Tel: +44 (0)207 612 6255 | Mail:

Re-Thinking the Teaching of Development

Led by Dr Alex Standish, Senior Lecturer in Geography Education, UCL Institute of Education.

This workshop explored how ideas about development have changed, how development is approached in schools, the recent transformation of developing countries and the implications this has for geography teaching. In particular, we question whether current development thinking in the West is adequately capturing change in the developing world given its reluctance to positively engage with a narrative of growth and progress.

What do we mean by development? How has its meaning changed?

Development theory evolved in the West as countries gained their independence after World War II. Development articulated a path to progress, at the time either based on a capitalist or socialist model. Since this time, development theory has gone through several stages (see Ben-Ami 2010).

1950s/60s: Modernisation Theory

1970s: Basic Needs

1980s +: Sustainable Development

1990s +: Human Development

2000s +: Rights-Based Development

2010s: Resilience

What is significant about today is that Western development theory is ‘in crisis’, giving rise to post-development and anti-development thinking (Pieterse 2010). In the school curriculum this takes the form of encouraging development that is small-scale, local, labour-intensive, not disruptive of ecosystems and ‘sustainable’. While it is common to teach about Newly Industrialised Countries such as South Korea and China, the discussion of development lacks a narrative and vision of progress for teaching about transformation in developing countries. Rather than embracing economic growth, rising energy consumption and urbanisation, all of which have a transformative impact on people’s lives, these changes are often portrayed as socially and environmentally problematic. Even the Millennium Development Goals reduced development to a set of crude targets that failed to include a broader understanding of development tied to the cultural and political progress of a nation (Chang 2010). Evidently, contemporary Western nations are struggling to articulate a positive and coherent narrative of development.

How has the developing world been transformed?

In the workshop we took a brief look at the ways in which many developing countries have progressed over the last couple of decades. It is only now becoming clearer how some well some developing countries have advanced during a period of economic globalisation. The story of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) is well-known, but many developing countries have also seen significant economic growth and improvements in standard of living. For example, Indonesia is planning to start a national health service in 2019, Nigeria has its own film industry (Nollywood), Mexico is rapidly developing solar power, the fertility rate in Bangladesh declined from around 6 in the 1970s to 2.3 in 2011, between 2000 and 2012 the malaria mortality rate declined by 42 percent in all age groups and by 48 percent in children under five (WHO 2013), HIV prevalence has stabilised and some African nations have rates of infection below 2 percent (similar to developed countries). One of the most dramatic figures from this period is the decline in the poverty rate (people living on less than $1.25 a day). With nearly a billion people being lifted out of poverty the global poverty rate has been halved in less than 25 years, with all parts of the world seeing people moved across this line (The Economist 2013). It is with this figure in mind that has led to discussion of the Bottom Billion (Collier 2008) and the New Bottom Billion (Sumner 2010).

Since 1990, there has been a shift in global manufacturing to the developing world and inter-developing country trade has enabled many countries to break free from dependence upon Western aid. The most dynamic parts of the global economy are now in East and Southern Asia. Even African nations have experienced a decade of growth in which they narrowed the gap with the developed world. is a great resource for showing how many developing nations have closed the gap with the West in terms of education, health care, life expectancy, consumption and income. Its architect, Hans Rosling, even suggests that we will need to stop calling them developing countries (click here for article).

What implications does this have for teaching about development today?

1. Engage pupils in an open-discussion about what it means for both developed and developing countries to progress towards a better tomorrow. Drawing on examples of transformations that countries such as China, or Western nations in the past, have undertaken will provide pupils with positive illustrations and also provoke discussion about how development can improve people’s lives and their environment, and, where problems arise, how they can be overcome.

2. We need to move beyond a polarised world of ‘developed’ versus ‘developing’ because most countries are somewhere in the middle. One way to approach this is to use the World Bank Country Classification of low income, lower middle income, upper middle income and higher income (see here).

3. In teaching about development it is important for pupils to understand that while economic growth is not necessarily an end in and of itself, growth helps countries to create job opportunities and advance in other ways like health care, nourishment, housing, access to education, transportation and to manage environmental deterioration. Material advancement is an important part of the narrative of progress.


Ben-Ami, D. (2010) Ferraris For All: In Defence of Economic Progress. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

Chang, H. (2010) ‘Hamlet Without the Prince of Denmark: How development has disappeared from today’s ‘development’ discourse’, in S. Khan & J. Christiansen (eds.), Towards New Developmentalism: Market as Means rather than Master. Abingdon: Routledge.

Collier, P. (2008) The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pieterse, J. N. (2010) Development Theory. London: Sage.

Provost, C. and Harris, R. (2013) ‘China Commits Billions in Aid to Africa as Part of Charm Offensive’, The Guardian, April 29th.

Simpson, S. (2008) ‘Will China and India Conquer the World?’ Spiked-online, February 21st:

Sumner, A. (2010) ‘Global Poverty and the New Bottom Billion: What if Three-Quarters of the World’s Poor Live in Middle-Income Countries?’ Institute of Development Studies, working paper.

The Economist (2013) ‘Poverty: Not Always With Us.’ June 13th.

The Lancet (2012) ‘Global Burden of Disease, Injuries and Risk Factors Study 2013’.

Other Resources




IMF datamapper

RGS video on different development theories:

World Bank maps and World Bank data


US Energy Information Administration

What is the secret of Bangladesh’s development?

Economist article

New York Times article

World Health Organisation