What is Development?

By Sidee Dlamini

After a year of taking graduate level classes in development, I still have not found the answer to what development is. This is not disappointing to me, but it is rather encouraging. The fact that there is no straight answer to this question confirms that we actually do not know what development is and because we do not know we will keep searching. On the other hand, we could say development is not one simple thing and therefore there are many definitions for it. The latter response also implies that individuals will choose what development means to them and resort to approaching development that way. I will admit that I am not too fond of the second option because it takes away the need to keep learning and exploring alternative definitions.

At the conclusion of my first semester at Berkeley, I was frustrated by the minimal focus on the local people when it came to addressing development issues. Every now and again the topic about involving communities came up, but it was not given much attention. My frustration led to me ranting on one my final papers about what development actually was. I concluded my paper with the following paragraph:

A few weeks ago I was presented with the opportunity to listen to Dr. Ernesto Sirolli, who founded the Sirolli Institute. Dr. Sirolli asked a very interesting question, which was “Instead of arriving in a village or community with our ideas of what the local people should be doing, why don’t we shut up and ask the local people what it is they love to do?” The room was dead silent. This moment took me back to the previous semester when I wrote about what I thought development was and it was comforting to realize that there are great men who are already practicing this form of development. The unfortunate thing is that the majority of the organizations out there have not caught onto this model.

You might be asking “what does this have to do with ICTD then?” Great question!

Based on what I believe about letting the community choose what they want, it is hard for me to also believe that the communities would be informed well enough about the different ICT options available for them to improve their current states of living. I believe ICT is, and will continue to play an important role in development, but how do we implement ICT components to development and also respect the communities’ voices? Do we follow after Steve Job’s belief that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them?” or do we do what they ask and wait until they are informed about the other options, and then let the local people request ICT options at their own time? Unfortunately, ICT products are not like vaccinations where we could possibly justify administering them without full consent.

There is a slight possibility that there is usually one informed person in the community who would serve as the “ICT Champion” and bring the rest of the community on board. This would be great, but what happens when this individual isn’t there? I am curious to hear about how people think they would approach such situations.

Sidee Dlamini is a Master of Development of Practice student at UC Berkeley. Email her at sidee@berkeley.edu and follow her at @miss_sidee


  1. Hi Sidee!

    I have to admit, I fall into the "development is not one simple thing and therefore there are many definitions for it" camp, but we both appreciate the message Sirolli was advocating. To me, since there is no one thing that is "development" we have to "shut up and ask" what development means to each community. In some communities it might mean greater connection to global markets while in others it might mean greater autonomy and the ability to maintain traditional lifestyles on communally held land. Some communities definitions of development might directly contradict the definitions of others, and that's ok if we believe that development can mean different things to different people.

    Do we really disagree, or do we just have different ways of expressing the same belief that local communities should be the ones deciding what they value and what they want to see in their futures?

  2. Hey Sidee,

    What a great post reflecting of our eternal dilemma as persons studying and working in development! Especially after our discussion just before class today and your entertaining the idea of pursuing your old career path due to the unfortunate nature of ICT4D funding (that seems to please funders' imaginations much more than the wellbeing of affected communities), I can see that this problematic--finding development and a community's agency--is of immense importance to you. And so it should be!

    I agree with you that we should keep on searching for development. It's not one thing and will most likely never be locked (or at least should not be locked!) into one framing. However, I'm most interested in your last question. What do we do when there is not an ICT4D champion in a local community? Do we still introduce ICT, given that the local community might not be aware of its merits? I would say NO, unless we can find a way in which ICT can facilitate an offline practice that will further development. My opinion thus aligns with Kentaro Toyama and his idea of ICT as a mere amplifier rather than maker of development. And people know what's good for them--even if they are not aware of the most recent technology development!

    I would love to hear what you think of this suggestion.

  3. Hi Sidee,
    A very thought provoking post! This reminds me of Bruce Baikie's lecture on Inveneo's methodologies (http://www.inveneo.org/).

    In the absence of a local ICTD champion, Inveneo works with the local communities to understand their needs and hones partners who can serve as local ICTD champions once Inveneo moves out of that project.