International development is facing significant criticism and profound challenges. European governments are prioritising domestic agendas by cutting aid budgets and diverting development money to dealing with refugees. Many of these governments promote the private sector as an alternative source of development assistance. It means that there is little prospect of achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, a project currently defining international development but one which even lacks the necessary data gathering mechanisms to determine progress.
Meanwhile, the traditional North-South spatial dimension of development is disrupted by rapidly-emerging economies in the South and pockets of deep poverty in the North. At the same time, escalating environmental decline casts doubt on the wisdom of pursuing economic development, which in turn feeds into wider debates about the nature and purpose of development. In addition, criticism of the track record of international development and its traditional domination by the West, reflected in southern state indebtedness, leads some commentators to make the case for breaking with the development paradigm or at the very least changing its name.
Nevertheless, there are good reasons for persisting with development. Firstly, it is a reflexive discourse that continues to evolve in response to criticism and past errors. In this regard, participation, empowerment and localism have all become important themes within international development. For example, donor governments increasingly give money directly to local NGOs and civil society organizations because of their greater local knowledge and insight. Similarly, the growth in direct cash transfers to those requiring assistance enables them to determine how best to meet their own needs. Digital payments are also an antidote to the corruption and conditionality associated with development funding.
Secondly, development is becoming more inclusive, making it harder to dismiss it as a western project. Indeed, international development is not immune to shifts in global power, evident in the growing influence of the BRICS. These changes are reflected in the movement away from traditional aid relationships and towards global development cooperation, with some southern countries becoming economic powers in their own right and providing development assistance to other states. Indeed, many people working within development now avoid using the term ‘aid’.
Likewise, the SDGs are intended to be universal, with all states committed to implementing their own national programmes. Moreover, the themes running through the SDGs, such as inclusivity, resilience, accessibility, well-being, sustainability and peace similarly distance it from traditional approaches to development. It is part of the growing recognition that development is not simply an economic phenomenon taking place in the South, rather it is a complex set of relations and processes being played out globally in different contexts and at multiple levels (local, national, regional, and international).
Finally, development is underpinned by a moral purpose: it attempts to alleviate poverty and improve the lives of the poor throughout the world. Thus, despite the bad things that have been done in the name of ‘development’, it remains a project that is worth persisting with. Of course, this does not mean that those of us who work in this sector should be complacent.
Dr Paul Hopper, Understanding Development (2nd edition published in January 2018).