Maybe you have already figured out the relationship between the word development and the idea of a closed envelope—something that needs to be opened up or unwrapped. De-enveloped, if you like. Inside the envelope, there must be something that already exists.
The Spanish word desarrollo is similar: unroll something to see what is inside. In Portuguese, desenvolvimento implies unwrapping.
After more than 20 years of work in support of development organizations and projects, and employment by at least two organizations that had included the word in their names, I finally got the point in 2007 when I got around to reading several books by Octavio Paz, including his classic, The Labyrinth of Solitude.
The word means the opposite of what a lot of people do in the name of development. Too often, we try to impose ideas and structures that come from some other place, and fail to see the values and systems that are already present among the people. Think of the European arrival in the Americas. Think of the resource extraction companies that refuse to consult—much less gain the consent of—the Indigenous communities whose land they seek to exploit.
Evo Morales, the former president of Bolivia, decried decades of misnamed development and vowed that his people will find solutions for the problems of health, education, employment, unequal distribution of resources, discrimination, migration, exercise of democracy, preservation of the environment and respect for cultural diversity.
Morales and others are critical of approaches that facilitate the advance of globalized capitalism led by giant corporations. Those approaches focus strongly on building infrastructure (roads, ports and canals) to support an export of raw materials or cheaply-produced manufactured goods. Most free trade agreements contain provisions that facilitate the movement and protection of capital investments—and that also inhibit government action to protect local economies, health systems and ecology.
Thought of this way, we begin to see that the so-called “developed” countries of the global north have our development issues too. The much-reported water crisis in the city of Flint, Michigan, is a development failure. Why can’t a country that can deliver a cruise missile to a target in Yemen or Afghanistan get clean water to people’s homes? Canada’s inability to get clean water, quality education and decent health care to First Nations communities is also a development failure. But we can dig up one-eighth of the province of Alberta for a fossil fuel that will soon be superfluous, and expand a pipeline across British Columbia to get it to tidewater. A provincial government in Ontario begins to allow factories into the long-fought-for green space around greater Toronto: that’s a development issue too. In our different contexts, let us ask ourselves: what are our development priorities?