Development Theories

Summary: What is development? Definitions of development differ, but are all interrelated. Most people think of development as an economic process. Typically, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and wealth are equated to a country’s level of development. However, this standard erases cultural and spiritual richness from consideration. Countries with low GDPs are considered developing nations, but if cultural wealth were instead evaluated, these same countries may be considered the most developed. Development is a mix of every theory; there are no theories that include every aspect of the process.

In International Development Studies, Andy Sumner and Michael Tribe discuss differing explanations of development. Some see development both as liberation and structural transformation: giving more freedom to people, as well as creating both political and physical infrastructure. This view shows development as a long, ongoing process. Others simply see development as reducing poverty and hitting marks like the Millennium Development Goals. This second view is more of a short-term, target-based way of looking at nations’ development.

Postmodernist theory defines development as discourse. In this theory, development influences power relations in society. When the common discourse of development is economic-based, countries with low GDPs are often seen as inferior, or lacking somehow. However, if development focused on an “alternative value system” (Sumner and Tribe), countries with rich culture and spirituality could be considered the most developed.

Sumner and Tribe also discuss the difference between intentional and unintentional development. Intentional development is willed. It’s a conscious process, and is seen in efforts like the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals. Unintentional development describes underlying changes that happen over time, such as capitalism. Development can be both intentional and unintentional, and often is. The underlying processes contribute to the intentional processes, and vice versa.

In his book Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen views development in terms of freedom. Sen describes freedom as both an end and a means of development: to develop, people must have the freedom to influence processes, but the primary goal of development is to gain more freedom. This doesn’t differ from the typical view of development as gaining capital: wealth gives people the freedom to make choices about how to live their lives.

Perhaps the simplest way to describe development is just one word: change. This change isn’t necessarily positive or negative. Development can bring people out of poverty while destroying natural resources. Development can provide stable jobs but dismantle traditions and cultural values. Development is change; it is long-term, structural changes and liberation; it is short-term goals; it is discourse; it is intentional; and it is underlying. Development is inevitable, but the way we achieve it is not. We must be deliberate to ensure that development is both inclusive to everyone and sustainable in its processes.