Thursday, July 5, 2007

why study international development?

Whenever I meet someone for the first time, and they ask me what I do, I have a pretty hard time explaining, in simple, everyday language, what exactly is international development studies. This has got me to thinking: if I have trouble explaining it to strangers, it must be pretty difficult for potential students to justify to their peers and their parents why they are studying this thing that many people don't understand. In this light, I thought it might be useful to write down a few points about why, to me, the study of international development is important.

We live in interesting times, as the Chinese curse would have it. A world of unparalleled wealth and opportunity sits side by side with a world of unjustifiable poverty. Unjustifiable, because, according to Jeffrey Sachs, if those who were rich simply gave up one per cent of all of their income that would generate enough money to end poverty on the planet. No one would have to die because of where they were born. I got into international development because I was fortunate enough to be able to spend my savings, many years ago, on traveling to many parts of the world to which I had never expected to travel. On those travels, I saw some pretty appalling poverty--in Calcutta for the first time (now Kolkata, of course) I could only venture out of my grubby hotel room for a few hours at a time, because the power of the poverty on the streets was just too overwhelming. In Dhaka I saw too many limbless children begging on the street. And one of my strongest memories, from 10 years ago, is sitting on a bench in a village outside Peshawar, when I was doing fieldwork with Jim Freedman, talking to a man, a stranger, who started to cry because he had absolutely no idea how his family was going to eat that night. Poverty of this sort is an affront to humanity. No; it is more. It is a crime against humanity.

In my teaching, I try and enable students to better understand why we live in a world of haves and have nots. I try and facilitate an understanding in my students of the historical forces that have led us to this point, and the ways in which those forces have created societies in which the wealth of some requires the poverty of others. I want my students to understand this generally, but, more particularly, with regard to rural poverty, because that is where the most intractable global poverty is found, even in some places that apparently appear, at first glance, to be quite well off--places like Fiji and Thailand, two countries I know reasonably well.

In addition, however, to understanding why, I also in my professional work offer advice to international organizations, national governments, and local people that are trying, no matter how imperfectly, to change things for the better. Sometimes this feels like I am banging my head against a brick wall, as the orthodoxies of international development are far too ingrained in the institutions that dominate international development. Nonetheless, sometimes I think I have been able to make a difference, at times in small ways, and, on occasion, in actually very big ways that have improved the lives of hundreds of thousands. Thus, I not only try and help people to understand why, I also offer, at times, a how.

Finally, I have, over the years, engaged in a lot of what is called 'capacity building'. This means, in effect, helping those who lack the tools to do things for themselves to get the tools that allows them to do things for themselves. In this way, my whys and hows are not merely those of the outsider with the supposed--and I stress, supposed--knowledge, but are often based upon people themselves coming to an understanding of the whys and hows that they pass on to me...and I pass on to others.

That's what I do. So why study international development? It's not to get a job. Many--most--of my students do end up getting jobs in international development, but a job, important as that is, is not the reason to study international development. Too many of the job skills needed in international development can only be learned by experience, tempered with understanding, to be sure, but based on experience. No. The reason why it is important to study international development is because there is no need in 2007 for a single person on this planet to be poor. There is no need in 2007 for a significant proportion of humanity to have to continue to despoil the environment which we all rely upon in order that they survive. There is no need in 2007 for inequality between people, between us, to trap so many in a life where the future is limited. It is, simply, unjust. The study of international development is about building an understanding that can help eradicate poverty, significantly reduce inequality, and facilitate an era--finally!--of global social justice. And if you are concerned with global social justice, then you should study international development.


Gwenn Chimuti said...

Brilliant piece!!! Thanks for this!!!

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