Development is a word used constantly, and thus has the potential to become a word that is often misused. This is perhaps due to the fact that there is no clear definition, no “global concept of development valid for all regions and all cultures”(Emmerij, 2007)that may be used as a guideline to development actors.

A key reason for this is how much the word relies on perspective – whether it is that of news outlets, local governments, NGOs, the recipients of aid… all might see development entirely differently, making a definition of development seemingly impossible to come to. However, if this is so, at least a group of core ideals of development must be realised globally, many have noted. Efforts such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals attempt this, but conflicting views and overriding voices can alter the original good intent of a collective, broadly applicable set of guidelines. To combat this, “there certainly must be common elements in development theory and practice, but with polices around this adapted to different needs.”(Emmerij,  2007)

The UN's Sustainable Development Goals, 2015
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, 2015

Other reasons for which a universal definition of development is difficult to agree on are the tools used to measure development. The standards that are used to see a country or town or culture as ‘developed’ too often comes from Westernised principles of what economic and social development should be, with little regard for the desires of the people themselves. They fail to see the real object of development – the goal of bettering people’s lives, and doing so in a way that leaves them with dignity (an objective that many see as fundamental), choice and a sustainable future for themselves. Development is change – “good change”, as Robert Chambers describes it (1997), and it needs to be in aid of what is truly desired by those affected, and not what is envisioned by a single mindset. Traditional indicators of development when looked at individually do not truly show a country or town’s situation. One could not, for example, look at the percentage of people involved in the agricultural sector of an economy  as a development indicator without first understanding (for example) what drives a country’s education, or certain groups’ land and work inheritance traditions. This means that presuming the needs of those who NGOs or external governments aim to ‘develop’ becomes dangerous, as often there is a risk of personal agendas becoming involved, in the side of development that some describe as an ‘industry’; the true needs of the public are overlooked.

A global definition of development becomes ever more difficult upon the premise that much of the time, visions of development conflict; the object of development is often hard to understand when the discussion around it overwhelms the very purpose, as Raghuram notes: “the struggle for change has not been commensurate with the theoretical understanding that is available”(Palgrave Journals, 2007). With this in mind, as Rist also argues, the most important thing is really that the definition of development comes through “…actual social practices, rather than wishful thinking.”(Rist, 2007) A solidified, consistent core meaning of development is not yet genuinely established worldwide, but it is necessary if we are to cooperatively achieve the goals that are set out over and over again. Environmental, agricultural, technological, political and economic development are all intertwined. To help one of these, or instead to help one group of people or one region, the entire picture must be looked at, and development should be, in its purest sense, defined as the aim of letting people progress in a way that gives everyone a fair chance.


Chambers, R. (1997) Responsible Well-Being – A Personal Agenda for DevelopmentElsevier Science Ltd.

Rist, G. (2007) ‘Development as a buzzword’, Deconstructing Development Buzzwords, Practical Action Publishing

Palgrave Macmillan Journals – Development (2007), Reflections on 50 Years of Development. Available at: (Accessed 29/10/15)

(Image) UN Tribune (31/08/15), Understanding the Sustainable Development Goals: Five Key Questions. Available at:


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