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While there is no one definition of development, it is generally taken to mean the efforts, by poor and rich countries, to bring people out of poverty and to create a greater quality of life. In that sense, the word “development” can be taken as similar to “progress“. It encompasses issues such as reducing income poverty, improving health and education, access to water and sanitation, foreign aid, debt relief, fair trade, governance, human rights, gender equality and reducing the effects of climate change.[1]

Theories of Development

Modernisation and Dependency Theories

Development theory first emerged after the Second World War with modernisation theorists such as WW Rostow who argued that all countries would go through “stages of growth” on a path to development, and these stages were defined primarily around economic take-off, ending in an “age of mass consumption”.[2] In the 1960s, dependency theorists such as Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin and Walter Rodney, argued that Western development was possible because of a capitalist world economy which by its nature was exploitative, and this prevents the kind of linear path to modernisation of states that Rostow and the modernisationists predicted. This created the beginnings of the so-called “impasse” in development theories. From the 1980’s post-development theorists such as Wolfgang Sachs, Illich, Shiva, Escobar and Esteva, argue that the whole idea of “development” is constructed by Western discourse, that it inherently implies inferiority of traditional approaches and the superiority of modernity.[3]

The Capabilities Approach

Nobel Prize-winning economist, Amartya Sen, is largely seen as the founder of the “capabilities” approach to development, which seeks to broaden the definition of poverty and give weight beyond the economic measures to encompass how social, cultural and political factors influence the level of poverty a person experiences. In Development as Freedom Sen claims that individual advantage must be seen “in terms of the capabilities a person has, that is the substantive freedoms he or she enjoys to lead the kind of life he or she has reason to value. In this perspective, poverty must be seen as the deprivation of basic capabilities, rather than merely as lowness of incomes…”[4]

Main Indices and Measurements

Millennium Development Goals

Human Development Index

Human Poverty Index

Other Indices

The Commitment to Development Index (CDI) rates 22 rich countries on how much they help poor countries build prosperity, good government, and security. Each rich country gets scores in seven policy areas, which are averaged for an overall score. It is published annually by the Centre for Global Development.



  2. Haynes, J (2008), Development Studies, Polity Press, UK, p22
  3. Sachs, W. (ed)(1992) The Development Dictionary, Zed Press, London
  4. Sen, A (1999), Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press, Oxford


Further reading