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What is International Development?

You may be familiar with international organizations such as the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), American Refugee Committee, CARE, or Oxfam. While many recognize these organizations by name, not everyone knows exactly what these organizations do.

Operating mainly in developing countries, these organizations are known for focusing on a range of difficult social and economic issues related to poverty, malnutrition, education, healthcare, and human rights. This type of work, performed by a variety of small and large organizations, has come to be known as international development.

There are many different ways to describe international development, but most definitions include the concepts of global poverty and inequality (Haslam et al., 2012; Baker, 2013; Potter, 2014). International development is not only about understanding why issues of poverty and inequality exist throughout the world, but also how to go about solving these complex issues.

This broad and inclusive understanding opens itself up to theories and concepts from a variety of fields, such as economics, political science, and sociology. For example, economic theories can help us understand how to increase individual incomes and grow national economies; political theories can help us understand how to improve governance and fight corruption; and social theories can help us understand how to promote human rights and gender equality. All of these concepts are vital to human progress and development.

In practice, these efforts are often applied in a variety of ways. For instance, economic development initiatives might include a high-level financial agreement between the World Bank and a national government, an agreement to enhance trade between two countries, or a grassroots microfinance project between a non-governmental organization (NGO) and a fledgling entrepreneur. A politically-oriented development effort on the other hand might include projects aimed at helping local governments build capacity, fight corruption, or increase civic participation. Or, social development activities might include efforts to promote healthcare, education, human rights, and gender equality.

As complex issues, these problems rarely fall along discipline-related boundaries and often require a multifaceted approach. Indeed, there is a growing awareness that greater coordination is needed by a variety of governmental, non-governmental, and private sector actors in order to effectively overcome these challenges. Furthermore, finding ways to promote international development in an environmentally sustainable and culturally appropriate way is an ever-growing concern in development practice.

All together, these wide-ranging initiatives make up the field of international development. While many colleges and universities offer research or policy-oriented programs in international affairs or international relations, the Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota M.A. in International Development is unique as it is developed specifically for those who want to apply what they’ve learned in the field. The program blends economic, social, and political development theory with the practical skills that development practitioners need.

The Saint Mary’s University program includes courses like International Project Management, International Financing Mechanisms, Media Strategies and International Development, and Social Entrepreneurship. At the end of the program, students will have the opportunity to apply the development concepts, theories and strategies they’ve learned through an individually-designed field project.

For more information on the M.A. in International Development, please contact an enrollment counselor at 877-308-9954.

About the Author

The M.A. in International Development Department/Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota


Baker, A. (2013). Shaping the developing world: The west, the south, and the natural world. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Haslam, P.A., Schafer, J. & Beaudet. P. (2012). Introduction to international development: Approaches, actors, and issues. (2nd ed.). Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press.

Potter, R.B. (2014). The nature of development studies. In Desai, V. & Potter, R.B. (Eds.), The companion to development studies. (3rd ed.). (pp. 16-20). New York, NY: Routledge.