definition of development (revisited): beauty in the palm of your hand

Last summer I wrote about the definition of development after having a conversation with an incredible Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana who was really making the most of his time and abilities. The conversation that we had really made me think about the term 'development' and what it really means. Before that conversation and since I have been working to create my own definition, or rather I have been working to make the term stand for what I believe development should be all about.

This is what I wrote from Ghana on 7 June 2007:

This discussion with Alex really made me think about 'development' as the word was thrown around a lot that night. Alex has said that he really likes the Peace Corps model because it deals with integration. A volunteer is placed in a village or area and works with the people to improve their situation. This as opposed to some large organization or institution just giving out money to big plans they believe will work. But, what is the definition of development? Who gets to determine what development is? Who is allowed to call one developed or developing or underdeveloped? Is development all based on a desire or push to become Western? Yes, I think in the very recent past it was and really still is to a degree, but for me development holds a different definition. Development for me mirrors positive progress in people's lives. Development should be based on getting and giving people their basic needs (rights) for survival and life. Even in this regard the almighty 'West' needs development.

Now my development studies have become more involved and I will apply certain paradigms of thought and different theories of development from many different minds. Before I get into theory I want to begin by tackling the continuously difficult task of writing a definition of development. Development is a loaded term and cannot be the way that we approach others in need. From President Truman's "launch" (Wolfgang Sachs, 2) of the idea of development in 1949 during his inauguration speech in which he declared "underdeveloped areas," the West began a long blinding road on which the US would always be number one with no need for 'development.' Development in this sense creates an inferior to superior relationship between those who need help and those who have the resources. This is where the idea of the 'third world' comes in. Two years ago I wrote on the idea of the 'third world' and how the term's use perpetuates bad ideas in development. The notion of being better because of circumstance is an extreme detriment in development work. In actuality the West is developing just as much as those we deem 'underdeveloped.'

We are developing the way we see the world and how we react or act to the different situations that various people face. We are developing our ability to care and show compassion, the most basic human action, to those who need our help. We need to start developing a process to assist those who most need our help. We need to develop our government's actions to fit the size of its big words and statements. The world's people need to recognize that we are not separated by very much anymore, except maybe our prejudices and false perceptions. We are not so distant as to claim we live in different worlds any longer. The distance is only in our minds. From: new world discovered 3 September 2006

Development and its Uses

Truman called others 'underdeveloped' and what we have now seen is the disparity between rich and poor has grown exponentially. The 'underdeveloped' were not able to come closer to the 'developed.' We began calling some countries 'developing' as they adopted our ideas for governance, economy, liberalized markets, and modernity. This began the 'era of development' and Wolfgang Sachs provides us with an excellent quote:

"Like a towering lighthouse guiding sailors towards the coast, 'development' stood as the idea which oriented emerging nations in their journey through post-war history. No matter whether democracies or dictatorships, the countries of the South proclaimed development as their primary aspiration, after they had been freed from colonial subordination. Four decades later, governments and citizens alike still have their eyes fixed on this light flashing just as far away as ever: every effort and and every sacrifice is justified in reaching the goal, but the light keeps on receding into the dark." (Thomas, Ch. 1)

Here is where we can draw on a theme of 'development of the mind.' This idea has been grown on the backs of the very people that 'development' seeks to assist. Born of colonization which promoted a certain nihilism of colonized populations and modernization as a result of capitalist systems imposed on those populations, the development of the mind made people think that they weren't good enough and that they did not have the capacity to do for themselves. This is also a mentality that can be found within the slave and Black populations of the US. When a people is subjugated it takes a long time to redevelop the thinking that is not rooted in subordination. Everything was made simple and efficient for the imperial masters to control and capitalise on stolen wealth. Esteva importantly notes that for people to embrace 'development' they have to first perceive themselves to be 'underdeveloped.' (7) In this sense development negates the very person seeking to improve their life through 'development' because, "it undermines confidence in oneself and one's own culture." (Esteva, 8) The nature of 'development' almost always forgets about history and culture. Economists come at development with the idea of a level playing field that just needs to be built upon, but that is never the case. Histories of colonization which spurred war and violent conflict cannot be sliced out of development work. Colonized populations often had their histories and cultures re-written. In the case of Rwanda a homogeneous people were divided and pitted against one another. In South Africa culture was bound by 'bantustans.' In every corner of the globe a system focusing on mass production and the attainment of 'wealth' was imposed on traditional ways of life, cultures were and are altered as a result - sometimes even discarded. The "standardization of desires and dreams" (Wolfgang Sachs, 4) resulted and now we have 'development.'

What we also can look back and see is the use of 'development' as a "weapon in the competition between political system." (Wolfgang Sachs, 2) The Cold War led to a widespread allocation of 'rogue aid,' that is aid that is given without restriction and without being tied to a government or 'development' agency. This 'rogue aid' was given to win over world leaders to the side of the US or Soviet Union. Development as a weapon has created long-term effects that can still be seen as countries fell to dictators and authoritarian regimes fueled by 'rogue aid' and their militarization by Cold War powers. The 'era of development can also be called the 'era of the Cold War.' (Wolfgang Sachs, 4) Our privilege and 'wealth' does not give us a free ticket to 'develop' the rest of the world or tell them that they are living poorly. If the world was to be 'developed' entirely we, as a global society, would be reduced to a dead population living on top of each other on a barren planet devoid of all nature because we exploited both ourselves and our habitat. In some areas of 'development' I would even say that the West has taken irrational steps backwards.


There are three non-distinct paradigms or theories of development. The first is what we have seen for the past four decades since Truman's statement on underdevelopment. Development as Modernization puts forth the idea that the "modern money economy should and would overcome the traditional subsistence economy." (Ruonavaara, 2000) This is where 'development' has acted as a "Westernization of the world" (Wolfgang Sachs, 4) and the beginnings of a failed system that does not serve people's needs.

In the 1980s Alternative Development came into fashion to deal with the failure of Development as Modernization. The problem here was a misuse of privilege. Scientific knowledge was favored over all as professionals and experts came in as 'facilitators.' The positive of Alternative Development was the greater focus on people and 'including the excluded.' Women, minority groups, and the actual people being 'developed' were engaged in their own development. The failure of this paradigm was the hierarchical structure of facilitator and underdeveloped community, the lack of agency given in development, and the focus on modern and scientific knowledge as the only way to go.

Now there is the paradigm of Alternatives to Development or what some call Post-Development. This is an absolute "rejection and the replacement of the Development as Modernization model." (Ruonavaara) Alternatives to Development employs re-membering people into society, a step further than 'including the excluded,' participatory and cooperative practices, as well as allowing "professionals and non-professionals to talk about development in new ways." (Ruonavaara) I say these paradigms are non-distinct because it is often difficult to specifically define approaches to development in reality as one paradigm or the other. Often it is easy to place certain development practices within the paradigms, but not the actions of an entire agency or organization.


Alan Thomas tells us that the term 'development' is used in three main ways:

1. as a vision, description or measure of the state of being of a desirable society; 2. as an historical process of social change in which societies are transformed over long periods; 3. as consisting of deliberate efforts aimed at improvement on the part of various agencies, including governments, all kinds of organizations and social movements.

Chambers (1997, from Thomas, Ch. 2) defined development as just 'good change.' Thomas breaks this down excellently in his second chapter and the important concept to note is the ambiguity of 'development.' People have different ideas of what change is, of what progress entails, and especially of how we should get to that good change from where we are now. The nature of the defining is how 'development' happens in reality.

Cowen and Shenton write, "The burden of development was to compensate for the negative propensities of capitalism through the reconstruction of social order. To develop, the, was to ameliorate the social misery which arose out of an immanent process of capitalist growth." (Thomas, Ch. 2) If capitalism is to be a working system of self-regulating markets then everything must become a commodity. The problem here is that everything cannot be a commodity: life, mind, dignity, equality - these cannot be bought, sold, and produced or regulated by any market.

Jeffrey Sachs talks about development (economic) in relation to a ladder, (Sachs, 18) where once you reach the first rung you are set on your path to development. This falls in line with the Development as Modernization approach. The problem with Sachs' definition is that he creates a linear model that does not work in reality, people are often moving up and down the ladder - or not even on it because development can not focus solely on the economic. The political, social, and cultural must also be taken into account. Sachs' other problem arrives when he defines poverty as a trap. This definition takes out all history and accountability in relation to one's poverty. It discounts how one got into poverty in the first place or how a country or community lives in poverty.

Wolfgang Sachs defines development as, "an amoeba-like concept, shapeless but ineradicable. Its contours are so blurred that it denoted nothing - while it spreads everywhere because it connotes the best of intentions. The term is hailed by the IMF and Vatican alike, by revolutionaries carrying their guns as well as field experts carrying their Samsonites. Though development has no content, it does possess one function: it allows any intervention to be sanctified in the name of a higher goal."(4)

Responsible Development- My definition:

Therefore all past implementations of development as intervention, as hegemonic control, as a political weapon, as a ladder, as Westernization, as capitalist, and as modernization have led to a more underdeveloped world where people are not valued and all that matters is the production and perpetuation of the current system for those are the forefront. Wolfgang Sachs says, "The idea of development stands like a ruin in the intellectual landscape" and "its time to dismantle this mental structure." (Thomas, Ch. 1) I already wrote about the idea of development of the mind and so now how does someone from the West who wants to help those in need around the world engage in 'development' that will actually produce the desired results for people?

My definition of development falls along the lines of the 'alternatives to development' paradigm. I believe very strongly in people-centered development that is needs based. Where there is a focus on individuals as part of the whole and not on just numbers of people assisted, growth of GDP, or increase in production. I want to see development that uses what works and not just what looks good. Development that strengthens local communities and connects them to others, that evaluates itself often, that doesn't 'other,' that spreads a cooperative mentality of interdependence, that believes in the co-evolution of people with nature, that does not feel guilty, but responsible, that uses unsustainable development to adopt sustainable practices. Development should be a resource for people who have historically and systematically been subjugated and oppressed so that they may have agency and actualize their own development. I am a strong believer in a communal and cooperative living style, this is a 'modern' idea based in practices of traditional societies. My definition of development is not an ideology, but rather it draws on wisdom from historical experience.

Development should be a vision that is defined by the community as a whole. I believe strongly in empowerment where the 'developer' does not act as an overseer or facilitator, but a resource and a support. This is where development needs to become a redistribution of power and resources that will transform the way institutions have worked. Along with empowerment comes the idea of participation. Both the 'developer' and those to 'develop' need to be participants on equal footing in the development process. In this way communities are able to develop themselves and take into account their social and cultural practices without being controlled by an outsider. Development as we have seen pushed for a conformity of global society - development should instead embrace diversity and equality in difference. My economics mirrors the ideas of E.F. Schumacher where he focuses on economics as if people mattered. Schumacher uses Buddhism as an example of people and nature centered development practice. He writes:

"Simplicity and non-violence are obviously closely related. The optimal pattern of consumption, producing a high degree of human satisfaction by means of a relatively low rate of consumption, allows people to live without great pressure and strain and to fulfill the primary injunction of Buddhist teaching: 'Cease to do evil; try to do good.'" (62)

He also writes about production at the local level for the local level and how that lessens human consumption as a "rational way of economic life." Schumacher notes that now (1973, even more now) the human population lives parasitically on the earth, the market is an institution of individualism and severs all responsibility. (46) Development needs to be about wellbeing of both the individual and the world around them. The examples of subsistence and traditional communities are excellent, 'small' examples of how development should work.

"A world of 'humanized' production, based on a small scale but modern and scientific technology, a world of co-operation in villages and small towns, a world of enriched social relationships growing out of a process of production and exchange that is under human control rather than 'alienated'. . ." (Kitching, 1982, p.179 from Thomas, 35)

There are many examples of this and even now practices within the 'developed' world are moving towards subsistence and small scale, cooperative and local. Within the 'developed' world there is a growing number of local farmer's markets, organic growers, and alternative organizations focused on serving people's needs. Even Barbara Kingslover's latest book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is based on locally grown, locally purchased food as a way to develop a more environment friendly and people friendly society. This local food movement is growing fast.

Some may try and say that it is just a phenomena as food and fuel prices soar, but really it is a long held style of living rooted in historic, traditional knowledge which we are finally returning to: a method of living that is more holistic and accounts for the co-evolution of humans and nature. Evidence of these traditional practices is still seen today. There have been attempts to return to a historically sustainable way of life through movements like Kibbutz in Israel, Ujamaa in Tanzania, Revolutionary Inter-Communalism within the Black Panther Party of the US, as well as implementations of communes, cooperatives and collectives in the Western world - some that begin as far as 200 years ago. There are distinct reasons why these models have failed to achieve widespread results, but the most detrimental effect brings us back to the idea of 'development of the mind.'People are too often trapped in a system's way of thinking and living that it is too difficult to cut out un-necessary desire or it creates an inability to see beyond the current status quo and way of life.

One example of a community that was self-sufficient, sustainable, and at peace with others and its environment was the Ladakh in northern most point of India next to Kashmir. The Ladakh were a traditional indigenous community that operated on communal living. They lived with no strain on the natural environment. There was no pollution, excessive noise, or a lack of resources. People worked on their own time and used what would be called 'primitive technology.'As soon as modernity and 'development' entered the scene the sustainable way of life of the Ladakh disappeared. Modern society claimed to understand and control the natural order, with energy and capital intensive, consumptive, and environmentally unfriendly practices. The elderly no longer had a role in the community with the creation of Western schools and business because of this young people did not learn tolerance and responsibility at an early age. Modern society broke down family and community ties. Agriculture was no longer an acceptable business, pollution grew, the status of women fell as men felt more and more insecure in the 'modern world.' A community where there were no constraints, no stresses, no violence, no capital or pollution was turned into what we now see on a worldwide scale with the propagation of capitalism. Polluted environments, where everyone is in a rush, and once you can no longer produce you have no place in society. We now live as parasites on the earth as opposed to co-evolving partners with the earth. We now value products and productivity above people. There are many related examples across the globe of communities like the Ladakh. Now the Ladakh Development Foundation exists to empower the community to improve itself.

It seems with all this understanding of history, 'development' should become a simplifying of life. We should re-learn traditional values of these communities and apply them to our own lives. Living non-hierarchically, with community consensus, subsistence, and holistically. There are too many broken people, we need to reverse our practices and rewrite our theories. There are many efforts now developing across the globe to spur a "green economy," one that attempts to place the environment at the core of our societal progression. It has had mixed results, but the majority good. Where gardens are established on roofs (green roofs), community parks take the place of abandoned factories, and bringing people out of poverty is the norm. The Green for All organization is working to build an inclusive "green" economy that will assist and benefit everyone.

Green For All believes a shift to a clean, green economy can improve the health and well-being of low-income people, who suffer disproportionately from cancer, asthma and other respiratory ailments in our current pollution-based economy. Such a shift can also create and expand entrepreneurial, wealth-building opportunities for American workers who need new avenues of economic advance. In other words: we believe that the national effort to curb global warming and oil dependence can simultaneously create well-paid green-collar jobs, safer streets and healthier communities.

The notion of a growing or strong nation or country by way of its GDP or economic output does not give a comprehensive definition of the development of a country when people are a means to an end. And so 'development' at national and state levels is irrelevant when there are people who still live without their basic necessities at the small-scale, local and community level.

From the When not in Africa. . . blog.

That is one intense essay.

That is one intense essay. Bravo.

I look at development in the biological sense--you must develop or you die. That is true for Trinidad and Tobagoand the US too. The US may be top dog now, but if you look at educational indicators, you'll notice that our national report card sucks compared to other countries. Good education is asbolutely and completely essential to development and by extension, progress. I don't know if I agree with the idea that the US is a "developed" country and therefore entrenched in the idea that it doesn't need to push the envelope. The American identity has always been centered on "progress" compared to the relatively stable and conservative mindset of Europe, the other "developed" area of the world. It's why we have an easier time absorbing immigrants, because we recognize that new blood, fresh ideas are essential to progress.

On the more global idea of development, I think that development indicates a more fine-tuned sense of balancing the needs of a body of citizens against others, including the environment. It also indicates a greater, deeper connection to one another through social, economic, political, and cultural ties.

Today, if the Americas disappeared, the rest of the world would cease to function, and vice-versa. They become the ties that bind, and the original precept that you need poor countries in order to build a global economy that benefits relatively few people is rapidly becoming irrelevant. You point out the growth of farmers' markets as something that goes against the traditional idea of development, but we still can't grow mangos, dance the tango as beautifully as in Buenos Aires, court someone the way they do in Venice, or intimidate the opposition with the eye-googling, foot-stomping, touch-wagging haka in New Zealand as well as the rest of the world can.

I think we've developed to the point where we cannot function with the other parts of the world, nor do we want to. That is development for me, anyway. Others may not choose to be as connected, but contact with the rest of the world is inevitable, so the question is, how they will choose to engage with it?

Either way, you're right that defining progress is difficult, but you make an admirable effort. ;)


Thanks for your comments. It was a very long essay to write and hardly scrapes the surface of my ideas related to the 'development' field. I don't believe that the US is country that can be labelled as 'developed' in many aspects, as far as the current paradigms and economic progress the US is deemed 'developed.' This idea has led to our failure to push the envelope (historically) and 'better' our lives in relation to the sustained nature of living in which many communities around the world are able to live. We may have made piecemeal advances in certain areas of life in small minorities, but the majority still holds high the belief of 'american' exceptionalism.

There is no way that we can talk about development today without recognizing its global implications. This is most relevant when it comes to economics and governance. I am not saying that we need to cut ourselves off from one another, but we do need to cut ourselves off from our extremely un-necessary and violent consumptive habits that destroy society and our natural environment and perpetuate a failed system (current examples abound on the frontpage).

Today if the US (not the Americas) disappeared , the rest of the world would potentially be much better off. This is where I discussed the idea of development of the mind. If people remain trapped in the thinking that they are under-developed then yes they will be screwed if "we" disappear. They have (often by force or no other choice) adopted our ways of liberal markets and democracy and capitalism. We can not grow the same things as the rest of the world or do things as well and so what we have to do is be good at what we can do and revision our desires to what our actual needs are. We do not need mangoes because we (in Michigan) can grow apples and cherries. Finding the simplest way to live with your environment and community is what development should be all about, cut off the global economic system (global apartheid), cut off the 'state,' cut off the idea that people are only means of production to an end of material wealth. Your economics should be local, your community should be your 'state,' your wealth is your natural environment and the people that surround you.

If we were to propogate this idea of small-scale sustainable communities, where the co-evolution of people and nature is important, living in concert with other small-scale sustainable communities then we return to living in our interdependent globe, but with a more healthy system of living in and with it. This does not mean that we cannot interact, trade, or engage other communities - it means quite the opposite. How we engage development is exactly the question that I discuss starting with my definition of development: responsible development. How will you engage it?

- Challenge yourself everyday, if you don't then it is a wasted day.