Development in Words

Asking around what development means, most answers are the same: fight against poverty, equality, food and water for those in need, education, economic growth, human rights or a life ‘free from fear and need’ for everyone. In the international context, development is often confused with assistance and aid, but is this really what development means? Who defines the tiny word that means so much to so many?

Development can’t be seen as one specific moment in history, every society was and still is developing. In the 19th century it was the Industrial Revolution, nowadays, inventions such as the Internet determine our progress. It is hard to define development’s purpose since everyone’s interpretation is different. The general meaning is clear but the word is used in so many different ways and contexts, so that its ideas and results don’t always match. The protection of the environment form pollution, for instance, doesn’t reflect the same ideas than “the pursuit of economic growth that [is] considered a condition for general happiness” (Rist 2007, p.487). In one wayint-dev.jpg the goals are the same and meanwhile they are contradictory. Still, the meaning of words is important for our understanding, our behaviour and our actions. Words create communication, we share ideas, we create communities and through all this we finally have the chance to act and to change something (Chambers 1997).

Often development is seen as sacred, having its origins in the idea of the ‘good’ but this often doesn’t prevent its abuse. Some people say that big development can’t be ‘truly good’, that there’s always an aspect which people ignore, one side that includes negative consequences. [1]

We need to question our approach towards development; self-critically we have to reflect on our actions. Despite our best intentions, failures are part of the process and we need to learn from them. [2] Mostly in the context of international aid, imprudent interventions can have dramatic impacts on people’s lives.

To come back to the definition, whose version finally counts? Concerning the underdeveloped countries, who decides whether our attempt to help is good or bad? And most of all, who decides what the world needs and what development is about? Development is made by people, people who get inspired by different ideas, ideas of someone they admire, someone with a voice, with influence. This influence is mostly related to power and money, shortly, most of the famous development speakers come from the Eastern United States (World Bank, IMF, UNDP) and Europe. [2] But even if those ideas are very profound and well researched, they only reflect one vision of development, which surely is a long way from the real needs of the underdeveloped countries. One aspect of development is to give a voice to those people who are affected directly, who have to say something and it should be our role to listen to them. [2][3]

It is impossible to concentrate the different and partly opposed meanings of Development as a whole in one simple definition. Perhaps we could describe it as a ‘wish for positive change’, might it be in the economic sector through economic growth or the social sector through the purchase of “well-being” (Chambers 1997, p.1743). Development is part of us; it describes our change through time. It’s a word, with which we try to describe the effectiveness of our actions and objectives but in terms of aid, we forget that at the end everyone has to develop and emerge for himself. No one can give development to you; you have to work for it in order for it to be yours.


[1] Rist, Gilbert (2007) ‘Development as a buzzword’, Development in Practice, 17: 4, 485–491

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

[3] Mwenda, Andrew – Aid for Africa ? No thanks. (2007) TEDGlobal [Online] (


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