“What is development? In your answer critically compare different approaches to development challenge. In your view, which is the best approach for advancing life and society in the Third World?’ 2500 words

What is development? In your answer critically compare different approaches to development challenge. In your view, which is the best approach for advancing life and society in the Third World?’

Length: 2500 – 3000 words

The term ‘development’ has been conceptualized from several dimensions depending on the context in which it is being viewed. What development connotes in highly industrialized and rich nations is different from its connotations in less industrialized or developing countries. In any context, however, development is seen as advancement in lifestyle.  In this essay, I seek to explain the meaning of development, and explore and critically compare the various approaches to it. I also make an attempt at explaining the best approach to development for advancing life and society in the Third World. The paper is divided into three sections: the first section of the paper is an analysis of the theories of development to enable a holistic understanding and ensure coherent analysis of the meaning of development that follows in the subsequent section, and the perspectives from which the idea of development is/has been conceived; the second sections explore the meaning of development and the approaches to development challenge; the last part, which also concludes the essay, critically compares these approaches and further suggests the best approach for advancing life and society in the Third World.


This section of the essay is to guide the conceptualization of the term ‘development’ which will be elaborated upon in the next section. Theory is the lens through which we view and understand the world; it guides and serves as the base from which to navigate and explore the empirical nature of an idea or construct. Therefore, the analysis of theoretical constructs on development is aimed at ensuring a holistic/overarching demystification of the term.


Scholars have advanced theories to proffer an understanding of the idea of development and several approaches to operationalize it. The theoretical discourses on development have been conceived from different knowledge traditions such as conservative, reformist and radical traditions of developmental knowledge. These knowledge perspectives to development explore the concept of development from different dimensions. The conservative tradition of development theories, in general, “deals with the economic, social, political, cultural and psychological dimensions of society, although the economic realm has primacy over the other domains.” (Haque, M. Shamsul, 1999 p.53). Exponents of economic growth theories and theories of modernization were categorized under the conservative tradition (Ibid). At the other end is the radical tradition of development thinking which has its root in Marxism. Marx and Engels’ contribution to knowledge is basically the foundation of this radical thinking: “…they synthesized and transcended the fragmented radical ideas of the past, constructed a philosophical foundation for radical thinking, and offered more systematic theoretical explanations of sociohistorical development from this radical perspective.” (Haque, M. Shamsul, 1999 p.103). Theories within the radical tradition recognize various forms of fundamental contradictions replete in human societies which are “in opposition to the assumptions of social harmony and incrementalism in social change found in the conservative tradition” (Ibid p.103). In these categories are Classical Marxist theories, Radical Dependency theories and Neo Marxist theories.


Reformist tradition of development theories evolved to redress the inadequacies of the conservative and radical theories of development in meeting the developmental problems encountered by Third World countries. The earlier theories of development – that is, conservative and radical theories of development – emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and were arguably not able to explain the unique politico-economic and sociocultural realities in newly independent Third World countries, which are considerably different from those in capitalist nations (Haque, M. Shamsul, 1999 p.81); hence, the need for theoretical adjustments in the mainstream development thinking (Ibid). All of the reformist theories converge on the need to place emphasis on reforms as the primary means of societal development. In this category are the conservative reformist theorist, radical reformist theories and critical reformist theories.


Following from the above highlights of the theoretical discourses on development, I proceed further in this section to elaborate on the meaning of development and the approaches to the development challenge. The term development has defied a unified interpretation: it is an abstract noun whose definition is arguably not fixed and more subjective than anything else. The concept as it is known is susceptible to different connotations and interpretations and it is a term commonly used in public affairs. Jan Knnipers Black rightly stated that the “problem with using a term common in public affairs is that such terms are adopted and adapted in accordance with particular needs and may in fact be employed by different spokesmen or at different times to convey contradictory meanings.” (1999 p.1).  It is a user-friendly term, having virtually as many potential meanings as potential users (Ibid).


The concept of ‘development’ attracted greater attention after the Second World War following the second wave of decolonization[1] in the 1950s and 1960s. The majority of these newly independent states were confronted with significant numbers of developmental problems[2] , the most important of which were and are economic impoverishment and weak and corrupt political systems with associated political instability. There is widespread poverty and a lack of capacity and will to tackle it as a result of underdeveloped political systems, economic and human resources, as well as cultural factors. Therefore, scholars and practitioners sought to understand and proffer solutions to these countries underdevelopment and impoverishment, and for this reason, efforts were channeled toward poverty reduction and improving human development. Half a century after, these still remain the main substance of development especially in relation to the developing world, though, despite massive financial aid, Africa is now poorer and more populous than it was at the end of colonization. Thus, as Jeffrey Haynes submits that the most basic assumption underlining the concept of development this 21st century “was the need for poverty reduction and, by extension, accretions in the mass of ordinary people’s well being.” (2008, p. 18). The basic thrust of development, therefore, is to add value to an existing entity. This entails positive growth to acceptable competitive standards of living, and includes the respect for the fundamental human rights of people. Hence, development is conceived as progression in economic and social wellbeing of a particular identified entity.


The meaning of development over time has been equated with the western model of economic growth, i.e. free market economy and the western style and standard of living.  It is therefore a concept/model that is imposed by western powers making the West the benchmark for development.  Achieving development by developing nations meant the change and/or adaptation of ways and style of living to suit a western model. In this sense, it underrated the communal way of life of most of the rural dwellers in most of the Third World countries. The rural dwellers imbibe the idea of providing for their immediate needs through their agrarian ways of life; therefore, little importance is place on acquiring other valuables or means of existence other than meeting the most essential means of subsistence such as food, clothing and housing. Thus goes the questioning of the indicators of poverty, if, by omission or commission the rural dwellers in these supposed developing nations are only indicated as above the poverty level with their monetary possession rather than their way of living and accessibility to the essential means of sustenance. In essence, the idea(s) behind development has a negative view of cultural values of developing countries. It is influenced by western industrial complex and thereby arguably ethnocentric.


Sustainable development as the contemporary buzz word for development could be defined as an idea of development that is aimed at the continuous progression of human societies. It emphasized the provision of the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs in the process. It has been used by scholars and practitioners on various aspects of development agenda: that is, for example related to poverty reduction, provision of good health and education, infrastructural development, and even as related to the issue of maintaining good climate. The essence of sustainable development is to ensure a systematic achievement of the needs of the present generation that would guarantee continuities in progression of human societies without exhausting the materials and resources that existed for achieving it.


The United Nations Secretary General Agenda for Development in May 1994 classed development as a fundamental human right that all nations must work to achieve: this is the right based approach to development challenge. The UN Agenda sets forth the five major and interlinked dimensions of development.[3] Also, the Nobel laureates Amartya Sen classified development as the real freedom that people enjoy. Development and freedom are intimately related since the enhancement of human freedom is both the main object and primary means of development (Ibid). “The objective of development relates to the valuation of the actual freedoms enjoyed by the people involved.” (Amartya Sen, 2001 p. 53). Amartya Sen’s idea constitutes a development approach that emphasizes the well being of the people in terms of focusing on developing people’s capabilities. It is often referred to as the capability approach. In fact, it is the approach that evolved in the United Nations Human Development Reports.



This section is devoted to critical comparative analysis of the different approaches to development challenge. These approaches are the human capability approach, community based approach, development state approach, right based approach, market-oriented development approach et cetera. For the purpose of this paper, a multi-criteria comparative approach is adopted for the comparison of the different development approaches. Therefore, the set of criteria for the analysis are listed as: 1) their process and models, 2) the facilitators 3) results orientation. The process and models deals with the framework for the development approach i.e. top-down or bottom-up. The criteria for facilitator considered ‘who’ is facilitating the development approach and, 3) Result oriented concentrate on knowing what result are important to achieving. It should, however, be noted that the comparative analysis of the development approach will not be done in a linear way. It will be analyzed simultaneously since the approaches overlap in the analyses.


Traditionally, approaches to development have been examined from two broad frameworks. These are the traditional “top-down” trickle down” and “Bottom up” “Grass roots” approaches to development. Several other approaches have been evolved towards achieving development and eradicating poverty in the Third World. The last decade of the last century witnessed a tremendous change of the view and approaches to achieving development in these countries. These approaches are subject of continuous debates and reviews thereby making them evolving in nature so long as poverty still exists – which, with an ever-growing population in developing countries, seems a certainty. This nascent 21st century has witnessed some numbers of approaches and ideas towards the achievement of the core of development which is the quest for poverty eradication, mostly in the Third World. For instance, there are the millennium development goals, sustainable livelihood and good governance which are all aims towards the reduction of poverty in these nations.


The human capability approach developed by Amatya Sen focuses on the people who are the end of any development agenda. Since development is the real freedom that people enjoy, as stated by Amatya Sen, the people have to be at the centre of development and actively involved in shaping their own destiny. “The ends and means of development call for placing the perspective of freedom at the center of the stage. The people have to be seen, in this perspective, as being actively involved – given the opportunity – in shaping their own destiny, and not just as passive recipients of the fruits of cunning development programs.” (Amatya Sen, 2001 p. 53). This is in direct contrast with development state approach which has the state as its main core, i.e. the government facilitates the process, in control and at the heart of all development programmes. This is modeled on the “top-down” trickle down approach. It is often measured in terms macro of economics indexes. However, the human capability approach is people centred hence a bottom up framework to development. A human capability approach is anchored in the people who the ends so should also be the means of development. It places its emphasis on core human entitlement which is human wellbeing, thereby transcending the fundamental human rights such as the right to life, basic education and health. The nerve centre of the developmental state approach on the other hand is the economy. Economic growth is the most essential and the states applies economic policies with the hope that improve economic growth will trigger development in the state.


As the name suggest, the community based development approach is an approach that seeks to focus development programmes on a particular community. It is aimed at building and strengthening essential community resources in order to be of benefit to local residents. It may be informed of local economic development or local empowerment approaches through participatory process. Since it involves human capacity development and optimum capacity utilization therefore, it overlaps into the human capability approach. It may be a private or public led process. Its use is on the increase as the idea of good governance is continually being tied to development assistance in most of the Third World. Community based development is mostly tailored to attaining specifics goals/objectives. The human capability approach on the other hand, while it can be tailored to improving human capacity of a particular region on a specific line, has its limitations when the people are not willing to undergo any sort of capacity building and, moreover, are in a situation where the economy cannot accommodate or release their potential. Furthermore, the right based approach to development is still very much ideological, although development agencies, most especially non governmental organizations, have increasingly canvassed for the right based approach to development. It seeks to make as the right of everyone accessibility to all fundamental basics of living. In this case, the state remains the major facilitator of development.


Development occurs not only as a result of having good ideas or goodwill, but also the ability to transform those ideas into societal use. This is the main reason I argue for the human capability approach as the best approach for advancing life and society in the Third World. The human capability approach sees development as a freedom that people must enjoy. The development of human capacity and the ability to utilize it underpins this approach to development, which also encourages innovation: the process of transforming new ideas into tangible societal impacts. In this sense, the people being the ‘end’ of any development agenda also become the anchor of the development process. It is arguably more empowering and effective than the paternalistic, state led development approach that focuses mainly on economic growth. Growth is a means to an end of development and not an end in itself. Economic growth only measures that aspect of macro economic indexes, whereas human development through capacity building and utilization measures that dimension of human welfare as well. Although economic growth is useful as a means to achieving the end of increasing human development performance, the capability approach further leads to innovations, and allows the individual to improve significantly their political as well as economic potentials. Therefore, human capacity development ensures economic and social wellbeing of the people and society. It encourages sustainable growth and development and guarantees the transformative process from below since it is people-centered and led.























Haque, M. Shamsul. Restructuring development theories and policies : a critical study. (New York: State University of New York Press, Albany, 1999)

Jan Knnipers Black. Development in Theory and Practice: Paradigms and Paradoxes. (2nd Edition), (Colorado: Westview Press, 1999)

Jeffrey Haynes, Development Studies. (Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2008)

Sen, Amartya, Development as Freedom. (New York: Random House, 1999)

An Agenda for Development Report of the Secretary-General A/48/935, 6 May 1994 http://www.un.org/Docs/SG/agdev.html [Accessed 15.10.2009]


[1] The first wave of decolonization occurred in the early nineteenth century, resulting in independence of eighteen Latin American and Caribbean countries. (see Jeffrey Haynes “Development Studies“, 2008 p. 2).

[2] In the 1950s and 1960s, the term ‘development’ was regarded as both self-evident and prophetic, informing a widespread assumption that most ‘underdeveloped’ countries would almost inevitably became ‘developed’ over time. (see Jeffrey Haynes “Development Studies“, 2008 p. 8).


[3] These dimensions as stated in the UN Agenda (A/48/935, 6 May 1994) are that 1) development and peace are interrelated, that is the Traditional approaches to development presuppose that it takes place under conditions of peace; 2) that economic growth is the engine of development as a whole. Without economic growth, there can be no sustained increase in household or government consumption, in private or public capital formation, in health, welfare and security levels. 3) The environment as a basis for sustainability; 4) that Justice as a pillar of society; and 5) that there are links between good governance and development.