Sustainable development goals (SDGs) have placed development at the center of the global agenda. Different meanings have been given to this term over time: once a synonym of growth, it has now come to mean sustainable and/or human development. Some actors and academics have proposed alternatives to the word “development” itself, regarding it as the product of a discourse of domination.

In his inaugural address of January 1949, US President Harry S. Truman proposed a new interpretation of the world. At a time of deepening Cold War, when many countries under colonial rule were demanding their independence, he presented a new approach to development based on “the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.”

A key issue on the global agenda

The notion of development was brought onto the international agenda through the founding over time of various institutions (International Development Association within the World Bank, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development [UNCTAD], United Nations Development Program [UNDP], regional development banks, Development Assistance Committee of the OECD), which were then used by actors. Following structural adjustment programs, development was sidelined during the 1980s and later reduced to the fight against poverty, which became a slogan for international financial institutions (IFI) in the 1990s. But though death of development was proclaimed by some, it returned to the forefront of global debates with the Millennium Declaration and the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of 2000, followed by the (SDGs) of 2015. At the same time, the proliferation of development aid actors (new donors, emerging countries, private foundations, banks, investment funds) and the existence of an alternative discourse underpinning South-South cooperation (presented as a horizontal partnership) brought new perspectives to development cooperation, with a series of conferences, summits, forums and debates (Monterrey (2002), Paris (2005), Accra and Doha (2008), Addis-Ababa (2015)) on the funding and effectiveness of aid, its harmonization, appropriation by local actors and governance.

Growth and sustainable human development

This brief historical overview does not consider the different meanings of development in different times and places. It was initially considered in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), an indicator first developed in the 1940s for national accounting purposes, and seen as almost synonymous with growth. The work of W. W. Rostow, academic and advisor to US Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, led to an evolutionist, ethnocentric and nationalist understanding of development, in which societies were thought to modernize through five stages of economic growth. This strictly economic, linear model was overturned during the 1970s, notably due to the emergence of environmental concerns. Ecodevelopment, an idea that emerged at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm, 1972) and seemed too subversive to some, was replaced by the notion of sustainable development, proposed by the report of the Brundtland (1987), which was sufficiently ambiguous to find widespread favor.

Human Development Index, Gender Development Index, Ecological Footprint 

Sources: UNDP, ; Global Footprint Network , National Footprint Accounts 2018 Edition, www.

Comment: The HDI considers life expectancy, education, and income. It is lowest in sub-Saharan Africa (especially in the center) and highest in Europe (particular Northern Europe). The indicator applied to gender inequalities (women/men) shows a similar geographical distribution with the exception of the Middle East and Southern Asia, where the situation is bad. The ecological footprint indicates sustainable consumption in Africa (North and South excepted) and in Southern Asia, but extreme exhaustion of resources in the Gulf and in North America.

After this, development became linked to other issues, while the notion itself also evolved. The UNDP created the human development index (HDI), which looks at individual development as well as that of states (a few years later the UNDP similarly introduced an index of human security). The limitations of this more in-depth view of development and its extension to other issues were revealed by the announcement of the 17 SDGs, 169 associated targets and some 300 indicators, leading to a fragmentary vision. The recognition that development is complex seems to have shattered the concept. In addition, despite a drive for greater sophistication, the link to growth still dominates the way development is understood by many actors.

Main development indicators (or used as such)

Source: compilation based on the institutional sites of the organizations.

Comment: This timeline is a reminder of when the main development indicators of international organizations appeared, and they should be replaced in their historical and institutional contexts. The World Bank traditionally calculates monetary indexes, then the UNDP proposes rankings that are more oriented towards individuals (so-called human development) and, again, the UN, with its “Millennium” and later “sustainable development” goals, tries to assess progress.

The difficulty of interpreting the indicators (due to their complexity and/or a geography that is ultimately fairly similar to that of GDP) and the spread of the idea of human and/or sustainable development to actors as diverse as militant ecologists, financial actors and international organizations has led to a shift in thinking. During the 1980s, a current among academics and actors, sometimes called postdevelopment, argued that development was an idea rooted in the domination of the North – a Western belief. By rejecting the development paradigm and encouraging different ways of thinking, this current went further than the dependency theory of the 1970s, which had criticized “the development of underdevelopment ”. Meanwhile, tangentially and less radically, the proliferation of ideas relating to well-being, happiness, living better and “buen vivir,” also led to the creation of indicators, which, despite their limitations, sometimes provided new kinds of data (for example the opinions of individuals in the World Happiness Report and the importance of ecology in the Happy Planet Index).

Examples of alternative indicators: well-being, happiness

Sources: World Happiness Report 2018, ; New Economics Foundation, Happy Planet Index,

Comment: These are alternative development indicators produced by non-governmental actors. The first, the Happy Planet Index, includes the ecological dimension and shows a favorable situation in Latin American and in some European and South East Asian countries. The second is the Happiness Score, which compiles the results of opinion polls carried out with populations and covering numerous subjects. In this case, well-being is perceived to be high on the American continent, in Western Europe, and in Oceania, but low in sub-Saharan Africa.


To quote this article

" Development " World Atlas of Global Issues, 2018, [online], accessed on Mar 15 2021, URL:


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