Development Theory

The word “development” has no clear and universal definition and understanding. It is vague. What does “development” mean? Is it different in different situations and contexts? Development is hard to define and even harder to understand, making it one of the most complex and most common terms used today. I could spend a lot of time defining the term from a variety of angles, but I will end it here. In his book, Amartya Sen defines development as the removal of unfreedoms and give back opportunities to those who were affected by these unfreedoms. Per Sen, an example of an unfreedom is poverty, something that has not purposefully been imposed on people but has affected people left and right.

To combat Sen, the authors of Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson define development as how well economies are doing, whether they are succeeded, barely getting by, or failing. For Acemoglu and Robinson, economic indicators, such as GDP or unemployment, are important predictors in how well an economy is doing. If GDP is on a decline, the economy, and therefore the development, of a country is not doing well. If unemployment is high, that is also true. Acemoglu and Robinson believe that economic growth, measured by economic indicators and technological advancement, is development. This is more akin to how we understand development on a global level today. On a global scale, we classify countries as developed, developing, and least developed. In this idea of development, the concept of development is strictly based upon economies.

Development is more than just economies and freedoms. There are a variety of development theories out there, including modernization theory, structuralism, dependency theory, basic needs theory, and neoclassical theory. Out of these, basic needs theory is the one that I am most indifferent about. In the United States, we use the foundations of basic needs theory to determine poverty levels and how we distribute state and federal help programs like food stamps. Basic needs theory is rooted in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who created a five tier pyramid that has the basic human needs at the bottom and culminates with self actualization at the top. This pyramid emphasized basic needs to be air, food, and water on the bottom level and shelter and clothing on the second level. In the world, these basic needs are understood and that is why food shelters and homeless shelters exist to provide assistance for people to obtain these needs.

2 thoughts on “Development Theory

  1. Nic brings up an excellent point about economic and its relation to development. GDP is about output. A country could increase their output, but could have increased its rates of poverty, homelessness, and unemployment. Now is that development? It is necessary to use other modes of measuring development, ones that take into account the factors that contribute to overall development of the state.


  2. I think it’s interesting that you bring up the multitude of different theories about development. While I personally align most with Sen’s idea of Development as Freedom, I also wonder how you would collect data on development under most of these. It is hard to create empirical categories whereas the traditional idea of development as economic growth is easy to measure with GDP, income per capita, etc. With these other conceptualizations of development, how do you think the academic world could create measurable data about them to see how effective they are?


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