What is development?

Is it possible to compare different cultures’ levels of development? 

Development: is it a “buzzword”, as Rist suggests? Is it a way to aid countries with a weaker economic system, pay reparations for our history of colonialism, or could it be a continuation of our imperialism?

I try to maintain faith that in many cases the intention behind development is good. Governments pouring aid into less developed countries may have more overt purposes, but many people still enter the industry with the genuine desire to help improve the lives of people living in poverty. However, whether this is merely a projection of the quality of life we believe people in other countries should have based on our own values is a matter for discussion.

Studying Anthropology alongside International Development is allowing me to interpret the industry differently. Many anthropologists feel disdain at the way Development still views different cultures through the perspective of prominent figures in the early 20th century; the idea that development is a linear line and some cultures are further behind than others is a concept conventionally dismissed in Anthropology since Boas’ theory of cultural relativism. For centuries this interpretation of development validated racism and justified the colonisation of indigenous peoples; if we are still prescribing to this through the development industry today we are arguably still pursuing Western imperialism.


A stereotypical depiction of “voluntourism”; is our culture so much more ‘developed’ that completely untrained Westerners are qualified to teach abroad?


Another issue with development is its conflation with ‘voluntourism’. Largely condemned as damaging, the industry funded by white-privileged but well-intentioned foreigners who want to ‘make a difference’ has grown into a huge money-making business. In recent years, reports of children from less developed countries being taken away from their families to provide ‘orphanages’ with innocent faces for Western tourists to shower with donations have become increasingly common. Playing on human empathy, this can be truly detrimental for everyone involved; while tourists are misled, children are isolated from their families and can develop attachment issues to the large number of people passing through on a regular basis.


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This ‘development’ has been the focus of a lot of satire in social media, such as the Instagram account Barbie Savior, which ridicules untrained individuals considering themselves qualified to teach or volunteer on development projects abroad simply because they’re from the Global North. There is a very specific image put out by the industry; upon searching ‘voluntourism’ in Google images, the entire first page is photographs of white, Western youths surrounded by smiling black and Asian children. This is a damaging conception of development, reinforcing the idea of other cultures as further behind and that unprofessional individuals have solutions, merely due to being from a ‘more developed’ culture.


Despite the neo-liberal aims of development structures such as the World Bank, the quid pro quo reality of the aid from foreign governments, and the voluntourism industry, I would argue that by taking the concept of development away from the controversies the word itself has acquired, ultimately the definition is still positive. Arguably, most of us – the (perhaps naively) optimistic public – would define development as a way of trying to create a more equal world. The industry may not always get it right, but we can still make development a cause worth fighting for.




Bibliography of sources:

Chambers, R, (1997), ‘Responsible Well-being: A Personal Agenda for Development’, World Development, Vol. 25(11):1743-1754

Chang, Ha-Joon (2010) ‘Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark: How development has disappeared from today’s ‘development’ discourse’, (2010) in S. Khan & J. Christiansen(eds.), Towards New Developmentalism: Market as Means rather than Master (Routledge, Abingdon)

Esteva, G, Paget-Clarke, N (2005), The Society of the Different, In Motion Magazine [Online]. Available at: http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/global/gest_int_1.html

Provost, C (2011), International aid’s ‘dirty secret’, The Guardian [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/feb/10/international-aid-security-development-relationship-dirty

Rist, G, (2007) ‘Development’, Development in Practice, 17(4-5):485-491.

Sillitoe, P (2016), Anthropology of Development, Discover Anthropology [Online]. Available at: https://www.discoveranthropology.org.uk/about-anthropology/specialist-areas/anthropology-of-development.html

Watson, L, (2014) Fake orphanages in Cambodia target tourists for cash in empathy scam, The Guardian [Online]. Available at: http://www.itv.com/news/2014-07-11/fake-orphanages-in-cambodia-target-tourists-for-cash-in-empathy-scam/



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