The Death of International Development?

I have a joke – it’s not a very good one – that in ten years’ time new staff joining my development studies department will have to don the equivalent of the Hogwarts sorting hat.  This will allocate them to either Somalia, Chad, DRC or Afghanistan, which by then will be the only developing countries left.

Sadly, this will probably be an exaggeration but there is a sense in which the development industry is succeeding, and thus steadily putting itself out of business.  Take a look at the ‘five good things’ tab by Hans Rosling at:; or take a look at the changes in the DAC list of aid recipients: the number of low-income countries on the list shrank from 72 in 1997/99 to 54 in 2012/13[1].

So we have an external, objective reality of fewer developing countries over time.  We have some evidence of shrinkage within development discourse: comparing top-10 tag clouds for the MDGs vs. the post-2015 agenda, it is notable that “developing countries” no longer appears.

MDG Post-2015 Tags

And we may also have an internal, subjective reality.  There must be better data on this – please comment to supply – but I was struck by an anecdotal report from a colleague who has travelled to a number of African countries in the past few  months.  She found the young Africans she met were unwilling to accept the “developing country” label for their nations, which they saw as stigmatising.  They saw the development industry typically focusing on the negative[2], and missing out on enterprise, innovation, investment, opportunity and other related keyword identities.

In part, this data just reinforces past messages on development becoming a more intra- than inter-country phenomenon e.g. that the majority of the world’s poor live in middle-income countries, and may well continue to do so in coming decades.  So we see a decline of the national, geographic identity of development both externally and internally: perhaps a better title would have been “the death of the developing country”.  But we also see signs – in Rosling’s presentation but more generally in progress on the MDGs – of fewer individuals overall suffering at the wrong end of the socio-economic development continuum.

While much of this is contested and could be reversed, the direction of travel at present seems clear and it will have important implications.

First, for the notion of international development.  One can see this reflected in the changes from the MDGs to the post-2015 agenda, as discussed in a number of prior blog entries.  While mainstream notions of economic development and social development remain; they now sit alongside other views: sustainable development, inclusive development, open development, institutional development.  The development hegemony of the global North is also being challenged by Southern models of development.  In other words we have an increasingly pluralistic notion of development which must bring with it niches and fragmentation in the field.  In turn, these could well bring a lack of focus and lower profile for international development[3].

Second, for development studies departments[4].  Do they shrink themselves down alongside the shrinking of low-income countries?  Do they convert themselves into area studies departments?  Do they convert themselves into more cross-cutting departments that focus on global challenges: poverty, environment, inequality?  Do they embrace the intersections with business schools and expand to encompass the “emerging economy” notion?  Linked to all these possibilities is again the question of identity: how do development studies departments brand themselves externally, and think of themselves internally to match the changing development context?


[1] I’ll leave aside the discussion about the extent to which the development industry is the cause of the improvements Rosling and the DAC list describe.

[2] Negative external projections of Africa are, of course, a long-term concern – see, e.g., Pratt, C.B. (1980) The reportage and images of Africa in six US news and opinion magazines, Gazette, 26(1), 31-45

[3] For analysis of the loss of focus in development see, e.g.,

[4] For an analysed defence of development studies against dissolution, albeit from 2003, see:

4 thoughts on “The Death of International Development?

  1. Interesting. I think it’s a good thing that countries are moving out of the “developing country” category. Perhaps the focus will shift to helping the poor within wealthier and middle income nations

  2. “there is a sense in which the development industry is succeeding, and thus steadily putting itself out of business”

    Leaving aside, as the author does, the questions over whether and in what sense the development industry might be ‘succeeding’, I would suggest that it is extremely unlikely to let itself go ‘out of business’ any time soon. ‘Industry’ is the correct description for the current galaxy of NGOs, aid agencies and IFIs, and industries have overwhelming imperatives to self-preservation. This particular industry also has the support of powerful governments for whom it is highly useful.

  3. I could like to think that we will succeed in eradicating poverty any time soon. However, in the process of promoting a country from developing to developed, we are missing many variables. We may not even know them, or what it’s worst, we just don’t pay attention to them. We keep on struggling to define and redefine the concept of development, and at the same time, many projects struggle to provide positive outcomes to the transformation of communities. So, do we keep on discussing or do we act? It is probably time to reconsider the measurement methods used to categorise countries, as developed, developing or poor, as it is obviously outdated. Most importantly, it is time to focus on the human development index, or inequality-adjusted human development index, and liberalise our thoughts from us and them, north and south. Divisions have only created more divisions, suffering and pain. I think the secret is empathy, brains, and intention to reach a collective wellbeing and peace.

  4. I am a student studying Int. Development at the uni of London external programme (LSE). (Bsc). I am from Pakistan. I wonder how the purported decline of development industry as mentioned here and few other places I’ve come across affect my job prospects and career choices? I am in first year of my degree and have thought about doing masters in either sustainable development or urban planning and design or environment. However, I would like to get some work experience before I do that. Any guidance is appreciated.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.