- Often associated with a North-South binary, the term ‘international development’ seems increasingly inappropriate for encompassing the various actors, processes and major challenges with which our world currently engages. In a new paper in Progress in Human Geography, I argue that global development holds potential as an emerging paradigm better fitted to the early 21st century, but critical attention is required as to what that may involve.
Beyond the limits of international development
‘International development’ is often loosely used as an umbrella term for development research and practice. The two words do not fully reflect all that is associated with their domain.
The origins of the term ‘international’ are dated to Jeremy Bentham, famous philosopher and utilitarian. He coined the word in the late 18th century in relation to the law governing the relations between states. ‘International’ gained popularity in a 19th-century context of rising nation-states and cross-border transactions. Meanwhile, ‘development’ can be variously used to refer to an idea, objective and/or activity.
The current use of international development is too often overly associated with aid, or development cooperation, overlooking a whole variety of other actors and processes in economic and social transformation. It doesn’t fit the 21stcentury either, for 3 key reasons:
- The interconnectedness of 21st century globalisation:
We can’t isolate the causes of underdevelopment in a residual global South. The causal processes, such as trade, investment, resource flows and political power, that shape prosperity and poverty are interlinked across global North and South. Relational rather than residual approaches are necessary to understand development.
- The challenge of sustainable development, and especially climate change:
This overshadows and renders meaningless the idea that rich countries have achieved development and a transformation is only required in the global South.
- Blurring North-South boundaries:
The pattern of global inequalities has shifted from “divergence, big time” with rising inequalities between counties to “converging divergence” with inequalities falling between North and South (in aggregate), yet rising within them.
A new global development paradigm?
Global development, involving a focus on the whole world and which includes but goes beyond an international development focused just on the global South, is more fitting to the 21st century. Most prominently, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) relate to all countries, while the Paris Climate Agreement requires commitments by countries in the global South as well as the global North.
This is a major geographic shift, with considerable implications for what counts and is prioritised as a key development issue, for how we understand the causal processes shaping development, and for related strategic action.
Overcoming the limitations of international development, a global development framing can better fit with the challenges of global public goods – climate change, finance, taxation, health etc. These are issues which no one country can effectively address individually, and require commitment by people and countries in the global North (as well as the global South).
Opportunities also arise for learning around the shared challenges across global North and South, such as addressing relative poverty and inequality, precarious work, social protection etc.
The time is now….
We currently have a tendency to use ‘international’ and ‘global’ development interchangeably. From the Wikipedia definition that conflates the two terms, to the aid industry’s widespread use of the #GlobalDev hashtag on twitter, we risk underplaying or missing the real and rapid tectonic shifts the world is experiencing.
Development studies, research and practice in the 21st century are clearly situated in a different context compared to much of the second half of the 20th century. This does not mean abandoning what has been done under international development, but it requires a considerable expansion and readjustment to make it more relevant to the world we currently inhabit and the challenges we face.
The recent Development and Change Forum issue involves varied and heated debate around the causes of, current patterns of and priorities for global development. A constructive and critical agenda awaits.
International development has had its time. We’re part of the global development paradigm but we must guard against it being used to rebrand ‘business as usual’.
Read more open access research by Rory Horner around these issues:
- Horner, ‘Towards a new paradigm of global development? Beyond the limits of international development’
- Horner and Hulme, ‘From International to Global Development: New Geographies of 21st Century Development’
- The Development and Change forum debate: From International to Global Development
- Blog post summarising the forum debate
Since 1990 the global map of development has shifted from one of “divergence, big time” to “converging divergence”. This involves some converging in development indicators between North and South in aggregate, alongside divergence or growing inequality within many countries. To better capture the nature of contemporary challenges, this means we need to go beyond the traditional notion of ‘international’ development to consider a different form of ‘global’ development in relation to the whole world.
In a nutshell, this was our argument in an article in Development and Change, prompting the editors to commission 8 critical commentaries by a variety of leading thinkers on development. The whole issue is open access, but here’s our summary of the key questions and issues that were raised.
Does “converging divergence” represent a new pattern of global inequality?
The extent of convergence from an income perspective has been overblown, according to many of the contributors to the debate. Economic growth in the global South has been hugely uneven, dominated by East Asia and, most of all, China.
Yet surprisingly little attention was devoted in the commentaries to the converging trends in relation to human development across global North and South – whether it be increased life expectancy, reduced maternal and under-5 mortality, or enrolment in schooling. An exception is Yusuf Bangura who explicitly suggested that:
“It is, perhaps, at this basic level of human development that real global convergence has occurred. Even Africa, which underperforms on income and carbon emission convergence, does fairly well on these basic human development indicators”.
More attention was devoted to contesting the “converging” trends than to engaging with the “divergence” part of “converging divergence”. There appears to be much more widespread agreement about the fact of divergence, with growing inequalities within countries. Özlem Onaran argues that the bargaining power of labour vis-à-vis capital has declined, while Cecilia Alemany, Claire Slatter and Corina Rodríguez Enríquez argue that a series of pro-rich policy choices have been made across both global North and South.
We maintain our argument for a “converging divergence” trend as a stylized fact regarding global inequalities. This trend goes beyond income to include human development indicators and carbon emissions.
What has caused “converging divergence”?
We did not adequately address this issue in our original paper, as a number of the commentaries rightly pointed out. Our paper started with naïve empiricism rather than with a proposed explanatory theory of 21st century global development – if there could be such a thing. It was a significant task to just cover some, but clearly not all, economic, social and environmental indicators and the suggested conceptual implications that flow from this.
Nevertheless, the causal processes, and their global character and effects, augment the case for thinking of (uneven) development in relation to the whole world. Jayati Ghosh notably argues that capitalism “has always been a global system, and one that has therefore always had implications for development (or the lack of it) across the globe”. Moreover, as Bram Büscher argues, climate change also has a global dynamic.
By pointing to some positive trends over the last quarter of a century, do we implicitly condone the neoliberal period, as Andrew Fischer suggests? We contest this idea. Rather than the era of globalisation being a straight-jacket locking all countries in the global South into underdevelopment, some countries have been able to manage their engagement with the global economy for effective development progress – China is a classic example. More widely, however, extreme poverty reduction has been achieved in a wider range of countries – including Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Vietnam which have not adopted the neoliberal prescription.
Should we shift to global development? If so, what is it?
Much more needs to be done to understand and explain how we may approach global development, as Yusuf Bangura highlights in his commentary. This is part of a wider project we are working on, with a new paper in Progress in Human Geography forthcoming very shortly.
Different understandings of ‘global’ development are present in this debate. One possible understanding of global development is as (vertical) scale, associated with particular actors and processes (e.g. those part of the UN system or a hypothetical global government). Based on this understanding Bangura questions whether a single-world, global approach should replace lower-scale geographic categories or binaries.
Instead, we understand global development as (horizontal) scope in relation to the whole world, involving multi-scalar processes and actors. For example, cities around the world – in both North and South – face major development challenges in terms of their sustainability and inclusiveness. Although inclusive and sustainable cities are a global development challenge (in terms of scope), they are not primarily governed by actors, or found at, the global scale (despite some initiatives at the global scale such as UN Habitat).
What are the key development priorities for study and practice?
Very contrasting visions are present in the commentaries, which have tensions between them. Andrew Fischer and Andy Sumner maintain the geographic scope of the challenge of development, and consequently the focus for development studies and practice, is very much focused on the global South. Their suggested focus is a more classical take on economic development, through structural transformation.
Alternative visions are constructed with a potential relevance that is global in scope, but have very different emphases. For example, Bram Büscher points to the need for revolutionary development beyond capitalism. The initiatives he cites as already doing this — buen vivir, degrowth, doughnut economics and radical ecological democracy — have potential relevance for every country. Aram Ziai suggests a radical programme for (post-)development, involving reparations for colonialism, deglobalization, freedom of movement for people, and curbing C02 emissions and resource use – a view which is also relevant across both the global North and South.
The challenges, tensions and trade-offs around sustainable development are necessarily global, as the responses highlight in relation to capitalism and climate change. The visions offered above represent wider tensions regarding what constitutes progress, a long-standing characteristic of development studies and practice (as Aram Ziai argues).
Nevertheless, there are strongly competing challenges facing the world and we see a need to move beyond the binaries which have separated out international development issues from other major challenges including social justice in the North, climate change or the nature of contemporary globalization. Thinking in terms of global development can potentially offer a better platform for breaking down these divides.