Unpacking the trajectory of ‘development’ in SDGs

This blog post attempts to trace the evolving conception of ‘development and suggests that its intersectional understanding is a necessary requisite for it to evolve holistically.

The idea of development has undergone several changes over the years, as it has evolved from a linearly understood synonym for ‘economic growth’ (and later, social growth/basic needs), to a dual definition of socioeconomic growth, to a multiple definition concept that encompassed human development as well, to finally, a multidimensional concept that includes political and environmental factors, as well as socio-economic and gender-based factors.

Till the early 20th CE, the terms ‘growth’ and ‘development’ were used interchangeably to mark the ‘development’ that colonization had bestowed upon its colonies- the birth of development was a tool to project the colonized people as ‘underdeveloped’, thereby creating a rather binary that profited the colonies for the centuries to come. This binary continues to form our rather reductionist imagination between ‘developing’ countries and those which are ‘developed’, the parameters of defining which are still held by the West. That, however, is an argument that must be explored further in the context of subaltern studies.

After attaining independence from the colonizers, the erstwhile colonized countries were now expected to mimic the ‘development’ and ‘growth’ of the colonizers- development was thus largely synonymous with economic growth during this time period. The work of W. Arthur Lewis (The Theory of Economic Growth) and Paul Baran supplement this understanding of the late 1950s, with growth or development being defined as an increase in the per capita production of material goods. The cost of such an understanding of development can be understood if one flips throw Rostow’s Stages of Economic Growth– a traditional society had to be broken up and converted into a mass consumption entity for development to be possible.

Even the post-war thinking on development was largely restricted to a rather state-centric and utilitarian understanding of development, with ‘backwardness’ still topping the list of the problems that capped ‘development’ (what ‘backwardness’ implied is only but obvious from texts of the colonial time period). This phase of understanding development thus saw a reinvigorated effort of linking it with (a) state planning, (b) international aid, and (c) economic growth.

The conceptualization of ‘social development’ was first introduced in the UN’s World Social Situation Report in 1952, where it treated economic factors as separate from social factors. This was accelerated by the formation of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), which in its own words was “established in 1963 as an autonomous space within the UN system for the conduct of policy-relevant, cutting-edge research on social development that is pertinent to the work of the United Nations Secretariat; regional commissions and specialized agencies; and national institutions.”[1] The UNECOSC’s insistence that social development had to be seen as integrated with economic development was also reflected in the ‘Proposal for Action of the First UN Development Decade (1960-70)’, where it created a demarcation between ‘growth’ and ‘development’- “development is growth plus change. Change, in turn, is social and cultural as well as economic, and qualitative as well as quantitative…. The key concept must be improved quality of people’s life.”

This impact that development had on people’s lives had to be taken into account not only to account for the sacrifices that were implied with this flavour of ‘economic development but also in light of the evidence that everyone could witness, making it clear that the notion of ‘development’ had to change. This was backed by the World Bank’s president himself in 1970 when Robert McNamara expressed that a high growth rate did not necessarily bring about a furthering of development.

1970 saw the formulation of a global strategy based on a ‘unified approach to development and planning, which would fully integrate economic and social components in the making of policies. Efforts to be inclusive, bring about structural changes in favour of national development, bring about social equity and work on the development of human potentials were encapsulated in the four main points of this approach. This participative model was ill-executed and saw widespread backlash, however, it did lay the ground for the building blocks of the development debate of the next phase. This phase saw ‘major problems’ of environment, population, hunger and employment taking centre stage periodically.

A major change in the debate could be observed in 1974, when the Declaration of Cocoyoc challenges the purpose of development- the development of man, not things, should be emphasized upon, and hence, any process of growth that did not facilitate the fulfilment of basic needs (or disrupted it) was an impediment in the path of development. This was in tune with Johan Galtung’s idea of ‘development of people’, which was further worked upon by the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, which suggested ‘another development that was centred around human development.

It was in 1976 that a major shift could be observed, which can be traced to the ILO’s Basic Needs Approach, which aimed to provide a defined minimum standard of living to all human beings. In such a scenario, development could no longer be a process, out of which the auxiliary products may be the eradication of hunger, poverty etc.- it had to be reimagined as a direct route to achieving these goals. This, alongside UNESCO’s concept of Endogenous Development, rejected previously held mechanical models of development (such as Rostow’s), and welcome a particularization of region-specific development. Not only was this approach based on structural transformation, but it was also need-oriented and conscious of the ecological impact of development. Reports such as ‘What Now: Another Development’ and ‘Another Development: Approaches and Strategies’ raised important questions that continue to hold importance today, and mark the basis demanding a reconceptualization of development- development of what, how, by whom and for whom?

The 1980s have been described as ‘the lost decade of development, which is reflective of the invisibilization of the progress being made in Asia. Conversations of a ‘post-development era’ were in the making in the Global North. Simultaneously, the Global South sought to redefine the frameworks with which it had been cast within, by engaging with Dependency Theories, which conceptualized development and underdevelopment as two sides of the same coin, thus making the colonizers accountable for the cost that they had ‘developed’ on. The conversation on the ‘right to development was initiated in 1981 in the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, and was eventually enshrined in the ‘Declaration on the Right to Development by the UNGA in 1986 as a ‘group right’. Article 1.1 of the Declaration states that “The right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized.”

This set the stage for the introduction to the concept of ‘sustainable development, which was introduced in the Brundtland Commission Report, Our Common Future. This ‘green redevelopment’ was defined in the report as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This was encompassed in the Millennium Development Goals, and eventually, the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, which covers health, poverty, education, gender, WASH, energy, decent work etc., to create a multidimensional understanding of development.

Considering the rather drastic twists that the conceptualization of development has undergone over the years, for it to be now to be reimagined within an intersectional framework that places identity-based realities in the centre is not an impossibility- if anything, such a jump in the expected next step in its trajectory.

The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power. Edited by Wolfgang Sachs


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