Development Frames

Reframing Development in a Dynamic Global Era

Published on 1 August 2017

IDS Development Frames 001

Interconnected challenges


Half a century on from IDS’ founding, the words of renowned economist and first IDS Director Dudley Seers from his IDS Communication ‘The Meaning of Development’ still ring true. Every era’s ‘international development’ community should grapple with its definitions.

Today, we face interconnected challenges which look set to intensify into the future. Development cannot rely on old, aid-related paradigms nor on their simplistic solutions. It must become both more universal and more transformative, while remaining grounded in the diverse realities of people’s lives and their aspirations. We have sought to define and elaborate these challenges, alongside the contribution that IDS and our partners on the University of Sussex campus and well beyond, have to make to address them, in our new five year strategy.

We believe that a rapidly changing world needs new kinds of action and relationships, shaped by new kinds of research and engagement. We need to establish what and where the knowledge gaps are, identify the power imbalances, the political blockages and opportunities, and how we can work together to bridge them and catalyse positive change for everyone, everywhere.

Paradoxes and contradictions


The world has witnessed tremendous economic and social development in the last 50 years which should not be underestimated.

However, the last few decades of international development also reveal a series of paradoxes and contradictions. Growth has accelerated in many countries but has been accompanied by growing inequalities of many kinds. Dominant development paths are proving deeply unsustainable, with climate change, biodiversity loss, land and water degradation and pollution threatening our ability to thrive on a pressurised planet.

We have seen rising powers such as Brazil, India, China and South Africa achieve extraordinary economic and political advances. According to the World Bank, the number of people living in extreme poverty was projected to fall below 10 per cent of the global population in 2015. India and China account for a significant proportion of this fall. Brazil has managed to reduce income inequalities, although it is the only BRICS country to have done so, with the others all witnessing steep increases (pdf).

Source: Where will the world’s poor live? Global poverty projections for 2020 and 2030, IDS In Focus Policy Briefing 26 (2012)

These countries have also become increasingly influential as international development donors, as underlined by recent developments including the establishment of the New Development Bank (NDB) and the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB). However two thirds of the world’s poor live within them.

There has been growing recognition at least in some quarters of the environment and imperatives for sustainable development. The recent agreement between the world’s top two polluters – the US and China – could be seen as some evidence of this progress, as can the agreement negotiated between world leaders at the Conference of the Parties that took place in at the end of 2015. At the other end of the spectrum, citizens are innovating at the grassroots around the world, showing that a multiplicity of pathways to sustainability is possible. The big challenge is garnering the political momentum to chart sustainable pathways. What is clear is that in a world where in 2013 concentrations of carbon dioxide rose at their fastest rate for 30 years and many people lack access to the land, water and clean air they need for resilient lives and livelihoods, action is urgently needed.


There is more education for young people, yet also rising unemployment and frustration with life chances.

The global employment gap, which measures the number of jobs lost since the start of the financial crisis, currently stands at 61 million. If new labour market entrants over the next five years are taken into account, an additional 280 million jobs need to be created by 2019 to close the global employment gap caused by the crisis.

Source: Responding to the Threat of Nutrition-related Non-communicable Disease, IDS Policy Briefing 65 (2014)

Youth, especially young women, continue to be disproportionately affected by unemployment. Almost 74 million young people (aged 15–24) were looking for work in 2014. (ILO World Employment and Social Outlook Trends 2015)

Political participation is given more attention, yet there is growing distrust in political institutions. There are more efforts to promote the status of women and girls, yet anti-feminist backlash and new forms of discrimination are evident as gender inequalities intersect with those linked to class, sexuality, ethnicity and disability.

Unpaid care work, poverty and women’s & girl’s human rights

Both nation states and the international community have invested intensively in military security, yet conflict and violence affect many people’s lives. We only have to look at the current migrant crisis and the unprecedented numbers of people leaving their countries to escape war, repressive regimes, political alienation or economic hardship. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reportedthat there have already been over 150,000 arrivals by sea in Europe, and the numbers in 2015 exceeded one million.

Technological innovations offer once unimagined opportunities, yet are also exposing people to new threats, exclusions and invasions of privacy.

It is against this backdrop that IDS has set out the three defining challenges of our era.

Together with our global network of partners, and building on our long history of relevant research, we want to ensure our work contributes substantially to meeting these challenges.

Global shifts

From climate change to epidemics, finance to food and nutrition, war to migration, recent events underscore how hazards arising in one part of the world increasingly extend through mobile ideas, people, microbes, atmospheric particles, money and information in a highly networked world to affect others elsewhere. Novel risks and hazards are generated which affect all people and places, but in very different ways – with some more vulnerable than others. Climate change is undoing livelihoods and economies in parts of the world far distant from those that cause it.

The Ebola outbreak of 2014-15 exposed both the world’s vulnerability to global epidemics, and also the extreme effects of crisis in highly unequal, fragile political-economic settings.

Conflicts in areas from Northern Nigeria and Mali to Iraq and Syria highlight devastation to civilian lives and livelihoods, and the effects of globalised networks of ideology, militarisation and terror.


Understanding Insurgent Margins in Kenya, Nigeria and Mali

Source: YouTube/IDS Knowledge Services

Such processes and systemic risks, connecting global, national and local in new ways, pose enormous challenges for people’s lives and livelihoods. As people, technologies and nature respond, many uncertainties and surprises are in store.

The global political and economic landscape is also shifting fast. The influence of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS), Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey (MINT) and other rising powers is fundamentally challenging old North-South divisions. Global action on climate, health, economy, finance and related issues will depend fundamentally on the positions of these national players in global negotiations, while their own experiences in tackling poverty and building resilience at home will be increasingly relevant as they emerge as significant development actors and donors, in relation to other countries in Africa, Asia and beyond.

The role of the rising powers in making the Sustainable Development Goals a reality


Meanwhile, European countries and the United States – once pre-eminent in global aid and development systems – have experienced financial crisis and recession, and face problems of poverty and inequality themselves.

The gap between rich and poor is at its highest level in most OECD countries in 30 years. Today, the richest 10% of the population in the OECD area earn 9.5 times more than the poorest 10%. By contrast, in the 1980s the ratio stood at 7:1. (Focus on Inequality and Growth OECD December 2014).

The global knowledge economy is also changing, as technology and increasingly complex information ecosystems have changed flows of ideas. Ideas of North-South technology transfer as the engines of development are challenged by vibrant grassroots, citizen and business innovation in all corners of the world, including by aspirant young people.

The Open Access and Data revolutions, alongside new Open Knowledge approaches and technologically-savvy policy actors and practitioners, pose challenges to traditional producers and curators of knowledge, yet questions remain around exactly who will benefit from these advances.

Why is Open Access crucial for research from the global South?

Time to reframe development

Important changes in the international policy context align, at least to some extent, with the current need to rethink the meaning of development. A set of universal Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been agreed, which all countries will be expected to implement to contribute to progressive change both for their own populations, and to meet shared global challenges.

For the SDGs to make a real difference, political action will be needed at all levels – from the global to the grassroots. Supporting countries in ensuring that these universal goals are meaningful and owned at the country level is a key challenge. Meanwhile, proposed global agreements and reforms around climate, health governance, disaster management and other issues signal an intensified era of global cooperation and governance as well as contestation. Yet while emerging agendas require collective recognition, responsibility and commitment, connecting global agendas to people’s lived realities, perspectives and priorities is critical. This will mean recognising and addressing the inter-lacings and synergies amongst the separate goals, including those addressing poverty and inequality, sustainability, and securing peace and good governance. People do not live their lives in separate silo-like goals, and nor should responsive, transformative development.

There are no single motorways or roadmaps to progress in this new era of development. Multiple and flexible pathways of change and transformation that adapt and respond to diverse contexts, needs and priorities will be required, supported by new ways of thinking, acting and collaborating.


At IDS we believe that this means moving beyond:

  • narrowly tackling poverty and vulnerability, to navigating complex challenges in ways that reduce inequalities and build more sustainable, inclusive and secure futures for people and societies;
  • a focus just on so-called ‘developing countries’ or the ‘Global South’, to a universal framing of development that recognises these challenges as matters for everyone everywhere – in London as well as Lagos, Sussex as well as South Sudan, Greece as well as Guatemala;
  • incremental change to transformation – recognising that business as usual is not an option, and fundamental shifts are needed in some of the key structures, institutions, systems and norms that shape our societies and economies, along with the transformational politics to deliver these; one-way knowledge transfer to mutual learning – combining attention to global action and governance in areas like climate, health, food, finance and economy, with support to diverse local perspectives and solutions, facilitating multi-way learning including from low- income to higher-income countries, and from the BRICS to others – about what works where.

Re-framing development in these ways also requires an explicit focus on power and politics – from material political economy, to the politics of knowledge – seeking ways to challenge the forces that narrow vision and hold back positive change, and to support alternatives. In this way we can hope to move – through multiple partnerships – towards a more equal, sustainable, inclusive and secure world; a world where the necessary conditions, as Dudley Seers refers to, are in place to achieve ‘… a universally acceptable aim, the realisation of the potential of human personality’ (Seers 1969).



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