Entries tagged with “development studies”.

I continue my musings on the recent emergence of development studies in the American academy . . .

The rise of development studies presents two interesting opportunities for development in general – a chance to start treating development as a discipline, and the chance to bring interdisciplinary (or, in the parlance of the donor and implementation world, integrated) thinking to the fore in development.

What do I mean by treating development as a discipline?  Various social scientists have demonstrated that development is not just a set of activities, it is a body of thought.  This is what I meant in Delivering Development when I said that

“contemporary development is not the product of a single organizational mission, a single theory, or a particular set of practices. It is the congealed outcome of more than six decades of often-uncoordinated administrative decisions, monitoring reports, economic theories, academic studies, and local responses. These ideas, such as the value of free trade and global markets for the global poor, are repeated so often and in so many venues that they seem to lack a single author or source. For the contemporary development practitioner, they seem to come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. The same assumption is repeated over and over in development documents until, for example, it is impossible to talk about development in the absence of markets. The results are practices and ideas that seem both universal and eternal.” (p. 7-8)

If people come into development from narrow, technical backgrounds, they are unlikely to know the history of ideas into which they have waded.  They may not know the history of interventions that have been tried in the past.  Understanding the ideas to which one is responding or building on with a particular program or project, and knowing the previous history of similar efforts, seems to me to be critical to achieving any development goals.  For such a knowledge base to become common in the field, development cannot just be an object of study for other academic disciplines – it has to be recognized as its own discipline to which new students must be introduced.

Academia has, for essentially my entire academic life since I entered undergrad, argued for greater interdisciplinary collaboration.  As best I can tell, very little of academia has actually shifted academic incentives such that interdisciplinary work might actually emerge and flourish.  The emergence of development studies presents an opportunity to create such incentives within an academic discipline*.  Any program of development studies that considers not only theory and thought, but also the history of development interventions, will necessarily engage the fact that development is an inherently interdisciplinary undertaking.  While economists have long held sway over the (informal) discipline of development, they are hardly the final answer for most questions that anyone engaged in development might face on a day-to-day basis (market failure around the environment, anyone?).  As the same time, the climate scientist is probably not going to have a lot of answers for how we might foster the emergence of local markets better able to address the predicted/modeled challenges of future climate change.  Technical expertise is critical to achieving development goals, but narrow disciplinary expertise is likely to reproduce stovepipes of information, funding and programming that make it difficult to address the suite of issues arising around most development challenges.  In the rise of development studies, we have the chance to break down these stovepipes under the rubric of a single discipline, thus creating a home for interdisciplinary work within a discipline (yes, that is contradictory), as it were.  At the same time, graduates of such programs would already think “integratively,” perhaps one of the biggest challenges I have seen for implementation.

Much of this opportunity could be realized even in the course of a Masters degree – which is critical to most programs, as they are Masters-terminal.  However, if development studies is to realize these potentials, it will require Ph.D.-level engagement by students and faculty to build literature, journals, and approaches requisite of an academic discipline.  This, however, must take shape in the context of an extended and varied engagement with donors and implementers that can only really be had if we move more people between academia and the donor/implementer world.  Creating the incentives for such movement is an entirely different question . . .




*Note: as a geographer, I have to point out that my discipline displays all of the characteristics of an interdisciplinary endeavor – most departments contain everything from qualitative social scientists to soil or atmospheric scientists to experts in the GISciences, and we are rewarded for collaborating with one another.  Of course, we are collaborating within geography, and publishing in journals accepted by geography, which makes things much easier.  But working across the various academic divides (quant/qual, human/environment, etc.) has already been modeled . . .


Disclaimer: This post is my personal work, and does not necessarily represent the views and opinions of any of my current or past employers.

As I prepare to return to life as a full-time academic, I have become acutely aware of the explosion of development studies programs in the United States over the past 4-5 years.  A mere 10 years ago, if you wanted a development studies degree most of your options were in the UK, not the US…and to be honest, most of your best options were outside the US as well.  Otherwise, you picked a discipline like economics, anthropology or geography, and focused on development topics as a part of your disciplinary focus (this was my route).  This is no longer true – today there are development studies masters programs all over the US.  For the first time in the US, we are seeing the mass professionalization of “development studies” on a scale that reminiscent of various colonial administrations more than 100 years ago, something that should probably give everyone pause.

But what is development studies for, aside from generating tuition dollars for cash-strapped universities?  Is development studies a professional degree, an academic discipline, or something in between?  I am not sure I have a clear answer to this question, but I do know that I am concerned by some recent conversations that suggest that development studies programs should be about what the practitioners/implementers/donors want and need.  The logic here is one of professionalization: those seeking development studies degrees ostensibly want jobs, and therefore they should be trained to do the sorts of things that their future employers want them to do.  However, this is a narrow and shortsighted view of what development studies is and should be, even as a professional degree – and to some extent it represents a narrow and boring view of what academia might bring to the table.

Development is a constantly evolving field.  We learn more about how the world works each day, and identify new challenges all the time.  Further, in an ever-more interlinked economic world experiencing unprecedented environmental change, new challenges and opportunities emerge all the time.  If we mean to train people to be effective across their careers, we cannot be focused on what is important/trendy now, but what the persistent challenges are most likely to be over time…and where the emergent challenges are most likely to spring up.

More than that, though, it is a mistake to assume that demand-driven programs will actually train people in a manner that makes them true assets to their future employers.  Certainly there is great expertise and experience on the practitioner side of development, but that is no guarantee that what people think they need from a development studies graduate is, in fact, what they need from an employee. Take, for example, gender and development.  There is no question at all that gender is an absolutely critical part of the social processes that influence/are influenced by development interventions.  Without a solid understanding of such things as gender roles and power relations in the places where we do our work, we are likely to overlook important dynamics that will influence the outcomes of our projects and programs.  So, development studies programs should incorporate gender and development training into their programs.  That said, development studies programs should not simply reproduce in their students the same sorts of analytic approaches and capacities as seen in much current development practice – because much of that work is employing seriously outdated approaches to gender that actually obscure tremendously important social processes and relations.  For example, in my work in Ghana, I have demonstrated that the feminist empiricist approach that dominates most contemporary gender and development work over-homogenizes women, even at the village level, such that we can lose sight of the particular challenges faced by the poorest women (in Ghana, it was about the poorest 40% that were hard to see – article here).  So it is not our job to simply train people to existing standards – it is to train people in the most current thinking.

But even this is not enough – a good development studies program must also teach its newly trained professionals how to bring the latest and best thinking on development subjects to their employers in a manner that is implementable.  This requires a significant effort, and expertise that most academic institutions lack.  Simply put, you need people in the program with experience in both academia and in the world of implementation, and who speak the languages of both worlds.  Contrary to what most development studies academics think, academia has little clue how implementers and donors actually work and think.  This is why so little academic work has an impact in the donor/implementer world.  The best training on the latest thinking is useless if the trained cannot actually make use of what they know once they are employed.

The answer, then, is perhaps not a demand-driven degree, but instead an academic program that engages and cultivates relationships across the implementation world to remain responsive to need and demand, while at the same time helping to shape that demand through research, writing and a flow of well-trained students into development practice.  This will require a very different sort of staffing than most new programs have on hand – it will require identifying not only talented academics, but also those willing to leave the world of implementation to teach (or development studies is going to have to cultivate a lot more people like me with experience in both worlds).  Once the staffing problem is sorted out, there will be a cultural problem – how to build rapport between critical academics and thoroughly modernist practitioners such that the program has intellectual coherence (it doesn’t go very well when faculty contradict one another course to course) and might actually generate new and exciting research and teaching.  It will be interesting to watch the new programs, as they emerge, negotiate these issues . . .


Disclaimer: This post is my personal work, and does not necessarily represent the views and opinions of any of my current or past employers.