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The View from Here: What is development?

Mike Gangwer Published on 12 May 2011
little people

At a recent workshop here in Washington D.C., our group had as many answers to this question as there were participants. So in this article, let me explain.

Our U.S. government foreign policy is based on three pillars, and we call these the “three D’s.” They are defense, diplomacy and development. I have written many times about each of these, individually or collectively.



Common sense tells us that, in the challenging parts of the world, all three are used to collectively find the end state as decided upon by our Commander in Chief, the President.

The defense “D” is always in the news with our enduring wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then other kinetic action, in Libya, for instance.

The diplomacy “D,” largely administered by the U.S. State Department, is usually written about as an adjunct to military actions. That is, the diplomatic engagements with foreign governments all over the world which seek to protect U.S. interests and, as much as possible, avoid military action that becomes the kinetic battlefield.

The third “D,” development, is much harder to define and implement. We might think of development in time frames, like recently helping the Japanese with humanitarian assistance. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is the lead agency for humanitarian assistance, although many other governmental partners are there to assist.

The Defense Department provides the “lift” capability, for instance. However, after the short-term humanitarian assistance mission is nearly complete, the government shifts into more of a long-term developmental mode.


The USAID folks have been doing long-term development for decades. Much of this development is building structures … the roads, bridges, schools, medical clinics and communication centers that might never have been in some locations before.

Their agricultural presence is enormous, from large hydroelectric dams and electrical generating plants, to center pivot irrigation systems, to seeds and fertilizers for crop farmers in regions of the world where energy is scarce and the potential of food insecurity is high.

There are thousands of non-government organizations (NGOs) working in the developmental mode as well. They do, for the most part, a wonderful job helping a society once again get on its feet.

In my long tours in Afghanistan and, more recently, in Iraq, the NGO community accomplished what we in the government could not. One reason is simply that, in the NGO community, they do not fall into the hierarchy of government policy, along with the rules of diplomacy and rules of engagement.

In other words, they can operate on their own, for the most part. And many NGOs are funded through a granting process using government money. But in the field, they can deliver effective development quickly and sometimes at a lower cost.

I believe there is much more to development than just delivering goods and services and building structures. Yes, these are important, but these are outputs, not outcomes.


I submit that the greatest resource a country or nation state or society has is its people … that it is the development of people that is more important than anything else. Note that I use the word “outcome.”

This term, in the developmental mode, is really defined as “a beneficial change in human behavior.” This means, of course, that those on the receiving end of any development, whether brick and mortar or training or any output, change behavior as a result of this output.

In every country where development assistance is given, we assume this assistance is not enduring. The donor, whether the U.S. government or an NGO or any other foreign organization, performs well if the assistance timeline is short.

Many of us in the developmental business make the case that we cannot afford these enduring missions in countries all over the globe, and even if we could, we shouldn’t.

For enduring development assistance enslaves a country to handouts with a tragic result … the development of people never takes place. This continuum of beggar status throughout an enduring development assistance program wastes resources and wastes human potential.

The outcomes of our efforts, anywhere in the world where we enter a land far away and help, should be done by first thinking about developing the human potential.

The term human development means, at the core, developing the potential of a human being to have a safe and secure life, with opportunities for employment, a sense of belonging to something bigger, a community or village or entire nation (citizenship), a sense of civility, equity, human rights, freedom of worship, respectful duty to lawful participation and protection and personal dignity.

Further, human development includes governance that holds leaders accountable and self-respect that raises the bar of human accomplishment to a higher level.

The human development mode described here is emergent … we cannot write a script for the end state. Rather, it must be found in the human potential that makes the case: individual choice is desirable, but so is the collective effort at governance, commerce, justice and civility.

We do not live our lives apart from one another. The hierarchy of people in groups begets the social aspect of collective wisdom that is manifest as development. It is not found in a building or a sack of fertilizer.

It is found in a community of people, seeking something better than their current state of existence. It is not found in sending a young foreign national to an American university and training him or her for a month or year or decade.

It is found when that young foreign national comes home, and in a community building or a hospital, he or she stands up and says “we can do better.”

The term development therefore includes (on the one hand) improving the physical landscape. This is easy. We build. We teach. We give.

The more important definition is developing the human landscape. The human landscape is the potential of every human being to dream or aspire to something better, and then actually implementing that dream or aspiration. In doing so, a person leads an authentic life in a dignified manner.

That humans can live long, healthy lives that are productive and creative is intrinsic to our very existence. These are not matters of wealth or economic status as much as they are the self-realization of dignity, respect, citizenship and participation.

Indeed, these are as much art as science, for as a civilization emerges into something better, both are required.

The developmental model must include, therefore, builders, designers, scientists, planners and engineers. But just as important are the ministers, the deacons, the monsignors, the artists, the philosophers, the writers and the teachers.

From these, collectively, the human landscape is transformed into the beauty of the world. And that is what we all seek to do and find. PD

PHOTO: I submit that the greatest resource a country or nation state or society has is its people … that it is the development of people that is more important than anything else. Photo courtesy of .

  • Mike Gangwer

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