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What is the international development field?

The field of international development seeks to outline and address global challenges and create broad frameworks for solutions.
Picture of globes

The field of international development seeks to outline and address global challenges and create broad frameworks for thinking about solutions.

The origin of its labels

Historically, a variety of different terms have been used to describe countries at varying levels of development. You may have heard terms like ‘first world’ and ‘third world’, for example. These labels emerged from the Cold War era, and although we still sometimes hear them used today, they have largely been replaced by a terminology of ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ nations.

Because of their geographic distribution, in part a product of colonial histories, these two groups of countries are also sometimes referred to as the Global North and the Global South.

What does ‘developed’ mean here?

This question generates a lot of debate among academics and others in the international development field. While some scholars and policymakers have looked at purely economic measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita to describe a country’s growth, others have pointed out that these indices do not account for factors such as health, literacy, environment, or socio-economic inequality.

In an effort to focus on the wellbeing of the people of various countries as the principal indicator of development, the United Nations adopted a measure called the Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI combines life expectancy, education, and per-capita income in a single number.

The Millennium Development Goals, set in 2000, furthered the aim of focusing on the human dimension of international development. They set targets in areas such as gender equality, environmental sustainability, poverty reduction, and disease alleviation that were to be achieved by 2015.

A persistent problem

As definitions and frameworks evolve, one persistent problem in the field of international development policy is that it often reinforces a divide between the Global North and the Global South. In discussions of global challenges, the Global North is often represented as a source of monetary aid and a model for emulation, despite the challenges of poverty and inequality that still beset many ‘developed’ nations.

The Global South, on the other hand, is viewed as a needy recipient, even though it is actually a source of diverse local solutions to development issues. However, social enterprise is one field in which both the Global North and the Global South can and do participate as contributors to novel solutions in the development field.

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