A quick reflection on the term development -as far as a society is concerned- one can be tempted to focus on common variables such as wealth, infrastructure, industrialization, and the ‘growth rates’. Well, these variables add one meaning or the other to the word development.

However, they are unable to encompass the representation of the dynamic nature, on which development as a concept is based. This constitutes a reason why, till this day the meaning of development is still been debated.

All that is left to hold on to, are the widely accepted themes, formulae, and models of development.

Historical View

Historically, the term development was referred to mainly in the economic context. This line of thinking dates back as far as the 17th century when some scholars in England tried to estimate the national accounts, using the state tax information.

In the 18th century, Adam Smith stressed the importance of the economy in the process of development, in his book ‘the theory of national wealth’. In the 19th century, ideas of neoclassical economics were dominant in national development thinking.

Then in the 1930’s, American economist, Simon Kuznets developed a set of national income accounts. This led to the introduction of the Gross National Product (GNP) as a standard of measuring economic growth.

However, limiting the definition of development to economic growth alone, was full of shortcomings.

Economic indicators such as GNP, do not tell how resources and income are being allocated. They give no indication about social justice and well-being.

This was particularly evident in Africa. In the 60s and 70s, after most African countries gained independence, many experienced a huge economic boom. Resulting from the discovery of natural resources such as oil, solid minerals and enormous agricultural productions.

Unfortunately, this high level of economic growth was accompanied by widespread inequality, leading to high rate of poverty, unemployment, malnutrition, poor standard of living and even conflicts.

This situation led the famous 20th-century British economist, Dudley Seers to question the existing definition of development as a whole. According to him, the purpose of development should be to reduce poverty, inequality, and unemployment.

Evolution in Development Thinking

The shortcomings observed, by confining the meaning of national development to economic growth, led to an evolution in development thinking.

This involved a departure from an economic growth-based concept, to a multidimensional human development concept. Heralding a new era of definitions, connotations, and concepts as regards the meaning of development.

Just as peoples’ way of thinking varies, different people view the term development from different perspectives.

However, most scholars agree that development results in ‘improved quality of life’ within a society. A departure from the narrow definition of development simply as the process of economic growth.

This requires the inclusion of both economic and non-economic criteria and concepts that ensure human well-being.

Some scholars, viewed development from a social perspective, as growth with equality. Development has a political perspective too, which according to some scholars should encompass freedom of action and expression, enabling people to have a wider choice. Others simply focused on technological advancement as a significant criterion.

According to the famous Indian economist, Amartya Sen, ‘development involves reducing deprivation or broadening choice.’

Environmentalists have also sought to add the concept of the environment into the definition of development. This is because all human activities are within the environment. They have impacts on the environment and also the environment help ensure the sustainability of the whole process.

However, due to the non-existence of a universally accepted theory of development. Definitions by different scholars have been criticized by others as either insufficient or completely missing the points.

In the words of the British human geographer, Ron Johnston and his fellow researchers: “Development is historical, diverse, complex and contradictory. It is the central feature of the human condition. To reduce it to a number of social characteristics and their interactions is to trivialize the experience of real societies and the struggle of their people to make a living”.

This further illustrates how dynamic in scope, the concept of development is.

Capturing the Major Components

In coming up with a formidable definition of development, one has to capture the major components of human development. This includes social, economic and political processes.

Therefore development can be said to be a multidimensional process. It involves major changes in social, economic and political structures. Through strong national institutions, social justice, eradication of poverty, guaranteed freedom, advancement in science and technology, and environmental management. All intended toward human well-being and improved quality of life.

Nevertheless, development must be viewed as a process that is none stop. This process occurs in a sequence of time, as a society moves from one stage to another. Therefore no society can be said to have achieved absolute development.


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