So, Development Ideas has reached the end of its interactive life. This website remains a resource for using our volume for teaching purposes, providing additional material to allow students and readers to go beyond each chapter.
Yet Development Ideas also sought to contribute to the reimagining of international development, providing a unique perspective on what became the global goals: from eight MDGs for poor countries, to now seventeen SDGs that bind us all. Over the past two years, policy debate focused on which topics and targets to include, and what data is needed to track progress. As editors, our perspective was that such debate requires a sense of history, an awareness of the ideas used to understand development, and how they evolved over time.
In science, the trends and patterns one identifies depend on the time period examined. Too often, international development is presented as a snapshot, the numbers of people today who are poor or disadvantaged. Policy focuses on the gap between the ‘way things are’ and the ‘World We Want’.
Development may be inherently future-oriented, seeking to create a better tomorrow by addressing a tension between the reality of 2015 and the aspirations for 2030. Yet something vital is lost by not looking back, reflecting on experience of previous generations by identifying the achievements since 1990 or 1950.
Anyone truly interested in international development ought to cultivate a sense of history. One aspect is the facts on the ground, appreciating the substantial gains made. Even in the poorest places, most people now live longer, healthier and wealthier than their grandparents did. Rosling, Deaton, Spence, Radalet, Ravallion and others make eloquent arguments that describe great convergence, escapes from poverty, and surges in wellbeing among the nations of the world. Yet another aspect of history is how our ideas have evolved, appreciating the way people think about development. This was the entry point of our volume and the challenge we presented to each of its contributors.
The history of international development is one of rising ambition. From an initial focus on economic growth and reducing poverty, development now encompasses education and health. Past gains inspired greater expectations and prompted new concern for the environment, security, and the quality of public institutions. Achievements in boosting national averages inspired greater attention to how such gains are shared between women and men, among different groups within society, and among people living in different places (urban centres or rural hinterlands). Underlying this diverse range of topics is a unifying thread towards the notion of human freedom. Some consensus emerged on the ends of development, alongside a plurality of views on the means to achieve it.
A sense of history is vital for avoiding the seduction of new fashions and buzzwords. International development continues to attract new ideas and approaches to improving the human condition. Yet in policy debate, different actors associate their own interpretation to new words. An idea can gain popularity because of its pliability, rather than it analytical rigour. An ugly truth is that a poorly-defined idea can be co-opted, molded by actors to satisfy their interests and further their agenda. Three decades since the Brundtland commission, “sustainable development” remains widely open to redefinition. The same goes for today’s notions of social resilience or innovation.
Rapid policy uptake does not signal that a new idea is enhancing or adding precision to our understanding of the world.
It instead signals that critical thinking is required. When confronted with a new idea or concept, it is important to cultivate a sense of history: how does this idea connect with existing knowledge, what theory underpins it, and what empirical evidence is it based upon. Such questions give us a sense of an idea’s analytical rigour: the extent to which the phenomenon it describes might be measured and the validity of its prediction or explanation. These criteria inform our judgement on how useful an idea might be in understanding development: of how societies and the human condition changes over time. A sense of history requires thinking critically about who proposes or advocates for a new idea: which schools of thought do they draw upon, and what they seek to gain from the idea being adopted in policy or practice.
Critical thinking is imperative whenever an idea does not meet our tests for analytical rigour. It signifies an opportunity to elaborate the idea further, and signals that any policy prescriptions based on that idea warrants caveats and caution. While the idea of human development captured the imagination in the 1990s, arguably its fruition has come through careful elaboration of the human capabilities approach and measures of multidimensional poverty in the 2010s. We should neither ignore nor wholeheartedly adopt new ideas, but expect them to be worked upon and establish their own intellectual merits.
Ideas inspire action. Development ideas inform and inspire the actions of individuals, organisations and states in their continued effort to invent a better world. Yet not all ideas are created equal. A sense of history is needed to think critically about any new idea, to question its intellectual roots, its analytical rigour, and its role in political economy. Poorly-defined ideas are not necessarily bad, but do deserve to be treated skeptically in the expectation that they come “some assembly required”.