Non Profit 101 | What is Development?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what development means to me lately. It’s something we talk about a lot in the non-profit world, throwing terms like ‘sustainable development’ and ‘international development’ and ‘economic growth’ around like we own them. But what are we saying – what isn’t being read beneath the lines – when we say these terms? For the sake of this article let’s say that development means ‘The improved well-being of all’. It goes without saying that it is impossible to not bring our own cultural understanding of our definition to development, and it’s that tension that we choose to be aware of, participate in, and learn from when we work in this field.

I went to school for Cross Cultural Studies where I was told things like ‘the poor deserve our very best’ and was shown every way in which a foreigner has ultimately screwed up the community they came to help. I graduated with a deep sense that development was imperfect, a heightened awareness of the harm I could cause, and questioning whether or not I wanted to go the corporate route after all.

As SOLD and I go in to our 5th year together I’ve decided to commit some time to reflecting on what development means to me, and what I’ve learned about development in my five years in Northern Thailand. Here are some of my simplified thoughts and observations.

Development and Economics

The exploration of what development means to me can start by how I define or view what it means to improve the well-being of those I serve. As a Westerner, I grew up with the understanding that development means a furthering of economic qualities such as productivity, growth and wealth. This western view of development seeps it’s way in to areas like Northern Thailand and manifests itself in the form of materialism. And it is this materialism that is often one of the branches in the root of the problem of child prostitution. Children being bribed into the sex industry with the promise of a cell phone, or cash, or a television set for the family. Which has led me to ask the question, is our western definition of development really what the East needs? We assume that people living in the rice patties of Northern Thailand NEED to keep up with the globalized economy in order to survive. But. Why? Why is it so bad to live off the land or build your house from natural materials instead of concrete? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive for more, but I am pointing out that somewhere along the way our Western view of development has made this simple living poverty. And I believe that one of the harms our Western view of development has brought to the rice patties of Northern Thailand is the greed and materialism that comes along with the idealism of development. Of course this presents a question for another conversation, ‘what is a healthy margin?’. What happens when the rice patties don’t produce this year, or little Johnny falls ill and there’s no margin for the unexpected?

Development and People

Development isn’t just statistics. It involves people. People who, just like you and I, are accustomed to their way of doing things, and have their own understanding of right vs. wrong or good vs. bad. Paulo Freire asks the striking question “are people objects of development under someone else’s control, or are they subjects of development, in control of their own destiny?’. In other words, am I choosing what development might mean for Northern Thailand, rather than simply empowering the community to choose what development might mean for them based on their own desires and passions?

Easier said than done, but I am constantly, and I mean every single day, having to choose to let go of what my version of ‘development’ might mean in order to listen with more capacity to the desires of the community I serve.

Development and Culture

Culture must be at the forefront of development. Since there are many cultures, there are also many ways of imagining life, happiness and unhappiness. Because of this, there are also many ways of perceiving and evaluating progress.

[d]evelopment should be a struggle to create criteria, goals and means for self-liberation from misery, inequality, and dependency in all forms. Crucially, it should be the process a people choose, which heals them from historical trauma, and tables them to achieve a newness on their own terms.
(Wilber and Jameson, 1988: 25. Emphasis my own).

I believe that one of the biggest mistakes we ‘Social Development’ folk make is that we do not listen. I’m not talking the ‘ask a question and wait for an answer’ listen. I’m talking about being willing to hear in new ways that might be different from our western style of question and answer. Perhaps a more promising direction for development would occur if the tables were turned so that those we serve could actually diagnose their own symptoms using their own methodologies and language.

As I continue to discover language to describe what I’ve learned about development, the word empowerment plays in my mind on repeat. So to answer the question of this blog, what is development? I’ve written my own culturally biased definition, a work in progress, here: Development is the empowerment of people to look consciously at what they would like to improve in their lives, village and economy by strengthening creativity and being cautious of greed.


This is part of my 2013 Series ‘Non Profit 101’ in which I explore various aspects of what I’ve learned starting and running my own International Non Profit. Check out the the Non Profit 101 category for other similar blogs!