Defining Development: Aid, Sustainable Development Goals, Colonisation, Well-Being & Participation

“International Development”, I say while I observe how my relative’s face shows sudden confusion. This follows whenever I mention the course I am studying in university. Nobody knows what it means. I even struggle to explain or define it. I throw around words like “poverty” or “human rights”, hoping people will understand.  Fortunately, many get the general idea quickly. Still, they assume the word is just linked to the aid organisations. And I’m not surprised. That’s how development is advertised in The West.


(Example of a charity marketing “poverty” by using the stereotypical image of a black African child in a muddy and dirty environment looking for clean water.)

However, for me, development is not about “saving the poor”. It is about environmental sustainability and improving people’s lives. Nevertheless, nothing is perfect. Development can be a problematic term for many, including myself sometimes, although I can still see the positive side of it.

On the one hand, professors like Gilbert Rist argue that development is a just a vague “buzzword” that needs to redefined from “wishful thinking” to “actual practices”(Rist, 2007). I partly agree with him. I’m sure many of you have heard about the UN Sustainable Development Goals set for 2030, available below.


(The 17 Sustainable Development Goals set for 20303.)

In my opinion, this is a clear example of “wishful thinking”. I’m apprehensive of how honest is the commitment. I find ironic how the same world promising to meet these goals is being harsh with refugees and migrants drowning in the Mediterranean. Or how some politicians promising to achieve these targets have been cutting funding for welfare in their own countries.

Moreover, I can’t ignore how many development policies by multilateral organisations remind me of colonialism: Western countries imposing ideas and capitalistic models in poorer Southern countries, ignoring culture and erasing identities. The activist Gustavo Esteva said it better: “Today, for two-thirds of the people of the world, (under)development is a threat that has already been carried out; a life of subordination and of being led astray, of discrimination and subjugation4.” (Esteva, 2010: 6, The Development Dictionary)

On the other hand, professors like Robert Chambers have an optimistic view of development, which I share too. Chambers said, “The objective of development is well-being for all”, and “well-being and ill-being differ from wealth and poverty”5  (Chambers, 1997).


“The web of responsible well-being according to Chambers5”.

For too long the term “development” has been associated exclusively with economic growth. But as Chamber illustrates in the picture above, it is not just about money matters. In addition, I believe “rich” countries shouldn’t be a models for “poor” countries. For instance, United Kingdom has the 6th largest economy in the world, yet 1 in 5 residents live below the poverty line6. Besides, the lifestyle in “rich” countries isn’t sustainable.  Sociologists like Otto Ullrich claim that, “If one were to extend this [USA’s] industrial mode of production and lifestyle to all people of the earth, five or six further planets like the earth would be required for resource plundering and waste disposal4(Ullrich, 2010. 313, The Development Dictionary). And I agree.

Another reason why I support Chamber’s definition of development is the participatory approach to it: the focus on what locals want over the thoughts of Westerns. Not having a good understanding of locals’ lives can lead to misinterpretations, such as the false deforestation narrative encountered by anthropologists James Fairhead and Melissa Leach in West Africa years ago7.

On conclusion: there isn’t a definition for “development”. What is clear is that it is not as positive as it seems: there needs to be a profound redefinition of the ambitions behind it. And we must remember that almost certainly, no country is “fully developed”. Sustainability, equality and justice, livelihood security, and human rights, the main objectives in development, are issues that no country in the world has addressed 100%.

Sharing my thoughts on academic matters,



  1. Funny Commercials World. 2009. Save The Children ad series: Thing Of The Past. Last Accessed: 04/10/2015
  2. Rist, Gilbert (2007) ‘Development’, Development in Practice17(4-5):485-491.
  3. Blue and Green Tomorrow. 2015. The Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Accessed: 04/10/2015.
  4. Sachs, Wolfgang. 2010. The Development Dictionary. 2nd New York, USA: Zed Books.
  5. Chambers, Robert. 1997. ‘Responsible Well-being: A Personal Agenda for Development’,World Development25(11):1743-1754.
  6. 2015. Poverty in the UK. Last Accessed: 04/10/2015.
  7. Fairhead, J. and M. Leach. 1995. ‘False forest history, complicit social analysis: rethinking some West African environmental narratives’. World Development23 (6): 1023-1036.

[Word Count: 584 (without references and picture captions)]


2 thoughts on “Defining Development: Aid, Sustainable Development Goals, Colonisation, Well-Being & Participation

  1. A really well presented blog! Very inviting and colourful. You have packed a lot of points in here which are all very valid but perhaps developing a couple a little more would make it more substantial (I know, word count issues!). Really like the way you have woven your opinion in this piece whilst considering other perspectives. Great job! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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