International Development

How do you teach about the post-world-war-II era and the era of decolonization and independence in Africa? International development and the aid industry are a crucial aspect of the global political economy of the post-war period and yet this topic is rarely talked about. The field of international development is often taken for granted and its assumptions are left intact. International development is defined  as a benevolent flow of resources and expertise from “developed nations” to “developing nations.” Examples of international development programs and campaigns abound, and our students are often exposed to them. Students see media produced by International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) such as World Relief, Oxfam, etc. which  often portray pictures of starving African children, refugee camps, disempowered people, and countries in political and social disarray. Conflict, poverty, lack of governance, dependency, and famine are often part of the heavy load of meanings that inform these images.

Critical evaluation of this common narrative is necessary for our students. The way to do this is to historicize the “story of development” to better understand how these relations between countries came to exist historically, and these labels “developed,” “developing” (among many others) came to be created. Some core concepts:

  • International development emerged at the end of World War II as countries were gaining their independence. International development thus emerged as an extension of the relationship between former colonized countries and Western colonizer countries and was fueled by the competing powers in the Cold War who saw development as increasing their terrain of influence on countries. Truman’s 1949 inauguration speech is a useful resource here in addition to Black’s two chapters (referenced below).
  • Many economists understand development as economic growth which can be understood as the increase of the Gross National income per person over time, measured in changes in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita. Growth also implies changes in the structure of the economy (the relative role of agriculture vs. services, whereby resources are shifted from what is considered less productive (agriculture) to more productive services and industry, with implications for trade. Development can also be understood as the development of people’s capacities. Amartya Sen is the main proponent of this idea. Development is not only associated with economic changes but also carries ideas about changes to government, the legal system, the educational system, and changes in people’s values and culture.
  • When formerly colonized countries gained their independence in the 1950s and 60s, countries become politically independent but not economically independent because their economic structures were not new and had been shaped by colonial structures. They were dependent on exporting primary commodities. They had resources that the colonial rulers exploited. The infrastructure, education system, legal and financial system had all been structured to serve the interest of the colonial power and serve the interests of the colonial rulers. There were two kinds of economic systems coexisting in the countries: peasant handicraft and capitalist exploitation (large scale plantations, mines, etc.). This means that there were significant regional inequalities within these countries. Thus, the playing field for “development” was never equal and development is thus often understood as a form of neocolonialism, i.e., the continuation of colonialism by other means.
  • Today, the development industry is run by global network of international multilateral institutions like the World Bank, the IMF but also several government donors and international and local Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that channel funding and resources toward various sectors in the developing world with whom they have strategic interests (for example, U.S. aid to Nigeria because of oil interests). 
  • The field carries many (uneven) assumptions about who has power, who has knowledge, who is a recipient, and who is a donor. This is why unpacking labels is a useful exercise (see accompanying readings, activity, and lesson below).
  • The main current global policy for development is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Key Vocabulary:

Colonialism (colonizer)     Colonized       Neocolonialism     Development          Developing    Global North       Global South      Third World      Aid        Charity       Donor        Recipient           Non-Governmental Organization (NGO)      Ideology                Structural Adjustment Policy


Access the powerpoint Interrogating International Development. 

The presentation presents activities, discussion questions and videos to engage students in critical analysis of international development.

Full Length Film Resources:

Other Shorter Video Resources:

  • Danger of a single story – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • International Development Youtube Playlist. Collection of short youtube videos that are funny, satirical critiques of development. These are useful as “video of the day” to show during the unit and ask for student critical thinking reactions. Includes: a very brief history of development, Africa for Norway (Radi-Aid), African Men, Hollywood Stereotypes, International Aid Worker Meets African Villager, TIMS, and 39 cents (SNL), I want to be an Aid Worker, A Christina Aguilera mainstream video to critique and reaction video to her clip “Rwanda is at War,” Global wealth inequality, Who’s developing who?, How to feel good about poverty”


Assessment Suggestions:


  • Glossary of terms: As students engage in learning about the topic, an assignment which may scaffold the historical persuasive writing is to ask students to develop their own glossary of terms. 
  • Timeline: with a group, present one aspect of the timeline of international development.
  • Theories of international development: with a group, choose one theory and present it to the class. Then, analyze a case from the perspective of “your” theory/lens. What would your theory say about the case/issue?

Summative: Students write a journalistic op-ed or create a youtube video commentary with the perspective of convincing a broad audience to adopt a position on a topic of international development. Since these are topics of global significance with livelihoods at stake, this allows students to develop their public voice on a topic they may care about or affect them while engaging with the complexity of an issue, and learning the genre of the op-ed which is a tool for civic participation.  “Two-siding” the issue (as in an essay) may decrease motivation and remove the highly political nature of the topics. Instead, a public op-ed or youtube would allow students to learn about and utilize elements of historical argumentation, substantiating with evidence and showing the counter-arguments. 

Email Elsa Wiehe with any questions about this lesson.