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What is International Development Law?

By Theresa Miles
Updated May 16, 2024
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International development law is the amalgamation of agreements, treatises, principles, policies, and contracts between developed nations and institutions organized by developed nations and less developed or developing nations that seek to provide solutions to economic and social inequities created by past exploitation. Traditionally, this area of international law was focused solely on economic development. A more modern approach focuses on the laws supporting holistic human development, which only includes economics as part of a broader human-focused agenda.

The law of international development was crystallized after World War II and the subsequent decolonization of countries in Africa and Asia. Basic international development at that time was defined by principals of human rights, sovereignty of nations that had been ruled as colonies of other countries, and the right of these burgeoning nations to benefit from their own natural resources and to establish economic equity with the developed nations of the world. This time period saw the transfer of major natural resources located in less developed countries from colonial powers to the local governments, such as oil fields, plantations, and mines. Major international economic institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, were also established during this time.

Development, as a concept, was concerned about nations, the establishment of economies and markets, and the investment in infrastructure. International development law supported projects as agreed upon by governments. The people living in under developed countries were often left out of the equation. Many economic projects benefited mostly the regime in control of the country and the functional elite, and not the vast majority of people living in poverty. Activists began to argue that international development was hurting more than it was helping.

Non-governmental organizations and other human-focused groups and institutions have begun to redefine international development law with an emphasis on an inclusive approach to involvement in other countries. Instead of a top-down, or trickle down, economic approach, these organizations start the development process at the bottom of the economic pyramid, determining what is needed at the local level by including the people in the decision-making process. This holistic approach is concerned with human development driving economic development.

The modern definition of international development law includes the legal, customary, and practical agreements and rules surrounding all the areas of international law that can impact long term success in a country. This includes foreign aid, healthcare, education, environment, human rights, gender equality, governance, and economics. Through the confluence of social, cultural, political, environmental, and economic supports, the new theorists believe that real transformative development can take place. Whether traditionalist or modernist, international development is no longer the exclusive purview of governments.

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