8 Development

Learning Objectives for this Chapter

After reading this Chapter, you should be able to:

  • understand the sorts of topics that social scientists working in the area of international and community development explore,
  • explore key concepts pertaining to international and community development, enabling you to think more deeply about the ways in which such work can be undertaken,
  • understand and critically analyse approaches to international and community development, drawing on different theoretical perspectives.

How do social scientists think about (international) development?

Development has been central to the social sciences for a very long time, especially the way societies develop over time economically, politically, and socially. In the last few decades studies of development of people and the nation-states they live in have become their own field of ‘development studies’ that encompasses anthropology, sociology, political science, international relations, and many other social sciences. Economic approaches and studies have dominated the field and have focused on the growth of gross domestic product (GDP) and the expansion of market-oriented economies as key indicators of development. Political science has explored the role of states and international governmental and non-governmental organisations in shaping development outcomes, while anthropology and sociology have focused on the social and cultural dimensions of development, including issues of power, inequality, and identity.

Arturo Escobar (1952-)

Arturo Escobar is a Colombian anthropologist and critical development scholar who is best known for his critiques of traditional development practices. In his influential book, “Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World,” Escobar argues that development has been shaped by Western-centric perspectives and is inherently tied to a colonial legacy. He argues that development has been used as a tool of domination, leading to cultural and ecological destruction, and perpetuating global inequalities. Escobar also calls for a more participatory, culturally sensitive, and ecologically responsible approach to development that is grounded in local knowledge and perspectives.

The history of (international) development has predominantly been concerned with developing the so-called Third World, which in turn was produced by the West and its so-called First World status. For the global South to be reduced to a supposed underdeveloped ‘Third World’ status, which carries many negative connotations, requires a global North to benefit from the trading arrangements in place (see world systems theory in the introduction). In this view the global South is largely made up of former colonies that remain in a dependent relationship. In this vein, development has become a new word for colonialism, especially in its form of international development aid (Hayter 1971).

In the post-World War II era, the concept of development became central to the agendas of most newly independent, decolonising states, many of which saw it as a path to modernity and progress. The price they had to pay to access funding, loans and aid was to sign up to a politico-economic system of one of the two superpowers, the Soviet Union or the United States of America. For all those who aligned with the US and the West more broadly became subject to economic interventions that sought to open domestic markets to international markets, create an international legal framework to make international trade easier and allow foreign ownership (and the extraction of resources and profit) of key industries and resources.

Development can be defined as the:

…sum of the social processes induced by voluntarist acts aimed at transforming a social milieu, instigated by institutions or actors who do not belong to the milieu in question , but who seek to mobilize the milieu, and who rely on the milieu in their attempt at grafting resources and/or techniques and/or knowledge (Olivier de Sardan 2015: 24-25).

What does this broad definition mean? Usually, that an outside party comes in and transforms or attempts to transform the material conditions, local practices and/or mindset of people. Often, this is aimed at changing the economic conditions of a given place such that they may better serve the people – depending on the intervention that can have beneficial effects to locals or those in faraway places. This is where things get complicated, because an easy definition would say that, of course, any intervention should be to benefit the people, e.g. lift people out of poverty and increase their well-being. However, many development interventions have had adverse effects on the people they were meant to serve. To elucidate this, let’s look at some examples of development interventions.

In a paper I (Gerhard) wrote in 2011 with Prof Chris Roche on the performance of international development aid we documented how the state has to be performed in such a manner that it is identical to that of the aid donor in order to receive development aid (Hoffstaedter & Roche 2011). This means all states have to conform to what a modern Western nation state looks like so that aid donors, like the Australian government through AusAID or the United States through USAID, can communicate directly with their counterparts. The problem is that in some states there are no clear counterparts, or states are still forming, with break away regions, not under singular control. Any such deviation from the Weberian modern state model, where the nation state has a monopoly on violence and thus control, is seen as a deficiency or gap, that development actors seek to address and rectify. Such states are quickly called ‘weak’, ‘fragile’, or worse still ‘failed’ states. This diminishes the diversity of political actors or political governance models that exist around the world.

At the heart of much of the debates are how international inequality has been shaped and continues to shape the lived experiences of many people and to what degree we can achieve a just world order.

Here is a short video of Bill Easterley on some more issues with development aid and how that aid gets lost along the way sometimes…

Why does foreign aid fail? (YouTube, 6:33):

Source: Big Think.

David Mosse

David Mosse is a British social anthropologist and development practitioner who has made significant contributions to our understanding of the cultural dimensions of development. In his work, Mosse argues that development projects often fail to achieve their intended outcomes due to a lack of attention to the cultural dimensions of development. He has studied the ways in which development programs shape the social and cultural norms of communities, and has explored the importance of local cultural practices and beliefs in shaping development outcomes. One focus is on how development discourse creates powerful narratives that distort and often do not reflect the realities on the ground.

Development can be much more insidious when interventions are sold as nation-building efforts but end up displacing many people and making their lives worse. These can include dams that are built to shore up cheap reliable domestic energy for the economy but result in the displacement of people, animals and effects on the local ecosystem. For example, the Yacyretá Dam on the Paraguay-Argentina border was hailed as a major infrastructure project that received around 2 billion USD loans from the World Bank with costs blowing out to an estimated 11-15 billion USD with corruption cited as a major cause. The dam also displaced tens of thousands of people and the flood plain covered crucial ecosystems, which led to the extinction of several species of animals. The World Bank continues to fund dams around the world even though its negative effects are well known by now.

This is why it is important to differentiate between development discourse versus development practice. Over the last couple of decades the state-led development dominance has been challenged by grassroots and participatory development. These more inclusive forms take better account of the local people and their interests to create better development interventions. This where community development comes to the fore as a discipline as explained in the next section.

How do social scientists think about community development?

Community development can be practiced in different ways, but generally refers to the empowerment of (typically socially disadvantaged) communities to identify and meet their own needs. This may include needs for basic infrastructure, like water and electricity, or other human needs, such as for social contact, which can improve health and wellbeing. The basis of community development is that it is communities themselves who define what their needs are, as well as the basis and approach for acting on those needs. This rejects the notion of an outsider coming in to impose their own ideas and strategies about the ways and means of development, which as Stoecker (2013: 3) explains, “has been the typical pattern of outsider professionals in dealing with populations that exist at the margins of ‘our’ society.” Stoecker (2013: 3) goes on to explain:

We interpret people as impoverished and unhappy because they don’t have big-screen TVs, or interpret them as more moral and happy because they are living in the woods even when they are dying young from diabetes and heart disease. So we go in to ‘fix’ them, from our standards and through our own eyes. We apply the golden rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you — without considering that the ‘others’ may not be like us, and doing unto them the same as us could in fact be doing harm.

Community development approaches can either be generalised (i.e. focusing on multiple aspects of a community at once) or specialised (i.e. focusing on one aspect in particular, like housing or health) (Stoecker 2013: 4). Regardless, community development practitioners tend to view communities as complex systems with lots of interrelated and moving parts that influence and affect one another. Unlike a typical structural functionalist perspective, however, community development practitioners are also usually deeply concerned with power, including how forms of power and control can disenfranchise some groups, and how those groups might claim their power back. Indeed,

…community development is not simply about building things. Safe drinking water, schools, houses, and other physical things are of course important. But even more important is building the capacity of community members to organise themselves so that they can set and achieve their own community goals. (Stoecker 2013: 5)

Reflection exercise

Watch What is community development? (YouTube, 1:11) about community development.

After watching the video, take a pen and paper and write down your own brief definition (~30 words) of community development. Check your understanding by watching the video a second time.

Reflexivity in community development

Strong community development practitioners draw on their sociological imaginations to understand their own social positions, and how this might impact their work. Remember back to the materials we covered in module 1. For instance, recall that we discussed Nagel’s (1989) concept that there is ‘no view from nowhere’, which reminds us that we are all embedded in our own social realities and, thus, can never be truly objective outsiders. In this regard, we inevitably bring our own values and beliefs, informed in part by our social positions, to everything we do — including community development.

In this regard, it is critically important that we acknowledge and are reflexive about our social positions (our ‘positionality’) and how these influence our work.

Revision: What is reflexivity?

For some revision on the concept of reflexivity in research, you might like to watch Reflexivity in Qualitative Research (YouTube, 2:00):


We discussed the concept of reflexivity earlier in the book, in relation to using our sociological imaginations. This is also critically important when undertaking community development work.

Reflection exercise

After moving through the above materials, consider:

  1. How might we draw on principles of community development to critique Australia’s colonial history?
  2. Think about current approaches to ‘Indigenous Affairs’ in Australia, like ‘Close the Gap’. How might a community development practitioner critique this strategy? (You might also like to read this Guardian article about the 2020 Closing the Gap report.)

Spaces for change

‘Spaces for change’ are those spaces within which individuals and communities can contribute to, direct and/or deliver change. These can include ‘closed’, ‘open’ and ‘claimed’ spaces:

  • Closed’ spaces are those in which experts, bureaucrats and others who are invited into the space define and think about social ‘problems’, and responses to those problems, with very little or no consultation or involvement from those experiencing such ‘problems’.
  • Open’ spaces are those in which authorities (e.g. government) invite others to participate in deliberative processes for identifying and responding to social problems (e.g. deliberative democracy forums).
  • Claimed’ or ‘created’ spaces are those that are claimed or created by less powerful social actors — e.g. community members or others — and provide room for grassroots level engagement around defining and responding to social problems.

The type of space made available for policy input, as well as how different actors can shape policy within those spaces, is deeply influenced by power, as illustrated in Gaventa’s ‘Finding the Spaces for Change: A Power Analysis’ (PDF, 120KB) (2006: 25) power cube.

Reflection exercise

Think about examples of policy making you have either witnessed first-hand, or heard about/seen second-hand. Consider the following:

  1. Can you think of an example of a policy that might have been advertised as being developed in an open space, but where this did not take place in practice?
  2. Why does this matter? What are the implications for this in a representative democracy?

Resources to support further learning


  • Hoffstaedter, G. & Roche, C. (2011) ‘All the world’s a stage’: structure, agency and accountability in international aid, Journal of the Asia Pacific Economy, 16:4, 529-543, DOI: 10.1080/13547860.2011.610886
  • Kenny, S. 2016. Community development today: engaging challenges through cosmopolitanism? Community Development Journal, 51(1): 23-41.
  • Stoecker, R. 2013. The community development context of research. In. Research methods for community change: a project-based approach. Sage: London.

Other resources:

  • Escobar, A. (1995). Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Hayter, T. (1971) Aid as imperialism, Harmondsworth: Penguin
  • Mosse, D. (2005). Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice. London: Pluto Press.
  • Olivier de Sardan, J.-P. 2005. Anthropology and development: Understanding contemporary social change. translated by Antoinette Tidjani Alou, London: Zed Books.


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