I chose to symbolise ‘development’ at the start of this unit by highlighting a link between Infant Mortality Rates (IMR) and the Global Distribution of Wealth. For me wealth and health were intrinsically linked with how ‘developed’ a country was.  As the unit progressed my understanding about how to define development have been challenged, extended and enhanced.

IMR by country: http://www.unicef.org/sowc03/tables/table1.html


The focus for this unit was ‘defining and measuring development.’

The term ‘development’ appears impossible to define – it seems to have an intangible quality, leaving me with the impression that no matter how hard we try to grasp it’s meaning it will remain beyond our reach. In fact the more attempts at defining the term I read the more I find myself torn. On the one side, not being able to land on a concrete definition seems apt as it reflects the subtleties and complexities of  ‘development’ as a process and of the world against which we are measuring it.  Or, perhaps it is as Cornwall points out, that ambiguity over the term ‘development’ and its lexicon is dangerous territory. She argues that having vague ‘buzzwords’ and terms to represent ‘development’ is detrimental as, “The work that these words do for development is to place the sanctity of its goals beyond reproach,”(Cornwall, p 472). Without an understanding of what development is or what it looks like how do we begin to measure it?

It seems easiest, as Thomas (2000) does, to define development in relation to other progresses such as capitalism, human rights and politics.

The relationship between development and capitalism seems inexhaustible. Perhaps it is so difficult to escape the temptation of measuring development according to economic growth is because the model for development is intrinsically linked with countries who value and advocate capitalism, i.e a

Western vision of development. “In a world dominated by advanced capitalist economics, all aspects of modern industrial society are elevated to represent the ideal of what development is trying to achieve.” (Thomas, 2000, p.30). However as Seers points out, “[F]ew if any of the rich countries appear to the outside world as really desirable models.” How the capitalist world is viewed by those whose existence is not fuelled by consumerism is something I would be interested in exploring in more depth. Seers goes on to point out the unlikelihood of a country being able to re-intact another countries development even if it’s state did appear desirable (1969, p.3). My reading of ‘Challenging Global Inequality’ put this idea in a new light for me. Firstly by pointing out the massive environmental impact of developing countries following a similar path to that of “the advanced capitalist world,” (2007, p.9). And secondly the question, “Do powerful actors maintain their dominance by undermining the development of subordinate nations?” (ibid, p.6). The idea that development needs to come from a redistribution of wealth (in more than monetary terms) as oppose to less developed countries ‘catching up’ is  a new and fascinating concept to me.

I also found it interesting to learn, as Thomas points out that alongside viewing capitalism as a model for development, democracy has often been seen as a vital ingredient in a country’s ‘successful’ development (2000, p.32). The ODI Briefing Paper points out that Nobel Economist Amartya Sen disagrees: “statistical studies give no real support to the claim that there is a general conflict between political rights and economic performance.’ (Sen 1999, cited in ODI Briefing Paper, Nov. 2001 p.3). Given the recent economic growth of some authoritarian states, including China democracy cannot be said, with much conviction, to be a vital component of development. I think the historical assumption that democracy is a pre-requisite for development reflects the ‘grand-theory’ approach to development outlined by Sumner and Tribe (2008).  Highlighting this formula draws attention to the pitfalls of focusing always on the ‘big picture’, of categorising development by Western history and Western standards – an approach which upholds a ‘one fit, fits all’ process.  As Sumner and Tribe state, “Modernization theories were criticized for their overriding belief in a linear, common path to development through economic growth and industrialization”(2008, p87). The ‘context specific’ theory approach to development would instead take into account the particulars of a situation. Tom’s explanation of the difference between these two types of theory in his lecture was what first led me to question my own assumptions about Global Distribution of Wealth being a reflection of development.

Having started to grasp the discrepancies and problems in attempting to formulate an absolute definition for development I am beginning to understand how views on development have advanced over the last half a century. At this juncture I turned my attentions from defining to measuring development. I found the ODI Briefing Paper written about ‘The Work of Amartya Sen’ very enlightening. Here was a formula by which development could be measured in a tangible and realistic fashion. What I thought most relevant to the train of thought I had been following was Sen’s move away from viewing ‘good’ development as maximising a country’s GDP per capita and instead focusing on a people’s centred approach (now apparent in the UNDP’s reports as the Human Development Index) or as Sen puts it, “The expansion of valuable capabilities and the realisation of freedom and human rights.” (1999, cited in ODI Breiding Paper, 2001, p1) The focus on ‘entitlements, ‘functioning’ and ‘freedoms’ are measurable aspects of development which I feel fall inline with the increasingly popular ‘context-specific’ approach. It was this article more than any other reading which clarified how development and economics are interlinked but that economics and capitalism are in no way the only, or even the best tools, with which to measure how ‘developed’ a country has become.

This unit has served as an eye-opener. Whilst I appreciate that a country’s economic state is linked with its developmental stage, hence my choice of symbol at the start of the unit, I am able to grasp the limitations in measuring development through GNP per capita. Whilst HDI appreciates the complexities of people’s capabilities and functioning; measuring development against “the things a person may value doing or being,” (ODI Briefing Paper, Nov 2001, p2) and their capacity to achieve these. For me this is a realisation I wish I had more understanding of two years ago when teaching in Nepal. In a remote village in the Langtang Valley families did not value the capitalist elements that have shaped life in the Western world. They hoped for the freedom to lead a life that upholds their values and allows for opportunities they deem important within their culture and frame of existence.

The bulk of reading, the alien terminology and complex nature of the contents made this unit a challenge. However it has allowed me to create a strong foundation for the remainder of the module. One of the key things I felt this unit imparted was the importance of taking a step back; the theory, language and processes surrounding development are very complex and taking time to pause for thought is crucial to avoid being drowned in the abstract elements of development. With this unit of learning behind me I hope to move forward with a broader view towards development. I hope to adopt a similar attitude to that which Tom mentioned in the lecture, that what development ‘looks like’ depends on who you are, where you are and how you are; or to put it more eloquently, “Where one stands on these issues depends on where one sits,” (Cornwall, 2007, p. 479).

Sources cited

Bellamy, C. (2000), The State of the World’s Children, UNICEF

Cornwall, A. (2007), ‘Buzzwords and fuzzwords: deconstructing development discourse’, in Development in Practice, Vol 17, no. 4, pp. 471 – 485.

Greig, A; Hulme, D and Turner, M (2007) Challenging Global Inequality: Development Theory and Practice in the 21st Century. Basingtoe: Palgrave Macmillan.

ODI (2001) Economic Theory, Freedom and Human Rights: The Work of Amartya Sen’, ODI Briefing Paper, November, Overseas Development Institute.

Seers, D. (1969), The Meaning of Development’, IDS Communication, no. 44, Institute of Development Studies.

Sumner, A and Tribe, M (2008), Chapter 4, International Development Studies: Theories and Methods of Research and Practice, London: Sage

Thomas, A. (2000), ‘Meaning and Views of Development’, in Poverty and Development into the 21st century, Allen, t; Thomas, A (eds), Oxford University Press, Oxford.