The word ‘development’ has as many meanings as there are listeners. So begins a book published in 2009 on the subject.
At its core the concept of development is a very basic and personal one. Starting from this point, it funnels outward to broader meanings for groups of individuals (be they in a family, community, region, country, or supra-region), for policymakers at all levels of government, leaders in civil society, and for scholars situated in their various disciplines and schools of thought. It suggests progression in nearly every mind, although not necessarily for everyone the notion of economic growth.
Concern over development has been with us for as long as mankind has existed, for it is fundamentally about the improvement of the human condition. But its study as a formal line of enquiry is more recent and best seen in two waves. The first dates back to what W. Arthur Lewis terms the “superstars of the eighteenth century,” the contributions of David Hume, Adam Smith, and James Steuart – and later, John Stuart Mill. The classicists’ ambit was what we would today term questions of economic growth, the distribution of wealth, and the principles underlying personal behaviour and public action.
The current discourse on development stems from the end of the Second World War and the accompanying preoccupations with European (and of a different scale and nature, Japanese) reconstruction, maintaining the peace while fighting the Cold War, decolonization and the emergence of newly independent but poor countries. There are antecedents here – the outputs of (mainly) colonial administrators and culturalists who took a fancy (sometimes a dubious one) to the more exotic parts of their country’s empire and, with a quite different orientation, the seminal work during the 1930s and 1940s on economic planning for a post-independent India by the National Planning Committee of the Indian National Congress. It was not until the Marshall Plan that a comprehensive and sustained interest in the study and practice of development emerged as the confluence of fighting poverty, (re)building infrastructure, keeping enemies at bay, and strengthening the institutions of good and democratic government.
As long as money and ideas flowed jointly into the developing world – a hallmark of the post-war multilateral and bilateral aid architecture – the unified understanding of development was one defined in the West and not by the developing world. This was epitomized by the Washington Consensus which crystallized in the late 1980s, with prescriptions for sound policy that might have been coherent on their own terms, yet ignored political and social context.
Inevitably, numerous challenges emerged that critiqued and weakened the tidy (and over-reaching) nostrums of that consensus. These came from within the developing world, from civil society organizations, and from credible institutions such as UNICEF. Just as effective a critique comes from the sustained success of several emerging powers that are less than diligent pupils of the consensus. The recent financial crisis has laid bare the fragility of the economic systems and the capacity of governments in Western countries to manage them. At the same time, the crisis seems to show a new resilience among the emerging powers.
Yet the financial crisis is merely a symptom of a larger crisis of confidence in established ideas. The terminology and language used to describe development is increasingly inadequate to describe the world one sees. The older dichotomies of developed and developing, or North and South, are poorly-suited to a reality where some of the largest and most dynamic economies are also home to the largest numbers of poor people. The nation-state itself is not always the most meaningful unit of analysis. Globalization and emerging powers tie together the fates of many, while the diversity of experiences within borders is often greater than that between flags.
As a result of the current mutability in the field, the time appears right for a new take on development. This approach would recognize the integrative nature of the process of development (across disciplines and values); the increasing accord among scholars and practitioners alike around the constituents of development (if not the weight that might be attached to each); and the existence of a plurality of views on what “works” and what does not, across time and place.
Bruce Currie-Alder, Ravi Kanbur, David Malone, and I have been reflecting on this for some months and are currently in the middle stages of co-editing a book on the subject, to be published by Oxford University Press in 2013. We share three central assumptions regarding development thought that guide our overall approach:
- First, both the generation of ideas of development and their application in practice can be properly understood only within their particular historical, political, and institutional contexts.
- Second, contemporary thinking on development is increasingly generated in a more diverse set of locations, while policymakers are also progressively going beyond the intellectual capitals that loomed large in the past.
- Third, as a consequence, consensus on what constitutes “development” and how to best pursue it may well be a thing of the past.
With over 50 chapters co-authored by eminent academics and practitioners spanning several fields and geographies, we hope to bring to life our core thesis and the progression of thought and practice in a broad range of the dimensions of development.
What a fine way to end my association with IDRC (but also to continue it, in a different capacity). After 20 wonderful years at this organization, I will be moving on to head the Centre for International Governance Innovation. It seems fitting that I devote my last column to a subject that embodies the enduring ethos of IDRC – respecting diversity while establishing rigour, and of progress through knowledge. But in keeping with the opening theme of this post, my take-away about development has been a more personal one. It is of having acquired the value of listening and learning, as Gerry Helleiner terms it in his unpublished memoirs. In the era of impacts and accountability and strategic plans this might seem a quaint belief to hold, but then, development has as many meanings as there are writers.