International Development

Bags of food and supplies line the dockside in Singapore as HMS Illustrious arrives to ship it to the typhoon stricken islands of the Philippines, PO(Phot) Ray Jones/MOD, Open Government Licence, v.1.0

Bags of food and supplies line the dockside in Singapore as HMS Illustrious arrives to ship it to the typhoon stricken islands of the Philippines, PO(Phot) Ray Jones/MOD, Open Government Licence, v.1.0

International Development

In this article, we shall discuss the concept of international development in international relations. We will discuss the various definitions of international development, the different aspects of international development, as well as different local and international initiatives on the topic, particularly as it relates to issues of global inequality. We will also provide a list of books and references for future reading.

What is International Development?

International Development focuses on the improvement of various facets of quality of life within a society, which in turn will help economically grown the country. However, despite a general definition, in reality “International development is not easy to define and encompasses a broad range of disciplines and endeavors to improve the quality of life of people around the world. It includes both economic and social development and encompasses many issues such as humanitarian and foreign aid, poverty alleviation, the rule of law and governance, food and water security, capacity building, healthcare and education, women and children’s rights, disaster preparedness, infrastructure, and sustainability” (Greiman, 2011: 8). As Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease (2014) explain, “the notion of development….means different things to different people and is contested on many levels. Development may mean economic growth defined in macroeconomic terms as increases in gross domestic product (GDP), import-export figures, and levels of industrialization. Development may include a human element, such as the ability of humans to meet their basic needs through their own initiative. Development may also mean sustainability, in that economic growth and the ability of humans to meet their basic needs should not deplete natural resources to the extent that those resources become unavailable for future generations” (257).

Thus, as we see from different discussions by individuals, many of whom are reflecting on international development, there is a tendency by some to focus on economic and social statistics, such has how strong a state’s Gross Domestic Product or Gross National Product is, what the infant mortality rate is, what is life expectancy for a population, etc… And while these figures are important and useful with regards to understanding international development, they don’t tell the whole picture, nor do they encompass the overall understanding of development (Voth, 2004). It is for this reason that other factors are included in the discussion of international development In fact, it has been argued by scholars that

“While economic progress is an essential component (of development), it is not the only component. Development is not purely an economic phenomenon. In an ultimate sense, it must encompass more than the material and financial side of people’s lives. Development should, therefore, be perceived as a multidimensional process involving the reorganization and reorientation of entire economic and social systems. In addition to improvements in incomes and output, it typically involves radical changes in institutional, social, and administrative structures as well as in popular attitudes and, in many cases, even customs and beliefs. Finally, although development is usually defined in a national context, its widespread realization may necessitate fundamental modifications of the international economic and social system as well” (1985:61-62, in Voth, 2004:4-5).

Others, such as Sumner & Tribe (2008) argue “that there are three discernable definitions of ‘development’”, which they view as the following:

  1. “The first is historical and long term and arguably relatively value free – ‘development’ as a process of change.” This emphasizes the notions of structural change within a society. It has been argued that this change emphasizes “a major societal shift in one dimension, for example from a rural or agriculture based society to an urban or industrial-based society (what is sometimes called the shift from ‘traditional’ to ‘modern’ characteristics), would also have radical implications in another dimension, such as societal structural changes in the respective positions of classes and groups within the relations of production for example (by which we mean the relationship between the owners of capital and labour)” (Sumner & Tribe, 2008: 12). In addition, this idea of development does not have set benchmarks, but rather, overall growth and change, which takes place in all states, and continuously (Sumner & Tribe, 2008).
  2. “The second is policy related and evaluative or indicator led, is based on value judgements, and has short- to medium-term time horizons – development as the MDGs, for example.” This approach focuses on measurable objectives based on set goals with regards to international development (Sumner & Tribe, 2008). As mentioned, the UN Millennium Development Goals illustrate this approach, as they set 2015 targets with regards to development issues such as health and education. This definition of international development seems to vary from the first one in that “[t]he key feature of this second perspective is that it is focused on the outcomes of change so that it has a relatively short-term outlook…” (Sumner & Tribe, 2008: 13). However, some have raised concerns about this approach, particularly if these objectives are set by “outsiders” and not those in the community itself. Furthermore, it is important to examine just how much voice the local community has with regards to these international development objectives (Sumner & Tribe, 2008). Moreover, with regards to international development, it is important that when such goals are set, they do not interfere with other aspects of development (Sumner & Tribe, 2008).
  3. “The third is post-modernist, drawing attention to the ethnocentric and ideologically loaded Western conceptions of ‘development’ and raising the possibilities of alternative conceptions” (11). This focuses on any biases embedded in the international development frameworks posed, as well as any notions of superiority or inferiority with regards to the Global North and Global South states, and how the Global North might place their ideas onto the South through actions of international development (Sumpter & Tribe, 2008).

History of International Development

International Development has been an important element of international relations for a number of decades. Much of the attention on international development arose following World War II; with many states militarily and economically hurt from the war, countries such as the United States looked to help other states rebuild (Rapley, 2007: 1). It has been said that President Harry Truman of the United States was one of the first to focus on the idea of international development when he discussed his “fair deal” in his presidential inauguration speech, where Global North states such as the United States would help less economically developed states (Black, 2002, in Smallman & Brown, 2011; 164).

In addition, in the 1940s, the United States and Britain worked to created international economic institutions that might facilitate this process. In 1944, at the Bretton Woods Conference, these states created the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. The International Monetary fund focused on state economic stabilization, whereas the World Bank was the primary international development institution. 

Furthermore, along with attempts to help states economically for the sake of international financial stability, in the context of the rising Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, both of these actors also invested billions in aid and international development, in part to shore up political and military alliances against the ‘threat’ of one another. This point is important, as states received money for aid, development, and military support, when they backed one of these states, either openly and officially, or even less publicly. 

Yet, despite political tensions, major powers worried about international security issues, and thus, tried to find ways to create cooperation that could help mitigate future threats to instability. However, these actions soon led to increased roles in development. In terms of intentional development institutions, during the Second World II and immediately following its end, different state powers (such as the U.S., Britain, the U.S.S.R. and China) came together and worked to form an international organization on issues of international security. This organization, the United Nations, has developed to not only deal with international security matters, but has also evolved to concentrated on various human rights and international development issues.

However, the way that development was perceived in these years was different than the way we approach international development today.  For example, speaking on the role of the international institutions such as the World Bank, Rapley (2007) explains that “[I]n those days, development was considered largely synonymous with industrialization. Its ultimate goal was fairly clear: to raise incomes and in the process give poor people access to the range of goods and services then widespread in developed societies. It was, in short, about getting richer or more prosperous; and prosperity was measured in dollar figures” (1). And the Global North states aimed to help in this development process.

However, the way that they have went about international development has varied. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, international development was approached much more from an neoliberal economic policy. Implementation of  notions such as the Washington Consensus which emphasized free markets and little government involvement in economic activities. However, this approach was criticized by many for not taking into account positive contributions of state action. Many pointed to rising economic states in East Asia (such as China and South Korea) as evidence that a blanket liberalized policy may not be best in all cases, and may not be ideal for international development. However, others argued that such models, while successful for a time, have went in decline since the 1997-1998 Asian Financial, Crisis, which allowed neo-liberals to press their ideas of open markets (and no state involvement). However, not everyone agrees that this is the best approach (Rapley, 2007: 5).

And because of these differences in opinion towards international development, it has been suggested that

“…development theory is today less programmatic, and more concerned with flexibility and adaptability. Discussions of the state, particularly the large body of literature that flows from the World Bank and aid community, revolve less around the question of whether more or less state is good for development; rather, there is a widening agreement that “better,” rather than more or less, is what matters when it comes to the public sector, and the literature has turned to the more mundane but all-important matter of how to improve administrative and technical capacity in third-world public sectors” (5).

In addition, the attention has moved away from the notions of state economic growth in and of itself, and more on the development of individuals in the state. This was an important move, particularly due to the human rights abuses that states would commit in order to develop economically (Rapley, 2007). It was not that these arguments did not exist before, but that there was a new focus on the importance of these rights within international development (Rapley, 2007).

Even today, there are discussions about global inequality, and finding ways to implement international development in a way that places the individual as the primary concern. Furthermore, there are also concerns about ensuring “sustainable development” which is “economic growth that avoids obstacles that would undermine or preclude further growth, particularly depletion of natural resources, pollution, and other environmental damage” (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013: 421).

A woman helps to stack food aid from Australia, at a World Food Programme food distribution point at Epworth in Harare, Zimbabwe in April 2009, Africa Humanitarian Food Aid 19, Kate Holt/AusAID, CC 2.0

A woman helps to stack food aid from Australia, at a World Food Programme food distribution point at Epworth in Harare, Zimbabwe in April 2009, Africa Humanitarian Food Aid 19, Kate Holt/AusAID, CC 2.0

Issues in International Development

There are a number of issues that have received attention in the field of international development. 

  • Poverty
  • Education
  • Health
  • Capital Investment

International Development Tools

Development Aid

One of the most common approaches towards international development has been providing development aid to countries. States have looked to provide resources to countries in need. This development aid can come in various forms: states often provide food to the people of a particular country. In addition, states can also send medicines, vaccines, etc… Others send clothing, building materials, and a host of various other types of development aid.  In fact, while states have provided a great amount of development aid, they are far from the only ones; non-state actors such as individuals or non-governmental organizations have often collected food, clothing, and money to be sent to individuals, families, or other NGOs in the state in which they are trying to help.

One of the biggest questions with regards to international development aid has been whether the aid is effective in reaching the desired results, namely, development. While there are some arguments for ways in which aid can be effective (such as microcredit lending), there have been many arguments to suggest that foreign aid does not work very well. Furthermore, states have also used the pretext of aid to send resources (which in a number of cases have included military weapons) to allies of ‘hopeful’ allies. In fact, this is why many have fount that aid is ineffective, that much of it has historically gone to states who would serve a political alliance to the donor state; the United States and the U.S.S.R. each had a history of doing this during the Cold War, and states (such as the US and others) continue to do this (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013).

Development Loans

One of the other most used tools for international development is that of economic and development loans from organizations such as the World Bank. As discussed in this article on the World Bank, the organization focuses on working with Global South states to improve their economic development, along with addressing the international development issues such as improving primary education, working to reduce child and infant mortality rate, addressing factors that cause poverty, along with other issues found in the Millennium Development Goals. But while such loans have helped with regards to improving quality of life indicators, there have been criticisms with regards to the loans; many have questioned the conditions on the loans, along with how these loans might affect a state who borrows too much (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013: 430).

Again, it depends on what sort of loans are being offered. One of the most effective types of loan for individual international development has been those of microcredit loans. Advocated by individuals such as Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank he runs (Yunus won a Nobel Prize in 2006), microcredit has been seen to avoid a number of problems with traditional international development lending. Not only do these loans provide capital directly to the hands of those who need it (thus bypassing a lot of bureaucratic structures), they are often very low interest loans, which can help individuals build businesses. And for these reasons, we have seen micro finance or microcredit growing (Sengupta & Aubuchon, 2008).

Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner, addresses the crowd at the Houston World Affair's Council on January 14th 2008. From the " World Affairs Council of Houston site, Flickr, Ed Schipul, CC 2.0

Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner, addresses the crowd at the Houston World Affair’s Council on January 14th 2008. From the ” World Affairs Council of Houston site, Flickr, Ed Schipul, CC 2.0

Global Trade

Global North and Global South states have also worked on advancing global trade with one another, with hopes that such trade will improve the local economies of Global South states, as well as the social conditions of the people in the country. For advocates of global trade with regards to international development, the idea is that free trade will help increase the economic strength of the Global South states. However, critics have argued that these relationships were helping Global North states more than they were helping the Global South states. And many felt that free trade led to dependency, which is where “low-income countries of the South [are] economically subordinated to the advantage of high-income countries of the First World or North; in class-analytical terms, workers and peasants subordinated and exploited by capital-owning classes, the bourgeoisie” (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013: 444). And many supporters of dependency theory believe that the Global South states have very little power in this economic relationship with Global North states (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013).

And because of the benefits of free trade to economically developed states, “the South has sought trade preferences from the North as part of the NEIO [New International Economic Order]. The argument is that beginning or infant industries in the South may need the protection of tariffs or other barriers to trade until they have grown sufficiently to be competitive in global markets. At the same time, these countries do not want advanced industrial or postindustrial societies to discriminate against exporters from less-developed countries by imposing trade barriers against them” (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013: 431). 

International Development Organizations

There are a number of international development Organizations and organs in international affairs. For example, the United Nations is a very active IO in the field of international development. Here are just a few United Nations bodies that work on issues of international development.

  • United Nations Development Programme:
  • United Nations World Food Programme:
  • World Health Organization:
  • United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF):
  • United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA):
  • United Nations Disaster Relief Office (UNDRO):

The United Nations has also been very active in establishing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These goals work on eight specific development indicators and objectives. They are:

  1. Eradicate Extreme Hunger and Poverty
  2. Achieve Universal Primary Education
  3. Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
  4. Reduce Child Mortality
  5. Improve Maternal Health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Other Diseases
  7. Ensure Environmental Sustainability
  8. Develop a Global Partnership for Development                         (UN Millennium Project, 2006).

These goals were hoped to be reached by 2015. Now, the United Nations is currently establishing Post-2015 Development Goals.



Grieman, V. (2011). Guide on International Development: Public Service Careers and Opportunities. President and Fellows of Harvard College. Available Online:

Rapley, J. (2007). Understanding Development: Theory and Practice in the Third World, Third Edition. Boulder, Colorado. Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Sengupta, R. & Aubuchon, C.P. (2008). The Microfinance Revolution: An Overview. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, January/February 2008, Vol. 90, No. 1, pages 9-30.

Smallman, S. & Brown, K. (2011). Introduction to International And Global Studies. Chapel Hill, North Carolina. North Carolina Press.

Sumner, A. & Tribe, M.A. (2008). International Development Studies: Theories and Methods in Research and Practice. London, England. Sage Publications.

Todaro, M.P. (1985). Economic Development in the Third World, New York: Longman.

United Nations Millennium Project (2006). About the MDGs. Available Online: 

Voth, D. E. (2004).  An Overview of International Development Perspectives in History: Focus on Agricultural and Rural Development. SP 05 2004, AGEC 4163 International Agricultural and Rural Development. Available Online:

Leave a Reply