institutions.

With the adoption of international frameworks like the past Millennium Development Goals and the current Sustainable Development Goals, it seems as if development practices are becoming increasingly attuned to the needs of individuals. However, as the MDGs continue to be criticized as a failure, it remains unclear if the SDGs and similar frameworks will do their job in supporting the assurance of freedom that Sen so avidly promotes and that many, including myself, have come to accept as the true nature of development.