Friday, March 9, 2007

institutions for international development studies

I am now a few hours from finishing my Gender and Economic Policy Analysis teaching at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, where I worked for eleven years. Coming back to the ISS after being away for a while has allowed me to see the institution in a different light, and this says something, to me, about aspects of the state of education in international development studies.

The ISS is the oldest graduate school of development studies in Europe--and hence the world. Over the years, 10000 students have attended courses there, and the offerings of the ISS are, in terms of the range available, quite unparalled. Moreover, from a student's point of view, the ISS is a fantastic experience, with extremely low student staff ratios, with close contact with academic staff, and with an international, collaborative, mutally-supporting learning environment. When I meet international development students and practitioners who say they want to study, I tell them: go to the ISS. I still do. It is a remarkable place.

It is therefore all the more worrying to see this institution's continuing dysfunctionality. Being here this week, virtually every non-Dutch academic that is below the age of 50 that I have spoken to is actively seeking employment elsewhere. Many over 50 are as well. In addition, some who are not seeking employment elsewhere, including some professors, wish they had moved years ago. Why do these people, many of whom are amongst the best and the brightest in the field of international development, want to leave?

The answer is simple: management. The ISS was, during my time, a poorly managed institution. That was a major reason why I left. However, from the perspective of the academic staff--who, after all, are the source of the institution's reputation and thus the draw for many of its students and scholars--management has not improved and, in some instances, has in fact deteriorated over the course of the past year. It is very disheartening.

The origin of mismanagement lies in the deep history of the ISS. It is not really relevant here. What is relevant is why mismanagement continues. A large part of the answer lies in the ongoing application of new public sector management practices to the Dutch bureaucracy, and thus the ISS. The culture of targets, of form filling, of policy papers and vision statements generates jobs that are given to unqualified people and which detract from the capacity of academic staff to do their jobs--to teach students, and to undertake research and policy advice that directly addresses the issue of global poverty and inequality. Far, far too much time is spent undertaking activities that are purely administrative, which should be allocated to efficient administrators, resulting in a gross misallocation of the resources and time of the academic staff.

This is not helped by senior management, who are clearly not capable of managing an institution with the complexity of the ISS. A management that stifles innovation, that feathers nests, and which does not create an enabling environment for one of the most diverse and talented sets of development practitioners in an academic environment that can be found today. This is indeed the great tragedy of the ISS--as so many academic staff have said to me over the week, it has so much potential, and yet it does not live up to that potential, because it restricts the ability of the academic staff to creatively engage with international development issues day in and day out. Academic staff spend too much time as bureaucrats, and not enough time as educationalists and researchers.

International development studies requires international development education. It requires institutions with the focus and potential capabilities of the ISS. However, it also requires a managerial environment that fosters those capabilities. As neoconservative globalization restructures the state, it promotes the emergence of educational institutions that fail to foster the capabilities of staff and students, and in so doing lets down international development. The ISS is failing in its mission because of factors that are part and parcel of the very thing that it seeks to understand. That it itself does not understand this--and some of the academic staff clearly do--is a loss, for the ISS, but more importantly, for international development itself.

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