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Defining development


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Dictionary of development

By Sharmila Joshi

How did some parts of the world get categorised as 'developed', and others as 'developing' or 'underdeveloped'?

How did some parts of the world get categorised as ‘developed’, and others as ‘developing’ or ‘underdeveloped’? Such terminology did not exist, at least not in frequent global currency, until some 50 years ago. High levels of global inequality—long set in motion by imperialism and colonialism—became a matter of global debate after World War II, decolonisation, emerging American hegemony and the setting up of the Bretton Woods institutions. (See ‘The Development Project’).

The day US President Truman took office, January 29, 1949 , metaphorically opened the ‘era of development’. He talked of working for the “growth of underdeveloped areas” of the world. “Never before had a word been universally accepted on the very day of its political coinage….” Gustavo Esteva, economist, journalist and political activist, writes in an essay on development. “Underdevelopment….began on January 29, 1949 . On that day, 2 billion people became underdeveloped.”

The word had been used earlier in global meetings. Wilfred Benson, a former member of the Secretariat of the International Labour Organisation, had referred to the “underdeveloped areas” in 1942. Others in the emerging post-war global order had talked of “economically backward areas” and the gap between rich and poor nations. But Truman’s pronouncement made ‘developmentalism’, to use a term from Richard Peet, political geographer, the dominant ‘ism’ for decades.

Many post-developmentalists such as Esteva question the terms of the development discourse. The claim is not that gross global inequalities do not exist—indeed it is argued that levels of inequality are growing and are in part the outcome of centuries of colonialism. Instead, the argument stresses that American imperialism was itself manifest in the terminology that emanated from its shores after the war, which thenceforth became the basis for chopping and categorising the world according to its ranking on the development ladder. The very notion of ‘development’ (see ‘Theories of Development’) was derived from the West and mainly referred to economic growth.

The institutional pillars of the post-war world—the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (now the WTO) and the United Nations—with charters observed by many as closely replicating American geopolitical and economic interests in the Cold War years -- soon set forth a torrent of quantification. Countries began to get classified as high-income economies (developed), middle-income economies (developing) and low-income economies (underdeveloped).

Simultaneously, terms such as First, Second and Third Worlds began to be used. Originally, these were political categories: the First World was the Western capitalist nations, the Second World was the socialist states under the umbrella of the USSR and the Third World implied ‘positive neutralism’ in the context of the Cold War. “However,” Alan Thomas, development academician writes, “well before the collapse of…the Soviet Union , the main connotation of the term Third World had become ‘underdeveloped’ or simply ‘poor’.” The Third World became a geographically discontinuous region covering a disparate group of countries. Similarly, terms such as ‘North’ and ‘South’, originally hemispheric, became synonymous with the ‘developed’ and the ‘developing/underdeveloped’ world or with the First and Third Worlds.

How was this world to be defined? By what measures would a country fall in the dreaded underdeveloped category? Defining ‘development’ has never been easy, even when development is viewed in purely economic terms. Esteva says it is like an amoeba, constantly changing shape. The busy post-war Bretton Woods institutions themselves were never sure on what basis they could assume to classify the world. (See box: ‘A brief history of development’)

Thomas narrows down these multiple measures to five aspects of development, which may be used separately or in combination to attempt to define the ‘ Third World ’:

(i) Independence from colonial rule and recognition as an independent state by other countries and the UN. (ii) GNP is the most common method of attempting to rank countries according to economic well-being. However GNP does not indicate development status: it is an average and does not indicate inequalities within a country. The World Bank has also used exports and external debts as indicators of development (iii) Industrialisation : Implies an increase in GDP and a transformation in production methods (such as even industrialised agriculture), which also implies social and cultural changes. (iv) National and global integration : Or how countries are linked to the global economy and how they are internally economically structured. Countries of North America and Western Europe supposedly have modern, integrated economies; the others don’t. (v) Social indicators of development : Such as health, literacy, status of women, access to clean water. Included here is the PQLI (the Physical Quality of Life Index), which measures life expectancy, infant mortality and adultliteracy. As well as the UNDP’s Human Development Index as a composite indicator combining economic and social welfare . HDI gives equal weight to longevity, education, and utility derived from income. Yet another index of development is rights and freedoms -- right to life, to security, freedom of thought, of expression, of religion. According to this index, countries can be classified as most free or least free

These measures, as well as the very idea of ‘development’, have been frequently challenged from the beginning of the ‘era of development’. As Peet writes, “Developmentalism is a battleground.” Environmentalists, feminists, Marxists, combinations of these movements and others, have questioned what such quantification—and the proliferating attendant ‘development’ policies and budgetary allocation, which severely alter millions of lives—have achieved. Why has the world become more unequal half a century of ‘development’ later?


A brief history of development

1950s: Initially, development, viewed as only economic growth, was a goal implied in the United Nations Charter of 1947. The 1952 UN Report on the World Social Situation concentrated on "existing social conditions", not on programmes to deal with them. The overriding concern was with economic quantifiers: industrialisation and GNP dominated the 1950s.

1960s: The expression ‘social development’ was introduced in UN Reports. The social and the economic were seen as distinct categories, not as interrelated. In 1962, the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC) recommended an integration of both aspects of development. That same year, the Proposals for Action of the First UN Development Decade (1960-70) emphasised that "development is growth plus (social, cultural and economic) change”. In 1963, the UN Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) was formed, recognising the need for harmonising economic and social planning. In spite of this change in orientation, throughout the first UN Development Decade, development continued to be thought of as economic growth. passing through different stages. By the end of the 1960s, with continuing inequalities, the ‘experts’ acknowledged that changes were necessary in their thinking about ‘development’.

1970s: A generalised revolt against the straitjacket of economic definitions of development. The World Bank (and its then president Robert McNamara) asserted that a high rate of growth did not mean satisfactory progress in development in the First Decade (1960-70) and the 1970s should move beyond economic indicators: this was the "dethronement of GNP".

The International Development Strategy of October 1970 called for a global strategy; another UN resolution called for a unified approach to development and planning to fully integrate social and economic aspects. ‘Social equity’, ‘human potential’, ‘all sections of the population’, ‘structural change’, were keywords. It called for cross-sectoral integration and ‘participatory development’. This approach did not succeed, but its ideas animated debate in the following decades. Further declarations followed: the 1974 declaration of Cocoyoc, which emphasised diversity and different roads to development. The 1975 call (by the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation), which called for “another development”.

In 1976, the Conference on Employment, Income Distribution and Social Progress, organised by the ILO, came up with the Basic Needs Approach: aiming at the achievement of a certain specific minimum standard of living before the end of the century. UNESCO also insisted on integrated development as a total, multi-relational process that includes all aspects of life. UNESCO promoted the concept of endogenous development, which rejected the necessity, or possibility of mechanically imitating industrial societies. However, the impossibility of imposing even this single model on the world would actually lead to the dissolution of the very idea of development, and this concept did not go far.

1980s : Have been called the lost decade for development. Global economic changes, and adjustment processes (liberalisation) meant little ‘progress’ according to the dominant terms.

1990s: Gave rise to a new development ethos. This included concepts such as re-development: to re-develop what was mal-developed or is obsolete. In the US , for example: outdated nuclear plants, steel production, polluting factories, poisonous pesticides and how they may be dismantled or substituted. This re-development in the North has direct links to the South: factories relocating, outsourcing, informalisation of labour.

Another idea growing since the 1990s has been sustainable development: this can be looked at as either a strategy for sustaining ‘development’ itself or for sustaining the environment; not doing development at great costs to the earth.

The UNDP devised in 1990 a Human Development Index as a composite indicator combining economic and social welfare. The measures of the HDI are related to a specific argument about development: to start not from production but human needs. The questions to ask about a country's development, according to this view, are not about its economic or productivity growth but what has been happening to its poverty, its unemployment, its inequality If all three have declined, there indeed has been development. Here, political institutions play an important interventionist role: political controls must be available to correct inequities sooner rather than later.

The 1990s have seen the UNDP's Human Development Reports which measure levels of achievement through an "internationally comparative level of deprivation". This determines how far from the most successful national case are the other countries.

InfoChange News & Features, January 2005