4 the World blog

Empowering collaborative communities

History of International Development


International development is a relatively young field, dating from the post war era (Eade, 2000; Pieterse, 2001). Before this time, imperialism was the mainstream global ideology of the developed world. After World War II, the newly formed United Nations (UN) committed to maintain peace and “to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character” (UN, 1945). The UN established specialized agencies and the World Bank to carry out the specific goal of solving poverty (Eade, 2000). International development became the name of this field dedicated to ending poverty and insecurity (Iriye, 2002). The purpose of this review is to chronicle the political climate and trends in international development from 1945 to the present with emphasis on the impact of these trends on INGOs.

While the history of international development is short, the list of terms development scholars have used to describe countries is long. Over the years, authors have referred to the nations with the most power as the first world, West, core, developed, and North and commonly refer to the nations with less power as third world , periphery, underdeveloped , less developed, developing, and South. I prefer the term developing because it allows for a continuum view of the power distribution in the world rather than an oppositional view of the world. To emphasize cultural differences, I used North and South to describe global positioning and West to describe ideologies from Western European roots.

It is important for us to acknowledge the roots of imperialism and colonization, as the effects are still a source of contention in the literature. People in the field of international development navigate many slippery slopes because of this past: i.e., causing dependency vs. affecting empowerment; disturbing traditional values vs. disrupting social injustice; creating progress vs. cloning Northern ways (see Richardson, 1997). It is also important for us to acknowledge that “differences exist not simply between Third World countries, but within them as well. There are rich and poor people, empowered and disempowered citizens, to be found inside all states and societies in the world” (Tomlinson, 2003, p. 307). The world is full of complex people, each of whom is part of many complex cultures with complex histories. It is beyond the scope of this literature review to detail the complex history from the perspectives of all involved. The purpose of the following history is to provide some context for the contemporary controversies surrounding international development and the role of international nongovernment organizations.

Background of International Development

The reign of colonialism began to fall after the Second World War. Vietnam regained independence from France in 1945. India and Pakistan regained independence from England in 1947. In 1952, anthropologist Alfred Sauvy coined the term third world to describe countries not aligned with the capitalist North Atlantic Treaty Countries (NATO) countries, the First World, nor the Communist Bloc, the second world (Wolf-Phillips, 1987). The third world countries were primarily countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that were former colonies (Tomlinson, 2003).
Modernization theory 1955-1960. In 1955, 29 newly independent countries from Asia and Africa met for the Bandung conference. Because these countries were not aligned to NATO nor the Communist Bloc, they held the potential of being allies for either the first world countries or the second world countries during the Cold War (Tomlinson, 2003). The U.S. used foreign aid as a foreign relations tool and provided funds to INGOs that were already doing development work abroad (Iriye, 2002).

The prevalent development theory of the time was modernization theory based on Rostow’s (1960) Stages of Economic Growth. Modernization theory claims that all countries go through the same stages of development; therefore, developing countries just need help getting to the industrialized modern stage. Critiques of modernization theory called it “Eurocentric” to think that all countries would go through the same historical pattern as the West (Iriye, 2002).

Trends in Development over Time

~1850~1945 Colonial economics | Trusteeship
1945~1955 Development economics| Industrialization
~1955~1960 Modernization | Political and economic growth through Western modernization
~1960-1979 Dependency | Liberate periphery countries from dependence on center countries
1970> Empowerment\Alternative development | Social justice
1980-1990’s Neoliberalism | Economic growth through structural reform, deregulation and privatization
1980> Sustainable development | Meet today’s needs without harming tomorrow’s potential
1990> Post-development | End mainstream development, do no damage

Dependency Theory 1960’s-1970’s

In the 1960’s, the focus shifted from political uncertainty to the economic uncertainty of the time (Tomlinson, 2003). The preamble of the Lusaka Declaration on Non-Alignment and Economic Progress states, “The poverty of developing nations and their economic dependence on those in affluent circumstances constitutes a structural weakness in the present economic order” (p. 28, as cited in Tomlinson, 2003, p.310). Paul Prebisch, director of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America, analyzed the structural weakness through the creation of dependency theory (Ferraro, 2008). Dependency theory is a theory of international relations that faults the underdevelopment of a nation on the political, economic, and cultural exploitation by developed countries (Sunkel, 1969). Theotonio Dos Santos (1971) defines dependency theory: An historical condition which shapes a certain structure of the world economy such that it favors some countries to the detriment of others and limits the development possibilities of the subordinate economics . . . a situation in which the economy of a certain group of countries is conditioned by the development and expansion of another economy, to which their own is subjected (p. 226).

Dependency theory is best illustrated through trade relationships. Developing countries export raw products to industrialized countries. The industrialized countries then sell value-added products back to the developing countries. The developing countries do not have the capacity to produce the value-added products at the same low price and are reliant on the industrialized country for both the export and import of their own national resource (Cardos & Faletto, 1979). As the world economy began to change, countries like China and Saudi Arabia provided counterexamples that deemed dependency theory as inapplicable to the current state of the world.

Empowerment Theory 1970’s-1980’s

Empowerment theory in the 1970’s and 1980’s was seen as a radical, or alternative, form of development that grew out of the work of Paolo Friere and Feminism (Luttrell et al., 2009). Friere’s (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a seminal work holding society and not the individual responsible for the many illiterate citizens and calling for quality education for the poor. According to Kamat, empowerment during the women’s rights movement meant “empowering individuals to change their societies” (2003, p. 68). The emphasis was on conscience raising and social justice.

This emphasis began to change in the 1990’s. In this decade, funding seemingly dictated focus. In 1989, the World Bank began funding NGOs that educated communities on technical and entrepreneurial skills (Goldman, 2005) and thus those NGOs grew. This change of focus resulted from funding agencies’ agendas and not the INGOs’ agendas (Kamat, 2003). Edwards, Hulme, and Wallace warned, “What would make a difference (like mass-based public protest against Western indifference to genocide) – is never given sufficient attention in NGO strategy. It is too expensive or too “political,” and wins few plaudits or contracts for foreign aid” (1999, p. 9). As NGOs began to accept money from governments and the World Bank, they began to focus on building technical skills rather than removing political barriers to equality (Pearce, 2000). Empowerment of individuals to change society gave way to empowerment of individuals to change themselves in congruence with the liberal view of the individual as the problem and solution to economic development.

Neoliberal theory 1980’s and 1990’s

Let us back up to 1980 when this change began to roll out. The 1980’s were marked by the “Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal revolution” (Goldman, 2005, p. 91). Economic liberalism is marked by deregulation, restructuring, and privatization (Iriye, 2002). Development during this time could be defined as “a short-to-medium term outcome of desirable targets” (Sumner & Tribe, 2008, p. 11). The World Bank’s neoliberal agenda was met with harsh criticism. UNICEF reported that the World Bank policies of the 1980’s “reduced health, nutritional and educational levels for tens of millions of children in Asia, Latin America, and Africa” (Goldman, 2005, p.90).

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell symbolizing the end of the cold war. “There was a flourishing of neo-romantic notions of the self-provisioning and self-regulating community versus the intrusive and normative state” (Eade, 2000, p. 11). International relations and therefore development became people-centered rather than state-centered. The World Bank Bank (1998) praised the strengths of NGOs, “their ability to reach poor communities and remote areas, promote local participation, operate at a low cost, identify local needs, [and] build on local resources” (as cited in Kamat, 2003, p. 66). Mainstream development began to include the community empowerment model of alternative development: “the commitment to participation, sustainability, equity are being widely shared (and unevenly practiced), not merely in the world of NGOs but from UN agencies all the way to the World Bank” (Pietrse, 1998, pp. 369-370). The increase in NGOs during this time period is dramatic. The UN Human Development Report (2002) states, “In 1914 there were 1,083 international NGOs. By 2000 there were more than 37,000—nearly one fifth of them formed in the 1990s.

Sustainable Development 1980’s – Today

A current movement in international development is sustainable development.  Sustainable development recognizes the importance of the environment and planning ahead for future generations.  Heal (1998) explains three values of sustainable development, (1) the present and the future; (2) the environmental as a contribution to economic well-being; and (3) “recognition of the constraints implied by the dynamics of environmental assets” (p.14).  The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development stated, “Peace, development, and environment protection are interdependent and indivisible” (UN, 1992, Principle 23 section, para. 1).  Sustainable development theory is most often associated with the environment but can also refer to financial self-sustainability of an NGO or community.

While there are seemingly no critics of protecting the future of our environment in the international development community, there are critics of the slower pace of growth that regulations could cause (Iriye, 2002).  A criticism of self-sustainable development is that focusing on money distracts NGOs from their services.  These critics believe that NGOs should focus on their mission and not on business (Valderrama & Coscio, 1998 cited in Pearce, 2000).  “The World Bank (2006, pp.5-8) commented that the public image of the NGOs reflected an illegitimate shift into for-profit activity, with low service quality and only limited development impact” (Islam & Morgan, 2012, p. 371).  Whether fundraising or sales, NGOs always had to have an eye on financial resources.  Self-sustainability has the potential of keeping accountability with beneficiaries and not donors.

Post-development 1990’s – Today

Post-development theorist look at development as a project that was (a) doomed to fail from the beginning and (b) should cease now.  The theory is that global development is unrealistic because development is a paternalistic Western ideology that does not belong in the East or South (Pearce, 2000).  The scholars echo the critics of modernization theory.  They ask what is the goal of development? Democracy? Capitalism? Their answer is that these are Western institutions.  Industrialization?  Rahnema argues that global industrialization would mean natural resource depletion and pollution on “a disastrous scale” (1997, p. 379).     However, mainstream development has learned lessons from alternative development and adopted sustainable participatory community empowerment development practices (Pieterse, 1998).  Luttrell et al. eloquently state, “Owing to the internalisation of oppression, the process of demanding increased rights or change cannot be expected to emerge spontaneously from within and to easily challenge entrenched inequalities, discrimination and structural causes of disempowerment” (2009, p.13).  INGO workers must navigate a slippery slope of imposing Western values vs. facilitating empowerment; disturbing traditional values vs. disrupting social injustice; creating desired change vs. cloning Northern ways.  But just because something is extremely difficult, does not mean it should not be tried.


All in all, even if the critics are right and INGOs cannot reach the ideal of sustainable development, Isham et al. (1995) offer empirical evidence that organizations that include beneficiary participation are more efficient than those that do not.  And, the question to me is not whether or not to help but how to provide help (Harvey & Lind, 2005).  Learning about communities’ assets and values as well as fostering agency through partnerships creates a future direction for NGOs, incorporating the established theories we possess for empowering communities through the participatory development process.

References and Resources
Barber, M., & Bowie, C. (2008). How international NGOs could do less harm and more good. Development
in Practice, 18(6), 748-754.
Brunt, C., & McCourt, W. (2012). Do international non-governmental organizations walk the talk?
Reconciling the ‘two participations’ in international development. Journal of International
Development, 24(5), 585-601. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1266174014?
Cardos, F. H., & Faletto, E. (1979). Dependency and Development in Latin America. (Dependencia y
Desarrollo en América Latina, Engl.). Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press.
Dos Santos, T. (1971). The structure of dependence. In K. T. Fann and D. C. Hodges, (Eds.), Readings
in U.S. imperialism. Boston: Porter Sargent.
Eade, D. (2000). Preface. In D. Eade (Ed.), Development, NGOs, and civil society (pp.9-14).
Oxford, UK: Oxfam GB.
Edwards, M., Hulme, D., & Wallace, T. (1999). NGOs in a global future: Marrying local delivery to
worldwide leverage [pdf]. Public Administration and Development, 19(2), 117-136. Retrieved from
Ferraro, V. (2008). Dependency theory: An introduction. In G. Secondi (Ed.), The development
economics reader (pp. 58-64). London: Routledge.
Fowler, A. (2000). Beyond partnership: getting real about NGO relationships in the aid
system. IDS Bulletin 31(3): 1–13.
Friere, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Herder & Herder.
Friedmann, J. (1992). Empowerment – The politics of alternative development. Cambridge,
UK: Blackwell.
Frynas, J. G. (2005). The false developmental promise of corporate social responsibility:
Evidence from multinational oil companies. International Affairs, 81, 581–598. doi:
Fukuyama, F. (1995). Trust: The social virtues and the creation of prosperity. NY: Simon & Schuster.
Gaudio, B. (2013, April). Youth activism and design-thinking in asset-based community
planning. Poster session presented at the Global Engagement Exposition of North Carolina State
University, Raleigh, NC.
Goldman, M. (2005). Imperial nature: The World Bank and struggles for social justice
in the age of globalization. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Green, G. P., & Haines, A. (Eds.). (2007). Preface. Asset building and community development, pp.
xi-xiv. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Harvey, P., & Lind, J. (2005). Dependency and humanitarian relief: A critical analysis.
Retrieved from Overseas Development Institute website: http://www.odi.org.uk/
Heal, G. (1998). Valuing the Future: Economic theory and sustainability. NY: Columbia Univ Press.
Hickey, S. and Mohan, G. (2003, Feb). Relocating participation within a radical politics of
development: Citizenship and critical modernism. Paper presented at the Participation: From
Tyranny to Transformation. Exploring new approaches to participation in development conference of
the University of Manchester, Manchester.
Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP). (2013). HAP accountability report.
Retrieved from http://www.hapinternational.org/pool/files/2013-har.pdf
Iriye, A. (2002). Global community: The role of international organizations in the making of the
contemporary world. Berkley, CA: University of California Press.
Isham, J., Narayan D., & Pritchett L. (1995). Does participation improve performance?
Establishing causality with subjective data. World Bank Economic Review, 9, 175–200.
Islam, M. R., & Morgan, W. J. (2012). Non-governmental organizations in Bangladesh: their
contribution to social capital development and community empowerment. Community Development
Journal, 47(3), 369-385.
Kamat, S. (2003). NGOs and the new democracy: The false saviors of international development. Harvard
International Review, 25(1), 65-69. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/59896246?
Laverack, G. (2006). Using a ‘domains’ approach to build community empowerment. Community Development
Journal, 41(1), 4-12.
Lough, B. J. (2013). Participatory research on the impact of international volunteerism in
Kenya: Provisional results [pdf]. International Forum on Development Service. Retrieved from
http://www.unite-ch.org/12archiv/archiv09_study/ ParticipatoryResearch-Contributions-
Luttrell, C., Quiroz, S., Scrutton, C., & Bird, K. (2009). Understanding and operationalising
empowerment (Working Paper 308). London, UK: Overseas Development Institute.
Malhotra, A., & Schuler, S. R. (2005). Women’s empowerment as a variable in international
development. Measuring empowerment: Cross-disciplinary perspectives, 71-88.
Madon, S., & Sahay, S. (2002): An information-based model of NGO mediation for the
empowerment of slum dwellers in Bangalore. The Information Society: An International Journal,
18(1), 13-19.
McCloskey, S. (2012). Aid, NGOs and the development sector: Is it time for a new direction?
Policy & Practice— A Development Education Review, 15. Retrieved from
Moore, M. & Stewart, S. (1998). Corporate governance for NGOs? Development in Practice 8(3),335-342.
Narayan, D., Patel, R., Schafft, K., Rademacher, A., Koch-Schulte, S. (2000). Voices of the Poor.
New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Offenheiser, R., Holcombe, S., & Hopkins, N. (1999). Grappling with globalization, partnership, and learning: A look inside Oxfam America. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 28(1), 121-139.
Pearce, J. (2000). Development, NGOs, and civil society: the debate and its future. In D. Eade
(Ed.) Development, NGOs, and Civil Society (pp. 15-43). Oxford, UK: Oxfam GB.
Rahnema, M. (1997). Towards post development: Searching for signposts, a new language and new
paradigms. In M. Rahnema & V. Bawtree (Eds.), The post-development reader
(pp. 377-403). London, UK: Zed Books.
Resnik, J. (2006). International organizations, the “education-economic growth” black box, and the
development of world education culture. Comparative Education Review, 50(2), 173-195.
Richardson, L. (1997). Feeding dependency, starving democracy: USAID policies in Haiti.
Retrieved from http://www.grassrootsonline.org/publications/fact-sheets-and-
Rodney, W. (1972). How Europe underdeveloped Africa. In P. Rothenberg (Ed.), Beyond borders: Thinking
critically about global issues (pp. 107-125). Richmond, UK: Worth Publishers.
Rowlands, J. (1997). Questioning empowerment: Working with women in Honduras.
Oxford, UK: Oxfam.
Rostow, W. W. (1960). Stages of development: A non-communist manifesto. NY: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Sen, A. (1999). Development as freedom. New York, NY: Anchor.
Sloan, L. (2013, April). Mixing, selecting, doing: The intersection of structures and agency for
women in Ghana. Poster session presented at the Global Engagement Exposition of North
Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC.
Sumner, A. & Tribe, M. (2008). International development studies: Theories and methods in
research and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Sunkel, O. (1969). National development policy and external dependence in Latin America. The Journal
of Development Studies (6) 1, p. 23-48.
Teddlie, C., & Tashakkori, A. (2006). A general typology of research designs featuring mixed
methods. Research in the Schools, 13(1), 12-28.
Tomlinson, B. R. (2003). What was the Third World? Journal of Contemporary History, 38(2): 307–321.
Underwood, S., Blundel, R., Lyon, F., & Schaefer, A. (Eds.). (2012). Social and Sustainable
Enterprise: Changing the Nature of Business (Vol. 2). Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing.
United Nations (UN). (1945). Charter of the United Nations. Retrieved from
UN. (2002). Human development report [pdf]. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Retrieved from http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/HDR_2002_EN_Complete.pdf
UN. (2012). International Year of Cooperatives website. Retrieved from http://social.un.org/coopsyear
UN. (2013). Millennium development goals. Retrieved from
Viriya, C. P. (2009). NGO’s approach to community development in rural Cambodia. Phnom
Penh, Cambodia: Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
Wolf-Phillips, L. (1987). Why ‘Third World’?: Origin, definition and usage. Third World Quarterly,
9(4), 1311-1327.
World Bank. (2002). What is empowerment? Empowerment and poverty reduction: A sourcebook. Washington,
D.C.: World Bank.
Worsely, P. (1984). The three worlds: Culture and world development. Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago.


Author: 4 the World

4 the World identifies and collaborates with communities across the globe to empower them to identify and solve the most pressing needs of their communities within the areas of health and education. By partnering with the communities in these areas, we provide critical support and capacity-building initiatives to ensure these communities are capable of continuing to grow and thrive in the future.

7 thoughts on “History of International Development

  1. This is very informative, thanks for putting it together. You may find the following by Dimitri Della Faille of interest, “Discourse analysis in international development studies: Mapping some contemporary contributions.” He briefly writes about how we have come to define “international development”. Looking forward to reading future posts.

  2. Really interesting post!

  3. Pingback: Future Directions for INGOs | 4 the World blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s