What is Development – And why does it matter?

What is Development – And why does it matter?

I am teaching a course during the summer term, which I have titled “Understanding development,” a class I developed over the past year or so. This is my second time teaching it and during each class, I try to challenge students about a conception of “development” they have, whether it is local or global.

            Earlier this week, we discussed some of the theoretical aspects of how we got to where we are, in terms of the language of development. Is Japan, a country steeped in religious practices – in public places a “modern” country? Is it developed? What about Qatar or Saudi Arabia? Each of the latter has a prominent role for religion in the public sphere, and if one were to equate “modernity” with “developed” then there may be some room for debate about where we would place each of the countries, on this continuum.

            As the World Bank acknowledged a few years ago, these terms are not very accurate. The IMF points out that “this classification is not based on strict criteria, economic or otherwise” and that it’s done in order to “facilitate analysis by providing a reasonably meaningful method of organizing data.” There is also the UNDP’s grouping of “Very High” “High” “Medium” and “low” levels of development. The criterion they use is slightly more comprehensive that includes income, education and health. These criteria were and still key to measuring to what extent people living in a country can “develop” themselves across all areas of life – not just economically. And also, there needs to be some accounting for the amount of inequality that exists in each country.

            Hans Rosling, famously fought against the term “developing world,” and “developed world,” as these were just labels that did not conform with reality. See his TED talk here. He argues that the gaps between the developed and developing world are narrowing each passing year and this language may actually bias us against a whole list of countries, without taking into account the disparities within the “developed countries”. Consider that in a county like Ventura in California, the income gaps between two zip codes can be as wide as those between the richest and poorest people in many parts of the “developing world.” This also translates into the kind of opportunities kids and young people have, in these places.

            Language and use of words shape our reality, so is it about time we stop using these terms and instead switch to the terms used by UNDP, which may be a bit less biased? What do you think?


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