Wednesday, March 16, 2016

An Attempt to Define International Development

Given this site is dedicated to ideas on international development, I thought I would begin with a definition of international development.  Even more than other career areas, it is a field that is not easy to distinguish, whether conceptually or professionally.  There is an international element to it, obviously.  And, while much ink has been spilt theorizing about the meaning of ‘development’, its essence can be divided along two dimensions: big ‘D’ and little ‘d’.  Big ‘D’ refers to ‘the great transformation’ in which economic growth rates are sustained over a long period of time, leading to major socio economic changes in a nation.  This is mainly an intellectual focus of the field.  Generally, training is based on the economic schools of thought, but various disciplines provide a diversity of views on this process.  Little ‘d’, which is the center of most of the practice of international development, is an improvement of the human condition, the areas of improvement being a matter of intense debate. 

It seems that everything under the sun is included in the practice of international development, at least as involves the public.  One need only look at the current UN Sustainable Development Goals to see the numerous topics that populate approaches to international development.  Two of the only exceptions are national defense and culture.  Just about every other ministry in government or type of NGO receives some form of support from international development institutions, ranging from the police to politicians to groups of parents of school children. 

Taking into account the lack of conceptual clarity, I would argue that international development is moreso defined as a field that involves the international intersection of certain institutions, i.e. government, NGOs and international organizations (both bilateral and multilateral), along with foundations and the private sector to some extent. Given that this is the only definition that makes some sense to me, I remain skeptical of efforts to unite the field under an intellectual rubric.  The one unifying topic that may make sense is the thinking behind big ‘D’.  If the hope is for research to be relevant to current development institutions, whose focus on big ‘D’ is at best an afterthought in their work, I would argue that international development scholars should leave behind big ‘D’, and let the various relevant academic disciplines focus on them.   Particular fields that specialize in various sectors should take over little ‘D’, such as schools of education and health, as this number is too great for any single field to absorb.  Instead, the field needs to focus on the practice of development, i.e. what the international development institutions do and how one can be effective in influencing them from the inside and outside.  For this reason, much of this blog will focus on the practice of international development. 


  1. Jonathan;

    I believe the Bid D as you name it, includes all aspects in a society, which for me is something like the Rule of Law when you are not only linked to the transformation of the judicial branch. Big D somehow involves a change of culture or paradigm but to be reflected in personal actions for an effect in little D.

    1. Hi Pauni, thanks for the comment. Exactly right, I always go back to Marx and Polanyi with big D, where you get a wholesale transformation of society from capitalism. And these definitely change the groundwork for doing little d. For example, if everyone is migrating to the city, then you have to focus on urban issues. What's strange is when you study that stuff, then seek to do international development projects where most projects have little effect on the larger transformation.