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What is Development?

6 March 2014



“Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development.” – Kofi Annan

The term development presupposes that something is changing, evolving or progressing in order to be realised in a more effective and often, ethical way. It is the type of transformation that requires a drastic change in human behaviour and an improvement of physical infrastructure for the betterment of civil society.

While we question what it means to be a “developed” versus “developing” country and further examine why it is assumed that “developed” countries need no further development (despite social inequalities that still exist within these borders), we at the same time acknowledge the inequalities between communities and countries around the world when it comes to disease eradication, health and education, and thus the need for development efforts.

The development sector is an umbrella term for a number of discourses, all who aim to improve an existing status quo and work towards a greater quality of life around the world. Some of these discourses include public health, education, poverty reduction, access to basic services, human rights, disaster management, infrastructure, economics and environment-related matters.

The latter part of the 20th century has been labelled “the development era” and its origins are attributed to the reconstruction after World War II, the emergence of globalisation, free trade and the technology wave. This era professes human rights for all and its philosophy suggests that all lives are equally important irrespective of race, religion, language, culture or nationality.

Development can occur on two levels, local and international. Governments utilise a large percentage of revenue to assist their population, this being local development and including programmes such as healthcare, education, roadworks and safety.

In the instance of scarce financial resources, natural disaster or political strife, international donors can step in to provide assistance. International development is related to international aid, but distinct from disaster relief and humanitarian aid. Aid is primarily seen as short-term relief, while development seeks to support and implement long-term, sustainable solutions that reflect the unique aspects of the country such as culture, politics and economy.

Tshabo, © Maureen Sill

Tshabo, © Maureen Sill

In most instances, local and international development efforts overlap to strengthen an intervention in a specific geographical space or discourse. Former colonies (the global south) are often at the centre of international development, possibly in the hopes of (the global north) repairing relationships or acknowledging disparities of the past. While we cannot assume one way or the other the policies of international donors, we do recognise development as an “all hands on deck” attempt to realising a better global society, as opposed to one of fragmented abundance.

The development sector has various stakeholders to ensure these philosophies are realised. Apart from the United Nations, whose various bodies oversee and fund a number of development issues, major players in the development sector include policy makers, international and government donors, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community-based organisations (CBOs), faith-based organisations and aid workers.

Ideally, modern development programmes seek to move away from the top-down approach of old, and rather focus on dignity as a central theme. Cultural relativism, founded in the belief that one cannot judge another culture by one’s own culture, also plays a role in donor funding and development projects, and this is improving with time. The Asian Human Rights Commission and People’s Vigilance Committee released a statement in 2006 claiming, “Human dignity is the true measure of human development.”

This unfortunately doesn’t always work in practice, though, and the effectiveness of international aid is a discourse many are passionate about. In 2009, Dambisa Moyo published the well-known book Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, revealing that despite development and humanitarian aid, poverty continues to increase in many African countries – which Moyo claims is due to aid dependency, corruption and market distortion. These issues can be seen in many developing countries, and ‘good’ development programmes – those that are participatory, sustainable and relevant – should be the norm.

Having seen firsthand development programmes that are not as effective as they could or should be, in which communities do not understand why an intervention is taking place, aren’t supportive of a proposed intervention or cannot access the benefits because of corruption, an aid worker may begin to question why we do this work in the first place. Frustrations abound when NGOs apply for funding in areas in which they lack expertise, aligning programmes to donor requirements instead of focusing on the areas in which they are in fact experts. These “add-on” programmes are all too common and frequently lead to disorganised, ineffective and substandard projects for the communities they are meant to serve.

But there ways to work in the development sector with eyes open, seeing the sector as the industry it is, like any other. Just as Corporate Social Investment projects are only sustainable when based on community input, buy-in and involvement, the international development sector and the many actors within it must approach development programming in the same way. In this light, the development sector is an area of work in which one can be fulfilled and challenged.

Choosing to have a career in the development sector is a choice to be part of global transformation and to ensure basic human rights for all. It is a conscious decision to be part of a solution and to address previous injustices. No matter where you end up in the world, if you are in the development sector, you have chosen to be part of a fraternity of people who are passionate about realising a better world. Ensuring that programming is relevant and sustainable for the communities in which you work is the greatest contribution you can make.

Development Action Group sustainable housing project, © DAG

Development Action Group sustainable housing project, © DAG


(This post was originally written for our if i could… internship placement service, as interns enter the development sector and pair up with our host organisations.)

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