‘The meaning of development’

Dr ‘Toyin Kolawole
Tuesday, 13 October 2015
‘The meaning of development’

In his seminal paper titled The Meaning of Development published in the IDS Communication Series 44 of 1969 at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) based in the University of Sussex, England, Dudley Seers (1920–1983) painstakingly constructed the scaffolding for understanding the concept of development.

In that paper, Professor Seers - who belonged to the structuralists’ school of thought - asked three pertinent questions in relation to a country’s level of development in this manner: ‘What has been happening to poverty? What has been happening to unemployment? What has been happening to inequality?’ He then concluded that a country would be adjudged to have experienced development if all the three problems have been alleviated significantly. If one or two or all the three of these major problems are unabated, he continued, it would then be unusual to gauge the country in question as having experienced ‘development’ even in situations where per capita income has increased significantly. 

Simply put, economic growth is not synonymous with economic development.
Dudley Seers’ critical dissection of the subject may have consequently led to his famous definition of the concept of development. Conceptualizing development as an all encompassing phenomenon, Seers defined it as the realization of the potential of human personality. In other words, development can and will only take place when an individual has realized his or her full potential. Ultimately, this all round definition provides a better understanding of the concept and how issues surrounding it should be addressed by all stakeholders including researchers and academics, technocrats, politicians and world leaders. And this may have laid the foundation for the works of famous scholars like Amartya Sen and Mahbub ul Haq who are champions of human development theory. There is, therefore, a link between Seers’ proposition and Sen’s capabilities approach, which is all about what people can do and eventually become. Even Seers himself had earlier admitted that ‘the fulfillment of human potential requires much that cannot be specified in purely economic terms’. Put differently, issues surrounding one’s personal faith, knowledge acquisition, culture, freedom of speech, citizenship and the like are at the core of the matter.   

In one of our recent field expeditions in the Okavango Delta, we randomly sought opinions from some members of riparian communities who are a part of our clientele system to tell us, from their own perspectives, what the word ‘development’ connotes. Although diverse but not entirely cross-cutting (perhaps due to limited sample size), the responses were astounding! One individual told us that ‘development begins when I can now live a better life than ever before’. ‘I believe’, he continued, ‘I can realize this when I am able to own my own business, and through which I can personally make a decision on what to buy for myself and what to not buy’. Here, our analysis suggests that this response points to the fact that some individuals perceive financial independence as key to development – it is the ability to circumvent socio-economic hardship through any worthwhile entrepreneurship. So the ability to fend for oneself without being at the mercy of other people is fundamental to development. Another individual understood development to mean ‘having a good paying and secured job upon which daily sustenance depends.’ Thus this individual had conceived development as the ability to have a paid employment and a rewarding job opportunity. This second viewpoint is not radically different from the first. To those individuals, development is all about economic freedom.

And from the perspective of a female respondent, development connotes peace and security. ‘Unity and harmony’, she continued, ‘is achieved in a situation where people live together in an atmosphere of benevolence, and that which is devoid of rancor and hostility.’ This response would perhaps lead us to gender analysis of development in another forum. That a conflict-free environment replete with mutual understanding and respect is construed by the rural woman as yardstick for measuring development is not surprising. Regardless of whether or not that individual has the wherewithal for economic sustenance, she is satisfied as long as there is peace and quietness. This also suggests that economic exploits per se, may not necessarily make an individual to be truly fulfilled if peace and harmony are not within reach!

This reminds me of a true life story recently recounted by a friend of mine about one seemingly wealthy husbandman who chose to live in a dilapidated hut in a pristine, remote village. On probing why the individual chose to live such a ‘rusty’ lifestyle, the response was so startling! The cattle businessman had answered thus: being able to live in this serene environment and smell cows’ dung are much more than acquiring property in any form! To that individual, closeness to Nature is largely the height of development. In another location, however, some community members unanimously reiterated: ‘development is when our community is provided with infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, potable water, tarred road, electricity, telecommunication systems and retail shops such as Choppies or Spar and the like’. To this group of individuals, provision of social amenities within their vicinity is tantamount to development. Transitioning from a primitive lifestyle to a modern one can only say one thing – development! But in another clime, some villagers retorted: ‘Development is difficult to understand; we do not know what it is all about!’ I consider that perspective to be sweeping. Perhaps the people in question chose to give a seemingly too extreme response because of their despair and disillusionment, which is a conundrum yet unresolved. Interrogating my research assistant who posed the question to them, I asked whether he further probed the enquiry. But unfortunately he did not. Perhaps a further probing of the subject would have unearthed useful information as to why the villagers chose to respond in the manner they did. 

All that said, one can surmise that development is a complex subject, meaning different things to different people in time and space. This deduction can only suggest one thing: anyone willing to bring about improvement and progress in human wellbeing must be eclectic in how development problems are approached. While community people yearn for social change, basics such as education, infrastructural development (be they physical, social, and institutional), and socio-economic empowerment are fundamental to human development. It is in this light that I commend the government of Botswana in its effort to continue to train its talented young population as far as sending them abroad to receive quality education, which in turn is meant to appropriately capacitate Batswana population in the long run. This lofty effort needs to be sustained by all means possible to the extent that structural unemployment problem becomes a thing of the past. While the rural boy child needs to be devoted utmost attention, the girl child must particularly be availed quality education and training, for they are naturally the fabrics of the society. The social welfare schemes meant for old people are commendable, too, as Botswana seems to be doing better than many notable African countries. However, this effort could be better enhanced to reach all deserving individuals in very remote locations.

In sum, to create and sustain a healthy polity and socio-economic equilibrium, policy issues addressing the needs of young individuals who are naturally not inclined to formal education would need re- energizing through some rigorous entrepreneurship trainings, which ultimately can trigger a ripple effect on employment promotion, wealth creation and economic freedom at all levels. Once capacitated, the budding generation are naturally armed and able to become what they intend to be. And they in turn will bring about the brand of sustainable development for which the world currently yearns.   

*Dr ‘Toyin Kolawole is Associate Professor of Rural Development at the Okavango Research Institute, University of Botswana based in Maun.

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