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Rethinking the Meaning of Development

by Terra Lawson-Remer
August 12, 2013

A boy wades through polluted waters in Ahmedabad, India, July 2013 (Courtesy Reuters/Amit Dav). A boy wades through polluted waters in Ahmedabad, India, July 2013 (Courtesy Reuters/Amit Dav).


How should the status and progress of a country or people be measured and judged? For over six decades, the standard metric has been economic production and consumption-—per capita income, as variously defined by gross domestic product (GDP), gross national product (GNP), and gross national income (GNI). These measures are commonly used as shorthand to describe the quality of life in a given country, but in reality they represent a dramatic oversimplification of wellbeing. As a thought exercise, consider the protagonists of Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas Carol: judging by their per capita incomes alone, Uncle Scrooge is far better off than Tiny Tim. But the moral of the play is that wealthy Scrooge lives an undoubtedly miserable life whereas Tiny Tim is poor but happy.

Thankfully, over the past thirty years, some leading policymakers, development practitioners, and scholars have begun to challenge traditional measures of wellbeing. As a result, a plethora of alternative indices designed to measure countries’ performance on a range of social and political metrics have emerged. Indicators now exist to measure elusive characteristics such as democratic governance; voice and accountability; rule of law; civil and political rights; sustainability and natural resource consumption; and business climate. Many researchers and policymakers now agree that economic wealth as traditionally measured does not capture progress; that a focus on income alone ignores other essential issues; and that new and more appropriate metrics are needed.

The first breakthrough moment in this movement came in the early 1990s with the establishment and wide acceptance of the Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI attempts to give a single concrete number to the complex concept of development, as defined by the economist Amartya Sen. This framework measures development not just in terms of income, but in terms of the ability of individuals to live free and meaningful lives. The human capabilities approach views income as a means to realizing freedom, not as an ends in itself, so the focus is on all the aspects of human development.

Around the same time, another equally powerful current of thought brought environmental sustainability to the fore. The global environmental movement first gained traction in 1960s with the recognition that the world’s economic growth trajectory was wreaking havoc on the environment and causing irreparable harm in the form of acid rain, dead bald eagles, deforestation, and toxic water and soil. Environmentalists such as Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, argued that any conception of wealth or wellbeing that fails to consider natural resource depletion is fundamentally flawed and misleading–if economic growth comes at the cost of environmental damage, then the depletion of shared natural resources should be taken into account in any honest calculation. Although this concept continues to face resistance from many who see real and immediate financial costs from prioritizing environmental sustainability in terms of profitability, growth, and jobs, the idea also has some powerful allies, including the World Bank, which is currently championing Natural Resource Accounting (NRA). Like a banker marking down the value of a spendthrift’s trust fund, NRA deducts the destruction and depletion of natural resources from countries’ economic production figures.

Advocates of sustainable development view environmental sustainability as an issue of inter-generational equity. As first crystallized with the publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987–issued by a high level UN commission chaired by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland–sustainability should be viewed as integral to economic and social performance, and is required to ensure opportunity for future generations.

These newer measurements have critics, and have yet to realize the status of ubiquitous shorthand descriptors enjoyed by per capita income measures. Some skeptics argue that although fine in theory, in practice both the HDI and NRA, along with the myriad of other measures, distort and mislead because they aim to count what cannot be counted. Other critics point to practical issues of public understanding – whereas the meaning of GDP is relatively clear, alternative measures are more complex and difficult to understand. Others argue that per capita income is both a powerful determinant and reasonable proxy for other aspects of development, since poorer countries also almost invariably have more poor people–rendering other measures redundant and distracting. Then, of course, there are those who benefit from the status quo, and would stand to lose from a shift in policies towards new development approaches.

This debate is evolving quickly and the policy implications of what we measure and how we measure it are profound. I will be exploring this issue in greater depth over the coming weeks. Stay tuned for more posts on measuring development, and comment or email me to contribute to the conversation.

Post a Comment 12 Comments

  • Posted by Kimberly Corrigan

    Thank you, Terra. Our nonprofit provides free and low-cost K12 materials, lesson plans and activities to explore complicated, real-world issues on topics of economic and social justice, environmental health and natural resource management, and globalization, climate change, consumption, poverty and population, among other topics.

    Our lessons “What’s Up with the GDP?” and “Livin’ the Good Life” would be great resources for teachers to use with their middle and high school students to examine the big themes and complex issues surrounding the essential questions, what is real wealth?, what makes for a happy life?, how can individual achievement, collective action and the common good be balanced in a thriving economic system? Find more @

    Thank you for this blog and I look forward to sharing it with our large national and international teacher networks.
    Kimberly Corrigan

  • Posted by Howard Katzman

    I would like to recommend life expectancy as a composite figure that reflects the evolving quality of life.

    Johan Galtung wrote about structural violence or a form of violence where a social structure or social institution harms people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. Structural violence is a high cause of premature death and unnecessary disability. As a result, it can be reflected in life expectancy.

    Every index listed to measure the quality of life affects life expectancy. Using life expectancy can take into account the differing expectations of different cultures.

  • Posted by Yijia Liang

    This is an interesting article that points to the necessity of reevaluating how we judge development within a country. I agree with the fact that environmental concerns and degrees of human freedom comes into play (seems to point to China), but how should we balance that with economic growth? That is, how should we weigh the other factor’s importance with per capita income? It almost begs for an absolute number determining rate/level of development, yet obviously that’s unattainable. Is there a way we can judge how important these other factors are? Also, how will this method of evaluating be opposed to by countries such as China, Russia, and other economic powers that do indeed sacrifice environmental concerns and human rights?

  • Posted by Jake Grover

    >> “Other critics point to practical issues of public understanding – whereas the meaning of GDP is relatively clear, alternative measures are more complex and difficult to understand. Others argue that per capita income is both a powerful determinant and reasonable proxy for other aspects of development, since poorer countries also almost invariably have more poor people–rendering other measures redundant and distracting.”

    So what is the response to these critiques? Both are powerful arguments that undermine the premise of the article, i.e., that income measures “represent a dramatic oversimplification of wellbeing”.

  • Posted by Lal D Rai

    Hi Terra ! Most of the theories of development do not precisely define development or do not define at all what development means !But by implications some understand that development means modernisation , other say it is political and economic restructuring to produce a more even distribution of fruits of development in society and without prejudice against women folks, still others argue that development means empowerment and self-reliance through personal and communal liberation from oppression.There are other themes ,like basic needs,sustainable development /environment that intersect with the above three main perspectives, which themselves are neither mutually exclusive. In fact scholars in the field of development argue that all these three perspectives offer deep insights into the reality of developmnnt. Do you agree?

  • Posted by Jay Pittman

    I am from Ahmedabad city in India. This is a beautiful city. If you look around hard, you will find some place where there a slum and there is a dirty pool of water. I can send you photos of Ahmedabad and you can see yourself, how nice is the city. Somebody has done research and look for a dirty pool of water.

  • Posted by Bert Rinkel

    I would like to take issue with Jake Grover’s comment that “rendering other measures redundant and distracting”. BECAUSE we don’t take those things into account, we over pollute this earth in the USA 🙁
    Eg: every house in California should be required to have solar panels, not because it is economical, but to preserve energy and consequently reduce pollution.
    These companies that claim that their products that don’t function anymore will be “recycled” do not tell the whole story, because not all components are recyclable, such as the el cheapo printers from HP and maybe others, which are produced with the expectation that the customer will send back that non-functional printer after 4-6 months when it fails, and upgrade to a more expensive model. On top of that, excessive amounts of ink are required at $80 or more per cartridge. Do I need to go on?

  • Posted by Jay Pittman

    I find this a rather common practice among journalists from the western countries. They come to India with a written agenda to find slums, dirty people, photograph them & videotape them. They are given strong instructions to avoid showing any tall building, wide roads, traffic, big hospitals, factories, universities or anything that looks good. They are told to find something that is bad. I have observed this trend over many years in the USA, Canada, Britain and other European countries. Also, we see those white journalist men and women with their cameras in India socializing with people in slum areas and taking their pictures. They will never talk to us or any educated person. They always have a plan what to do. Very manipulative and shameful activity. We are not supposed to advertise other people’s wrong side. This probably pleases the people in the western countries. The British are very bad in this. They are trying very hard to prove that when they were ruling over India, it was good and after they have left India, everything is going just bad. Their BBC TV, their newspapers and magazines contain a lot of manipulated work. Very disgusting.

  • Posted by Jake Grover

    @Bert Rinkel

    That wasn’t my comment – it was a direct quote from the article…

  • Posted by Alan Russell

    Along with the economic measures there should be life expectancy, infant mortality rates, number of children in full time eductaion at various ages as % of childhood population broken down by gender and adult mortality rates. These are quantifiable. The more subjective ones are security of property, corruption indices and political freedom.

  • Posted by Juergen Nagler

    Many thanks for this article as it’s a fundamentally important topic.

    Are we seeing a new, more holistic human development paradigm emerging? Can happiness be a UN goal? There are some interesting signs…

    Please see my related blog on “Happiness as a UN goal? The Inside-Out Development Paradigm?”


  • Posted by A.G. Aydin

    As is the case with all self-contained systems, one can determine measurable quantities to infer about unmeasurable or less measurable quantities. If we consider the society as a whole, we see that the metrics come in pairs, for instance, health of a society is not easy to measure, but life expectancy- not good enough by itself-, hospital visits, medication taken, diagnoses at various severity are kind of metrics one can easily measure, and hence create a “complementary metric pair” to infer about the status of health. Income may seem to be easy to measure, however it does not represent the utility it adds to one’s life. What will be more sensible metric is the access to clean water, healthy food, safe and comfortable shelter etc, each of which can be tied to a measurable data, i.e., homeless rate in a country can be used as a “complimentary metric” to the level of access to a reasonable shelter. Using such set of metrics will make better representation of the utility expected to be derived from the income.

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