Comhlámh > Thinking Deeper

Here in Comhlámh we find it useful to think and talk in terms of ‘story’. Each of us carries a story or stories about what ‘development’ is for example – and this will extend to our stories about where ‘development’ is needed and how it should come about. And what about the collective story? What kind of development is being promoted ‘out there’? Do we stop to think about this or is the path assumed? Is there a single development trajectory? Whose ideas of progress are prevailing? Whose idea of ‘better’? 

While we carry these stories, we seldom stop to think about them. Where did we pick them up from? How did they grow? Even the terms we use in our stories are up for question e.g. classification of countries into ‘developed’, ‘less developed’, ‘developing’. Such classifications are by no means clear-cut and are loaded with dangerous judgements of worth.

There is a big story we have been telling ourselves in terms of development, progress, human evolution where a group of people are told that they are the leaders, that they have more knowledge, that they are developed, and they can dispense help, education, and aid to others while another group is told that they lack knowledge, education, they need to catch up with development and that they are backward. We need to start unpacking this and asking ‘who defines this?’ in who’s name? for whose benefit? (Andreotti, 2016)

In this section, we invite you to join us in thinking a little more deeply about development. Can we make the ‘big story’ (described by Andreotti above) less coherent? Can we open up space for new meanings to fill in where old ones are breaking down? Can we tell a better story? (Brewer, 2015). Read on for more…

Here are some ‘stories’ about development. See what you make of them:


Development as economic growth ; economic growth as the means to development

In all major ‘development’ plans, economic growth and poverty reduction are treated as practically interchangeable. The premise is that economic growth equals more money, and poverty equals a lack of money, so economic growth will equal less poverty and this will mean development.

A growing seam of scholarship is critical of this ‘story’ however, and points to the failings of approaches that have centred on economic growth. Former head of campaigns at Oxfam UK and former head of Global Advocacy with Save the Children Martin Kirk (2015) challenges this idea of economic growth = poverty reduction:

Aggregate economic growth does not translate into less poverty. This is not to suggest that a larger economic pie doesn’t benefit many people; it does. But that is simply not the same as saying that it reduces poverty.

He also makes a point about the pain that this economic growth is causing:

The consumption-driven mechanisms we use to achieve it, and the GDP measure we use to define it, have us locked on a path to ruin by actively encouraging us to treat finite natural resources as if they were infinite, and prioritise the growth of the money supply over everything else.


Development as the raising of human development with ‘development’ defined as increased life expectancy, decent shelter and improved education outcomes

While this story defines development as more than economic growth and focuses on the human dimensions of development, the implication of the HDI (the UN measure for the human development level of a country) is that national development can be assessed against a ‘standard’. But who conceived of this ‘standard’?:

Our countries in Latin America are considered under-developed because they have not reached the same level as the countries which coined the word… To live is also to breathe, eat, work, learn, communicate, find satisfaction …. In Latin America, we have our own level of satisfaction. We don’t need that of ‘developed’ countries (Joselias Sanches Ramos, educator, Ecuador)

So, truthfully, is the ‘universal’ standard for human development universal? Or is it based on global North models of growth and prosperity? The other key assumption underpinning the Human Development Index is the assumption that progress is linear and that we are all on ‘the path’ moving forward. But in our efforts to ‘raise human development’ are we moving forward? Are things going in the right direction for our planet? 


Development as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy

Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen wrote about this in a seminal text published in 1999, called ‘Development as Freedom’. Here, development is understood as a process of expanding freedoms. The focus is on growing the underlying human capabilities that are the requisites of any kind of prosperity, including the ability to exercise personal agency in political and economic domains and in pursuit of the outcomes one values. 

This view challenges the notion that ‘development’ is linear; that it is simply about goods and services that need to be managed and distributed; that is the inevitable offshoot of industrialization and technological advances.


Development as ‘buen viver’ (well living) ; meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

‘Buen vivir’ (or Sumak kawsay in Quechua) is rooted in the cosmovisión (or worldview) of the Quechua peoples of the Andes and describes a way of doing things that is community-centric, ecologically-balanced and culturally rooted. This story takes us further than the previous three stories. At its core is consideration not just for ‘human progress’ but for the ecosystems of which we are a part. Indeed, there are powerful initiatives and voices in various corners of the world that have, for many centuries, been crafting well being as a concept encapsulating both human and planetary well being. A recently published book, Pluriverse, gathered over 100 examples of these practices and theorisations including kyosei in Japan, and prakritik swaraj in India. With these concepts, development (as well being) is not [about the] individual, but the individual in the social context of their community and environment. As we face into the intensifying effects of human driven climate change, such a frame has the potential to provide us with a different way forward. This vision of development comes from the ground up, as opposed to being a top down prescription. It is embodied in collective processes of self-determination and reflects an understanding of the ecosystems that support us here on earth.

A global citizens movement starts from the question of what kind of society we want to live in on this planet…. That’s a very different way into the question than how do we solve the climate crisis, how do we solve the water crisis, how do we solve the problem of feeding people on the planet, which then can be seen as a technical problem to be solved (Bayo Akomolafe)

While there is no single definition of globalisation, over the past 2 decades we have seen powerful institutions and groups associated with neoliberalism monopolise its meaning and possibilities.

Indeed, neoliberal policies have facilitated the movement of money and goods around the globe, freeing businesses from their social contexts and obligations and enabling companies to accumulate power and influence. Neoliberal policies typically favour:

unregulated private investment;

the retreat of the state;

an increased influence of business in the provision of goods and services, including in such areas as education, health, electricity and water.

Over the past 2 decades, neoliberal policies have led to job casualization and decline in the social safety net across many countries:

Globally there are now millions working in the informal sector with little or no job protection and very low wages;

Social welfare, healthcare, housing as well as other public goods and services have been reduced or privatized in many countries, making it harder for the poor and those on low incomes to access them;

The gap between the poor and the rich – income inequality – is increasing, with single parent families, people of colour, ethnic minorities, indigenous groups, people with disabilities and other minority groups disproportionately affected.

A notable feature of 21st century globalization is the ‘global corporation’, which has amassed unprecedented weight and power in the world’s political economy over the past couple of decades. Global corporations are involved in sectors such as manufacturing, oil production, mining, agriculture, banking, and telecommunications.

Over the past number of years, global corporations have been accused of exploiting poor people and violating international laws. Indeed, there have been well-evidenced charges of child labour, community displacement, expropriation of land, destruction of the environment. While resistance to these kinds of practices is vital, curbing the influence and profiteering of these companies is a real challenge.

According to the social justice organization Global Justice Now, 69 of the world’s top economic entities are corporations and the world’s top 10 corporations – a list that includes Walmart, Shell and Apple – have a combined revenue of more than 180 of the world’s ‘poorest’ countries. Global Justice Now released these figures in 2016 to increase pressure on the British government ahead of a UN working group, led by Ecuador, established to draw up a binding treaty to ensure global corporations abide by the full range of human rights responsibilities.

The vast wealth and power of corporations is at the heart of so many of the world’s problems – like inequality and climate change. The drive for short-term profits today seems to trump basic human rights for millions of people on the planet. These figures show the problem is getting worse. The UK government has facilitated this rise in corporate power – through tax structures, trade deals and even aid programmes that help big business. Their wholehearted support for the US-EU trade deal TTIP, is just the latest example of government help to big business. Disgracefully it also routinely opposes the call of developing countries to hold corporations to account for their human rights impacts at the UN (Global Justice Now)

Trade justice advocates view the so-called ‘underdevelopment’ of ‘developing’ countries through the prism of sustained economic exploitation by rich countries in the post-colonial era and through the extraction of primary resources and unfair trade barriers.

Indeed, the global trade system is heavily weighted against ‘developing’ countries, preventing them from increasing their income from exports and financing social programmes. Some of these barriers are:

Dumping: Rich countries subsidise their agriculture by billions of dollars a day while poor countries can’t afford to subsidise theirs, leading to higher prices for their produce and increased poverty for farmers.

Market Access: Rich countries charge high taxes on imported manufactured and processed goods, preventing others from earning more income and restricting them to exportation of raw materials only.

Commodity prices: these are set by rich nations and usually at very low rates. For example, Coffee prices fell by 6.7 per cent between 1997 and 2002, costing poor countries $8 billion.

There are estimates that for every dollar given to poor countries in aid, they lose two dollars to rich countries because of these barriers and the interest payments that ‘developing’ countries are having to make on loans. Trade justice advocates will point to the key and controversial role that the IMF and the World Bank has played in this process of immiseration. From the 1960s one (as African countries gained their independence), these institutions began to focus more on the ‘developing’ economies of the world and promoted a neoliberal, free-trade global economic system through their loans and policies –a system that has disproportionately favored those who already hold the wealth and power.

The IMF and the World Bank also face criticism for inequalities inherent in their voting and decision making systems. In the case of the IMF, the USA and European countries hold the majority of the voting rights and, in the past, have protected their own interests at the expense of the welfare of other nations. As well as this, the richer you are as an economy the more voting rights you have; the poorest country members have the least votes.

The policy of the World Bank Director always being a US appointee, and the IMF Director always being a European appointee is a long-standing ‘gentlemen’s agreement’. It persists to this day in spite of calls from global South nations Brazil and South Africa for an appointee from a ‘developing country’. Back in 2011, they called for a ‘developing country’ appointee following the exit of the then disgraced IMF Director, Strauss-Kahn but to no avail.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), otherwise known as the Global Goals, are a universal call to action to end poverty by 2030, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

These 17 Goals follow the 8 Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) which were established following the UN Millenium Summit in 2000 and ran until 2015.

Unlike the MDGs which focused on ‘developing’ countries, the SDGs are universal. They also include new areas including climate change, economic inequality, innovation, sustainable consumption, peace and justice, among other priorities.

The goals are interconnected, with the idea being that success on one will involve tackling issues more commonly associated with another.

The Global Goals have sparked a lot of debate. For example, some of the goals are aiming for ‘growth’. Is this in and of itself sustainable? Shouldn’t we be aiming to do the opposite? What should be aiming for? Are the targets (to be reached by 2030) impossibly ambitious or is this what we need to achieve as a planet?