“Development is not about words and procedures. It is about changing the realities of people’s lives.” – Everjoice Win, 2004

Would it not be great if a book titled like that existed? Then perhaps there would not be a debate on what international development actually entails, but I will do my best to put in my two cents.

It has only been a week since class began and my personal definition of international development has already been challenged.  Prior to my start at Sussex, my definition of development was very much linked to the idea of social justice, mostly due to my education in Jesuit schools (the Jesuits are an order in the Roman Catholic Church who promote social justice, for those who don’t know).  Development, to me, was very much centered on providing assistance to those in need.  For example, after my high school graduation, myself and ten other classmates went to Belize and helped build a house for a single mother with three children.  To us, we were helping this amazing woman develop her life, but development is so much more than that.  The idea of development is multifaceted, with footholds in “ecological, economic, social, political, and personal” (Chambers, 1997) realms.  It is not just about helping others, but empowering others to help themselves.

Development is not always positive, however.  Gilbert Rist touched on this idea in his article “Development as a buzzword.”  He argues that there is no real definition of development, but instead, it is more of a performative word; a word that you say by doing (Rist, 2007).  I cannot help but agree with the idea that development is something you say by doing.  To me, development is all about making a difference; you can talk about development all day, but in the end, it is actually acting on it that means something.  Despite this, his definition of development is as follows: “the essence of ‘development’ is the general transformation and destruction of the natural environment and of social relations in order to increase the production of commodities (goods and services) geared, by means of market exchange, to effective demand.”  Following Rist’s view, development has a negative connotation as well.  For example, land development allows for more resources such as housing and agriculture, but also leads to deforestation.  The World Bank reports that nearly half of our planet’s original forest has been destroyed, most of which occurred in the last thirty years.


Image from rainforests.mongabay.com

Besides the obviously negative environmental changes, development leads to having to pay for things that should be free, such as a helpful hand from a neighbor or a day on the beach.  Rist positions this reality of a developed country in rather bleak and scandalous terms, saying, “Prostitution may be officially condemned, but it has become the common lot: everyone is for sale.”  While bleak, I tend to agree with this statement.  Everything, and everyone, has a price.  In today’s society, it’s hard to ignore the importance we place on money, even if it means destroying what was already there in lieu of something else.


Image from theguardian.com

What’s left of a forest in Burma after deforestation

As you can see, answering the question “what is development,” is not an easy task.  International development can encompass many areas, from economic development to political development to personal development.  It can be positive: from building houses for the homeless to teaching villagers how to grow certain crops.  On the other hand, it can be negative, leading to a loss of resources or a way of life that a village has grown accustomed to.

My personal favorite definition of development is best said by Robert Chambers in his editorial “Responsible Well-Being – A Personal Agenda for Development.”  Chambers writes “the objective of development is well-being for all,” perfectly encompassing what I have always thought to be true.  Development, even with its sometimes negative effects, always means well and THAT is what development is.


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

2. Rist, Gilbert (2007) ‘Development as a buzzword’, Development in Practice, 17: 4, 485-491

3. World Bank. Deforestation. Retrieved from http://go.worldbank.org/0HLKY16WF0

4. Win Everjoice (2004) ‘”If it doesn’t fit on the blue square it’s out!” An open letter to my donor friend’, in Inclusive Aid: Changing Power and Relationships in Development, ed. Rachel Hinton and Leslie Groves, London: Earthscan.