What is Development?

Is there an unambiguous definition of development?

Is there an unambiguous definition of development?

Our world is grossly unequal. Some people have more than enough food to eat, access to education and health care and are involved and included in society. Others are marginalised, oppressed and struggling for survival. They are trapped in poverty and this is extremely unfair. To me, development means standing against this inequality and injustice to allow freedom (Sen,1999). However, the word development is equivocal. We need to question what is done in the name of development. Is it a heroic sounding term that can disguise corruption?

The word development can be deceiving, it sounds ‘obviously altruistic’. Words are powerful weapons (Solnit, 2012). Gilbert Rist suggests that we should abandon this term as, due to its positive connotations, those who are motivated by greed use it to justify their exploitative actions. He asserts that what development actually does, is exploit the poor and destroy the natural environment to create profit for rich elites. Rist’s ‘down to earth definition of development’ is the destruction of nature and society for the pursuit of wealth (Rist, 2007). For Rist, the term is heavily connected to promoting a capitalist empire. More optimistically Robert Chambers defines development as “good change”. However, it is important to consider that ideas about what is good are disputed between actors in development and adjust over time (Chambers, 1997). Rist contends that we should base our definition of development on actual social practices instead of what we would like it to mean (Rist 2007). The powerful development organisations and institutions in the global North are the ones who actually decide what this good change is (Chambers, 1997), shouldn’t we actually ask the poor people we would like to help, what change they would like to see? (Chambers, 1983). Is simply having desire to make a change enough? Is it not more important that we clarify exactly which issues frustrate the poor and assist them in their own agency?

Different actors have different visions for development. Some speak as though development means increasing consumption and economy. However, as Chang has stated, this does not satisfy us. What does fulfill us is self-realization and dignity (Chang, 2009).

“The ‘humanistic’ dimension of development… is absolutely essential in making us remember that material progress is only the means and not the end of development” (Chang, 2009).


Personally, I consider pursuing wellbeing to be good change. There are many development actors who pursue wellbeing such as The Bellagio Initiative. Their aim is to “generate discussions and stimulate innovative thinking on how philanthropies and international development organisations might find ways to move forward together to better protect and promote human wellbeing in the twenty-first century” (Bellagio Initiative, 2012). I believe that both, getting people together to exchange ideas and maintaining an attitude of humility, is significant for development.

If development does mean good change, why does it have to be only in the Global South? Rist contends “a country is [considered] more developed the more limited the number of free things that are available” (Rist, 2007:23). Considering this, the UK and countries in the Global North need to be pursuing good change also. We look overseas to help others in exotic locations but what about the injustice that people are suffering here in our own towns? What I would like to see done in the name of development is communities getting together to fight for equality.


Chambers, R., 1983. Rural Development? Putting the Last First. Harlow: Longman

Chambers, R., 1997. Responsible Well-being: A Personal Agenda for Development, World Development, Vol. 25(11) pp.1743-1754

Chang, H., 2009. Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark: How development has disappeared from today’s ‘development’ discourse, Available at: <http://www.econ.cam.ac.uk/faculty/chang/pubs/HamletwithoutthePrinceofDenmark-revised.pdf> [Accessed: 28th September 2012]

Chang, H.,2010. Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark: How development has disappeared from today’s ‘development’ discourse, in S. Khan & J. Christiansen (eds.), Towards New Developmentalism: Market as Means rather than Master. Abingdon: Routledge

Rist, G., 2007. Development, Development in Practice, 17(4-5):485-491.2.

Sen, A., 1999. Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Solnit, R., 2012. Words are the greatest weapon for political activists. The Guardian Comment Network [Online] [last updated 29th October 2012] Available at: <http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/oct/29/words-greatest-weapon-political-activists&gt; [Accessed 29th November 2012]

The Bellagio Institute., 2012. Human Wellbeing in the 21st Century. Available at: <http://www.bellagioinitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/BELLAGIO_WELLBEING_SPREADS.pdf> [Accessed 26th September 2012]


One thought on “What is Development?

  1. You capture well the complexity of the debate about what ‘development’ might mean, and make some important points here. It’s when we try and write about our own views that some of these complexities come into sharper focus, as you say. Great that you’ve posted a link to the Bellagio initiative, it’s an interesting one to follow, and to think about what you make of their conclusions.

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