Learning in context

Development Studies: A student perspective

By 08/09/2020

In response to the growing Black Lives Matter movement across the world, many of us are reflecting upon race and the role each of us play in facilitating and maintaining systemic inequality. Now more than ever, it is essential that we both re-evaluate what we know to be normal and deconstruct systems and institutions that were designed to subdue and suppress. In international development, where failings are painfully apparent, crucial reforms still need to take place before the sector truly reflects its own discourse and teachings – and universities are the perfect environment for such necessary changes to unfold.

When starting my degree, I naively regarded development, as many do, as faultlessly ethical and well-intentioned. Simultaneously burdensome and enlightening, I soon became aware that this was both an inaccurate and dangerous assumption. This realisation came admittedly late in the second year of my degree during an optional module on NGOs, taken by only a handful of students on the course. Learning for the first time that the Third Sector and aid were actually born from colonialism as a means of control, it was plain to see that development has not truly developed in and of itself.

With local and national actors receiving just 3.1% of humanitarian funding globally, international actors from the Global North continue to dominate development discourse and decision-making by holding disproportionate financial power. As a great proportion of funding remains tied or earmarked, the current aid structure frequently sidelines the needs of those being helped in favour of the needs of donors. This neocolonial system allows donors, organisations, and countries to further their own agendas abroad – an attribute sadly reflected in the UK’s upcoming DFID–FCO merger.

With these inescapable ties to colonialism and Northern dominance throughout the sector, it is hardly surprising that Development Studies is also afflicted by bias. Despite my course recognising these issues, teaching frequently seems to reproduce the conventions that we are concurrently taught to contest. With most lecturers and tutors originating from the Global North, we are often taught development from the perspective of outside researchers, as opposed to practitioners or activists who possess specific contextual knowledge and experience. Academic discourse therefore often continues to be dictated and propagated by outside Northern voices and financing, a standard that universities are well placed to change.

With researchers as our primary educators, there is a decided focus on exploring global issues, with significantly less focus on actively designing solutions. Solutions, after all, are highly contextual and cannot simply be determined via lectures and research papers. It is this fact that makes me question the existing structure and nature of the UK’s development courses. It is as though we spend three years at university to understand the ways in which the world needs fixing, without being rewarded the skills, connections, and experiences required to effectively do so. With such a research-centred and impractical approach to learning, development undergraduates are leaving university ill-equipped to take the action that they passionately want to take.

Further to this, the pool of International Development students is largely inconsistent with the subject, with most of my coursemates coming from wealthy families, predominantly from the Global North. Although it is undoubtedly with good intentions that students want to use their privilege to help others, there is a sense that many are extremely out of touch with the realities of many people in the UK, let alone in developing countries. Coming from a relatively privileged background myself, I am conscious that no matter how much I educate myself and immerse myself in development, I will never truly be able to fully understand the issues at hand. Combined with a relative lack of Southern academics at UK universities, there is a sense that development courses are a place for the privileged to discuss and determine responses to other people’s problems, with little consultation with those who are actually affected. With overseas students paying double for tuition fees and masters courses costing them up to £30,000 at some institutions, accessibility to UK courses remains ironically limited for those who are directly affected by development, systemically excluding those for which the course holds the most relevance.

These issues are exacerbated by our real-life encounters with development. Many spend gap years and holidays participating in archetypal voluntourism – constructing parks, teaching English, or just generally providing advice and services that teenagers are not realistically qualified to give. These projects, often costing thousands of pounds, frequently benefit the volunteers more than they benefit those being helped – a microcosm of the wider development sector. These trips continue to be encouraged as a means of giving students good anecdotes to get into university or employment, once again excluding poorer students who are unable to afford such experiences. These somewhat superficial experiences, although well-intentioned, do little to actually help and instead do a lot to sustain Northern dominance and the white saviour complex.

Universities are in a position to change this. The only fieldwork opportunity on my course at the University of Bath consists of an optional two-week research trip in our final year for which students must pay several thousand pounds. Not only does this adopt the passive research-only approach to development that most courses take, it is another example of well-off students traveling to developing countries to gain experience for themselves, without contributing much, or anything, back. This trip is again unaffordable for some students, providing only the privileged with opportunity.

Reflecting on these issues, there are a number of ways that International Development courses could adapt to better reflect their own preachings:

  1. Increase accessibility to students from the Global South – provide more development-specific scholarships and transfer programmes.
  2. Recruit more staff and practitioners from the Global South – teach future practitioners with current practitioners and invest in their projects and research.
  3. Improve connections with universities and academics from the Global South – provide collaborative and empowering opportunities to shape development discourse.
  4. Expand collaborations with other departments – create a multidisciplinary space for students on other courses to work with development students to create change.
  5. Provide opportunities for students to collaborate with meaningful projects abroad and learn from those making change within destination countries.
  6. Make fieldwork and experience compulsory and include costs in existing course fees – give all students the opportunity to improve their knowledge, skills, and awareness in projects led by Southern partners.
  7. Provide compulsory training on how to actively work against inequalities in development work.
  8. Transform workshops and seminars into ways to more actively engage in innovation and problem-solving – give students the skills to take action.

Students all too often shift their focus away from development once completing their course, finding that they are inadequately equipped for careers in development, and that routes such as finance or consultancy provide a more appealing path. This in itself is an unacceptable waste of good-will and talent, but the concept of development studies is wasted in more ways than just this. Through increasing accessibility for students across different backgrounds and disciplines, while also reimagining teaching and creating meaningful experiences, Development Studies could finally become what it always should have been – a productive and legitimate route into development.