The Shadow Side of Development, and What You Can Do To Change It

Written by lawyer, Ashlee Uren, this post delves into the colonialist history and unintended consequences of development.

One Fair Day. Ashlee and I have known each other through blogger networks for a couple years, so when I started considering the colonialist implications of international development, I knew she was the specialist I needed to address this complex issue. 

As Ashlee will explain below, the concept of development historically draws upon a distinctly Western concept of progress and, as such, carries with it biases that can negatively affect the communities it purportedly intends to aid. I’m thankful for people like Ashlee, who help lead the rest of us to better, more nuanced perspectives.

Development is a word that we hear often. We rationalise all sorts of actions in its name. But what is behind the name? Are we subconsciously promoting racial inequality, overconsumption and the de-prioritization of the environment when we talk about development?

Maybe, as I recently discovered with a shock.

The concept of ‘development’ is a political construct that preserves a global hierarchy. In terms of alleviating human suffering, development can hinder, not help.

Sitting in my Masters class on Law and Development, I tried to process these words and the implications. The idea challenged the very foundations of many of my beliefs, the things I had accepted without question to be true. And I felt uncomfortable about it.

I had always been a self-proclaimed advocate for development. For almost five years, I’ve been a sustainable lifestyle blogger, primarily on ethical consumption as a means through which to address poverty and inequality.  I’ve worked for an anti-poverty not-for-profit organisation, guided mostly by the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (pre 2015) and the Sustainable Development Goals after that. I’m now a government lawyer, and notice many of the policies that countries pursue are in the name of development, even developed countries. Oh and on that point, for years, I’ve faithfully used the terms ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries instead of ‘First’ and ‘Third’ World in the belief that these ascribed fewer negative images.

Digging a little deeper, I saw that each of the poverty-fighting, rights-promoting roles I’ve ever taken on is premised on the assumption that fighting poverty and ensuring equality is achieved through development – and that we therefore understand development as a positive thing.

What is development?

‘Development’ is understood as a vaguely positive thing, but when you try to home in on its specific meaning, it is elusive. As development researcher and author Wolfgang Sachs has put it, development can mean almost anything – from building skyscrapers to improving sanitation, from drilling for oil to drilling for water, from setting up software industries to setting up tree nurseries. To some, it purely means economic growth, measured in terms of GDP. Others identify ‘development’ with fighting poverty, realising rights and distributing resources to the poor and vulnerable.

As a concept, it is empty, which makes it the perfect vehicle for political objectives, taking on whichever meaning is prescribed to it in different contexts to help achieve that objective.

What type of development?

Today, the term ‘development’ is often synonymous to improving the conditions of countries and people, in particular, fighting poverty. A good example is the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the first two of which are No Poverty and Zero Hunger. Yet, the idea of development encompasses broader transformations – very particular types of transformation. Some of the other goals give us a clue. The eighth and ninth goals, for example (Decent Work and Economic Growth and Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) look suspiciously like a (Western) model of transformation based on economic growth.

In this way, development is measured according to preconceptions originating in the history, standards and customs of Western culture and the condition of becoming ‘developed’ is relative to Western culture, values and standards.

Leah puts it. Perfect political correctness, levels of enlightenment, activist or consumer action – those are impossible goals and I advise you not to try to achieve them.

Start small instead. Small modifications in the way we think and speak, like those suggested above, can make a positive impact. As Gandhi put it, beliefs become thoughts, which become words, which become actions – and small actions taken by lots of people is what ultimately leads to change.

Thank you, Ashlee! Feel free to continue to conversation and ask questions in the comments of this post.

This article draws on a research paper submitting in partial fulfilment of a Masters of Law and Development.


  • Gustavo Esteva, ‘Development’ in Wolfgang Sachs (ed), The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power (Zed Books, 2nd ed, 2010) 6.

  • Luis Eslava, Local Space, Global Life, The Everyday Operation of International Law and Development (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

  • Sundhya Pahuja, Decolonising International Law: Development, Economics and the Politics of Universality (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

  • Harry S Truman, ‘Inaugural address’ (Speech delivered at Washington, 20 January 1949).

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