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posted April 2003


The Case for “Development from Below”
Susan Healey   (University of Guelph, Canada)


Introduction: The Evolution of the Development Discourse

A concept of ‘development’ defined solely in economic terms has evolved, perhaps not surprisingly given its roots in classical economics (Todaro, 2000:8,14). Development is associated with attaining high or ideally full employment and, most importantly, continued growth in income levels as measured by a nation’s gross national product (GNP). Critics argue that this perspective continues to dominate  “First World”1 thinking, even though per capita GNP has long been acknowledged as merely “a crude index of economic development” (Lipsky et. al. 1973:848). How, then, has ‘growth’ come to be viewed as practically synonymous with ‘development’? Sachs argues that the answer can be traced to a particular moment in history:

Epochs rise slowly, but the development era opened at a certain date and hour. On 20 January 1949, it was President Harry Truman who, in his inauguration speech before Congress, drawing the attention of his audience to conditions in poorer countries, for the first time defined them as ‘underdeveloped areas’…   The Northern countries, in particular the U.S., were running ahead, while he saw the rest of the world – with its absurdly low per capita income – lagging far behind. An image that the economic societies of the North had increasingly acquired about themselves was thus projected upon the rest of the world: the degree of civilization in a country is to be indicated by the level of its production… (1993:4).

What factors explain the emergence of alternative theories of development, a perspective that rejects the classical economic interpretation? 

One recurring theme is the recognition of the need to elaborate theories to better understand the conditions under which development does or does not occur. Policy prescriptions based on conventional economics have failed to adequately remedy the enormous disparities that continue to separate the developing from the developed world. For example:

·         It is estimated that in 1998, more than one-quarter of the people in the world’s poorest regions had an income of less than $U.S. 1.00 per day (World Bank, 2001).

·         Although the infant mortality rate2 in both developed (OECD)3 and developing countries decreased between 1970 and 1999, the difference between the two rates doubled over the same period: compared to developed countries, infant mortality in developing countries was 5 times higher in 1970, and 10 times higher in 1999 (World Bank, 2001).

·         While life expectancy for people in developing countries rose from 55 years in 1970 to 64 years in 1999, it still lagged far behind the average life expectancy of 78 years (1999) in the OECD countries (World Bank, 2001).

A second critical juncture is the recognition and growing concern for the accelerated and in some cases irreversible changes being made to the natural environment (Khor, 1997; Maser, 1997). For example:

·         By 1997, forests were disappearing or being degraded at a rate of 14 million hectares a year4;

·         In some parts of the world, water usage is so high relative to supply that “surface water supplies are literally shrinking and ground water reserves are being depleted faster than they can be replenished by precipitation”5;

·         An estimated ninety percent of the developing world’s wastewater continues to be discharged untreated into local rivers and streams (Barlow, 1999:8).


“Development from Below”: The Emergence of an Alternative Paradigm

One of the more relevant frameworks for informing contemporary approaches to economic development relates to the question of development “from above or from below”. Stöhr and Taylor’s (1981) analysis is useful for identifying and conceptualizing the key differences between two fundamentally different approaches to development. One is rooted in classical economic theory, the other has emerged to directly challenge many of the key premises, and the failed outcomes, of conventional approaches. 


Ekins, a principal proponent of the alternative paradigm, which he terms the New Economics, is careful to point out that “the aim of the New Economics, as of conventional economics, is to facilitate economic development. The difference derives from its interpretation of the word ‘development’…” (1986:43). Five basic principles of “development from below” were first outlined in a 1975 report of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation entitled What Now: Another Development. Specifically, development is conceived as:

·          Need-oriented, responding to both material and non-material human needs;

·          Endogenous, that is, derived from locally determined priorities;

·          Self-reliant, with an emphasis on maximizing community strengths and resources;

·          Ecologically sound, with attention to sustainable and equitable resource use;

·          Based on structural transformations in social, economic and spatial relationships in order to foster the participative decision-making required to achieve the above four principles (in Ekins, 1992:99-100).


Development from below is also the philosophy and action of learning from below (Ekins, 1986): development from below seeks to consult first with “those who are last” in determining the development agenda.


Re-Examining the Goals: The Growth vs. Development Debate

A fundamental difference in the two paradigms relates to the goals that are articulated for each, and the corresponding indicators of development. Development from above seeks to maximize economic returns (McRobie, 1986:xii). Human labour is reduced to “a cost to be minimized and if possible eliminated altogether” (McRobie, 1986:xi). Development is equated to growth in national income, economic specialization, competitive advantage, and high productivity.  


Development from below, on the other hand, is concerned more with the equitable distribution of income; it seeks to satisfy basic needs (Stöhr and Taylor, 1981), to increase human welfare (Ekins, 1986:8), and to foster diversity and complementarity by addressing the needs of the producers, the consumers and the local community (McRobie, 1986:xii). It is concerned with making people “more productive, creative and self-reliant” and strengthening “the support systems of family and community” (McRobie, 1986:xi; also Graham, 1986:19)). More recent conceptualizations include goals such as the liberation or empowerment of people to make their own choices (Bradfield, 2000:27).

Development from below rejects entirely the assumption that “growth is good and more is better” (Ekins, 1986: 8-9), on the grounds that growth confuses the means of development with its ends. Although economic growth may be one way of improving human welfare, when defined in conventional economic terms (as measured by gross national product), it falls far short of providing an adequate measurement of more encompassing visions of development.  For one thing, GNP takes no account of how consumption or wealth is distributed.


Countries that have recently undergone aggressive economic restructuring serve to illustrate this point. For example, the GNP of Bolivia, considered “one of the most successful economic adjustment programs of the postwar era” (Larraín & Sachs, 1998:145; CIDA, 2001), grew by an impressive rate of 4% per annum between 1990 and 1999 (CIDA, Ibid). Nevertheless, there is evidence that GNP growth did not benefit the majority of Bolivians. Their country remains one of the poorest in the hemisphere, and continues to rank lowest or next-to-lowest of the South American countries on a broad range of social indicators. Fully half (50%) of the national income (GNP) accrues to the wealthiest 20% of the population, while the poorest 20% earn only 5.6%.  Furthermore, the differences in income and social conditions between Bolivia’s urban and rural populations are dramatic. While female illiteracy is 15% overall, it reaches 50% in rural areas. The poor constitute 52% of the urban population, and a full 82% of the population in rural areas. Clearly, GNP growth falls far short of being an adequate measure of the overall ‘development’ of human well-being and potential.


Critical to understanding the alternatives offered through development from below is the importance placed on articulating the concept of human need. Max-Neef (1986:49) argues that human needs must be understood as a system of interrelated needs “of having” and “of being”, including “permanence (or subsistence), protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity (or meaning) and freedom” (Idem). Thus, housing, food and income, while typically thought of as basic needs, are viewed instead as satisfiers of the fundamental need of subsistence. While fundamental needs remain constant in time and space, “what changes, both over time and through cultures, is the form or the means by which these needs are satisfied” (Idem). Thus, participatory decision-making ‘from below’ about how a society will satisfy its needs is the essence of the alternative paradigm. 



As the definition of development is debated and refined, so too must the measures and methods for attaining development be modified and reformulated. Thus, the “learning from below” perspective cautions that the “first thinking” of most professionals is incongruent with and therefore of little value to those who are “last”, for example, the rural poor (Chambers, 1986). Development from below challenges professionals to engage in “last thinking” by:

·          Putting first what those who are last want and need;

·          Understanding their situation, resources and problems;

·          Combining these to determine program and research priorities (Ibid: 319).


In Sach’s (1987:24) words, development planning must be “committed, contextual, contractual and participative” if it is to fulfill its aim of achieving qualitative development in place of imbalanced and unsustainable growth.



1. Todaro (2000:744), following the classification systems of the United Nations, the World Bank, and others, defines the First World as the “now economically advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan” that were the first “to experience sustained long-term economic growth.”

2. Number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births.

3. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

4. Based on scientific evidence presented at the June 1997 UN General Assembly Special Session, cited in Khor (1997:8).

5. Information from World Resources, a publication of the United Nations Environment Program, the World Bank and the World Resources Institute, cited in Barlow (1999:6).


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