What is development? How do you perceive development? Is it possible to quantify development? It seems like the global community believes it is, but working on the ground, hand in hand with those who are “developing”, I sometimes find myself lost as to where to start. That said, here are some questions and maybe then we will find an answer. It seems simple to associate development automatically with preconceived and constructed definitions – but when you look up development, sans global conditioning and context, it starts to become confusing – Development after all is quite a tricky concept. It comes from a word with so many meanings. It appears that when we mention development, it is automatically from a first-world point of view. We are reaching into the proverbial haystack expecting everyone searching to see the same glint we have spied; hoping everyone will help us pull out the needle. Often we fail to realize that even though we may be standing beside each other, each of us is looking at quite a different haystack.

Let’s try putting the definition in context and comparing it to our own frame of reference. Development helps take advantage of natural and man-made resources, to make those resources available for commercial and/or residential purposes. Sounds pretty good right? Isn’t development also working to help acquire a greater appreciation for knowledge and basic unalienable rights? As citizens of the ‘first world’, I feel we take this for granted and often overlook its importance. Development in a global economic and political reality must include transfer of knowledge, behavior change, resources, linkages, and opportunity. Development is causing people and systems to unfold gradually, expand their horizons and knowledge, and to grow and differentiate along lines natural to their kind (humanity and natural uninhibited development, political and economic growth, and intellectual growth).

So does that mean development, one little word, can be political, economic, social, qualitative, and quantitative? I guess so. That is a whole lot of meaning for one word. Four little syllables link so many different concepts. Startling! A beautiful example of the flexibility and complexity of communication and language. Within the context of village life, and in my mind, development is about moving as human beings from a position of ignorance, poverty, and suffering, to a position providing more opportunity and capacity for the effective use of resources, and a higher quality of living. We create and produce capacity and opportunity over time by utilizing our most valuable input – people. You can infer from my definition that I see development as a process that directly addresses human input. Development can be measured in physical things like boreholes, cars, roads, money … but it isn’t successful or sustainable without the transfer and opportunity to access that all powerful qualitative driver – knowledge.

Here’s a brainteaser for you, how do you measure knowledge? Is knowledge a function of how many hours a butt has been seated in a chair? By a piece of paper and a test that generalizes information without critical thought? Through a rigid academic structure? Are these the things that make a man or woman educated? Are these the things that make a country developed…? Do tests, hours in a building, and information that may or may not be relevant to practical solutions make people educated? Yes and no. A well-rounded education teaches more than just information. A proper education teaches skills and gives perspective. It allows the learner to process a myriad of situations and apply knowledge and critical thinking to develop individual solutions – How can you measure that on a multiple choice exam?

What about informal education, and non-formal education? How do you measure those? Let’s think about some examples:

A man who has worked his whole life in the field knows his plow, his animals, how to work his land and fix his tools. He can teach you how to grow, how to ward off pests and protect crops. He’ll show you the seasons and how to save enough food for the year. He knows his community, and the resources it has. He can tell you about the river and the floods that bring life and pain, and truths about life. But in a quantitative sense, on a piece of paper, he is a nobody. He’s never been to school and maybe he can’t read. Does that mean he doesn’t have knowledge to share? That he’s not educated? Or does it mean that he’s educated … differently?

Let’s think about a woman – unable to attend classes, works hard in her village, plagued by pregnancy, bound by gender roles. Her time is limited, but she’s curious. She can teach you how to preserve grain, how to cook local foods properly, what things to avoid, how to care for a sick child, and how her traditions were formed to keep her people safe. She can explain the dynamics of her community, of the social gossip, she can teach you how to take rice stalks and make necessary containers, where to get water that won’t make you sick. She is full of the history of her people, this woman who is nothing but an uneducated number on paper, has so much to share and teach.

When we talk about development we often decide that building things, making development tangible, is the way to go. That building roads, infrastructure, and giving things – money, fertilizer, cars etc. – will make a place ‘developed’. Sometimes we even think that if we can make a place look like Europe or America, then it’s developed. We like that feel-good moment, that aesthetic change. Don’t get me wrong, it has its place – development requires investment and capital. But, those should come in the form of projects that are based on community desire and stem from the process of educating, empowering, and developing the people within their own cultural and traditional context.

Without that cultural context and reference – without proper informal, non-formal, and formal education, those “things” are worthless. It might be that a place looks developed. Perhaps the donors even help maintain the physical, because they have had access to the resources to provide skilled labor. But, when that aid is gone what happens next? Who keeps the roads usable, who manages the land, who fixes the boreholes and mills, who re-plants the fields and who is responsible when those fields are depleted or the fertilizer destroys the land? Who teaches the people to convert traditional knowledge and integrate sustainable development into their culture? Who allows the people to discover and affect their own sustainable development? Who teaches and facilitates? Who stands beside them and offers their hand to those who want to step up out of the pit of ignorance and into the land of knowledge?

Perhaps a donor builds a beautiful new city, or even a network of cities, with sewers, streets, industry, farming belts and gardens. It is a wonderful monument to the builders, a spectacular gift. Yet, without investing first and most thoroughly in the dwellers of those would be cities, they will soon become nothing more than hovels. Without the residents’ investment in the city, without that buy-in, there is no developed ability to maintain the systems and continue to improve them.

We have witnessed time and again throughout history that without investment in people first, without instilling a sense of pride and joy in learning and education, civilizations fall. Look at Rome, it is said that only two generations (50 years!) after the fall of Rome villages and towns had forgotten how to use and repair their wells. Health declined and people died because they no longer understood. Even without the governing structure, if there had been education there would have been hope. In the European Dark Ages we see the same pattern. As people devalued education, knowledge, and self-improvement they fell into a mire of hopelessness, fear and desolation.

What I am trying to say is that the behaviors, attitudes, and people remain the same, even if the physical place has been changed by an outside influence. It is because of these thoughts that I say, development is about people and it is about the sharing of knowledge, not things or money. Those are transitory items that disappear with time. They are necessary, but worthless without knowledge and understanding.

How often in your reading have you come across scripts, quotes, and tomes expressing the idea that knowledge is immortal. It remains longer than any mountain or any monument. It is eternal. Giving knowledge and access to it is a gift whose value cannot be determined. It is priceless; immeasurable. Knowledge must be free. It is all around us and available at every moment. Sharing knowledge, increasing opportunities to discover it, and recognizing sources of it, allow development to occur. It allows people and places to go through a process of natural growth, differentiation, or evolution. It also helps people recognize their own skills, experience and resources.

The effect of knowledge can be very difficult to measure. I can say in the last four weeks I advised on the construction of 5 improved wells, helped create a model solar drier, and worked to try and develop a field usable incubator. I can say I worked to immunize and de-worm 75% of my catchment’s OVC (orphans and vulnerable children) in a week, and pull numbers. I can talk about things and based on ‘industry standards’, I can measure development. We can quantify and be rewarded. But when I submit a report talking about a conversation with four women, about daily life, routines, their reproductive health, empowerment and gender roles – about their rights, their femininity and their humanity – how do you measure that impact? You have to get creative and measure things that are hopefully related – like child spacing, family size, sexual health, abortion rights, abuse cases, STI/STD rates (condom use). Do these things tell you that your conversation forever changed the way those four women perceived their world? No, they could be related to a 100 different causes. But you do know that just by talking to you, just by hearing you voice these ideas – by offering that knowledge and your perspective as an outsider – those women are empowered, exposed to new information, and experience a different view of the world. They are changed.

Is that not development? To build capacity and give opportunity; to allow people to move forward, learn, and have better quality of life within their own cultural frame of reference?