What we talk about when we talk about development

What I worry about development is that there are two ontologically different categories to which the word is commonly applied. One is an individual human being for whom when his/her well-being is higher we say they have more “development” and when we add people up we say this group of people have more “development” than another group of people.

In this respect the HDI is one of many indicators of “human development” and no one defends GDP per capita or any narrow measure as being the ultimate metric and “development as freedom” I suppose is a good a starting rhetoric for groping towards measures of this as any other.

But tadpoles become frogs through development, acorns become oaks through development, that is it generally refers to a dynamic process in which things do not change their fundamental nature.

In this sense most of “development” is really about some larger aggregate which casually some might call a “country.” There is something to the “development” of a “country” (some social aggregation) that is more than the adding up of the well-being of the people in it and this development has multiple strands (of which I identify at least four, economic, political, administrative, and social).

The old fashioned view was that the dynamic and systematic improvement in the economic, political, administrative and social capabilities of “countries” was what led causally to the betterment of the development of its people measured as well-being. But the two are not the same.

One can, as external actors, do things that better the “development” measured as human well-being that does not lead to “development” of the “country.”

That is Lant Pritchett commenting on David Roodman’s posting, whether microfinance is an innovative marvel or a dead end. Lant thinks microfinance is the first kind of development.

Lant concludes with an instant development classic: The parable of the group shower.

I was living in India and discussing arrangements for household water supply with some development colleagues of mine. After about half an hour of pretty fruitless discussion I said, “let’s step back. tell me your long-run vision of the household water sector in India”

They said “Our vision is that India meets the target that every household lives within half a kilometer of an improved water source capable of providing 40 liters of safe per person per day.”

I said, “I see the problem. My vision of success is that every Indian can take a hot shower inside their own home.” The difference is that one can imagine meeting the first goal “programmatically” or with a series of “interventions” while the latter clearly requires endogenously functional systems.

No one I know wants to have to go to a group meeting to take a hot shower. They want to turn the tap and it works.