The concept of economic development implies transformation in an economy---fundamental change in the character of that economy and in its productive potential. Economic development as a field of intellectual inquiry is the study of the processes by which the potential of society for economic growth is expanded, that is, the transformation in the economy leading to more capacity for producing useful goods and services. Most economic development courses focus upon the problems faced by "less industrialized" or "less developed" nations attempting to expand their productive capabilities. However, there is nothing intrinsic about economic development that restricts its sphere of study to such nations. Indeed, all nations can be understood to be in a process of perpetual transformation. Economic development studies provide evidence that might potentially help in shaping public policies supportive of expanding the productive potential of nations of all types, "more developed," "less developed," and so on.

Most economic development courses provide a more eclectic approach to economic theory than might be found in such courses as macroeconomics or microeconomics. A variety of paradigms share the field of economic development and have contributed both to debates in the field and to public policy.

Among the sub-topics often covered in courses in economic development are: the role of education in development, problems of capital formation, the role of foreign direct investment in development, the role of technology in development, rural-urban dualism, income inequality, trade policies, import substitution versus export orientation, and so on.

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