During a meeting of our research department Regional Geography of Europe, a couple of months ago, we realized that almost every researcher in the department approaches critically the concept of development. Almost all of us – from different angles and perspectives – questioned what development is or should be and how the term and its dominance in ideology and policies has shaped the places we study. Nevertheless, we realized that the “critique to development” is a subject so broad that there may be different approaches between us that are worth exploring.
Since our meeting time was ending, we decided to move the discussion to a written form and we started an e-mail thread where everyone from the department was able to comment on the issue with a brief statement. So, through the last couple of months and between meetings, deadlines, work travels and other responsibilities, a few researchers engaged to this discussion and we are happy to share it with you. This is how it went.
“Development” is a very powerful term, pronounced by important actors internationally and able to dictate the future of places around the world. Yet, it has faced a lot of critique, especially after the 70s, from many different perspectives. Ranging from post-colonial, discursive, Marxist approaches, the critique is so broad, that today we cannot find a definition of development that is not severely challenged.
Although the connection of development and growth to social well- being has been questioned, the mainstream policies continue to consider economic growth as the most important factor for their success. Nevertheless, the critical takes on development have affected partly contemporary policies and some of the most influential institutions have tried to formulate alternative developments that aim at environmental sustainability and social justice. But have they succeeded or all these attempts are “all the same policies”, and why?
Other scholars and activists claim that we should deny development on the whole and speak about “alternatives to development” instead of “alternative developments”. Such perspectives are post-development in the Global South and degrowth or post-capitalism in the Global North. So, should we change the development’s objectives and measurements or should we stop uttering “development”?
I think the promises of development are elusive as long as development contains the idea of infinite growth. Since this is the dominant conception, the easiest way might be to deliberately leave development under a growth-centric analytic and focus on „alternatives to development“. Let me first offer one argument against (sustainable) development. Ecological economists prominently discuss rebound effects. Thus, rather than absolute decoupling (of growth from resource usage), we observe relative decoupling on a planetary scale at best (Jackson 2009). In the absence of evidence, isn’t hoping for future breakthrough technologies that would magically result in absolute decoupling not a game too dangerous to play? (Or shall we seriously entertain ideas like asteroid mining as extraterrestrial spatial fixes?)
Next to such ecological considerations, development is also a politically questionable discourse framing populations, countries, technologies, problems and solutions in problematic ways. Development discourses e.g. frame several billion (!) humans as the „bottom of the pyramid“ and link their development to their inclusion in „markets“ as „consumers“, eradicating poverty with profitability. Hence, money and its role in buying (ever more) consumables becomes the single most important factor for determining their stage of „development“. I find this approach highly reductionist because it conceives „poverty“ as a somewhat natural condition in the Global South. In addition, it is worth highlighting the historicity of such views to undermine their claims of universality. Graeber and Wengrow (2021) highlight how some European colonizers were deeply impressed by the rebuttals of indigenous peoples of the Americas around issues in European societies such as hierarchy, social status, property, political system, autonomy, moral restrictions, wealth accumulation, compassion, health etc.
Nowadays it seems development thinking lost the idea that well-being could be more than (inclusively, responsibly, sustainably) producing, exchanging and buying commodities and could compromise the above-mentioned areas. Framing these issues as well-being – as you do – might be quite helpful. But shall we call it more-than-social well-being to avoid the trappings of an anthropocentrism? So, shouldn’t the discussion about development be replaced by discussions about (repoliticized) concepts of well-being as a cornerstone of „alternatives to development“? If so, which „ingredients“ would be most relevant? And what could be geographers‘ role therein?
I have the feeling that we compare apples with pears if we speak about well-being as an alternative concept to development. Linguistically, the term „development“ designates a process in the sense of advancement, improvement and growth (Online Etymology Dictionary). Yet, in my understanding, this does not necessarily mean economic growth, it could be a growth of health, happiness or alike. „Well-being“ instead describes a state of existence which is the outcome of a process.
Hence, I would rather argue to reinterpret „development“ and include directionality in its understanding (Tödtling et al. 2022; Miörner 2022). This calls for a shift of its meaning from an economic-centric process whose goal is mostly seen in continuous growth of wealth, to a process whose goal should be to achieve well-being in economic, social, cultural and environmental dimensions (Pike et al. 2017). It needs to include ecological and social boundaries (Raworth 2012) to ensure the well-being of future generations all over the world. In this sense, development is closely related to questions of justice in a social, spatial and temporal dimension, as spelled out e.g. with the notions of spatial or territorial justice (e.g. Soja 2009; GAM Architecture Magazine 15, 2019) and intergenerational justice. It also has to be treated as a complex and relational processes whose outcomes may imply intended and unintended consequences.
Saying that I am aware that these notes evoke a number of further questions: Who defines what is just? Which imaginations do people have about the term “well-being”? What is actually needed in the process of development to achieve the goal of well-being? What do present development activities mean for future generations? And what do they mean for other places?
I think it is good that you added a) etymology and b) current academic discourses around development to this exchange, widening the available options in this debate. So far, my focus rested on c) social actors – governments, development agencies, international organizations etc. – being inspired by b), but also enacting interventions in its name. While these actors by now – to varying degrees – highlight the „sustainable“ and „inclusive“ character of development – add a flavour of directionality to address great challenges if you like – questions remain: Must this be achieved through economic growth and marketization? Who identifies the corresponding challenges and needs and formulates the solutions? How is this enacted and to which effects?
Depending how these questions are answered, scepticism is advisable. Options a), b) and c) are interlinked but can be quite different animals. If development can be radically re-imagined AND enacted as a tool for addressing the issues that you mentioned (I guess we mostly agree on them) through a wide variety of practices (e.g. gifting, caring, not only market exchange), I don’t object. But, I doubt whether this naming issue is the most important one.
Two short remarks about the process-outcome distinction (too dichotomist for my taste) and a way to go further with the well-being issue. First, in both b) and c) options, development still partly appears as a „stage“, rendering it somewhere between process and outcome. Second, in post-development scholarship, well-being is not only an outcome („state of existence2). I am fond of „intra-active wellbeing2 (Smith and Reid 2018), in which it appears as an open-ended process of (more-than-social) becoming.
Let us go back to the key problem: if we understand development as progress of places and regions towards „the better“, this is to avoid an economic growth centred definition of development. It has been clear for decades, that after a certain point, economic growth does not anymore automatically trickle down to all spatial and social spheres of societies and a growth of GDP has de-coupled from subjective life satisfaction and wellbeing (this has been well illustrated e.g. for the „modernisation“ of Eastern European countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union (Hanell 2024, see also Ferrara and Nisticó 2015). Nevertheless, this misbelief of regional income growth to be equated with better living conditions for all is still part of the mainstream repertoire of local and regional development policy.
What we need instead, is to re-politicise objectives, strategies and projects of development and discuss the normative-political ideas of what to aim for and how to achieve this. In recent years, many promising conceptual avenues have been opened linked to spatial and environmental justice, care and wellbeing as discussed above. Those approaches need to find their way into the practice of development policy at local and regional level – combined with more recent calls for designing development within the limits of planetary boundaries.
To conclude – if we can
This short discussion although a bit fragmental, showed us that we have a lot more in common than what we expected when it comes to the discussion on development. Conclusions are of course not easy to make in this point, as the questions that this discussion opened were more than the ones it aimed to answer. Even though we all recognize the problem of the hegemony of economic growth, the questions we still need to approach are many and the ways our concerns can be taken into consideration in local and regional policies vary. What is well- being and who can describe it, who decides what is socially just and what isn’t, how can places develop without causing environmental damage to next generations and while respecting planetary boundaries, are some questions that arose during this “game” we decided to play. This discussion is shared not as an “answer” but as an open call for the continuation of this open collective thinking outside our department. So, what do you think? Should we stop uttering “development”?
Ferrara, A. R. / Nisticò, R. (2015): Regional well-being indicators and dispersion from a multidimensional perspective: evidence from Italy. The Annals of Regional Science, 55, 373-420.
Tödtling, F. / Trippl, M. / Desch, V. (2022): New directions for RIS studies and policies in the face of grand societal challenges, European Planning Studies, 30:11, 2139-2156, DOI: 10.1080/09654313.2021.1951177.
Graeber, D. / Wengrow, D. (2021): The dawn of everything: A new history of humanity. Penguin UK.
Hannel, T. (forthcoming): Looking beyond GDP: well-being in Central and Eastern Europe. In: Ben-Nun, Gilad and Naumann, Katja: Eastern Europe in a global perspective. Bloomsbury 2024.
Jackson, T. (2009): Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781849774338.
Miörner, J. (2022): Contextualizing agency in new path development: how system selectivity shapes regional reconfiguration capacity, Regional Studies, 56:4, 592-604, DOI: 10.1080/00343404.2020.1854713.
Pike, A. / Lee, N. / MacKinnon, D. / Kempton, L. / Iddawela, Y. (2017): Job creation for inclusive growth in cities. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Raworth, K. (2012): A safe and just space for humanity: can we live within the doughnut?. Oxfam.
Smith, T. S. / Reid, L. (2018): Which ‘being’in wellbeing? Ontology, wellness and the geographies of happiness. Progress in Human Geography, 42(6), 807-829.
Soja, E. (2009): The city and spatial justice. Justice spatiale/Spatial justice, 1(1), 1-5.