What is Development Studies?

To ask, “what is development studies?” begs the question, “what is development?” As Amartya Sen said in his book Development as Freedom”, development should be defined as a process of enhancing individuals’ freedoms instead of emphasizing economic gains or technological advances. The author argues that increasing personal incomes or promoting advanced technologies directly impact the improvement of the standard of living for all citizens. In other words, wealth is essential only in so far as it encourages greater well-being. Additionally, the end goal of development is to remove all forms of unfreedom (e.g., poverty, famine, social deprivation, social intolerance) and increase substantive freedoms for all people in the whole society, offering these individuals a meaningful quality of life. Sen presents five distinct types of freedom that are closely related: political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security. He believes that the freedom of each individual will promote social development. What people can positively achieve is influenced by economic opportunities, political liberties, social powers, and the enabling conditions of good health, basic education, and the encouragement and cultivation of initiatives.

In Sen’s approach, development is viewed as a multidimensional concept. By emphasizing non-economic factors rather than economic factors, his focus shifts from “quantity” to “quality” toward a more just and equitable society. He argues that using GDP cannot reflect exactly the development of a country because it merely measures the size of a nation’s economy. GDP itself fails to capture the distribution of income and ignores negative effects of economic growth on the whole society. Therefore, other aspects of life should be mentioned to measure a nation’s quality of life, such as life expectancies, literacy rates, inequality, and environmental indicators. While his approach is quite comprehensive and can be applied to all countries, there are some limitations as he lacks historical or global consideration when analyzing some development issues as well as fails to connect these problems. As his approach was proposed more than twenty years ago, some issues may not be true in the current context. Furthermore, it may be quite difficult to quantify his non-economic concepts, especially in developing countries.

Starting from the year 2016, the world has embarked on a journey of sustainable development, ending the Millennium Development Goal (2000-2015) period. The world leaders have pledged to leave no one behind and shared a global perspective that all countries, both developed and developing countries share the same challenges and burdens to carry on what is required to make the world more sustainable. Despite many remarkable achievements, the world has been facing many problems related to poverty, population, human rights and inequality, climate change, environmental protection, reform institutions, and conflicts in the development process. In the context that Vietnam has now joined the group of lower-middle-income countries (2011), foreign investment to support development programs is increasingly limited, the country has also been increasingly facing development issues, as mentioned before, and its situation would be even more difficult in some areas such as urbanization, poverty, gender inequality, or climate change. “Development studies” is considered one of the crucial keys for understanding and resolving these issues, generating and mobilizing research studies that cross-disciplinary, sectoral, and national boundaries while staying grounded in people’s daily lives. Development studies covers many topics, from economic growth to environmental changes, conflicts to migration, poverty, hunger to gender inequalities, public health to climate resilience, and governance to agricultural livelihoods. It doesn’t seek only to understand the problem; but also to change it for the better, creating a safer, healthier world for all, with equal distribution of wealth and social conditions.

In this sense, development studies is interdisciplinarity, sometimes referred to as transdisciplinary, in which research and knowledge are co-constructed with non-academic actors such as policymakers, practitioners, social movements, businesses, or community organizations, improving relevance and capacity to make a difference; and it is inclusivity; whether through partnerships, consortia, approaches or methods, development studies attends to the voices and perspectives of marginalized people. None of this is easy, and the practices of development studies and its scope and areas of focus are continually evolving. This makes it an endlessly challenging and exciting field, as it befits one grappling with the biggest issues of our time.

A career in the development industry is not for those who want to get rich! By its nature, the work is concerned with the balance of wealth and opportunity to travel for work as your career progresses.  There are many different types of work available for graduates, with any organization that concerns about development studies. They can work for international/non-profits organizations (World Bank, United Nations, NGOs), social enterprises or work as a researcher, project assistant, project officer, coordinator, M&E, Programming, Fundraising, etc.

Development is about transforming the lives of people, not just transforming economies.” (Joseph Stiglitz)

Written by: Bao Nguyen and Thao Do