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What is development?

The postgraduate International and Community Development course has existed for over 20 years at Deakin University. It is Australia’s largest and oldest course of its kind with hundreds of students studying in countries around the world. Our past and present students work in international aid agencies, local councils, state and federal governments, community-based organisations, and UN bodies. All of them dedicating their working lives to bringing about ‘development’.

However, it is only recently that we recognized that we have not defined what we mean by the term ‘development’! This should be a very easy task, after all, development is about improving the lives of the poor. But doesn’t development also occur in wealthy countries? Is it just to do with income or can development also be about non-economic improvements? Does development affect men and women differently? Does development result in improvements in everyone’s circumstances or does it discriminate? How do you measure development? Does development mean the same thing to everybody all the time?
The more we thought about it the more we realized that it wasn’t obvious. During our last team meeting, we listed all the ways development might be defined by drawing on our experiences as both researchers and practitioners working both within Australia and overseas. We argued over priorities and first principles and soon realized that for all its ‘obviousness’, development was a contested term. And that became our starting point. We accepted that there is not a simple definition of development, but that it was very dependent on a range of factors. We then reflected on the Units that we teach and the content of these Units. Slowly and after many versions over a period of weeks we came to the following:
At Deakin, we recognise that development is a contested term. It is contested in both its meaning and its means of achievement. However, we also acknowledge that the intrinsic goal of development is to advance human dignity, freedom, social equity and self-determination. A lack of development is characterized by social exclusion, poverty, ill-health, powerlessness, and shortened life expectancy. Good development outcomes are best achieved when communities have ownership of the goals and processes of development and where there is participatory representation, transparency and accountability mechanisms. Good development outcomes must also explicitly consider gender and diversity. Development occurs in all societies. It involves processes that require an appreciation of existing endogenous strengths and (often) exogenous interventions. Successful development requires critical analysis, mutual learning, and acceptance of its paradoxes and dilemmas. To ensure that benefits of development are sustained, the environment must be a core regard. There is no single measure of development and assessment of development requires a range of indicators.
We know this is not a perfect definition, and it may evolve further over time. However, it was a valuable exercise that made us think both about what we teach but also what we want our students to do when they are working with communities around Australia and the world.
It is also nice to know after 20 years what it is we are teaching!

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