Why I hate the term “development”.

We throw around many terms in educational circles and spend a great deal of time discussing their value and the implications of their usage. Sometimes it seems like a completely frivolous venture, but other times, a deeper look into the semantics of different terms reveals problems such as oppression, bigotry, racism or bias. One term that has never sat right with me is that of “development”. Here in North America, we talk endlessly about the “developed” world and the contrasting “developing” world and how to set up humanitarian projects to bring about positive democratic development in those least developed countries. Somehow, through development we will save these “poor” people from their “miserable” existences (*please note the sarcasm).

In my eyes, the term “development” differs very little from the colonial usage of terms like “savage” or “uncivilized”. To me, development is just another way of classifying hierarchies of savagery or civilization (or in this case, in terms of the value of production capabilities). We even sometimes like to classify our development schemes into an almost linear hierarchy of different types much as the “civilized” world did in colonial times; the 1st world (The bloc of democratic-industrial countries of North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia) , the 2nd world (The Eastern bloc of communist-socialist industrialist states of the territory and sphere of influence of the USSR), the 3rd world (the rest of the world–  the developing nations) and even a 4th world (nations of indigenous peoples living within or across state boundaries). Although these terms are slowly losing their popularity, instead being replaced by the “developed” and the “developing” world (which is hardly better in my opinion) or other terms, they are still commonly used by many to describe  countries’ material wealth and status in the world, placing each country on an almost linear evolution of “progress”. The term the “developed” world to me, denotes a place that has reached the ultimate level of development, making it somehow superior to those that are still “developing”, as if they were still in their infancy. The developing world just need to be developed to be more like those “superior” countries and they will somehow be saved from the misery??  To me , this echoes the work of the missionaries in Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries who were colonizing the “savages” and saving them from the misery of their own savagery. If only the developing could just get an education like us, they could be so much more civilized and be capable of producing and using endless amounts of material garbage.

Only, the world just doesn’t work that way. It’s not some linear progression of development and the developing world is not on some different branch of development with some common past or future to the developed world. And what will we have them develop into? What is the end desired result of development? Increasing GDP? To what end?

This thinking is severely flawed. It is just as flawed as how  in academic circles we now discuss the term “savage” with racial criticisms, realizing the colonial undertones of “master” and “slave”, “civilized” and “savage”. Those “savages” were somehow otherwise incapable of achieving a “real” life without colonial intervention, as if they didn’t have their own history, culture or systems before the arrival of the white man. At least any semblance of one that Europeans or North Americans can understand.  And so do we now see the “developing” world, somehow helpless without our development assistance and not able to stand on their own; erasing the fact that those in the west are helping to create some of their ongoing problems.

We often times don’t understand other ways of life, other cultures, other rituals and so we get lost into judgment based upon the only thing we really seem to value in North America– material goods and money. And that’s where “development” comes in for me. Development projects give us a way to scale countries, weighing their value against each other and encouraging them to try to get a better score to get more assistance, so that they can turn into market economies we can sell crap to. We often see an end result of development that more closely resembles our own because its easier to understand those “poor, underdeveloped” people if we can relate to them on our terms, “developing” them to our standard.

There is no blanket development out there that is going to bring the world into an equal state. There is also no “saving” that needs to be done. We will not save the world. There is nothing wrong with offering a helping hand to one who is drowning, but when that helping hand leads you out of the water and directly into a fire– it’s not helping anyone. There is also no need to rescue someone that has the capability to save themselves. They may just be splashing in the water trying to learn to swim, and rescue just pulls them out of the water, preventing them from actually learning to swim.

In fact, the level of “development”  in the so-called “developed” world is helping to create and ensure the problems in the “developing” world continue. It is our need for stuff. Tons and tons of material objects and services that fulfill our lives in some way, but all require natural resources and cheap labour to manufacture or produce. To me, “development” seems to come down to a giant production machine, with new colonial-esque masters of corporation raking in record profits. Development ensures we all follow the path of money and that money is the main human value to be judged upon.

The international financial institutions and other major development organizations seek to control those countries they want resources from. The new “colonizers” are coming from a much more varied background than the previous kingdoms or nations; but the control aspect is much the same. A resource has been claimed and the colonizers want to continue extracting it for as long as possible. To continue to do this they must keep the country in a stage of certain corruption. Debt is owed, and essentially being paid out through exploitation of resources (including human labour) through contracts and political manipulations and corporate expansions. Deals are made and people come last.

The “developed” need the developing world to stay underdeveloped to continue their lifestyle . The majority of development seems for the most part  to focus on economic and political projects that rely on the “trickle-down” of wealth and completely ignore well-being or more important human values. These projects are not looking to alleviate the suffering of the poor. They are looking to control them. They are not looking to bring wealth or prosperity or a better way of life to the poor. They are ensuring that some get richer and gain more control, while others continue to struggle so that they can continue to exploit them and their resources.

Our development here in North America is flawed and needs correction as much as any developing nation. We need new terms and new ideas, because development is not working in the best interest of people. We need to change systems. We need to change our ideas to reflect values that are most important on the global scale and create better systems that respect these values. We need to realize that other ways of life are just as good as ours and that material possessions or production capability alone do not equal human value.

And that’s just the start of why I hate the term development and all that it implies…

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  1. Thanks for this. These are some of the issues I’ve also been trying to grapple with. We don’t seem to have any other words to use. Perhaps the solution is seeing the world in a totally different way, not split into developed and developing? I also agree with you that the one road-all-must-travel model is unrealistic and is merely attempting to snare other cultures into the grasp of the new colonialists.

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