“Development”: Rethinking an Overused Word

By Dr Mia Perry, Dr Deepa Pullanikkatil and David Gerow

“Development” is one of the most overused words in any language, often reflecting progress, aspiration and something that ought to happen. But is there consensus on what development really means? Thirty-eight members of Sustainable Futures in Africa (SFA) discussed this question during an eight-hour bus journey from Entebbe to Lira, Uganda in February 2019. We were in Uganda for the third annual symposium of SFA, an interdisciplinary network across the UK and Africa that aims to build understanding, research, and practice in socio-ecological sustainability in Africa. This word cloud was made from the keywords that emerged in our discussion.

Word Cloud: keywords used by members discussing “development”

The word “development” originated in the 16th century from the Old French développer and/or desveloper, meaning “unroll”, “unfold”, “unveil”. It is no longer used in this sense, and it has acquired many definitions in modern usage.

One of the earliest definitions was given in 1978 by the French economist François Perroux. He defined development[1] as “the combination of mental and social changes among the population which decides to increase its real and global products, cumulatively and in a sustainable manner.” In A New Concept of Development (1983), Perroux argued that development “represents a dramatic growth of awareness, a promise, a matter of survival”, and he identified its root as personal development – “the freedom of persons fulfilling their potential in the context of the values to which they subscribe and which they experience in their actions”. His understanding of development places importance on the role of human/cultural values in progress, either economic or otherwise.

The words “growth” and “development” have often been used interchangeably in economic discussion. Some might say that development is positive growth. Members of SFA mentioned “growth”, “growing”, “steady-growth”, “positive”, “positive action”, “positive change”, and “positive transformation” when they discussed the word “development”.

A wider definition related to social, economic and political changes in society was put forth by scholars such as Todarro (1981) and Tayebwa (1992), who discussed development as a multi-dimensional process beyond economic development, economic welfare or material wellbeing that includes improvements in economic, social and political aspects of a whole society, such as its security, culture, social activities and political institutions.

Participation and Equity

This people-centred approach to development has been promoted by many organizations, such as the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), where local people participate in their development process. SFA members seem to agree on the participatory and people-centred aspects of “development”. Such keywords emerged as “Community-specific”, “Collaboration”, “Community-owned”, “Teamwork”, “People-driven”, “People-managed”, “Capacity development”, “People-focused”, “Co-developed”, “Participatory”, “People-driven”, “Bottom-up”, “Working together”, “Stakeholder-driven”, “Homegrown” and “Community-driven”. Members felt that development should be “Culturally appropriate”. They also mentioned that “Cultural hegemony” – the dominance of one social group over another – must not be part of development. In the same vein, the words “Equality”, “Equity”, “Common good”, “Diversity” and “Inclusive” were mentioned, implying that development must be just and fair. As well, the politics of a country has profound implications on development and it is important to understand the political drivers behind development. This aspect was evoked by some members who mentioned “Good governance”, “Political will”, “Ownership” and “Government-owned”.

SFA members during the journey to Lira, Uganda

Quality of life and sustainability

Tackling inequity is a development goal on its own and it may ell start with poverty reduction, the focus of most development agencies. Members mentioned “Wellbeing”, “Improve life”, “Needs-based”, “Basic needs”, “Livelihoods enhancement”, “Better way of life”, “Quality of life”, “Improving lifestyles”, “Decent livelihood” and “Empowerment”. To achieve improvements in human well-being, the natural environment is key as it provides the necessary resources. We have realised that development which exploits the environment is wreaking havoc on the planet and we need to find a balance between growth and environmental sustainability. Development must take place alongside caring for the environment and in this light, “Environmentally sustainable”, “Balanced” and “Resource use” were mentioned by members.

 Capacity strengthening and positive change

Innovation, learning and knowledge-sharing are key enablers of development. Members mentioned “Share knowledge”, “Innovation”, “Mindset change”, “Innovative practices” and “Capacity development”. But acquired knowledge and skills are not the only important things; the softer aspects also matter. In Amartya Sen’s highly acclaimed Development as Freedom (1999), he argues that human development is about the expansion of citizens’ capabilities. For Sen, freedom means increasing citizens’ opportunities and access to things they have reason to value. SFA members identified “Freedom”, “Aspired transformation”, “Transformation”, “Positive transformation”, “Self-Actualization”, “Satisfaction”, “Peace” and “Happiness” as aspects of development that they valued, all of which are worthwhile goals for development.

The SFA team about to board the buses at Makerere University to travel to Lira

The majority of the definitions of “development” have come from economists and politicians. SFA is a multi-disciplinary network and believes that “development” is a multi-layered word and can mean different things in different contexts. Defining this word using a narrow economic lens or implying that increased consumption equals development has led the world to unsustainable exploitation that threatens the planet itself.

There are numerous definitions of the word “development” and SFA does not aim to add another to the pile. However, we would like to stress that when we use this word, we do not presume that any worldview or culture is superior to another or that all countries should follow a set pattern or have common indicators of “development”. Instead, we like to think that development must be defined by communities themselves, and each country, each community and each person may define it differently. Ultimately, development has to lead to a better outcome for the globe, humans and the environment. It ought to reduce poverty, reduce inequities, be culturally appropriate and community specific, nurture nature, and be owned by and relevant to people and place. Let us rethink the word “development” in order to enhance the well-being, freedom, peace and happiness of each and every one of us and the planet as a whole.

[1] 1978, L’équilibre des unités passives et l’équilibration générale des unités actives”, Economie Appliquee.

What Does “Sustainability” Mean?

By Dr Mia Perry, Dr Deepa Pullanikkatil, and David Gerow

Our network is called “Sustainable Futures in Africa” or SFA. It has members from Botswana, Malawi, Uganda, Nigeria and the United Kingdom representing various disciplines, from educators to artists to administrators to NGO practitioners to scientists from various fields. Our common binding force is that we are critical thinkers who deeply care about research and practice in socio-ecological sustainability in Africa.

This year we held our third annual SFA symposium in Lira, Uganda, in a rural location at a lodge that is completely powered by solar energy and sources locally made food. The idea was to “walk our talk” by trying to make our meetings more “sustainable”. On day one of the symposium, thirty-eight participants (members of SFA) rode in a bus from Entebbe to Lira on an eight-hour journey, which allowed us to engage in what we called “Bus Talks”. During these talks, we explored what the word “sustainability” meant to each of us. This word cloud is a visual representation of the vocabulary used in the discussions.

The word cloud: a visual representation of words emerging from discussions on “sustainability”

We believe “sustainability” does not (and should not) have just one rigid definition. Hence, we explored the many definitions of this word, which is often overused loosely as a buzzword. SFA members like to keep a questioning, critical mind, and at the symposium, all members agreed that SFA is not an “echo chamber”. We welcome alternative ideas – in fact we thrive on them. This blog post doesn’t propose a new definition of sustainability, but highlights what SFA members care most about when we talk about this word. As a collective, we are trying to develop a deeper vocabulary, beyond the buzzwords that inevitably become diluted across languages, cultures, disciplines, and sectors.

The most common definition of sustainability is in the document “Our Common Future” by the Brundland Commission in 1987: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This document provided the ecological definition of sustainability. It also highlighted the fact that resources are finite and need to be preserved for future generations.

The preservation of resources

Some of the key words and phrases suggested by SFA members during the “Bus Talks” that agree with the Brundland Commission’s definition were: “Ability to sustain populations”, “Balance between using and protecting resources”, “Benefit future generations”, “Caring for ecological system”, “Intergenerational”, “Maintain ‘everything’ for future generations”, “Only necessary use of resources”, “Present and Future generations”, “Preservation of resources” and “Resources not depleted for future use”. These words emphasize the meeting of needs, as opposed to wants, and place a clear focus on intergenerational equity.

Enhancing natural systems

In the early 1990s, recognizing that sustainability affects most areas of human activity and is intrinsically complex and multi-disciplinary, scholars began to think about it using the systems approach. This highlights the linkages among population, environment, and development and examines the causes of environmentally unsustainable development. Looking at the world as a socio-ecological system and recognizing its linkages and inter-connections is something that SFA strongly believes in, and thus we promote inter-disciplinary work. During the Bus Talks, the linkages and words that support a systems approach included “Caring for ecological systems”, “Keeping the population at a sustainable level”, “Enhancing natural systems”, “Sustainable food systems” and “Sustainable production”.

SFA Members boarding the buses after a stopover mid-way to Lira


When discussing the meaning of a word, it would be remiss to not talk about its dictionary definition.  Sustainability’s meaning in the Cambridge Dictionary is the “quality of being able to continue over a period of time” and “the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time”. Statements and key words from SFA members that echo this definition were “Being able to carry something forward”, “Continuity”, “Continuous output”, “Keep something going”, “Self-perpetuating without external intervention”, “Balance between using and protecting resources”, “Preserve resources” and “Preserving and balancing”.

Engaging in meaningful discussions about sustainability during this long bus ride was not only a good use of SFA members’ time, but also helped us find the many meanings of a single word. Other keywords used by members which do not neatly relate to the definitions mentioned above included “Culturally appropriate”, “Community self-sufficiency”, “Diversity”, “Equality”, “Freedom”, “Harmony and balance”, “People in charge of their destinies”, “Happiness”, “Reflection”, “Preserving and balancing”, “Peace” and “Wellbeing”. One member summed it up as “Living in a community in a way that we could live forever”.

All the keywords discussed here could be packaged as synonyms of “sustainability”. But for the SFA, sustainability is not just a concept or a word, and we have come to realize that it is too diverse to define. Perhaps the focus should shift from defining it to living it. Perhaps we need to look at it as a way to be aware and sensitive, to reflect, be critical, encompass wider contexts, and integrate these actions into our work and everything we do. Sustainability, like most complex concepts, is insufficiently represented by a single word, but should prompt us to reflect on what kind of world we want to live in and how can we contribute towards achieving that.

Scots Join The Worldwide Effort to Help Africans Find New Ways to Rebuild Their Communities Shattered by Brutal Civil War

Article written by Maggie Ritchie – free-lance journalist who joined the Glasgow delegation traveling to Lira, Uganda in February 2019 for the 3rd SFA Annual Symposium. While in Uganda, she had the opportunity to meet with the communities involved in SFA activities through two partners: Apala Widows and Orphanage Centre (AWOC) and ECOaction.


Dr Mia Perry's Note on Lira's Symposium (2019)

How can we innovate our practices as individuals and collectives that “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk”?

Mia Perry, SFA Co-Director – Opening remark

For our third major SFA symposium, we traveled to Lira in Northern Uganda: members from Nigeria, Malawi, Botswana, Swaziland and Glasgow met in Kampala on February 13, 2019 to begin the 8-hour road journey to the vicinity of the ongoing research projects led by the Ugandan hub. This was to be the first international symposium in collective memory to be held in this small town, we were hosted in a beautiful hall at the Brownstone Country Home, built especially for our event. The venue was an apt choice, echoing our idea of sustainability, as it was completely running on solar power, locally inspired architecture with thatched roofs, did not have any unnecessary frills such as air conditioning and offered locally produced food.

We set out this year to establish strategic planning for the network and expand the scope and nature of our partnerships. Along with the academics, administrators and artists of our network, this year our participants included journalists, business people, and farmers from our various international hubs, along with community members, teachers, and district officials from the nearby Apala subcounty, Alebtong district.

In a recent newspaper report, Stephen Buryani provoked me with the following statement: “This is the paradox of plastic: learning about the scale of the problem moved us to act, but the more we push against it, the more it begins to seem just as boundless and intractable as all the other environmental problems we have failed to solve. And it brings us up against the same obstacles: unregulatable business, the globalised world, and our own unsustainable way of life” (2018, The Guardian). This resonates with me intensely, I replace “plastic” with “socio-ecological sustainability,” and feel this sentiment reflects many moments I have had over the past three years of working with the SFA network.

So, I began the symposium this year by foregrounding my awareness and conflict with the unsustainability of my own way of life. As a founder and co-director of this network, I acknowledge the compromises I make on a daily basis — of the times I reach for the convenience of a plastic packet of processed food or a cheap t-shirt, and of the resources (non-renewable natural resources, carbon emissions, inequitable labour) that were expended for us all to meet in Lira this year.

There is no high ground in this work, no clear “right” and “wrong”, “us” and “them” – and perhaps that is why it is so challenging and has such powerful potential. Unlike conceptions of education (I have knowledges and skills that I can share and teach to others), unlike conceptions of biomedical research (there is a medicine can cure this disease), the issues that we are facing and addressing in our work (all of us in different ways) are issues that we are also simultaneously implicated in creating and sustaining. With the briefest of reflection, I can see that we are part of the problem just as we are committed to being part of the solution.

I ask myself and our network how we enact sustainability and equity in our engagements with one another and our work and initiatives. How can we innovate our practices as individuals and collectives that “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk”? How many plastic bottles would we get through over the course of our meeting, how many air and road miles would we collectively rack up, and of course, as always, who are the beneficiaries of our work? Our third symposium was exciting! Our hubs are gaining capacity, focus, and confidence; our research is taking root and finding pathways to impact; our vision and planning is finding form; and our motivation and commitment to the work we are forging is as vibrant as ever. The next chapter of the SFA is not certain by any means – but uncertainty in our methods of research, as in our communities of practice is what we need to embrace and improvise with in ethical ways if we are to continue to work with innovation and imagination towards sustainable futures.

After Lagos: Reflections and New Horizons in the SFA

The line between the personal and the professional is one that is more defined for some than others - what we feel versus what we think, what we love versus what we do. The line between the past and future is also held (in the present moment) differently from person to person. For some, the present is contingent on the past, seen through the eyes of, and felt through the experiences of, the past. For others, the present is made up of what is seen around you now; and is a stance that is looking towards the future, able to see it best if looking directly at it, with one’s back to the past. As I reflect on my work in international contexts, with development and sustainability related projects and partners, and in particular with my colleagues across the Sustainable Futures in Africa Network over the past weeks and years, I realise that those lines between personal and professional, and between past and future, become ever harder to make out, ever more slippery. My personal, my history and inheritance, my instincts and emotions, my profession and my expertise seem entirely entangled. It is with this recognition that I share the following statement, taken in part from an opening address to our recent symposium, and in part from a period of reflection in the immediate aftermath.

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Sustainable Futures in Africa Network Botswana Symposium

Building Connections: Sustainable Futures in Africa

Research Symposium

Department of Adult Education, University of Botswana

27th and 28th March

From March 27-29 2017 the University of Glasgow in partnership with the University of Botswana hosted the inaugural symposium of the Sustainable Futures in Africa Network in Gaborone. This document summarizes the inaugural meeting of this newly emerging Network and documents the plans of action and commitments that arose.

The symposium welcomed the founding members of the network from Nigeria, Uganda, Botswana, Malawi, and the UK. We include academics, environmental activists, artists, and administrators. The symposium was designed to develop our relationships with one another, our knowledge and understanding of each other's contexts, and our collective plans of action. This was tackled through a two day event that included panel presentations, workshops, discussions, and social activities.

DOWNLOAD: For further information, download the SFA Post Botswana Publication.

Building Connections: Community-Based Environmental Sustainability in Southern Africa

On the 15 and 16 of December 2016 an International Symposium was hosted at the University of Glasgow, funded by the ESRC.  Building Connections: Community-Based Environmental Sustainability in Southern Africa. The event was organised and run by the University of Glasgow scholars, Dr. Mia Perry (School of Education), and Prof. Deborah Dixon of (Geographical and Earth Sciences), and aimed at fostering research collaboration and knowledge-exchange across disciplines and between institutions based in Scotland, Wales, Malawi, and Botswana. Invited participants included Dr. Boyson Moyo (agronomist, Malawi), Prof. Rebecca Lekoko (community and adult education, Botswana), Dr. Olekae Thakadu (environmental management, Botswana), Dr. Deepa Pullanikkatil (environmental management, Malawi), as well as Elson Kambalu (artist and film maker from Lilongwe, Malawi). The UK based institutions were represented by Dr. Marc Welsh (remediation and resilience in Malawi, Aberystwyth University), and the University of Glasgow academics, including Dr. Neil Burnside (interdisciplinary geoscientist), Dr. Alan Britton (environmental education), Dr Carlos Galan Diaz (research impact), Dr. Margaret Smith (multidisciplinary agro-chemist), Dr. Ian Watson (applied physicist) and Kasia Uflewska (cultural sociologist and Ketso intern).

The Symposium opened with remarks by Prof. Mike Osborne, Director of Research for the School of Education, University of Glasgow, and was introduced by Dr. Mia Perry and Prof. Deborah Dixon. The activities, aimed at knowledge-sharing and presentations, commenced with a panel discussion addressing the environmental challenges in Southern Africa, and were followed by a briefing on funding opportunities for global challenges. The subsequent afternoon workshops focused on issues related to the community engagement, arts and public pedagogies, geographical and Earth sciences, as well as the research methodologies. The first day closed up with heated discussions on the challenges and opportunities for cross cultural, and cross discipline research in Southern African environmental sustainability, as well as on affordances and challenges of interdisciplinary research among academics, politicians and community members.

The second day of the Symposium commenced with introductions by Prof. John Briggs, (Professor of Geography, Vice-Principal for the University, and Clerk of Senate) and aimed at formalising ideas, and forming potential partnerships. The diverse ideas, perspectives, and interest areas were explored holistically and creatively through an employment of an engagement toolkit, Ketso. A brief Ketso introductory workshop was conducted by Kasia Uflewska to support participants in carrying out an extensive Ketso afternoon session aimed at formulating final ideas, collaborations and partnerships. The Symposium concluded with a formulation of actionable plans, including groundwork-planning, bid writing, and potential research collaborations.