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Development geography is the study of the Earth's geography with reference to the standard of living and quality of life of its human inhabitants. In this context, development is a process of change that affects people's lives. It may involve an improvement in the quality of life as perceived by the people undergoing change. However, development is not always a positive process. Gunder Frank commented on the global economic forces that lead to the development of underdevelopment. This is covered in his dependency theory.

In development geography, geographers study spatial patterns in development. They try to find by what characteristics they can measure development by looking at economic, political and social factors. They seek to understand both the geographical causes and consequences of varying development. Studies compare More Economically Developed Countries with Less Economically Developed Countries . Additionally variations within countries are looked at such as the differences between northernmarker and southern Italy, the Mezzogiorno.

Within development geography, sustainable development is also studied in an attempt to understand how to meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations to meet their own needs.

Quantitative indicators

Quantitative indicators are numerical indications of development.
  • Economic indicators include GNP (Gross National Product) per capita, unemployment rates, energy consumption and percentage of GNP in primary industries. Of these, GNP per capita is the most used as it measures the value of all the goods and services produced in a country, excluding those produced by foreign companies, hence measuring the economic and industrial development of the country. However, using GNP per capita also has many problems.
    • It does not take into account the distribution of the money which can often be extremely unequal as in the UAEmarker where oil money has been collected by a rich elite and has not flowed to the bulk of the country.
    • GNP does not measure whether the money produced is actually improving people's lives and this is important because in many MEDCs where there are large increases in wealth over time but only small increases in happiness.
    • The figure rarely takes into account the unofficial economy, which includes subsistence agriculture and cash-in-hand or unpaid work, which is often substantial in LEDCs. In LEDCs it is often too expensive to accurately collect this data and some governments intentionally or unintentionally release inaccurate figures .
    • The figure is usually given in US dollars which due to changing currency exchange rates can distort the money's true street value so it is often converted using purchasing power parity (PPP) in which the actual comparative purchasing power of the money in the country is calculated.
  • Social indications include access to clean water and sanitation (which indicate the level of infrastructure developed in the country) and adult literacy rate, measuring the resources the government has to meet the needs of the people.
  • Demographic indicators include the birth rate, death rate and fertility rate, which indicate the level of industrialization.
    • Health indicators (a sub-factor of demographic indicators) include nutrition (calories per day, calories from protein, percentage of population with malnutrition), infant mortality and population per doctor, which indicate the availability of healthcare and sanitation facilities in a country.
  • Environmental indications include how much a country does for the environment.

Composite indicators

Composite or qualitative indicators combine several quantitative indicators into one figure and generally provide a more balanced view of a country. Usually they include one economic, one social and one demographic indicator.
  • The HDI (Human Development Index) is now the most widely used composite indicator. A number is calculated between 0 and 1 taking into account the most important measures: GNP per capita, the adult literacy rate, the school enrollment rate and life expectancy. It was started by the United Nations in 1990 to replace GNP as a more accurate way of measuring development. A HDI between 1 and 0.8 is considered high, 0.8 and 0.6 is considered medium and 0.6 to 0.4 is considered low.

Data Example

HDI rank Country GDP per capita(PPP US$)
Human development index(HDI) value
4 Australia 35,677 0.965
70 Brazil 10,296 0.807
151 Zimbabwe 188 0.513

  • Other composite measures include the PQLI (Physical Quality of Life Index) which was a precursor to the HDI which used infant mortality rate instead of GNP per capita and rated countries from 0 to 100. It was calculated by assigning each country a score of 0 to 100 for each indicator compared with other countries in the world. The average of these three numbers makes the PQLI of a country.
  • The HPI (Human Poverty Index) is used to calculate the percentage of people in a country who live in relative poverty. In order to better differentiate the number of people in abnormally poor living conditions the HPI-1 is used in developing countries, and the HPI-2 is used in developed countries. The HPI-1 is calculated based on the percentage of people not expected to survive to 40, the adult illiteracy rate, the percentage of people without access to safe water, health services and the percentage of children under 5 who are underweight. The HPI-2 is calculated based on the percentage of people who do not survive to 60, the adult functional illiteracy rate and the percentage of people living below 50% of median personal disposable income.
  • The GDI (Gender-related Development Index) measures gender equality in a country in terms of life expectancy, literacy rates, school attendance and income.

Qualitative indicators

Qualitative indicators include descriptions of living conditions and people's quality of life. They are useful in analysing features that are not easily calculated or measured in numbers such as freedom, corruption or security, which are mainly non-material benefits.

Geographic variations in development

There is a considerable spatial variation in development rates.

The most famous pattern in development is the North-South divide. The North-South divide is the divide which separates the rich North or the developed world, from the poor South. This line of division is not as straightforward as it sounds and splits the globe into two main parts. It is also known as the Brandt Line.

The "North" in this divide is regarded as being North America, Europe, Russia, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the like. The countries within this area are generally the more economically developed. The "South" therefore encompasses the remainder of the Southern Hemisphere, mostly consisting of LEDCs. Another possible dividing line is the Tropic of Cancer with the exceptions of Australia and New Zealand. It is critical to understand that the status of countries is far from static and the pattern is likely to become distorted with the fast development of certain southern countries, many of them NICs (Newly Industrialised Countries) including India, Thailand, Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico and others. These countries are experiencing sustained fast development on the back of growing manufacturing industries and exports.

Most countries are experiencing significant increases in wealth and standard of living. However there are unfortunate exceptions to this rule. Noticeably some of the former Soviet Unionmarker countries has experienced major disruption of industry in the transition to a market economy. Many African nations have recently experienced reduced GNPs due to wars and the AIDS epidemic, including Angola, Congo, Sierra Leone and others. Arab oil producers rely very heavily on oil exports to support their GDPs so any reduction in oil's market price can lead to rapid decreases in GNP. Countries which rely on only a few exports for much of their income are very vulnerable to changes in the market value of those commodities and are often derogatively called banana republics. Many developing countries do rely on exports of a few primary goods for a large amount of their income (coffee and timber for example), and this can create havoc when the value of these commodities drops, leaving these countries with no way to pay off their debts.

Within countries the pattern is that wealth is more concentrated around urban areas than rural areas. Wealth also tends towards areas with natural resources or in areas that are involved in tertiary (service) industries and trade. This leads to a gathering of wealth around mines and monetary centres such as New York, London and Tokyo.

Causes of inequality

There are many reasons why some countries develop faster than others. They can be placed under 5 headings using the mnemonic SHEEP, but there is much overlap:

Social causes

The more money a country has, the more it can spend on health care, education and birth control. Some analysts consider that social traditions which discourage birth control increase birth rates and impede the economic development of LEDCs. It was thought that the value that societies put on work, material gain and social cohesion affected economic growth and efficiency, however, this was later found to have little evidence to support it, and indeed many less developed countries place a very high value on these. Also, there is the cycle of poverty which prevents further development in less developed countries without outside intervention.

Historical causes

Historically, imperial colonialism has probably had the largest influence on development in countries. It channeled resources and wealth towards Europe and North America at the expense of many African, South American and Asian colonies which did not receive reasonable prices for their goods. European colonizers built strong industries from this wealth while investing less in the development of their colonies, causing the countries At the end of colonialism many countries were left without the social, economic or political structures that encouraged development, resulting in entrenched poverty. In many cases of post-imperialism independence, artificial borders were drawn along countries which did not reflect the desires of the local inhabitants, leading to civil wars or social instability. Other historical influences can include incompetent governments or a retention of tribal lifestyles that prevented countries from developing economically.

Economic causes

Countries with natural resources such as iron ore, oil and coal are likely to develop industrially more easily because they are able to exploit these resources for development. Their extraction and sale create jobs and transport systems while giving certain countries trade and political leverage over others. The resources can also earn large sums of money in trade, allowing a country to invest in other industries. Many European nations developed during the industrial revolution on the back of coal and iron industries. However, the fact that many resource-rich (oil in particular) African and Middle-Eastern nations have not developed economically while their resources are mined demonstrates that these factors are not sufficient in themselves. Often kleptocracies develop around these industries and grow very rich while investing little in the country's population itself. Nigeriamarker and Saudi Arabiamarker are two examples of this. In fact the wealth generated can often help to entrench an incompetent dictatorship in power or even lead to destructive resource wars as has occurred in Africa.

Environmental causes

Natural hazards including flooding, droughts, earthquakes, volcanoes, storms, hurricanes, diseases, illnesses and pests all prevent economic development. Large natural disasters can set countries back greatly in their economic development, as in periodic flooding of Bangladesh. Volcanoes and floods can often have both positive and negative effects as they bring in fertile sediment. Areas around volcanoes and flooding deltas are often heavily populated, as in Egypt, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Diseases such as malaria which thrive in tropical climates and AIDS which is endemic in Africa prevent people from working and create an economic burden on society. Pests such as locusts reduce agricultural output and make it more difficult for a country to earn sufficient money to escape from subsistence agriculture. Reliable sources of water are necessary for productive agriculture and to a lesser extent industry. Human induced environmental problems include desertification, salinity, water pollution, land clearing and many more. Desertification is caused by poor land management removing the nutrients necessary for plant growth. It is a worldwide problem with massive consequences for the countries it affects. Salinity is caused by poor irrigation techniques. Water pollution from industry can include acids and bases, poisonous minerals and material with a high biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) which cause algal blooms. This pollution makes it more difficult for a populations to access fresh water. Logging initially brings in investment but often land with trees removed is of far reduced agricultural value and is vulnerable to desertification. Logged rain forests are especially vulnerable to mineral leeching due to high rainfall and often become worthless. As tourism is now a major source of income for most LEDCs it is necessary to care for natural resources which can bring in this long-term source of wealth.

Political causes

Countries are far more likely to develop when they have stable and efficient governments that successfully macro-manage the economy and invest in national infrastructure, trade, environmental management while maintaining peace in the country.
  • The rule of law is necessary to make investors feel confident enough to invest their money into a country for businesses. Clear statutory laws on property ownership provide people with the opportunity to use their property for collateral on loans for capital development or sell property to achieve capital for other endeavors without abusing these rights.
  • Ensuring the rights of the workforce can mean that workers receive more money and can pull themselves out of poverty,helping the country to develop. However, it can also have the effect of encouraging multinationals to leave the country and seek other countries with fewer restrictions. Hence, efficient governments usually implement economic incentives to encourage investments in businesses and attract multinationals to the country.
  • It has been suggested that good governance is a prerequisite for economic development and most aid-donor countries now recognise that much of their money has achieved nothing due to corruption in the countries receiving aid. For this reason standards of governance are now requirements for receiving monetary aid. Unfortunately, many governments, especially in Africa, are either unable (due to instability or external factors) or unwilling (due to corruption) to help their own countries develop. Without this support, development in these countries are hindered.


MEDCs (More Economically Developed Countries)can give aid to LEDCs (Less Economically Developed Countries). There are several types of aid:
  • Governmental(Bilateral) aid
  • International Organizational (multilateral) aid
  • Voluntary aid
  • Short-term/emergency aid
  • Long-term/sustainable aid

Aid can be given in several ways. Through money, materials, or skilled and learned people (e.g. teachers).

Aid has advantages. Mostly short-term or emergency aid help people in LEDCs to survive a natural (earthquake, tsunami, volcano eruption etc.) or human (civil war etc.) disaster. Aid helps make the recipient country (the country that receives aid) get more developed.

However, aid also has disadvantages. Often aid does not even reach the poorest people. Often money gained from aid is used up to make infrastructures (bridges, roads etc.), which only the rich can use. Also, the recipient country gets more dependant of aid from a donor country (the country giving aid).hello


  1. Geography of global interactions
  2. Frank, Gunder The Underdevelopment of Development
  3. Sustainable development definition
  4. BBC bitesize
  5. PPP GDP 2008
  6. UN Human Development Report (HDR)

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