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  • Vidhi Sharma

The Development Discourse: Dissecting Theoretical and Practical Implications

Vidhi Sharma

 Undergraduate Student, Department of English, Hindu College, University of Delhi


The idea of development began in the 1940s on the anvils of economic growth prospects and modernization, albeit with imperialist underpinnings. It was lopsided, with ideas of progress on the one hand and detrimental consequences on the other. While there have been collaborative efforts to counterbalance the adverse effects of development, the negatives far outweigh the positives. Scholars have moved on from traditional theories of development to postdevelopment and now beyond development. This paper attempts to delineate the discourse of development from its genesis down to its contemporary form, perusing various existing theories and their practical implications at work and viewing the idea of development from various thematic standpoints. In the course of the paper, we shall look at development from various vantage points, outlining its appropriation as a political tool, the politics of modernisation, the conceptualisation of development as freedom, adopting a gendered lens, and finally undertaking an environmental approach to realise its prospects and limitations.

Keywords: Modernization, Dependency Theory, Third World, Gender, Ecological Predicament


The Age of Enlightenment that ushered in 18th-century Europe was more than a philosophical movement aimed at the pursuit of knowledge through reason and rationale. Its prime focus was on affecting human happiness through a better comprehension of the world. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy mentions the Enlightenment as “not an historical period, but a process of social, psychological or spiritual development, unbound to time or place” (Bristow et al., 2023). This reaffirms how the Age of Reason, rather than merely developing the faculties of mind, also nurtured the very idea of growth.

It was a prominent member of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Smith, who, in one of his lectures in 1762, commented on the French word ‘Develope’ and how it disposed of the word ‘Unfold’ from English common use (Smith & Bryce, 1985). A decade later, in 1776, Smith’s magnum opus ‘The Wealth of Nations’ came to the forefront as a groundbreaking work indispensable to the field of economic development today. Economic development is an important subset of development studies that rely heavily on its critique. Then came the 20th century, and the development discourse saw a radical shift, having suffered intense politicisation in the modernised world. Industrialisation and imperialism became the tenets of society, and a new ‘Age of Development’ dawned on the world.

This particular historical period set the world ablaze with contradicting ideas of what it means to 'develop', and socio-political thinkers deemed it necessary to lay the groundwork for ‘Development Studies’, a field that has been ever-expanding since its inception in the nineteenth century. Accordingly, the foundation of ‘Development’ can be traced back to the 19th and 20th centuries, when it dominated the economic and political landscape. As of today, the development discourse has been further augmented with newer domains like gender, environment, globalisation, human rights, and capitalism, among others, which are vastly adding to its scope.

Development as a Political Tool

In the post-World War II era of the 1940s, the global order was split into two major superpowers at loggerheads with each other. When these powers exhausted every other means of asserting their supremacy, they took to the enticing idea of ‘development’ to extend their ideological cause. After Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sudden death in 1945, Harry S. Truman took up the reins of the remaining term. In the following presidential elections, Truman got re-elected and made a sweeping declaration in his inaugural address, which changed the face of ‘development’. The Truman Doctrine was focused on America’s new foreign policy of Containment. Having declared the Southern Hemisphere ‘underdeveloped’, Truman gave birth to the “myth of underdevelopment” in his Four Point Program, which “alluded to an unworthy condition: that of trying to be like those who are more advanced in a one-way road” (Esteva & Dix, 2022). He initiated the Marshall Plan, costing over 13 billion dollars, in a bid to aid nations affected by the war as well as transform them into ‘advanced societies’. This was based on the presumption that Western society was the ‘ideal’ to be achieved by the ‘underdeveloped’ nations that needed alleviation of status. Pronouncing themselves as the torchbearers, the US started their project to instil a global hegemony under the garb of development.

To combat this strategy of growing Western influence, the Soviet Union answered with the ‘Molotov Plan’ categorically aimed at counterbalancing the Marshall Plan. Later in 1949, they also initiated the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), an economic alliance aimed at furthering the economic development of Eastern European nations. However, its underlying purpose was to strengthen the Soviet Bloc. From a technical standpoint, the two blocs’ aid policies tended to look alike. In reality, there was a major ideological difference. Thus, in the post-war period, development was conceptualised less as a poverty alleviation measure and more as an expansion of their interests.

While this gave way to a new world dynamic and initiated interlinkages of dominant powers with the South, it also led to the classification of Asia, Africa, and Latin America as the ‘Third World’, a historically derogatory terminology that has stood the test of time.

Making of the Third World and the Politics of Modernisation

When the revelation of a categorical Third World first came to the forefront, the newly independent nations struggling to find a level playing field failed to locate the discourse of development as one characterised by Western ideals. In viewing themselves as underdeveloped, they fell prey to the dynamics of power as perceived by the Western eye. The historically prevalent notions of development, much to the naivete of the Third World nations, catered to the hegemonic idea of Western supremacy and were simply Western constructs. The portrayals of Asia, Africa, and Latin America as Third World and underdeveloped have been “the heirs of an illustrious genealogy of Western conceptions about those parts of the world” (Escobar, 2012, p. 7).

While the political agendas remained camouflaged under the new development process in place, problems soon started to surface. The Third World, while easily susceptible to Western dominance at first, soon realised that this economic aid did little to foster real growth. On the contrary, countries significantly lost control over their economies, which started deteriorating.

Countries began to understand how America weaponised the aid to harbour political agendas and diluted their imperialist tendencies with the promise of growth. It was a carefully crafted plan devised to gain control of raw materials and interfere in these nations’ internal matters under the pretext of economic assistance.

Moreover, the theory of Modernisation, central to the development model adopted by the West, was propounded by economists strongly influenced by Keynesian ideas who ignored the limitations of developmental economics as a development model. Contrary to popular belief, the externally imposed constraints of modernization far outdid the supposed internal constraints these economists theorised. The tenets of Modernisation as conjectured by Rostow in his seminal work, The Stages of Economic Growth (1962), also had multiple fallacies, for example, the impractical reliance on the trickle-down effect. Furthermore, Rostow disregarded the fact that each of these nations had different demographics and geographies and worked on the assumption that one model would fit all. These shortcomings proved that “the world in which Keynesian policy-making—and its offshoots, development economics and development theory—made sense had changed fundamentally” (Leys, 2005). Sharp declines in per capita incomes drove nations to engage in increased borrowing, elevating their debt to insurmountable levels. This necessitated them turning to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, who introduced Structural Adjustment Programs, which were extremely counterproductive and made situations worse.

Soon scholars from the Third World began to criticise the Western models of Modernisation, and this led to the inception of a new theory of Dependency in the development discourse. The theory in defence of the Third World nations asserted that it was not the lack of technological, scientific, or material prospects that resulted in poverty, but rather the alleged exploitative relationships these nations had with the West. These emerging development thinkers unmasked the colonial undertones in the development policies, interventions, and foreign investments, which were only tokenistic at best.

Development as Freedom

The overarching approach to development up until the end of the twentieth century relied heavily on the progress in economic growth. The assumption that problems of “underdevelopment” could be easily transcended through a mere change in economy presupposed that there were no other factors at play. While the development agenda since the very beginning incentivized the “quality of life," as can be seen in the works of Smith, Marx, and Mill, among others, it had to be reasserted in contemporary discourse. A more humane approach to development was needed.

Consequently, it was welfare economist Amartya Sen whose seminal work ‘Development as Freedom (1999)’ provided a foundation for development in terms of human well-being and freedom. He expounded the view that “expansion of freedom” should be both the primary end as well as the principal means of development. He asserted the importance of “political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security” to enhance human capabilities and human freedom and rendered them necessary to further the development agenda (Sen, 1999). This approach to development, premised upon social change and human welfare, was instrumental in popularising a bottom-to-top approach that necessitated the development of human capabilities to foster development as a whole. For the first time, development began to be talked of in social terms rather than mere economic terms. Development as Freedom championed the cause of equality and social change and remains indispensable to the fields of welfare economics and social development today.

Development: A Gendered Lens

The ever-expanding scope of development opened up new avenues of inquiry. The development discourse is a complex blend of the socio-economic and cultural processes that shape its nature. In this light, it became increasingly important to scrutinise development through a gendered lens.

Drawing on the Suffragette Movement for equality, ‘Women in Development (WID)’ first emerged in the 1960s in a bid to call for the integration of women’s issues into the development framework. Their entry into the development processes seemed like a good start to some, even as they remained marginalised and men’s interests continued to assume the central position. In the 1970s, theorists in the South called upon another approach, Women and Development (WAD), as a reaction to WID. According to them, WID did not adequately address the women’s question, as it took no notice of the very structures of inequality inherent in the development model.In the 1980s, a more holistic approach came to the forefront in the form of Gender and Development (GAD), emphasising how development itself is gendered to its very core. GAD led an inquiry into how gender permeates the structures and institutions aimed at development and unveiled the heteronormative power relations at work. The focus of GAD was “not on women per se but on gender relations” that reinforce systemic inequalities (Visvanathan et al., 1997, p. 51). GAD focused on viewing women at the forefront, involved as agents of change rather than mere passive beneficiaries on standby. Besides challenging the normative ideas of power and gender relations, it helped identify systemic inequalities and rooted for inclusive development. Gender parity holds a central place in the contemporary development framework and is integral to each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. On the research front too, development scholars are turning to complex areas like body politics and feminist political ecology, making the field more nuanced and inclusive.

The Ecological Predicament

Up until the 1960s, development thinkers considered the limits of development to be few and far between. Most thinkers turned a blind eye to the elephant in the room: the ecological change. It wasn’t until the 1972 UN Conference in Stockholm that the environmental malady was addressed at the international level. The 1987 Brundtland Report paved the way for the introduction of ‘Sustainable Development’ into the development discourse. However, whether these 36 years have made any substantial difference is still a question whose answer demands active revision.

When observed from the vantage point of environmentalism, development takes an antagonistic turn. A closer look reveals how our industrial societies’ apparent “successes” like technological advancements and economic growth are intricately linked with their adverse effects like environmental degradation, depletion of fossil fuels, and so on (Redclift 1984). While there is ongoing work by multilateral organisations actively supporting the cause on the global front, it becomes imperative to note that real, tangible work to this end needs to be undertaken within national boundaries. The United Nations Environment Program was established in 1972 in a bid to facilitate coordinated efforts to combat environmental issues. However, its role has been severely misconceived. The UNEP cannot single-handedly carry out the role of conservation. In fact, it is not an executive agency responsible for environment conservation in the first place, which demands collective action and shall only materialise through ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC)’ assumed by nations.

While resource wars aren’t a new phenomenon, environmental degradation has significantly led to resource scarcity, resulting in conflict. Both renewable and non-renewable resources have been touted as causes of conflict in history; for example, the Anglo-Icelandic Cod War of 1972–73 fought over the extension of the fishing EEZ (exclusive economic zone) in the North Atlantic. Another example would be the Cochabamba Water Wars of 1985, which saw Bolivia’s struggle against water privatisation and demand for equity in water distribution. Even the ongoing South China Sea dispute is essentially about oil beds, which are present in the region in huge quantities. These conflicts also bring out the correlation between environmental resources and political and economic development. While analysing resource scarcity impacts, Dinar notes that "degradation or scarcity should not have become so severe that it is too costly to manage, thereby making international coordination less likely.” However, the Production Gap Report 2023 released by the UNEP observes how governments are planning to substantially increase oil and gas production up until at least 2050, which will create “ever-widening production gaps,” indicating otherwise. Furthermore, the report also noted how “global coal production under the GPP [Gross Primary Production] pathway is [estimated to be] around 460% higher in 2030 and 2400% higher in 2050” (SEI et al., 2023). These statistics present the grim reality of resource depletion.

Unarguably, there is a pressing need to view development in cognizance of the looming ecological predicament. The challenge is “not to seek to protect the natural environment from man, but to alter the global economy in which our appetites press on the ‘outer limits’* of resources” (Redclift, 1984, p. 126). Bearing the ecological predicament in mind, there is a need to re-examine what it means to be truly ‘developed’.


Having traced the trajectory of development and its theoretical and practical implications, it is inferred that development has both positive and negative connotations. While development is intrinsically ‘progressive’, its consequences have been regressive. The horse race to development between nations only exacerbated problems further. Dirlik termed this ‘Developmentalism’ or the “fetishisation of development” (Dirlik, 2014). The paradigm of development as it exists today needs urgent redressal so that ‘Sustainable Development’ does not become a mere tokenism. There is a need for the consolidated efforts of all nations to this end, and they should recognise the fact that solutions to global problems are ultimately local. We are past the traditional development theories into a new dawn of beyond-development. We have learned important lessons through hindsight and gauged profound calamities foreshadowing the future. Ecological consciousness backed by inclusive policymaking is essential for a collective rebuilding of the world, as hackneyed phrases and empty platitudes would soon bite the dust. At the closing, it seems only fair to quote T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men (1925):

“This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.”


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  2. Smith, A., & Bryce, J. (1983). ‘Vol. 4: Lectures on Rhetoric and belles lettres’ in The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press eBooks.

  3. Escobar, A. (2012). Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

  4. Leys, Colin. (2005). ‘The Rise and Fall of Development Theory,’ in M. Edelman and A. Haugerud (eds.) The Anthropology of Development and Globalization. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp 109-125.

  5. Redclift, Michael. (1984). Development and the Environmental Crisis: Red or Green Alternatives? New York: Methuen & Co., chapters 1 & 7, pp 5-19, 122-130.

  6. Visvanathan, Nalini, Lynn Duggan, Laura Nisonoff & Nan Wiegersma (eds). (1997). The Women, Gender and Development Reader. Delhi: Zubaan, pp 33-54.

  7. Sen, Amartya. (1999). Development as Freedom. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 3‐11, 35-54.

  8. Esteva, G., & Dix, K (trans.). (2022). Gustavo Esteva: A Critique of Development and other essays (1st ed.). New York: Routledge eBooks.

  9. Dirlik, Arif. (2014). ‘Developmentalism: A Critique,’ Intervention 16 (1), pp 30-48.

  10. SEI, Climate Analytics, E3G, IISD, UNEP. (2023). Production Gap Report 2023.

By- Vidhi Sharma

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