Does anyone actually know what development means?

“What does the word ‘development’ mean to you?” I was asked at the beginning of my first International Development lecture. My response was “I think the word development means the creation of freedom; the freedom to water, education, health, opportunity, the freedom to sexuality and to be equally valued in society etc.” However by the end of the lecture I had no idea what development actually means and neither, so it appears, does anyone else! For some, development means money, economic growth and opportunity, for others development means equality, dignity and safety. I both agree and disagree with these two ideas.

Robert Chambers explains development simply as “good change” however he struggles to define the meaning of good, as would anyone, because, much like the word development, it is subjective to circumstance and only the people in need of change know what is good (Chambers 1997, p.1743). The great difficulty for development workers is that what constitutes ‘good change’ is not always obvious as change, no matter how good it appears to be, is not always beneficial. Both Rist and Chambers in their own words suggest that development takes on a different meaning depending on who is using it and where in the world they are (Chambers 1997; Rist 2010). For example, when helping to refurbish a deaf school in Kavule, Uganda, I was perplexed by Sam, the headteacher, who was adamant about having a wash block for the teachers and a furnished ‘library and computer block’ when the children were eating our left overs from the rubbish pile and the kitchen was nothing more than a shack held together by hope and prayers. To myself, an outsider, the kitchen was a priority but Sam insisted that in order to encourage more children and teachers to the school, and therefore more funding, the work we were doing was far more beneficial. Perhaps the reason it is so difficult to define development, or see its effects, is because of the western standard of living which we compare ‘underdeveloped’ countries to.

Rist also takes a unique approach to development even going as far as to say that development actually widens the development gap and that the effects of it are artificial. I mostly disagree with Rist’s pessimistic view of development however as Chambers says, if development assistance hadn’t occurred things would have been far worse than they are now (Chambers 2010). This being said, I did find it interesting how he [Rist] argues that the more developed a country becomes, sadly, the less freedoms there are in society as everything becomes a commodity and loses its authenticity. That’s the price of development (Rist 2010).

Sam, head teacher at Kavule School for the Deaf, Uganda, 2011


Strangely the UN and the DAC appear to have varying ideas about development. According to the UN’s Human Development Report (1996) ‘ Human Development is the end-economic growth a means’ [World Bank] whilst the DAC’s list of ODA recipients suggests that economic growth is the end. In the eyes of the DAC a country is no longer in need of, or entitled to, development assistance once it reaches a middle income status without any regard to the distribution of that wealth within the country or the emotional development of its people. I am answering this question through an anthropological eye and therefore I favour the UN’s explanation of what development means.

In my eyes development is when people start thriving and not just surviving, whether that is economically or personally. I also think the reason it is so difficult to define the meaning of development is because it is a continual thing and no one actually knows what it is to be ‘developed’ because there is no point at which we stop developing. Maybe in the end it is just a word that gives us hope of a better world.



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