Back to Basics: Defining ‘Development’
I’m dedicated to development. It’s my profession, it’s my passion. It’s also a word I and the people I work with use a lot in our day-to-day lives. So much so we often forget that people from other walks of life usually have no idea what we mean by it. When I tell people I work in 'international development,' most say something like, “Oh, that’s so interesting.” Which is encouraging until it’s followed by, “So what is that?”
We use the word 'development' so often and to mean so many things it’s worthwhile sometimes to not be so unthinking about it and remember what it is we are trying to do in the world. This of course is its own debate; some have very specific definitions around economics, human rights, etc. These aren’t wrong, but they are incomplete. True, deeper development is more than that.
Development is a continuous social process in which people, both as individuals and as societies, define who they are, who they want to be, and where they want to go, and then pursue those ambitions together. Development at its core is about choosing and pursuing a future, as a country and as a world. It’s about people exercising agency for their common advancement. By this definition, every country is developing.
Still, development practitioners, professionals in advancing development objectives, typically work in non-Western countries where the need for their work is seen as higher. And too often development practitioners, particularly Western ones, think and talk about their work as if they’re bringing less advanced countries 'up to speed' with the Western world. In reality, our role as practitioners is not to 'provide' development, but rather to assist it as appropriate.
Our role is not resolution and empowerment; a development practitioner’s role is engagement for local solutions and self-empowerment. Regardless of what level we work at or in what sector, this remains true. Our infrastructure projects, community workshops and sensitizations, capacity building trainings, and service provision efforts, if they’re going to be productive, we need to approach them with this mentality. Because at the end of the day, it’s not our decision how a country develops. We can advocate for certain standards and approaches, and we can choose to support work aligned with our own core values, but ultimately, development is about people making their own choices. Development practitioners help facilitate that, rather than make the choices for others. Otherwise, any progress made will be shallow and not easily sustainable, if at all.
It's always tempting to take the easy route and just share our experience as proven avenues for progress. But that's not development. Development isn’t easy. It happens at all levels, from community on up to global. People rarely if ever all agree on the direction they want to go. Resources are habitually dwarfed by the ambitions and even just the immediate needs, and ‘proven’ methods often have shelf-lives as times and contexts change. For many countries, people who have only relatively recently had to identify with each other now have to build and exercise common agency. As practitioners, our job is helping sort through all this. It takes time, patience, creativity, trust, vision, and strategy. And even with all of this, it’s ok to admit that after decades of doing this we’re still figuring it out.
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