The primary motivation for writing Understanding Development was to take stock of where development is today. It seemed to me that this was an issue that had received insufficient attention and needed to be addressed, especially in the context of globalisation and environmental decline. Indeed, many works that have been written on development seem to play down or simply neglect the importance of context.
Exploring the condition of development required examining many of the key areas that have come to define the subject, including foreign aid, debt, gender, education, health, participation, and trade.
In particular, the book addresses many of the challenges facing development, notably climate change, increasingly complex patterns of global poverty and inequality, a global economic crisis, escalating world population growth, the growth in the number of fragile states, and the rise of new centres of global power. In the case of the latter, for example, the rapid economic growth of some countries in the developing world is encouraging their call for greater influence within international development institutions.
At the same time development continues to attract criticism, ranging from post-development writers dismissing it as a Western project through to politicians questioning the effectiveness and necessity of aid. Furthermore, many of the UN Millennium Development Goals look unlikely to be achieved by 2015.
Based on this investigation I do not seek to claim that development is in crisis, nevertheless it is arguably at a historic juncture. For instance, the planet’s eco-systems will simply not be able to sustain the model of development hitherto pursued in the West, especially its level of consumption.
In addition, there is a lack of consensus amongst those working within development about how to achieve it and what it should entail, evident in competing development theories and strategies. Moreover, some commentators are detecting what has been termed ‘aid fatigue’, but also a sense that development may be running out of steam in the light of the disappointments and controversies that continue to surround it.
All of this does not mean that we should give up on development. In spite of the criticism, and the power politics that continues to envelop it, development retains a moral purpose in the sense of trying to improve people’s lives. Development is also an evolving and reflexive discourse, something that is reflected in new areas becoming more prominent in the recent period, such as sustainability, conflict and security, and information and communication technologies.
In undertaking this investigation, the book highlights the contested and plural nature of development. It shows how it has evolved, the extent to which the different aspects of development are interdependent, and why studying it requires an interdisciplinary approach as well as taking into account contemporary globalizing processes.
Paul Hopper is Senior Lecturer in Humanities at the University of Brighton.