Development; ‘What does it Actually Mean?’

hands on worldWhat is development? When faced with this question, it is not surprising that most people stumble upon their words. Sustainability? Poverty reduction? Education? Individual betterment? Economic growth? The list goes on. In this blog post, I will look at the contrasting definitions of the word development, and the way in which it has perhaps become ascribed to have little meaning at all in the world today.

When initially confronted with the question ‘what is development?’ I would have answered that development should be about empowering people with the right to education, health services, and access to food and shelter. However, after researching into the topic, I began to question myself. How can development mean the same thing in a poor country as it does in a wealthy country? My answer; it doesn’t.inequality slum vs pool

In his editorial, Robert Chambers (1997) states that “the underlying
meaning of development has been good change” (Chambers, 1997, p.1744). However, a crucial problem in defining the word development is to where and to whom you are applying it. Although Chambers (1997) describes development as “good change” (Chambers, 1997, p.1744), he also believes that the definition of development can be “personally defined and redefined” (Chambers, 1997, p.1743). I agree with Chambers’ view, as, in my opinion, the type of development needed in one area of a country may be the polar opposite of the necessary development in another area. For development to be described as “good change” (Chambers, 1997, p.1744) we have to ask the people in question whether they see it as good change or not.

Many organisations such as governments believe that economic growth is the best strategy to help develop a nation. However, Gilbert Rist (2007) believes that improving the economy of a country will not improve the lives of those living in poverty stricken areas. Rist (2007) states that “The survival of the planet will depend upon abandoning the deep-rooted belief that economic growth can deliver social justice” (Rist, 2007, p.485). Personally, I too agree with the views of Rist, as I believe that for development to truly take place anywhere in the world, we must start at the root; sustainability.

Similarly to Rist, Chang Ha-Joon (2010) holds some negative opinions towards development, stating that “helping the developing countries is actually bad for them because it will only encourage dependency mentality” (Ha-Joon, 2010, p.3). This view is further supported by the article ‘Understanding public attitudes to aid and development’ which suggests that richer countries may have contributed to ‘underdevelopment’. I believe that many hold this negative view towards development due to the ignorance of the West. The word development perhaps nowadays means little other than to allow the elite of the West to hurl money into poverty stricken areas in order to make them feel as though they are doing some ‘good’ in the world. As suggested in the article ‘Understanding Public Attitudes to Aid and Development’, this transfer of money and resources from rich to poor countries is not something that individuals in poor countries can participate in. Instead, it will provide food to allow the affected to simply ‘get by’ for the next few months. Moreover, for development to be sustainable we must allow people in developing countries to have freedom and control over their own lives, thus creating long-term and sustainable development.

I believe that there will never be a ‘correct’ definition of the word development. As Chambers (1997) points out:Image of plant

“Development has been taken to mean different things at different times, in different places, and by different people in different professions and organizations” (Chambers, 1997, p.1744). For me, this is a key definition that should be used by all when trying to understand ‘what is development?’

In my opinion, the ambiguity of development highlights the importance that we must continue to explore the topic in order to understand the continuously changing needs of the developing world.


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

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

Glennie, Alex, Straw, Will and Wild, Leni (2009) ‘Understanding Public Attitudes to Aid and Development’, London: ODI and IPPR.

Rist, Gilbert (2007) ‘Development’, Development in Practice, 17(4-5) pp.485-491.