What is the development industry, and how has it changed over time?

The development industry involves international organisations, government departments, big international charities and social movements, who are all working to fight against the causes of poverty and inequality. How these organisations go about doing this is hotly debated, and the development industry has reinvented its strategy pretty much once every ten years since it was founded in the 1950s.¹ From focusing on supporting states to supporting markets, it’s shifted in line with global politics.

A huge amount of criticism has been directed towards the development industry. A group of Latin American economists accused it of creating systems of dependency between the West and the rest of the world.² Other economists have said it relieves national governments of having to take care of their people in the knowledge that development agencies will do it, undermining democracy. Still others criticise how often it’s used as a political tool to make a country implement a certain policy or ideology in line with the aid giver’s interests.

Development started off with what was known as the ‘Big Push’ approach, building up infrastructure projects and employment-generating industries to give developing economies a ‘push’ forward.³

In the 1980s, it started to focus more on pro-market policies, rather than supporting the state's role in the economy. That meant that development agencies started adding conditions to what their loans and grants could be used for, expanding the financial industry worldwide, and engaging in ‘consultancy’ work to advise or influence governments and businesses to limit government ‘bureaucracy’ in market regulation and create more 'competitive', or 'pro-business', economies.⁴

By the 2000s, development organisations started focusing on building institutions that worked the way they thought was best, with strong property rights and anti-corruption mechanisms, seeing this as the best way forward.⁵

In September 2015, the United Nations implemented the Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 goals adopted by the 193 countries in the United Nations to be met by 2030.⁶ These deal, with everything from poverty to women’s rights to sustainable energy and preserving ecosystems, represent a highly ambitious goal for the world to shift its economic development on a global scale. Whether or not the Sustainable Development Goals will work is another question, but this public focus on sustainability is a recent transformation in the way the development industry presents itself, and for now it looks like it’s here to stay.