What Is Development?

Development is a process that brings about growth, progress and positive change. It encompasses many aspects of human life, from physical and mental changes to economic improvements or social progress, like education and health care. A growing understanding of development began in the second half of the twentieth century when it was recognized that just having more money does not automatically mean a rise in standards of living and that there are many other aspects to consider, including ensuring that all people benefit from progress and that no one is left behind.

A number of different theories emerged to explain developmental change. Some, like Piaget and Erikson, assumed that all humans progress through certain stages of cognitive or psychological development at roughly the same time. Others, like Vygotsky and information processing theorists, viewed development as an active learning process that occurs through interaction with an environment and through internal brain processes. Some theorists, like Sen and Martha Nussbaum, promoted a “capability approach,” in which improvements must be distributed fairly among all citizens and that everyone has a right to pursue their full potential.

International development efforts grew out of this growing recognition that a richer country does not automatically have more opportunities for improvement or that a standard of living can be measured by wealth alone. Today, global development includes an array of interconnected efforts from government agencies, nongovernmental organizations and philanthropies to support international development goals that go beyond bottom-line economics. These include sustainable development, which seeks to incorporate environmental integrity and goals for social progress along with economic growth; decolonizing development, in which local actors have more control over development funds and decisions; and efforts to promote a new definition of the term “developed” that moves away from a history of wealthy nations defining what development looks like for poorer countries.