Development Defined from the Bottom Up

Development as a word and a concept is entangled in our everyday conversations, one rarely thinks about its meaning or origin. For those who work in economic development/community development/human development and similar careers, however, mull over the meaning and evolution of development concept, and can deeply change their perspective and hence their practice. Beliefs about definitions of development shape the assumptions, values, actions, processes, and aims of governments, organizations, institutions, or individuals bring into their work. This blog post looks at different definitions of development since 1950s to provide a better understanding of this multifaceted concept.

Development is difficult to define, since the term has a variety of meanings in different times and places. As an ambiguous term, development is used descriptively and normatively to refer to a vision, a process, or an action through which a society moves toward a “good change,” or a “desired objective.”

Through reasonable assumption, from the dawn of civilization, a number of members of society have made the effort to see change beforehand and to lead it in ways that ameliorate the lives of the general population, or at least preordained segments of it and in that sense try to guide development and improve human well-being. However, in today’s meaning of development, a top-down embedded power relationship exists with an unfillable distance between the weak underdeveloped groups and the mighty developed ones to whom the former turns for long-term assistance.

The “Development from below” paradigm, which advocates the need to counter the destructive tendencies, or “backwash’’ effects, of top-down/externally driven development and the creation of dynamic local development impulses within regions and communities came to existence in 1975. Local development, participatory development, community (-based) development and rural development are among the most prevalent bottom-up development approaches in which policies orient towards territorially organized basic-needs services; rural and village development; labor-intensive activities; small and medium-sized projects and technology, in order to permit the full employment of regional human, natural and institutional resources on a territorially integrated basis.

Proponents of bottom-up approaches argue that threats and opportunities for the fulfillment of society’s basic needs—a primary concern of development goals—are more palpable and consequently amendable at the local level as community scale is optimal for the examination of ways in which development-related processes and outcomes are attained. On the other hand, critics argue that in bottom-up approaches it is the social capital and the links of cooperation with external agents that capture human, monetary and technical resources which contribute to the local development strategy. As we look at development and the terms and techniques vital to the development of communities, those working in the field must be careful not to over-define a situation and ultimately not serve those whom are the goal of the development project.

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