Development: A Loss of Focus?

By Anjum Altaf 

[I am concerned about the perspective of proponents of economic development in India regarding people considered to be in the way of development, be they tribals living on mineral resources or farmers occupying land needed for industry. This concern has made me revisit the question of priorities: does development take precedence over people or should people determine the kind of development that ought to be pursued?

I addressed this question in 1992 when I was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a visiting faculty member. The paper was written for an Expert Meeting on the Role of Families in Development organized by the Committee on Population of the National Research Council in Washington, DC. It was published in 1993 in the proceedings of the meeting (Family and Development: Summary of an Expert Meeting, K. Foote and L. Martins, Eds. National Academy of Sciences Press, Washington, DC).]

The key issue addressed in the paper, which should be sufficient to motivate a discussion on this forum, is excerpted below.It is not necessary to read the full paper but the link is provided for those who might be interested.

This meeting presents an opportunity to deliberate upon the relationship between people and development. One starting point is provided by the stated goal of the meeting, i.e., “to discuss how families, as intermediaries between individuals and society, either hinder or facilitate social and economic development.”

When we juxtapose families and development, a question that one could ask is what comes first? Do families come first or does development come first? The historical record shows that this is not an empty question despite the fact that development is always intended to be for the benefit of people. “Socialism plus electrification,” Indira Gandhi’s family planning program, and Nyerere’s village collectivization program are all examples in which development came first. All of them had tragic consequences for the families for whom the development was intended.

The formulation of the stated goal of this meeting (“how families…  either hinder or facilitate development”) can leave the impression that development has a life of its own, independent of and external to the people involved. The content of development seems defined and the focus is on seeing how families either hinder or facilitate this objective. What happens if the families are deemed to be hindering development? Again, the historical record is sobering. In different times people in the path of development have been found in need of civilization or modernization with or without their consent; have been labeled backward or lazy; and in the worst case have been swept aside into retraining centers or the gulag.

The question of what comes first, people or development, is thus important and worthy of consideration. But suppose we wanted to put people first, where would we start? There are two alternatives. Ideally, we would need to find out what is it that people want. Failing that, we would need to determine at least how development hurts or benefits people.

[The full paper is accessible here.]


  • Zach Warren
    Posted at 17:30h, 25 September Reply

    A very different concept of “development” than the one I’m used to (I’m in a Human Development PhD program, a subspecialty within psychology focused on how humans, families, communities develop)…

    Would be curious to know how this discussion would play out when considering Israeli settlers. When (public works) development is controversial, or poorly situated geopolitically, how does this change the equation? To what extent are we obligated to those families — and what would it even mean to “put family first” ?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:47h, 26 September

      Zach: Yes, it is a very specific (economic) dimension of development. I am not sure now whether this was what the organizers intended or whether I assumed it to be so because of my background. It’s not that I am completely unfamiliar with the other dimensions – my PhD dissertation had quite a bit from Maslow.

      Limiting ourselves to the interpretation in the paper (“facts on the ground”), I wouldn’t apply the argument to the Israeli settlers. That’s an overwhelmingly political, not an economic, initiative. In the economic domain, in general, I don’t think the argument changes: in my view, people come first and if for some reason their legitimate claims have to be disregarded they need to be compensated fairly.

  • Qurat ul Ayen
    Posted at 16:53h, 23 July Reply

    Development is no doubt a noble goal. The basic purpose of development is to provide people with different choices and enabling them to live in an environment where they can live, enjoy and stay healthy.

    The question that arises is “What do people cater for? Yes, certainly they do require the basic amenities such as food, shelter, clothing and water. But what if a person is being provided with all these necessary resources and yet living in a constant state of fear? The importance of security and safety is mostly taken for granted in many countries.

    Our country is always aiming at formulating development strategies for controlling population count, water and health crisis, electricity etc. Many reforms came and went, what have we achieved? Has there been any development? Have our people benefited from it?

    I believe, before determining what people want, we must know their fears and work towards an environment where freedom of individuals to live long and live well exists. As soon as this is achieved, a far easier formulation and implementation of development strategies would be possible.

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