What is Development? Beyond the Buzzword


To me, development in terms of humanity on a global scale, means collectively reaching our full potential, as a coherent group; embracing the different systems that we are a part of, and attaining peace and fulfilment while surrounded by complexity. A common theme I notice time and time again when investigating development is ‘the common good.’ Without some sort of common trajectory – whether it is as a family, a town, a province, a nation or as a species, it is very hard to work your way toward development without an intentional direction.

So what – specifically – is development? let’s ask Google real quick.


define development.JPG

Ohhh OK so development is the process of developing…great. Thanks Google.

Let’s try that one more time.

define develop.JPG

That’s a bit better I guess… By definition, development refers to the growth, maturity, advancement or elaboration of something. This could be the development of an idea, a prototype, a country, pretty much anything.

That’s extremely vague and broad, isn’t it? No wonder politicians like to use it so much to spice up their speeches, while in reality committing to virtually nothing.

So let’s get into it a bit more… what does development mean in the context of what EWB is doing? I think it is fair to say that the ultimate goal for EWB is to work toward achieving global development. Lets simplify and say that first, development needs to occur at a national level. So we’ll say that in order to work toward global development, EWB is focused on the growth and prosperity of countries that are currently plagued by poverty, disease and economic volatility.

Now, we’ve got an interesting question. In looking at the development of an entire nation, there are so many contributing elements and complexities that even just talking about its overall ‘development’ is a huge undertaking, let alone talking about development on a global scale.

Upon investigating the perspectives of four thinkers in the realm of development, I’ve built on my own insights and reflections.


Reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQ-Gb80HTgk

Amaryta Sen explains that “human capabilities are an essential feature of brining about the change we need in the world.” There are various factors that impede the capabilities and potential of others – such as economic, political, military or aid-related plagues. It is often important for those that are more capable (ie more developed communities) to identify these unfreedoms, or barriers to freedom that exist in our world. That is, help take steps to remove the things that infringe on this path to development lies for others, and themselves. Sen explains that groups who have had the fortune of attaining greater freedom and control through development are best suited to enable those who are further behind to increase the magnitude of their success. While I did find that Sen’s insights were fairly vague, and I wish that Sen’s insights had not been quite as brief, they still provided me with new insights into building a broader understanding of what development is, and sparked conversation for how different groups of people have a tremendous opportunity (and in my opinion a responsibility) to play a role in the different systems that facilitate freedoms and unfreedoms.

Because some of us are fortunate enough to be further along on the journey to development, it is possible for us to look back, and identify barriers which were overcome, and potentially barriers that were created through our development, that impede the progress of others to following their own optimal trajectory. With development comes freedom and control. It is equivalent to say that with the removal of unfreedoms comes true development, and the unlocking of true human capabilities.

So, what do we do? While some groups have more freedom and control in their lives than others, it is important to remember that development is rooted in the notion of unlocking humanity’s full potential. For this reason, it is vitally important to recognise that in order to eliminate unfreedoms, human capabilities cannot be imposed on people. This is not freedom – this is a form of control that acts to further complicate the problem which is being addressed. What needs to be done is the enabling of people’s potential.

Sen speaks of FXB International- An organization aimed at combating poverty and AIDS. They do this by empowering children through the strengthening of social and economic capacities of their families and communities. Empowerment is the focus. NOT ‘us helping them.’

One of the most important freedoms that synthesizes through development which Sen brings up is the freedom of public reason. This really resonated with me, as I had not considered just how important and impactful this freedom can be. By putting actions, ideas and results “under public scrutiny” a population can introduce new ideas, perspectives and opinions into what may be an old, or stale method of doing things. This can lead to continual improvement and the opportunity to advance from failures and weaknesses.


Reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXWIUg30Cpk&feature=youtu.be

Dambisa Moyo has strong criticisms of the shortcomings of the aid industry, many of which very much reflected my own frustrations with it. She highlights how over $1T has gone to African countries over the last 60 years, and things have not considerably improved, and in some cases have gotten worse. Emergency humanitarian aid will continue to be essential, but should be considered a band-aid solution, a treatment of symptoms that does not address the root cause of the problem. Moyo highlights how in many cases aid revenue often goes from a donor to a government. Currently, many African countries are plagued by unstable, corrupt governments that often do not have the intention or infrastructure to carry out the work required to remove the unfreedoms Sen was discussing. This becomes increasingly problematic when factoring in the fact that in many of the most impoverished African countries there is no emerging private sector. The bulk of money is controlled by the State, hence why the state is continually trying to be captured resulting in factions and warlords rising to power and subsequently radicalization, destabilization and violence emerge.


She goes on to explain that it is imperative that we hear from African governments regarding what their development plan is, not listen to it second-hand from celebrities. Donors should be investing in something by providing aid funding to a government, not just giving a blank cheque. Furthermore, these governments need to be held accountable for their actions and decisions. What can truly lead to massive change is a switch from a sympathy to a investment mentality. Let’s do a quick thought experiment. When you walk by a homeless person on the street, you don’t give him money. Why? Could be a number of reasons. Let’s say it’s because you have absolutely no idea what they’re gonna do with that money. They could buy breakfast just as easily as they could buy crack, and you would rather contribute to them having to walk a little further to the soup kitchen than enable their destructive lifestyle. Alternatively If you were to ask the same homeless person you walk by if they would like to join you for lunch and they agree to join you, you would know that your money is being more effectively invested in an effective cause. However, is giving this person a meal really helping them? Arguably no. Arguably you’re just supplying them with a band-aid solution and subsequently enabling them to continue in their current state of existence thus perpetuating the function of the system. So while it’s a better investment than crack, it’s really not helping this person’s situation in the grand scheme of things. Now, what if over lunch you had a deep conversation with them about life, got to know them a bit more personally, and based on what they tell you, you were able to give them the contact information for a number of professionals who could help them with their financial/mental health/addiction issues. This is an interaction that could lead to lasting, sustainable change in their life.

Similarly, the citizens of these African countries need job creation, infrastructure, freedom, and opportunities to take control of their lives; not money thrown at them. There is this mentality that these countries, their people, and their governments are all frail and pathetic; unable to fend for themselves. For this reason, the attitude toward African countries in the West is about sympathy and aid. Factor in the massive disconnect between donors and aid recipients, and you end up with a massive amount of disposable income funnelled toward “aid.” This is a massive problem – as disorganized governments with poorly thought out plans (at best) are being given massive funding. This is why an INVESTMENT MENTALITY is critical.

While many western countries and organizations have a low tolerance for risk, Moyo points out that a number of Chinese and Middle Eastern countries have been investing in the initiatives of African countries. For these investors, it’s moreso about returns, business & incentives with which business is made. They feel that there are places to issue bonds in these countries.

The complex and chaotic systems that currently exists are a result of the fact that African governments don’t rely on their people, but upon do-gooder donors. Furthermore, they often don’t have to answer to anyone.

As Moyo emphasizes, the responsibility of the Development of the African continent is the responsibility of African Leadership. Under an Aid model, they are not incentivised to provide jobs & create wealth for African people – they don’t answer to their people.

As with any structured government, the leaders’ existence should only be possible if that president is creating public goods, or working toward improving the overall quality of life for its citizens.

An interesting point that she brings up is relating to mobile phones. As she explains, mobile phones are very popular in developing African countries & have can be very advantageous to owners. Accessibility to these devices has been restricted in Ethiopia, and the government is not selling the licence,or creating a tariff to produce an inflow into the government. The government knows they can just go to the G20 and get money in other ways, and so they have no incentive to create their own internal means of generating revenue. Moyo states that “An innovative government would look for ways to create money locally.” which I totally agree with her on. Especially in situations where a country is entirely dependant on the good will of other countries, great effort and intention should be put into establishing innovative solutions to creating jobs, creating economic stability, generating a GDP, etc.

“OK, Prime Minister. I’ll give you $2.5M over 5 years to develop infrastructure enabling the people of these areas to travel more freely and safely. I’ll check in after 1 year to see how progress is going.”

This is the sort of mentality that should be put into aid funding. And I will take it one step further. Once a government body comes up with a proposal for what they intend to do, and it has been established that their plans are accurate and realistic, a sufficient investment/donation will be made toward allowing them to follow through on their plans.


Reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNWzYy186W8&feature=youtu.be

Sachs has called on the most developed countries in the world to pool their resources toward alleviating global poverty. He has come under great criticism by aid critics who believe that stand-alone foreign aid projects do little to address underlying problems, and can often do more harm than good. “Aid works when it’s done well and directed at the right things.” He explains, providing examples of being ‘practical’ about aid such as Bed Nets, AIDS medicine, wells and water holes, help for agriculture. He claims that these actions have been proven to have “massive results time and time again.” And switches gears to talking about wasted aid in Iraq… nice deflection bro. I completely agree with Sachs that small amounts of money can yield huge results. We also share the view that simply handing over money is not effective and doesn’t work. I further agree with his stance that when done effectively, huge change can be a result.

However, based on the examples he cited, I get a strong impression that Mr. Sachs is not a Systems Thinker. He seems to embrace the project-based approach to aid, which is problematic unto itself. He mentioned digging water holes/wells. This is obviously important – people need water. However, this fails to address the issue of why these communities didn’t have access to water to begin with. This is the fundamental problem with the aid industry: Emergency Aid has little to no association with development. He talks about food aid… food generally grown by American farms, delivered by American transportation companies, and distributed by American-led teams (or <Insert More Developed Country Here>).

In addressing critics saying that money is going to waste, he says that “We have spent more on the Iraq war than all the world has ever given to all of Africa in all of history… Blah blah pentagon blah blah federal budget.”



You’re starting to bug me a little bit here, bud…

If you gave me a 5 dollar bill and said “I want this to help homeless people.” and I smiled at you, and lit the bill on fire, you’d probably be kindof pissed. I can’t then say “well look at George over there – he just burned 10 dollars!” It’s still an ineffective use of money. Stop making people forget what they’re angry about and address your criticisms.

“We do very little, often we do it very badly.” Yes – I agree. *insert reference to Iraq war.* He then emphasizes the importance of investing in education, agriculture, and basic infrastructure, to get people out of the poverty trap. I totally agree.

“Take one simple example: UNICEF and others teamed up to take on measles, and deaths are down by 91% across Sub-Saharan Africa.” that’s awesome to hear! “Millions of bed nets are being distributed when UNICEF and others have the funding to do it.” Alright, slow down Jeffy. You’re telling me that your long term solution to ‘solving’ the measles problem is to invest aid money in the 3rd-party manufacturing and distribution of bed nets? That’s essentially the same thing as saying you cured someone’s illness by putting them on a life support system. That’s not a solution it’s a temporary fix. Could you not use that money to invest in local manufacturing and distribution companies, using locally procured raw material thus creating a small, self-sustaining industry? This is the problem.

“In Niger 2M bed nets were distributed in 1 week… we can get Malaria under control.” *cost, price, blah blah blah… ANOTHER PENTAGON SPENDING CRITICISM*


Shout out to the guy interviewing Sachs for being about as investigative as a ripe tomato. Sachs might as well be talking to an empty chair.

Overall, there are elements of Sachs’ views that I agree with, and I think that his iniriatives/investments have elements that can be effective at contributing to lasting development. However the great majority of what he says I find problems with, and feel that he needs to think differently about what he is preaching.

Emergency aid is still, and always will be of vital importance – treating aids, measles, malaria, providing access to drinking water and food to people is crucial. And the methodologies for carrying out this emergency aid work has unarguably improved, and thus saved many lives. But addressing development is a different conversation, and Sachs’ attempt to blend and amalgamate the two was by in large ineffective.

Riz Khan and William Easterly

Reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WoV-wtxyQKY&feature=youtu.be

White Man’s Burden… the Do-Gooder mentality… Us helping Them…

Easterly explains that aid money often props up corrupt dictators and warlords…. this mentality makes governments more accountable to aid donors than to their people – they are not held accountable by their citizens. A focus on throwing money at the problem hides the question of whether or not the aid is reaching the poorest of the poor or not.

He explains that while most aid organizations claim to be ‘new and improved’ and ‘thinking differently’ they are anecdotally not showing any signs of improvement (based on his research).

An interesting point he brings up relates to the mentality that those in the west hold. While in the past it was a blatantly racist attitude (ie “pennies for black babies”) it has morphed into a paternalistic mentality that is essentially just a subconscious form of imposing one’s privilege and power. Currently, it an “Us helping Them” mentality, which is extremely problematic. It perpetuates the idea that the people in these countries are unable to help themselves, and are primitive folks that need things done for them.

In addition exists this sense of moral duty to help the poor, whether they want it or not, and whether it’s helping them or not. Instead of consulting with the potential recipients of aid, and identifying what the problems are, what they need, what is stopping these people from solving their problem, the “shut up and let me help you” attitude is instead very rampant.

Development Aid needs to be provided in an effective way that gives the people in impoverished communities autonomy, choice, freedom, and power. Aid is often forced down the throat of countries with lots of conditions attached which often destroy the effectiveness of the aid.

He emphasizes that “Africa is the poorest region in the world even though it’s the most aid-intensive region in the world. It’s had the worst economic growth. Virtually zero rise in living standards despite billions of dollars going toward aid.”


It irritates me that Easterly continually refers to ‘Africa’ as a whole, when speaking about particular regions. This type of language helps to perpetuate the grouping of ‘Africa’ as being this place where everyone’s poor and malnourished. It dehumanizes the very people whom Easterly is trying to help.

Westernize vs Modernize

The citizens directly affected by aid efforts are powerless, as they are being forced to conform to ways hat the west thinks are best. This is a destructive approach, and at the very least builds up resentment toward G20 countries, as they are an outside group forcing you to change… nobody likes that. Their voice on what they need, and whether or not it’s helping is not being heard.

Easterly switches gears, and discusses the common pledge “to double aid” and how it has a great symbolic role… it’s like a token. This doesn’t in itself accomplish anything – it’s the costs not the benefits. He says that stressing the amount of money spent would be like GM saying “we’re gonna double our costs.”

Is there good in celebrities raising public awareness? Bono, Bob Geldaff, and many others are continually carrying out work in the field of activism to advocate for increased efforts toward poverty alleviation. WIlliam concedes that while it is a good thing to spread awareness, it’s generally done through simplistic ideas like ‘doubling aid spending.’

Easterly Vs Sachs

Sachs: “we could be the generation to see the end of poverty.”

Easterly feels that this is very idealistic and unrealistic. He explains the need to produce concrete things people can take responsibility for. Get malaria bed nets to people, whether they’re used. People need to be held accountable for The WHOLE PROCESS, which needs to be continually be monitored, evaluated and improved.

He is firm that the top-down approach doesn’t work…which we know makes sense as we are in the complex domain. There is a need for innovative solutions, fosterning and embracing  bottom-up growth, coupled with feedback to ensure efforts are effective and well-received, and measures in place to continually allow for scaling, adjustability and change in approach.

As mentioned, there is a place for emergency aid. But this will NOT lead to development. Only the individuals themselves can climb their own way out of poverty. Collectively, we need to shift the mindset from a central-planning bureaucracy mindset (the top-down approach), to promoting private entrepreneurs and market economies. They find innovative ways to meet the needs of consumers. Social Entrepreneurs are needed in aid; less bureaucrats and more innovators.




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