As a concept, development is from the outset distinctively Western, inspired above all by the industrial revolution. It usually refers to the positive transformation that all countries should aspire to. This may concern economic growth, improving education, democratisation, or environmental protection. In the mid-20th century, development was still largely thought of as progress spurred by economic growth.
This one-track model of development came in for criticism during the 1960s and 1970s. Increasing attention was paid to the lopsided structures of global trade. The critics believed that these structures placed states in an unfair position whereby the rich amassed even more wealth at the further impoverishment of the poor. States nevertheless were the main players in ensuring peoples’ development. This view was likely modified by the lesson of the previous decade of development cooperation whereby development is not real unless it is rooted in local communities.
Fragmentation probably best describes the development thinking of the 2000s. Different ways of understanding development exist alongside and contend with one another. International financial institutions above all stress the centrality of economic growth in development. Human development, for its part, was reflected in the UN Millennium Development Goals, in which people, not the economy or global markets, are the pivots of change.
The goals were subsequently criticised for their Western-mindedness and unnecessary concentration on numbers. The definition of development is being increasingly debated and interrogated and alternative ways of defining and measuring development are cropping up continually.
Globalisation and particularly climate change have constituted a worldwide challenge in recent years. They have seen a change in development thinking once again, and the adoption of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals – Agenda 2030 are also described as a paradigm shift in development ideas. Current thinking underscored the universality or equality of development and seeks to dispel the boundaries between the “developed” and “developing” world.
Huge development issues involve every one of us. Conserving biodiversity demands that development must not take place regardless of the cost. Reducing inequality within and between countries and ensuring sustainable development for everyone and everywhere are now central to development thinking.