Note from the Uneven Earth editorial team: This entry is the tenth to be published within Uneven Earth’s new Resources for a better future series: ​a glossary of crucial concepts in political ecology, alternative economics, and environmental justice.​ We are calling on experts and activists to help us put out easy-to-read, clear, and opinionated explainers of some of the most important issues. Anyone can write an entry, and we will help with editing to make them readable to wide audiences. The time is now to put forward concise definitions of key concepts, to explain our political position firmly and clearly.

The term ‘development’ perhaps needs no introduction. To develop is to improve the conditions in which we live. But what should be the path of development? Can there be only one way to develop? What are the prevalent ways of thinking about development and what have they meant for the majority of people in the world? The dominant means of development have largely been counterproductive, wreaking ecological damage and social inequality in most parts of the world. To understand where to go from here, it is crucial to understand that development processes and the goals of prosperity are politically determined.

The modern model of development grew out of the end of the colonial period, when colonial empires assumed the duty of developing the former colonies. Since then, colonial-era power relations have continued to play out under the guise of economic development. Institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) formed in the 1940s with the promise of stabilizing the economy and rebuilding war-torn Europe. Their strategies centered Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a key indicator of development. At the same time, with their deep-seated colonial ambitions, the triumphant Allied Forces—France, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union—came to define development. US President Harry Truman used the word ‘underdeveloped’ for the first time in his inaugural address in January 1949, dividing the world according to regional poverty and prosperity. High levels of poverty coincided with low levels of industrialization, bolstering the belief that Western-style development would be inevitable for these ‘underdeveloped’ countries.

Countries like Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, and later on the US, saw an improvement in living conditions as a result of the Industrial Revolution. At the same time, a hierarchical relationship developed between business owners and workers. Within this new relationship, peasants lost their relationship to the land and became workers who sold their labour in return for a wage. Increased production set the stage for mass consumption, which signaled improved access to material goods for the workers themselves. But the perceived success of the Industrial Revolution was mainly due to the extractive colonial expeditions that boosted Western economies through the supply of enslaved people and the import of goods.  As this model of industrial production proved its ability to generate an abundance of profits and products, it came to serve as a paradigm for development around the globe. By the mid 20th century, many countries in Asia, Africa, and South America were finally liberated from colonial rule, but pursued this Western model of development due to its perceived success.

In the 50s and 60s, dominant economic theory emphasized the need for countries to modernize by moving their labour force away from agriculture and towards sectors like manufacturing and services. This was called ‘structural transformation,’ and was made popular by the works of economists W. Arthur Lewis and Walt W. Rostow. So-called ‘primitive’ sectors like agriculture underwent a complete overhaul to improve productivity, efficiency, and incomes. This theory of development—which proposed that GDP growth would lead to the improvement of living conditions—faced a challenge in the 70s and 80s. The ‘Limits to Growth’ report, published in 1972, brought ecological concerns to the forefront, while environmental movements gained momentum all around the world. The report argued that unlimited material and population growth would not be possible because the planet’s resource pool is limited. By the end of the 1980s, the United Nations released ‘Our Common Future,’ a report that gave rise to the idea of sustainable development. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), launched in 2015, are based on this report’s definition of sustainability.

Another framework, called the capabilities approach, proposed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, suggested expanding the scope of existing goals of poverty alleviation programs. By expanding the focus beyond income improvement alone, the capabilities approach proposed that an expansion in the opportunities and freedoms available to those experiencing poverty is essential for overall development. This approach eventually led to the conception of the Human Development Index—a measure of whether a country is capable of ensuring good health, education, and income for its residents. However, while the goals of development expanded, the mechanism for achieving them—GDP growth—largely continued unscathed.

Proponents of growth-centric economic development—namely world leaders and policymakers—argue that access to healthcare, education, and basic freedoms will grow once incomes begin to grow. They also assume that economic growth based on the principles of the free market—which had triumphed by the 1980s—will provide solutions to ecological degradation. The claim made in ‘Our Common Future’ that ‘poverty places unprecedented pressures on the planet’s land, water, forests, and other natural resources,’ brought the alleviation of poverty to the center of sustainability and human development discourse.

In the past few decades, poverty alleviation programs have helped move millions of people out of extreme poverty, but they have not done much to increase the freedoms or opportunities afforded to them. This is due to several reasons. First, the threshold which determines extreme poverty is set very low, at an income of less than 2 dollars a day. Any movement above this level does not guarantee an improvement in people’s lives. Second, World Bank data confirms that the poverty reduction rate has slowed down recently, and that the absolute number of people living below the poverty line has barely declined since the 1990s despite the goals of these programs. The third, and most important problem lies in the relations of production that this path of development creates as it actualizes.

In the case of India, this path of development has led to a significant change in land use, from forestry and agriculture to industry and mining. It has also altered human-nature relations and power relations between the State, the market, and communities. This shift has triggered a process of dispossession that plays out in two ways: one, through the loss of access to land and resources (soil, water, forest, foliage, etc.), and second, through the experience of the environment’s continuous degradation. In response, people move out of rural agricultural areas and migrate to industrialized cities with the hope of earning higher incomes. However, the work they find does not necessarily ensure good health, access to education, or the ability to make savings. With neither the private sector nor the State investing in programs that provide decent living conditions, the majority of the population is left feeling betrayed and stranded. This dissatisfaction has given rise to numerous resistance movements. The Chipko movement (1973), Narmada Bachao Andolan (1985), Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (2003), and Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (2009) are a few examples of movements that have resisted the crucial features of the mainstream development model like the construction of big dams and mining projects. These struggles foreground the underlying violence of growth-driven development.

These conflicts among communities and different agents of development—namely, the State, NGOs, and private industries—have deepened in the recent past, indicating the growing desperation among all stakeholders. The sharp increase in the level of inequality in the past three decades confirms that this development model only supports the interests of business owners and landowners at the expense of workers and the environment. It’s time to rethink the idea of development, and to create alternative relations of production. The future of development thought must focus on the creation of more meaningful and ecologically sensitive work. It should give more space to the knowledge and ideas of the subaltern groups in India—the Dalits, bahujans and adivasis—in defining the idea of sustainability. For development to truly deliver on its promise—the betterment of life for all—it must engage a multidimensional understanding of poverty. As we’ve learned, poverty manifests not only through financial hardship, but also through the loss of access to life-sustaining resources, the degradation of one’s environment, lack of healthcare, diminishing leisure time, and a scarcity of meaningful work for the majority of people in the world. A new approach to development must address the increasing precarity in the lives of people confronted with industrialization and conservation policies.

Further resources

Philip Alson, Philip Alston Condemns Failed Global Poverty Eradication Efforts, July 2020.
A recent report and commentary by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (2014-2020), on the false promise of the existing approach toward poverty alleviation.

Demaria, F., & Kothari, A. (2017). The Post-Development Dictionary agenda: paths to the pluriverse. Third World Quarterly38(12), 2588-2599.
A crucial resource for understanding the conceptualization of future development paths. 

Shiva, V. (2013). How economic growth has become anti-life. The Guardian1.
A critical overview of the growth-driven economic model that elucidates how growth-driven development impoverishes farmers. 

Escobar, A. (2011). Encountering development: The making and unmaking of the Third World (Vol. 1). Princeton University Press.
This book offers a political understanding of the process of development. It describes the ways in which expert-led knowledge originating in the West came to define poverty and development in the so-called developing world.    

Gerber, J. F., & Raina, R. S. (Eds.). (2018). Post-growth thinking in India: Towards sustainable egalitarian alternatives. Orient Blackswan.
This book discusses post-growth theories, from the perspective of a developing nation. It argues that moving beyond growth-led thinking is not a privilege of the Global North/developed world but also a requirement for the Global South/developing world. 

Goldman, M. (2005). Imperial nature: The World Bank and struggles for social justice in the age of globalization. Yale University Press.
This book explains how the projects funded by the World Bank really work at the ground level and why community activists struggle against its brand of development .  

On resistance and alternative ideas of wellbeing:

Transformations – Wellbeing by Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group, September 2020.
The story of Korchi taluka, in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra State in India, on creating transformative alternatives to challenge mainstream ideas of development.   

A folk song sung by the subaltern resisting industrialization in India. Released on Youtube in 2018.
This song is inspired by a song by Bhagwan Majhi, leader of adivasi struggle against bauxite mining in Kashipur, Odisha.

A Ted Talk by Ashish Kothari held at FLAME University, Pune, Maharashtra. March 2019.
The founder of Kalpavriksh speaks on alternative theories of development.



A snapshot of growth-led development in Delhi-NCR, India. Photo by the author.