The Downside of Development

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The Downside of Development

Today’s post on the downside of development was written by Ashlee Uren, an international trade and environmental lawyer based in Australia.

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.

women sitting on the sidewalk - The Downside of Development
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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.

The political history of development

Using and understanding ‘development’ in this way emerged relatively recently.  Historically, the term was used primarily in a biological sense to describe the growth of living organisms. We talked about ‘development’ of plants and animals, not humans and societies.

From 1759 to 1859, scientists like Wolff and Darwin started to use ‘development’ and ‘evolution’ interchangeably. By the late 1800s the term had started to make the transition from the biological to the social spheres.

But it wasn’t until 1949 when the usage of the term in a social sphere took off. On 20 January 1949, in his inaugural address, that former President of the United States Harry S. Truman delivered his Four Point Plan, outlining US foreign policy.

Truman’s fourth point was to make ‘the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. In this statement, were the invention of underdevelopment and the underscoring of growth, scientific advances and industrial progress as the path by which one escapes underdevelopment.

Underdevelopment was established as something highly undesirable, characterised amongst other things, by economic life that is ‘primitive and stagnant’.

Here, we see that even if we understand development to be about fighting poverty and realising rights, at the political level, development is inextricably linked to economics. The goal of development is usually growth and not equity. 

Unfortunately for conscious consumers, the goal of modernity and economic growth is traditionally achieved through the cycle of industrialisation, mass production and high mass consumption – bad for the environment and sometimes bad for the producers.

We also see that the political foundations of development established a clear vertical hierarchy in the march towards modernity, with the Global North at the top and with developing states below.

When Truman took the term ‘development’, historically used primarily in a biological context, and applied it to economic and social life, he linked the term to a Darwinist concept of evolution. Thus, Truman separated nation-states and their citizens into categories of superior and inferior, advanced and at a lower stage of unilinear evolution.

The political context is highly relevant here. It was after the Second World War and the status of many Western nations’ colonies was uncertain. Tensions were emerging between the capitalist free world and the Soviet Union and its bloc. Dividing the world into ‘us and them’ was at the top of many agendas.

Thus, Truman converted Western history into a ‘universal history’, or a template for achieving a necessary and inevitable destiny of becoming developed with being ‘developed’ the desirable yet unattainable goal.

close up of globe - The Downside of Development
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Myth-busting ‘development’

We cannot un-write the history of development and its ongoing implications for the way the term is understood today and used to justify all sorts of economic interventions and social projects – both helpful and not so helpful.

We can, however make changes in the way we think and speak about development. Here are some suggestions for how to start:

  • Use the terms ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ rather than ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ so you aren’t implicitly reinforcing ideas that some people are above others.
  • Support projects that involve people in writing their own ‘development’ goals and pathways – rather than following a pre-determined (Western) template of what it means to be ‘developed’ and how to get there.
  • Question projects that are justified on the basis of ‘development’, both in the Global South and Global North (Dakota Access Pipeline and Adani coal mine project, I’m looking at you). If they look like they are bad news for the environment and for people, then they probably are – and no amount of economic development can remedy that.
  • Our preoccupation with possessions is learned from years of being told that the economy is king and owning ‘things’ is the hallmark of being ‘developed’ (and therefore above others). Helped along by a multi-trillion dollar marketing industry, our belief that we must develop or evolve to an ever-more perfect state cannot help our consumer habits. But this can be unlearned. Question your need to buy more stuff! Shop your wardrobe, appreciate what you have, wait 30 days before making a purchase. Slow down.

Lastly, remember it is hard to undo decades of political and cultural adaptation, so avoid being too preoccupied with being an ‘ethical purist’, as 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.

More in Social Justice


  • 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).

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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