Skip to main content


2.1 What is development?

What do you understand by the term 'development'? List the words or phrases that you associate with the term.

You might have listed some of the following words: change, consumption, economic development, economic growth, education, entitlements, equality, equity, freedom, gender equity, goals, good governance, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), health, human development, human rights, income, justice, livelihoods, Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), participation, peace, positive change, poverty reduction, process of change, production, progress, reducing vulnerability, responsibilities, self-determination, social development, social inclusion, sustainability, targets, wealth.

Write a definition of 'development'.

Development - a political term

A multitude of meanings is attached to the idea of development; the term is complex, contested, ambiguous, and elusive. However, in the simplest terms, development can be defined as bringing about social change that allows people to achieve their human potential. An important point to emphasise is that development is a political term: it has a range of meanings that depend on the context in which the term is used, and it may also be used to reflect and to justify a variety of different agendas held by different people or organisations. The idea of development articulated by the World Bank, for instance, is very different from that promoted by Greenpeace activists. This point has important implications for the task of understanding sustainable development, because much of the confusion about the meaning of the term 'sustainable development' arises because people hold very different ideas about the meaning of 'development' (Adams 2009). Another important point is that development is a process rather than an outcome: it is dynamic in that it involves a change from one state or condition to another. Ideally, such a change is a positive one - an improvement of some sort (for instance, an improvement in maternal health). Furthermore, development is often regarded as something that is done by one group (such as a development agency) to another (such as rural farmers in a developing country). Again, this demonstrates that development is a political process, because it raises questions about who has the power to do what to whom.

Development transforms the environment

But development is not simply about the interactions between human groups; it also involves the natural environment. So, from another point of view, development is about the conversion of natural resources into cultural resources. This conversion has taken place throughout the history of human societies, although the process has generally increased in pace and complexity with time. If we use a system diagram to illustrate - in very general terms - what an economy does, we see that the basic function of an economy is to convert natural resources (in the forms of raw materials and energy) into products and services that are useful to humans (see 2.1.1). Inevitably, because conversion processes are never totally efficient, some waste is produced which is usually discarded into the environment as various forms of pollution. Therefore, the environment is both a source and a sink in relation to economic processes: it is a source of raw materials and energy and a sink for pollution.

2.1.1 A representation of a generalised economy

Source: unit author

Resources, energy, and waste

An example of this type of conversion would be the extraction of crude oil from the North Sea, its fractionation and distillation in oil refineries, and its conversion to petroleum or diesel. In turn, those products (petrol and diesel) are converted - through combustion processes - into useful work (such as transportation) whilst the waste products are released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide). If we add together all of the conversion processes that occur, for instance, in a given country, we would have a sense of the total input and output of that national economy. This could be expressed in terms of the total natural resources and energy consumed, the total products and services created and the total pollution generated. (In fact, the total value of the finished products and services created in a given country is expressed using a widely-used measure, the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP.) If we wanted to increase the creation of products and services, in a given economy, we would require more natural resources and energy, and we would also generate more pollution as a by-product.

Economic growth

From this point of view, development means an increase in the size or pace of the economy such that more products and services are produced. Conventionally, a common assumption has been that, if an economy generates more products and services, then humans will enjoy a higher standard of living. The aim of many conventional approaches to development has been to increase the size of the economy (economic growth) in order to increase the output of products and services. Of course, without any change in the fundamental economic processes involved, the production of more products and services will inevitably require more raw materials and energy, and will generate more waste. In a system diagram (see 2.1.2), this would simply be represented by greater flows of materials and energy through the central box, the economy.

2.1.2 A representation of economic growth

Source: unit author