I put this word in quotation marks because it is something of a buzz word. It's always a good practice, as you can read more about in my section on "Critical," to ask a few questions of these buzz words. In this case: "Development" for what? For whom? By whom? Who defined the word in its mainstream use?
Before I give you my definition and thoughts on the concept of development, I will point you in the direction of this book edited by Wolfgang Sachs, The Development Dictionary. It's an amazing book that contains essays exploring many buzz words related to the concept of "development," concepts that you probably hear a lot when in comes to U.S. foreign aid, or poverty, or science. It's worth reading several times.
Rather than making this page a repetition of the explanation in this book, or a long academic essay on this topic, I thought I would just share a brief anecdote about my understanding of the term. This is a blog, after all, not an academic journal.
When I was deciding to keep living in Costa Rica, after my initial one-year volunteer commitment, I remember that my grandmother asked me, "Why do you want to live in Latin America?" My response was: "I think that we here in the US are trying to do good things in the world to help people, but we often mistakenly make things worse. If I can stay in Latin America long enough to learn to intuit the way people see the world from this angle, maybe I can help us make things better." In other words, US "development" projects are good, or at least well-intentioned, but they could be improved.
It was about 6 years into my life in Costa Rica, while doing a field project for my Master's in Rural Development at FLACSO, that the suspicion I had been working with for a number of years just became very clear. We were interviewing local people in a real "backwater" of Costa Rica, the river port city of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, a low-lying tropical environment with lots of pineapple plantations and other links to export agriculture (heart-of-palm and citrus trees, for example). One family I got to interview had lived there for several generations. The elderly couple I sat with, in their corrugated tin shack, on worn furniture with chickens and cats wandering through on the simple cement floor, told me of all of the fish species in the nearby river, and the histories of all of the local families, and how they raised their children to be good neighbors, and how the new "development" of their area was leading to riverbank erosion, social unrest, and political conflicts. It occurred to me that to say we should try to "develop" this family, one of the most thoughtful, caring, and knowledgeable families one could ever meet, was pretty insulting.
As we drove away from that experience, looking out at the pineapple fields that brought some jobs, yes, but also political and economic benefits to local elites while creating conflict and environmental degradation to everyone else, I understood clearly for the first time that the US companies and government policies that promote pineapple plantations, for example, are not simply well-intentioned with the disadvantage of being short-sighted or misunderstood. Rather, they are strategically and purposefully planned by intelligent and powerful people to do exactly what they do: benefit particular people. This is no one's fault - one project cannot be all things to all people. But, often the mere suggestion of having a development project benefit someone else, or that the interests of marginalized groups be considered more strongly, are met with accusations of socialism, nationalism, or other buzzwords that are also not clearly understood.
As the Assistant Director of the Institute for Central American Development Studies (ICADS) in Costa Rica, I worked with my colleagues and with our undergraduate study abroad students to explore the term "development" as well as alternative concepts. One concept that we explored was "bioregionalism," an idea that well-being can be achieved by respecting the natural world around us and limiting our expectations of economic growth. A concept from the Andean region of South America, called "El Buen Vivir," is a political project based in Andean spirituality that seeks to measure well-being not just in economic terms, but in health and environmental terms. The countries of ALBA, a coalition of Latin American countries in opposition to US development projects, use the idea of "cooperative advantage" instead of the "comparative advantage" of the US capitalist project.
I provide all of these examples simply to point out that, like "development," they are specific, political, and historical. It would behoove us to anaylze all of these (and other) options for measuring and promoting well-being, and to consider what multiple perspectives have to offer us in our search to promote a better world. I invite you to look at the paradigm that you use to view the world, and to notice how it reflects or doesn't reflect some of the measures of success or social objectives our society may take for granted.