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.