What is “Development” in the South Asian Context?
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By Ekta Niranjan

What is “Development” in the South Asian Context?

Feb. 27, 2018  |     |  0 comments

In the 2017 edition of the SDG Index and Dashboards Report, Sri Lanka ranks 81 out of 157 countries, the highest amongst South Asian countries. The Index, produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and Bertelsmann Stiftung, is an assessment of the performance of countries aimed towards setting benchmarks to assist them in achieving their sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Sri Lanka ranks highest with an index score of 65.9, followed by Bhutan at 83 and an index score of 65.5, and Nepal at 105 with an index score of 61.6. India ranks 116 with an index of 58.1. Bangladesh ranks at 120 with an index of 56.2, Pakistan at 122 with an index of 55.6, and Afghanistan comes in last among the South Asian countries at 150 with an index score of 46.8. The Index did not include Maldives because of “insufficient data availability.”

Out of the above seven countries, four — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal — are categorized as Least Developed Countries (LDCs). Yet interestingly, Bhutan and Nepal rank second and third best among the South Asian countries in the 2017 Index. This is an intriguing disparity and points to differences in the way “development” is defined by the LDC categorization and the SDGs.

This emphasis on different definitions of “development” complicates efforts and coordination in mitigating challenges faced by young nations. Keeping this disparity in mind, the importance of defining “development” in a manner that is progressive and culturally and locally informed needs to be stressed.

As the 2017 report itself specifies, the methodology adopted has been revised from the 2016 Index, indicating that such revisions will continue with each new report. In other words, the Index is a work in progress and does not represent a complete picture of the status of the SDGs globally yet.

The Sustainable Development Goals

As part of the post-2015 development plan, the resolution “Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted in September 2015 at the United Nations in New York and officially came into force on January 1, 2016. The SDGs carry on the work undertaken by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that expired in 2015 and “aim to go further to end all forms of poverty.”

The 17 Goals of the SDGs encompass 169 targets and 230 indicators that cover various aspects of development. Sustainability is the emphasis of the SDGs. The most famously used definition of “sustainable development” as outlined in the Brundtland Report defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The High Level Political Forum (HLPF) that meets annually at the UN undertakes a follow-up of the SDGs at the global level. The self-explanatory Voluntary National Reports (VNRs) that are “country-led and country-driven,” are submitted by a few countries every year to the HLPF as part of a global review mechanism for the SDGs. The VNRs are submitted by each country and are a review of their own progress towards achieving the 2030 Agenda. A comparative review of the progress is, however, carried out by the SDSN and Bertelsmann Stiftung. Although the SDG Index and Dashboards Report does not reflect the views of the UN, the findings are nonetheless considered important as can be gauged from the fact that the SDSN functions under the auspices of the UN, and the 2017 SDG Index was launched at the HLPF in 2017.

What is Development?

Sumner and Tribe (2008) broadly categorize the different concepts and meaning attached to “development” into three categories. According to them:

“The first (definition of development) is historical and long term and arguably relatively value free— ‘development’ as a process of change. The second is policy related and evaluative or indicator led, is based on value judgements, and has short- to medium-term time horizons — development as the MDGs, for example. The third is post-modernist, drawing attention to the ethnocentric and ideologically loaded Western conceptions of ‘development’ and raising the possibilities of alternative conceptions … The ‘post-modern’ approach is not so much a conceptualization of development as a frontal onslaught onto the ‘development industry’ (including researchers, practitioners and aid institutions).”1

Sri Lanka ranks the highest amongst all South Asian countries but is now stuck in a debt trap. According to the BBC, 95 percent of government revenue is now used for repaying its debts.

The SDGs and other development milestones set out by individual countries seem to fall under the second category as they are policy related; however, the question that arises is what informs the conceptualization of development in these policy arenas. It is clear that Western modernity is considered the ideal model for development. Development is defined as “modern standard of living, urbanization, industrialization, adoption of the values and principles of modernity, including particular forms of order, rationality and individual orientation,” which are representative of western modernity and lifestyle.2 Some academics like Stephen Marglin have gone on to call the Western modernity model “development as poison.”3

Hence, the labelling of economically poorer countries as developing and as LDCs promotes this definition of development that focuses on economics and, in turn, promotes the model of development followed by the developed countries as the norm.4 The criteria for evaluating the “LDC status” is based on per capita income, human assets (like health and literacy) and economic vulnerability and, in fact, has been challenged by some scholars.5 The concept of sustainable development too has been criticized for its greater focus on economic growth than environment and culture.

South Asia

According to World Bank data, South Asia houses approximately a fourth of the world’s population. South Asia faces several challenges like poverty, inequality, climate change, sanitation, and education, to name a few. At 66 percent, Afghanistan has the highest number of multi-directionally poor living in South Asia, followed by India at 54 percent. Since “development” is defined in terms of western modernity, these countries aim to achieve a certain level of “development” as defined by the West. As a result, the push for industrialization and ramping up of manufacturing sectors in relation to GDP are to be expected. The 2017 UNESCAP report on Achieving Sustainable Development Goals in South Asia states:

“The failure of South Asia to harness the potential of industry, particularly the manufacturing sector, has cost the sub-region dearly in terms of jobs creation. The manufacturing sector is known to provide the highest backward and forward linkages of all productive sectors, creating jobs directly as well as indirectly. Therefore, SDG target 9.2 that seeks to enhance the share of industry in employment and GDP is timely for South Asia.”6

Nepal and Bhutan hope to graduate from the LDC category by 2022 and Bangladesh by 2024. The discrepancy between Bhutan and Nepal ranking second and third best, respectively, in the SDG Index and being categorized as LDCs at the same time therefore lies in the different conceptualization of development in the two models. This anomaly pushes Bhutan and Nepal to embrace industrialization at the cost of their environment.

Nepal does very well on SDGs 2, 12, 13, 15, and 17 and Bhutan does well on SDGs 1, 2, 7, 13, 15, and 16 in comparison to other South Asian countries. On the one hand, Nepal and Bhutan have both achieved Goal 13 (climate action), and Bhutan Goal 1 (no poverty) as measured by the SDG Index and Dashboard.7 However, since both Nepal and Bhutan aspire to graduate from the LDC category, they will have to maintain a certain level of “development” as measured by the LDC categorization. This “development” would have an impact on the environment of the two countries.

According to the Index, Afghanistan has achieved Goal 11 (reduced inequalities) but as a war-torn country, this would not necessarily be the case as the country develops. Globalization has resulted in income equality in developing countries, but according to Eunyoung Ha, government ideology has been very important in managing inequality.8 If inequality is not managed, it could seep into other factors like access to education, health facilities, gender equality, and equal opportunities.

Sri Lanka ranks the highest amongst all South Asian countries but is now stuck in a debt trap. According to the BBC, 95 percent of government revenue is now used for repaying its debts. This will seriously hamper the country’s ability to meet its needs and could impact the progress the country has made.

Although India is poised to become the most populated country by 2022, its population would peak around 2060. Hence, India faces significant challenges to provide for its large and growing population. Additionally, there is the risk of climate change further exacerbating already existing challenges.


South Asia faces several challenges ahead. In trying to modernize itself, it risks encroaching on its traditional and cultural practices and creating urban-biased policies. Additionally, it should be noted that the authors of the SDG Index and Dashboards Report consider it a “preliminary and incomplete attempt at capturing the full breadth of the SDGs.” The 2017 Index cannot be compared to the 2016 Index because of improvements made to the methodology. Hence a proper picture of global SDG progress is not available and this Index will keep evolving its methodology. Modern development is bound to have effects on the environment and traditional lifestyles, but these impacts can be mitigated by blending modern development with traditional ways of life.

Hence, while not rejecting the development model that has been adopted by most countries, more locally informed and equitable models of development should be encouraged by policymakers. Bhutan’s emphasis on Gross National Happiness is a case in point. Though the 2030 Agenda stresses on context, it does not focus on culture. It is the mandate of the South Asian nations to define what “development” means to them and how they wish to achieve it. How Bhutan balances LDC criteria graduation and Gross National Happiness in the future will be interesting to see. As Banda (2004) writes, “rather than searching for development alternatives, we must search for alternatives to development, which respect local autonomy, culture and knowledge.”9


1. Andrew Sumner and Michael A. Tribe, “What is ‘development’?” in International Development Studies: Theories and Methods in Research and Practice, SAGE Publications, 2008, pp. 11, 14.

2. R. M. Ranaweera Banda, “Development discourses and the third world,” Proceedings of the Second Academic Sessions, 2004, p. 98.

3. Stephen A Marglin, “Development as poison,” Harvard International Review, 25(1), 2003, p. 70.

4. It should be noted here that in 2016, the World Bank removed the term “developing” from its vocabulary.

5. See Marcin Wojciech Solarz and Małgorzata Wojtaszczyk, “Are the LDCs really the world’s least developed countries?” Third World Quarterly, 2016.

6. UNESCAP, Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in South Asia, 2017, p. 7.

7. J. Sachs, G. Schmidt-Traub, C. Kroll, D. Durand-Delacre, and K. Teksoz, SDG Index and Dashboards Report 2017. New York: Bertelsmann Stiftung and Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), p. 15.

8. Eunyoung Ha, “Globalization, government ideology, and income inequality in developing countries,” The Journal of Politics, 74(2), March 2012, p. 541.

9. In R. M. Ranaweera Banda, “Development discourses and the third world,” Proceedings of the Second Academic Sessions, 2004, p. 102.

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