‘International’ Development? Why We Need to Understand the Importance of Locality

The term ‘International Development’ is often used without consideration of the underlying meaning and implications of it. Peter McNally explores the theoretical underpinnings of the term and provides a reconceptualisation of the term.

As much as we talk about ‘international development’, it remains quite a vague term. It describes many different sectors and encompasses everything from small internationally-minded charities to multi-billion pound government aid budgets. Its objectives are similarly nebulous – not least because of perennial uncertainty around what ‘development’ really means.

Increasingly, the use of this catch-all term seems somewhat problematic and outdated. However, it’s not the ‘development’ part that’s the problem – it’s the ‘international’ part. The reason being that this term suggests some form of transnational uniformity. Thinking of things in such a way implies the existence of a set purpose of ‘development’ – and pathway to achieving it – that applies worldwide.

Suffice to say, this is not a good implication to be making. Rather, it is important to understand that there is no single path to development, nor consistent experiences thereof. The different development trajectories of Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are a prime example of this. In 1960, each of these regions had an aggregated GDP per capita of below 500 USD. However, by the year 2000, the former had risen to just short of 1200 USD, whilst the latter had all but stagnated at around 500 USD.

Clearly, no kind of internationally applicable, template of development trajectory took hold here. Rather, each of these different regions experienced unique manifestations of development. Indeed, the same can be said for every different country, town and community within these regions. Simply put, there is no uniform development pathway, nor consistent set of development objectives, that can be applied uniformly worldwide. As such, the term ‘international development’ is misleading.

However, the problematic nature of the term should not detract from the intentions that often underlie it – namely, attempts to achieve goals relating to social, economic and cultural justice all over the world. To avoid this, let’s try to think about development in a much more localised way: one that is nuanced, based on local effectiveness and needs, and respects the diversity of these needs across the globe. Framing development in such terms will help us to do it better in three primary ways.

Firstly, we must remember that different areas are subject to different circumstances – and different people want different things. As obvious as this seems, this is something that international development programmes have not always appreciated. Perhaps the most famous example of this is PlayPumps, where we learned that no amount of government money or celebrity endorsements can make up for insufficient consultation with a local community about what problems they have and how they can be solved.

Picture of PlayPumps in use. Picture by Media molecule / Creative Commons License

Picture of PlayPumps in use. Picture by Media molecule / Creative Commons License

Essentially, solutions that are locally generated – or devised in genuine consultation with a range of local stakeholders – have the best potential for effectiveness. This doesn’t mean that we should leave people outside of our own locality to look after themselves, just that maybe conventional macro perspectives aren’t always appropriate. Add into the mix the propensity of assessments of development to focus on indicators like GDP per capita – a measurement based on western notions of development – and you can see how local needs and preferences are often deprioritised by such programmes.

Secondly, it will help us to see development as a cohesive rather than divisive project. We so often hear about ‘developing countries’, the ‘global south’, and even still the odd ‘third world’ comment here and there. But consider this: there are parts of ‘developing’ countries which are richer than parts of ‘developed’ countries, and parts of ‘developed’ countries which are more in need of support than their ‘developing’ counterparts. For example, Cuba has a higher literacy rate than the US, and the richest neighbourhood in Lagos is wealthier than the poorest neighbourhood in London. By recognising local levels of development in this more atomised way, we can see that it applies to all of us – realistically, nowhere has finished developing. This will help to finally dispel the othering, anachronistic way in which development is commonly seen today, and who it is commonly understood to be for.

Finally, if you’re like me, you probably want to know how you can contribute to development in the most impactful way. So, here’s the good news – having a more localised perspective is a great way to do that. We have all heard the numerous criticisms of ‘voluntourism’ over the past few years: the impact of certain organisations sending temporary unskilled labour to developing areas is as sketchy as the ethics of doing so. In such cases, these voluntourists’ motives for going seem quite dubious. Indeed, if your aim is to have the most impact, then you must consider what you and your organisation can offer that is in any way more impactful than local people implementing local solutions. If you can’t think of anything, then maybe consider supporting organisations that seek to empower people to do this. In the meantime there are likely to be plenty of worthy – if less glamorous – development projects closer to home which are ripe for your contributions.

Ultimately, this is what development should be all about: empowerment. It is arrogant to think that people from developed countries are any more creative, innovative or enterprising than those living in developing communities. What they may have to offer are unique resources, technology and facilitation skills. So, let’s do development in a way that focuses on sharing and co-operating in the name of empowerment. Appreciating the innumerable different micro-scale development situations and needs all over the world will greatly enhance our ability to do this.

You can follow Pete McNally on Twitter: @_petermc


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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