Understanding development (book review)

It may be a bit unusual to put a disclaimer at the beginning of a review, but I have the privilege to approach the review of Understanding Development as a bit more than just a reader: Not only do I know the author Paul Hopper from a previous teaching job at Brighton University, but more importantly, while he was finalizing the manuscript, I used some the draft chapters and ‘field tested’ them in an introductory course on international development for undergraduate students.
For most of them this was their first academic exposure to international development topics and this is clearly where the core strength of the book lies: It is a very good, but also basic starting point into ‘understanding development’ and it will probably be most useful for undergraduate courses or in teaching environments where students have little or no background in this area.
But let’s have a more detailed look at the book: Each chapter is written in accessible language and focuses on fairly factual overviews over each topic. Each chapter is also wrapped up with a short summary, recommendations for further readings and websites which makes it easy to incorporate them into your own teaching materials. Many chapters are focusing a bit much on traditional governance structures and institutions like the UN, but it is important to recall that they are still somewhat powerful, set many policy-agendas and have shaped the development governance system for many decades.

Theorizing Development provides a good and quick overview over key historical debates. I personally like Peter Preston’s book on Development Theory very much, but the students struggled with his writing quite a bit.
Approaching Development is a very good chapter for framing the overall book; it stresses the importance of anthropology, qualitative research, knowledge & power without appearing too dogmatic or overwhelming the reader with epistemological debates.
Health, Education & Population engages with three major topics which may be a bit much for one chapter.
Gender and Development is definitely worth the chapter and also includes some of the more recent debates on men and masculinities at the end.
Conflict, Security and Development is a bit too state- and UN-centered for my liking and emphasizing the role of civil society, especially on the local level, would have been a nice addition.
Trade and Development is another undogmatic chapter which rightly focuses on the WTO-dominated trade system and it
s implications for development.
Participation and Representation in Development is a good, classic introduction to the subject and inspired by IDS at Sussex University and Robert Chambers, of course (Paul received his PhD from Sussex). The chapter does include civil society’s role, but it focuses on traditional NGO work and does not include more contemporary debates on alternative networks and partnerships.
Financing Development: Foreign Aid and Debt is a core chapter which includes a concise overview over most of the iterations of the ‘does aid work?’ debate which has been around for many years/books...
Sustainable Development. This is a good preparation for subsequent debates on climate change, agricultural development or biofuels and reminds readers on some of the historical foundations and global conferences that shaped the concept.
I know that Globalization and Development is Paul’s core area of expertise. So even though it is a huge discussion the chapter manages to segue the book to the final conclusion on Development – Future Trajectories.
The conclusion is a bit conservative; I would have been great to flag emerging issues, e.g. on BRICS, the post-MDG policy arena or around agricultural and environmental issues looming on the development horizon.
The excellent bibliography is a final gem and is a really useful resource for those who either want to read more or have to plan additional modules based on the core themes.

Understanding Development is a good textbook to get intellectual debates around international development started with audiences who have little prior (academic) knowledge of some of the core themes. As an undergraduate textbook it avoids ideology and contested spaces, which also means that it is not a passionate eye-opener for students or anything close to a
‘political’ treatment, but is a good starting point for some of the intellectual groundwork. Paul manages to deliver a comprehensive introduction into development that does not want to depict the subject as a fancy, adventurous ‘industry’ for self-fulfillment or as a gloomy, cynical ‘does aid work?’ rhetorical question.

Development is a complex, multifaceted endeavor, often led by large and powerful institutions that are driven by a similar political economy than most other policy arenas. For teachers, it is a good resource to plan your own introductory courses around and have at least one book they can recommend to students to keep as future reference for development-related studies.

Hopper, Paul: Understanding Development. Issues and Debates, ISBN: 978-0-7456-3895-9, 332 pages, CDN $31.95, Polity Press.


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