Today’s dominant discourses of international development increasingly focus on human agency as the measure of development in terms of individual capabilities. The individualised understanding of development takes a ‘human-centred’ or ‘agent-orientated’ view of the barriers to development. This article seeks to critically engage with the view of the human and of human agency articulated within this approach. In this discourse, development is taken out of a macro-political-economy context, in which development policies are shaped by social and political pressures or state-led policies. Foucault’s insights on the rearticulation of power – shifting from the state-based, sovereign and disciplinary approaches of government ruling over society, towards the biopolitical or ‘human-centred’ approaches of governance through social processes – will be used to critically engage with the capabilities approach. This article genealogically draws out the changing nature of Western discourses of development and the understanding of policy practices as promoting the empowerment of the post-colonial other in order to examine how development and autonomy have been radically differently articulated in discourses of Western power and how today’s discursive framing feeds on and transforms colonial and early post-colonial approaches to the human subject.