Unit One – Defining and Measuring Development

This Unit has been transformative for me in the way that I think about development. I was very surprised at the seeming optimism of defining development in a single week, but the biggest single thing I have taken from the reading and discussion is that there simply isn’t a single definition for development, and nor should there be. Ultimately I have come to agree with Alan Thomas’ claim that development is “…an inherently ambiguous concept.” (2000)

Taking the nerve-wracking step of laying out my opinions on development before doing any of the reading or listening to the lecture turned out to be a very good move, as it has allowed me to reflect on my opinions as they stood before they were influenced by the compelling arguments I have found in the reading and my colleague’s posts.  It has also allowed me to identify which of the themes and categories my ‘theory’ fell under without even realizing it.

For me the most striking part of our responses was that they seemed to fall into one of two categories. Some (like mine) focussed in closely on the kind of day-to-day ‘development’ projects that involve personal interaction with communities. I later realised that I was looking at only one aspect of development; the ‘deliberate efforts’ described by Thomas (2000, 29), while failing to consider development as a ‘vision’ or an ‘historical process’. In my case that is not surprising; I have not worked in the development sector for long, and prior to that my main exposure to development was through voluntary projects typified by the kind of direct action that appears in my discussion post. My visualization focussed on what I had already experienced, and so looked at work with individuals and small communities and responding to their needs. The downside of this was that it had a tendency towards short and near-sightedness when compared to other discussions posts with a much wider view, which considered the broader themes of development, their aims and long term aspirations. I hope that as this module continues I will be able to combine my previous practical experience with the more theoretical approach that I am more used to applying to different subjects of study. However I also feel that the more direct feel of my post does have advantages; what good is a theory if it doesn’t have any practical application (in this area of theory in any case!)

It quickly became apparent that the range of responses was a clear piece of evidence in favour of the statement by Sumner and Tribe (2008, 88-89) on the cross-disciplinary nature of Development Studies. All of us had clearly brought our own agendas and assumptions to the discussion. If this kind of range of responses is evident in an academic discussion, it becomes all the more vital to recognise the existence of agendas in cross disciplinary theoretical discussion, where an academic will have trained him or herself to view all evidence presented in a very set manner. However, I would go one step further than the kind of ‘assumptions’ that Sumner and Tribe refer to. More than just the differences between disciplines, I would argue that the differences in assumptions between individuals in a personal and cultural setting must have just as great an influence on the theories and definitions that one produces. As students we can be grouped by our clear interest in the subject of development, yet we have arrived at this interest from a radically diverse range of cultures and sets of personal circumstances. I feel sure that if we were to try to collate all of our responses into a single definition (even a lengthy one), we would struggle and ultimately fail to do so.

However, this is not a bad thing in my opinion, as long as it is recognised. The constant self-inspection and criticism that this realization should prompt should prevent overconfidence and the automatic assumption of the role of ‘Trustee’ (ibid Thomas, 41). This idea of trusteeship concerned me greatly, especially when I considered the extent to which I had previously assumed that this was a valid position to take without ever really thinking about what right I had to do so, or whether I (or anyone else) was in any way a suitable candidate for the role. More than anything else, this is the insight that I will take away from this unit; how can I, with my cultural and personal background, possibly assume that I can adequately advocate for anyone else, let alone someone whose culture and upbringing differs significantly from my own.

For this reason, my strongest reaction this week was towards Andrea Cornwall’s article ‘Buzzwords and Fuzzwords’ (2007). Her argument – that by using broad, malleable buzzwords one can justify a huge range of actions – is deeply worrying. What I took from her article was the idea that one’s actions can stay “beyond reproach” (ibid, 472) simply by allowing those who would critically analyse them – including ourselves – not to think about the meanings behind the labels. It seems an awful kind of evasion to abdicate responsibility for scrutiny on the basis that it isn’t possible for two people to ever come to the same understanding of a term, rather than it being an inspiration to delve further into the meaning. My concern is that despite this abdication being a deeply flawed position, it is one that is far too easy to take without necessarily realizing that one is doing so, and I hope that this is a trap I will not continue to fall into. As such, my opinion on the question Cornwall initially posits “Why, after all, should language matter to those who are doing development?” (ibid, 471) is, on a personal level at least, that scrutiny of language is a vital process of self-examination on many levels!

In this context I was initially suspicious of The ODI Briefing Paper (Nov 2001) as ‘valuable human ends’ seemed dangerously close to a new direction in buzzwords. However, as the article progressed I was reassured that in fact Sen’s intention was to disambiguate ‘development’ as a term. Despite adding new dimensions to its meaning, the attention paid to the rights of the individual, as an individual, was refreshing to read after a week in which economic growth seemed to be the dominant focus in nearly all aspects of development theory. I look forward in the coming weeks to exploring this further!


Cornwall, A. (2007), ‘Buzzwords and fuzzwords: deconstructing development discourse’. Development in Practice, 17(4): 471 – 485.

Greig, A., Hulme, D. and Turner, M. (2007), Challenging global inequality: Development theory and practice in the 21st century. Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan.

ODI (2001), ‘Economic Theory, Freedom and Human Rights: The Work of Amartya Sen’, ODI Briefing Paper, November, Overseas Development Institute.

Sumner, A. and Tribe, M. (2008), Chapter 4, International Development Studies: Theories and Methods of Research and Practice, London: Sage.

Thomas, A. (2000), ‘Meanings and Views of Development’, in Poverty and Development into the 21st century, Allen, T., Thomas, A (eds), Oxford University Press, Oxford.