Development Theory

Picture1International development is a broad and vast field of theory and practice within academia, government, non-government organizations, and private industry. In many ways, international development is associated with the concept of international aid, yet it is distinct from disaster relief and humanitarian efforts that provide short-term or quick solutions to immediate catastrophes such as famine, disease epidemics, war and climatic disasters. International development implements long-term solutions to social, health, economic, and/or political problems by creating and implementing new frameworks that create the necessary resources that will help improve the capacity to build sustainable solutions. Because of this, the idea of ‘development’ and approaches to it vary widely.

Since the middle of the 20th century, particularly after World War II, international development was associated with economic development which was largely measured by economic indices such as employment rates, per capita income, and national income rooted in the machinations of capitalism.  The emphasis on capitalist development was rooted in the assumption that capitalism brings about social benefits. More recently however, a growing area of development practice and theory has been exploring a more holistic approach to development that targets specific problems such as poverty, illiteracy, environmental degradation, epidemics, oppression, inequality, and other problems that affect quality of life and well-being. This is sometimes referred to as human development and it relies on a more holistic approach to international development objectives. Today, the effort toward sustainable development is receiving significant attention in development-based research, policy and practice. Like development, however, the idea and notion of  what is ‘sustainable’ varies widely.  Research in and about development is referred to as Development Studies, and it is an interdisciplinary field that draws from areas such as international relations, anthropology, sociology, political sciences, economics, geography, and many others.

In spite of  the various perspective on the meanings and objectives of development, international development programs and policies are expected to produce positive outcomes for the target community. Unlike disaster or relief aid, international development projects are expected to yield results that operate indefinitely without additional international involvement or support. International development programs may consist of a single, transformative project that targets a specific problem such as the spread of HIV/AIDS among tourism workers, water scarcity in a mountain village, or an increasing rate of juvenile diabetes within an island community. International Development programs may also include of a series of projects targeted at a specific aspect of a society such as human rights, empowering women, building local economies, and conserving natural resources. Development practice, policies and programs are created and implemented by a wide range of agencies and organizations that include international organizations such as the World Bank and United Nations, national agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and non-governmental organizations such as the UK-based AIDS relief and research organization called AVERT. We will take a closer look at development organizations and institutions shortly. These programs are shaped by development theories which are ideas and perspectives on the type of change that should be initiated in a society, the methods used to initiate the change, and the expected outcomes of those changes.

Development as Concept

Proponents of development perceive and represent development as a social and moral obligation for rich countries and people to spread wealth and prosperity and thereby increase the quality of life for poor countries and people worldwide. In the words of U.S. President, Henry Truman (1949):

We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. The old imperialism – exploitation for foreign profit – has no place in our plans. What we envisage is a program of development based on the concept of democratic fair dealing.

Truman’s sentiment became the mantra for US policy, and it launched a development initiative that continues to influence American policies, programs, and relationships worldwide.  Yet the ways in which wealth and benefits are made available are largely shaped by very different theories and approaches to development.  The following is a brief overview of the more prominent theoretical frameworks in development studies. We will take a closer look at these theories when we explore the Global Contexts module.

Modernization Theory

Modernization theory is based on a linear stages of growth model known as Rostow’s Model which gained popularity with the US Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. It relies on the idea that all societies embark on a progressive transition from a ‘pre-modern’ (undeveloped) society to a ‘modern’ (developed) society which is characterized by technological and urban advances. This theory therefore approaches problems such as famine, disease and poverty through the internal organization of a nation based on its position along the premodern-modern trajectory. Modernization theorists assume that problems within a nation can be resolved by simply modernizing, or developing, the nation. Modernization theory attempts to identify the social variables that contribute to progress and development such as democratization, industrialization, state-building, women’s empowerment, irrigation, computer technology, transportation systems, communication technologies, etc.  Proponents of modernization theory point out that that modern states are wealthier and more powerful, and that their citizens are freer to enjoy a higher standard of living. To learn more about modernization theory, click here.


Structuralism focuses on structural aspects of society that impede economic growth in poor nations. Structuralist analyze the country’s economy ranging from a primarily subsistence-based agricultural system to a modern, urbanized manufacturing or service-based system. Policies and programs rely on government interventions to alter the structure of the system toward a modern or industrialized model in order to achieve self-sustaining growth. This is expected to be achieved by weaning the underdeveloped country’s reliance on exports and limited trade with protected trade measures. The logic of the strategy is based on the ‘infant industry’ model that argues that developing countries do not have the economies of scale nor the experience to compete with wealthier competitors. The only way to compete and grow in the global market is through government programs and policies that promote industrialization and reduce dependency on trade with rich nations. Watch the video below to learn more about Modernization and Structuralist Development Theories.


The Neo-Liberal Model of development has its roots in Neoclassical development theory which emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries from the works of Adam Smith and David Ricardo who argued in favor of free markets and against government economic intervention. In Wealth of Nations (1776) Adam Smith argued that the ‘invisible hand’ of a free economy and trade will ultimately benefit all of society. This idea was referred to as liberalism. Smith’s argument for the social benefits of the free market is outlined in his lesser known work, Moral Sentiments (1759) which relies on the idea that humans are inherently good, and if left to free will, people will share and support their resources. Two centuries later, free markets became a central part of economic development programs known as neo-liberalism which was characterized by structural adjustment programs (SAPs) and free trade agreements (FTAs).  Neoliberalism became came to dominate international development policy toward the end of the 1970s during the terms of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan.

Keynsian Theory

Keynsian economics is rooted in government spending to stimulate economies and provide social services. Launched by John Maynard Keynes, and his influential work, General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money in 1936. To learn more about Keynsian Economics and how it differs from fee-market approached watch the video below.

Human Development Theory

Human development theory uses ideas from different disciplines such as economics, ecology, sustainability, welfare economics, anthropology and sociology to focus on the ways that social capital, or human networks, and instructional capital can be used to improve human capital within an economy. Human development theorists target existing capabilities, or what people can do, rather than income or commodities. This approach moves beyond the Basic Needs Approach to development which focuses on meeting basic needs, and emphasizes welfare economics to evaluate and determine wellbeing. This core idea also underlies the construction of the Human Development Index, a human-focused measure of development pioneered by the United Nations Development Program in Human Development Reports. This theory is largely influenced by the work of Amartya Sen’s book, Development as Freedom (1988). To learn more, click here.

Sustainable Development

Sustainable development aims to meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable development considers the carrying capacity of the planet, its ecological systems, and the challenges facing humanity. This theory approaches the environment, economics and society and interconnected phenomena. The sustainability approach to development is influenced by Limits to Growth commissioned by the Club of Rome. To learn more, click here.

Anti-Development Theories

For some, however, the idea of development, along with development programs and policies, remains a highly contentious issue. Critics argue that the very notion of development ignores global wealth disparities created by the disastrous effects of European colonial occupation and that global development policies implemented by rich nations are an extension of colonial imperialism. From this perspective, the very terms  ‘developed,’  ‘developing,’ or ‘underdeveloped’ are based on European representations of non-European people and cultures as backward, primitive, and ‘undeveloped.’  Renown scholars such as Edward Said have argued that these representations were used, and are still being used, to justify European and American imperialism and the extraction of foreign resources. In this way, development is positioned as a type of neo-colonialism in which wealthier nations force industrial and economic structure on a less powerful nations.

Dependency Theory and the Modern World System

Dependency Theory is rooted in Modern World System theory which is based on the notion that resources are extracted from poor or peripheral nations by wealthy, or core, nations. These theories emerged as a reaction to Modernization theory.

Post Development Theory or Anti-Development Theories

Post Development theory arose in the 80s and 90s, and it questions the idea of national economic development altogether. Post development scholars argue that the goals of are based on the perspectives of those in power, particularly Westerners, and does not consider the points of view of indigenous peoples and cultures. From this perspective, the Western lifestyle may neither be a realistic nor a desirable goal for the world’s population, and development results in culture-loss and destruction of diverse modes of living. Post-development theorists are argue that the very notion of poverty is culturally embedded and can differ among cultures. The institutes which voice the concern over underdevelopment are very Western-oriented, and postdevelopment calls for a broader cultural involvement in development thinking.  Post Development proposes a vision that removes itself from the ideas which currently dominate it and incorporates local culture and knowledge and grassroots movements. For a brief video synopsis of post-development theory, click here.

The documentary trailer, The Shock Doctrine, below is based on Naomi Klein’s book of the same name and represents one anti-development or anti-globalization perspective.

To learn more about anti-development and anti-globalization movements, click here.

Putting Theory into Practice

Now that you have a general idea of the wide variety of development-based theoretical approaches to solving global problems, it is important that you continue to explore different development frameworks as you research and prepare your final project in upcoming weeks. For an additional video review of some of the above theories and others, click here.  The reading below offers a brief overview of the different perspective and approaches that shape international development theory today.  As you move through this introductory reading, consider the different perspectives on and definitions of development.


  • Conceptualizing Development and Meanings of Development (Potter et al) – forthcoming, if it is not posted yet, just skip it.
  • Stiglitz, Joseph. Rethinking Development Economics


How would you define development? Do you consider development a moral obligation for wealthier countries and people to assist poorer countries and people or do you view development as an extension of power  by former colonial and imperial countries? What theory appeals to you most? Feel free to address a different development theory not included here. There are no right or wrong answers here, but it is important that you draw from the materials presented in this lesson and use terms and concepts presented in the readings when you formulate your response.

After completing the discussion, move on to Social Theory.