Advice, Experiences

Course Review: Development Studies and African Studies at SOAS

Written by Tomas Zak

When choosing what course I wanted to do at undergraduate level, I wanted to strike a balance between the practical part of my degree, which I thought would get me a job (Development Studies) and my own personal interests (African Studies), but I eventually realised this was a false distinction.

It was not a job-orientated degree. Both sides were intensely theoretical. In African Studies, the focus was predominately on learning a language and different aspects of African cultures such as film, music, literature, religion, etc…

Similarly, in what should really be called Critical Development Studies, there is a concerted effort to dismantle the problematic notion that “we” develop “them”. Instead, the course examines what it is in Western societies that inhibits development elsewhere. It looks into broader attempts at systemic reform, rather than piecemeal palliative measures perpetuated by the development orthodoxy.

Taken as a whole, the degree sought to marry this critical analysis of the development business with an understanding of a particular context – primarily by learning a language.

Pros

Language
As funding is getting cut across the board, fewer and fewer places have the language specialisation on offer at SOAS. The one thing I would have done differently when it comes to languages is to have gone on the year abroad, even if it meant taking a year longer to complete my degree, paying more fees and dealing with the pitfalls of SOAS organisation in a foreign country.

Through immersion you learn the most, but you have to be driven and above all, interested. SOAS has some great connections abroad, but it’s all about how you use them. I’d think carefully before picking a language as it is probably one of the decisions which will take the longest to bear fruit, but for me it was definitely worthwhile.

Interdisciplinary
In the core courses in development, there is no one lecturer. Lecturers will vary and come to teach their area of specialisation. So you will meet a lot of lecturers from different faculties and get to hear about how their current research ties into the topic at hand. It also gives you the opportunity to scope out potential dissertation supervisors.

Diversity
Not only in terms of nationality – but also in terms of a diversity of experiences, influences and norms. This applies to teaching staff and students alike and leads to interesting, albeit heated, debates both in tutorials, but also in the bar. It can begin to sound like a bad joke. A Tibetan monk, an anarchist and an Old Etonian sit down for a tutorial…

Cons

Ideological straitjacket
It is no secret that SOAS is one of the foremost centres for the study of Marxism and this seeps through into almost all aspects of teaching. There is very much a SOAS-line and after sitting in yet another tutorial full of nodding heads bashing the IMF, it can begin to sound like a broken record so try and break out.

London is perfect for this. There are talks, conferences, debates and book launches at places like the Royal African Society, the Africa Centre, the Overseas Development Institute, the London International Development Centre, Birbeck, LSE, Kings, UCL, etc… Chances are you’ll hear more than enough and come running back to the bubble that is SOAS, but it’s still worth hearing the other side.

Admin and organisation
Navigating the corridors of the Byzantine system that is SOAS bureaucracy will probably take up a substantial amount of your time. Menial tasks like changing courses or submitting a hard copy of an essay will have you running around chasing signatures and knocking on doors.

Tips on getting the most out of the degree:

Follow good lecturers not interesting sounding courses (H/T Chris Blattman).
At SOAS, the course I was most excited about on paper turned out to be taught by one of the worst lecturers. Some academics might have a wealth of knowledge, extensive work experience, huge research grants or have written ground-breaking books, but are very bad at public speaking and transmitting that information.

By contrast, a lecturer that has been running the same module year-on-year, benefits from a number of students shaping, improving and even challenging their thinking. If they are a good lecturer, they will have incorporated new ideas, have tried and tested different ways of teaching and altered the content of the course in response to current events and contemporary research. If you do end up taking the risk with a new course, don’t be afraid to change even if you are a couple of lectures in – I wish I had.

Don’t get fixated on the job at the end of your degree
Like I said, it’s not a job-orientated degree. For that reason, I got more out of courses I was genuinely interested in, irrespective of whether a module in “African Philosophy” has any practical application beyond university. In all probability, you won’t have as good a chance to explore your academic interests again after university so you might as well go for it.

SOAS isn’t for everyone, but to my mind one of the biggest drawbacks is probably its main selling point. Coming from a fairly right-wing environment, SOAS was an oasis where radical thinking was not dismissed outright, but considered as a plausible alternative. There are very few places in the UK where this is the case.

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Commentary

Aid Is Power. Of Course The BRICS Got In On The Act

At their summit on Wednesday of last week, the BRICS nations (or the “emerging economies” of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) announced the founding of a new international development bank. This new financial institution will, like the World Bank, provide funding for infrastructure projects throughout the developing world and, like the IMF, use reserves of various currencies to stave off financial crises.

The founding of this new bank is largely the result of the BRICS nations’ discontent with the often disproportionate power allotted to the US and European nations within the internal mechanism of the World Bank and IMF. At the moment, for instance, Brazil and Spain have similar voting shares within the IMF (which are officially determined based on the size of a given nation’s economy using figures like GDP), despite the fact that the Spanish economy is less than two-thirds the size of the Brazilian. Dr. Roslyn Fuller suggests, and  rightfully so, that this new bank is the inevitable manifestation of the West’s inability to adapt to the new multipolar world, or in her words, the result of its failure to turn at this crucial turning point in global relations.

Obviously, there is a deeply geopolitical element to the founding of this new BRIC development bank. In large part, like much in the arena of diplomacy, it is a matter of ego – an opportunity for the BRICS countries to declare independence from and comparable influence to the old bastions of power in Washington, D.C. [Ed: My old foreign policy professor would call it “symbolic politics”].

The India Times refers to the new bank as a “counter-weight” to the World Bank. Reuters’ story on the topic declares in its title that “BRICS set up bank to counter Western hold on global finances.” The LA Times writes that the new bank was founded with “aspirations to challenge the dominance of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.”

This adversarial depiction of these two banks common to many media outlets the world over has likely left some of us development interns scratching our heads. After all, isn’t the fundamental goal of the World Bank to combat global poverty, not to preserve any uneven global power structures nor propagate US dominance? Shouldn’t this new bank be welcomed as a dearly needed partner and ally of the DC based financial institutions?

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim would most certainly agree. In a South China Morning Post article he is quoted as saying,

“For us, our competition is poverty. Our enemy is lack of economic growth…. We have no choice but to welcome any new entrants because every new entrant will help us battle poverty.”

Kim said he was eager to collaborate with this new bank in joint efforts to better aid the world’s poor.

Again we are faced with the problem of perceiving and interpreting the place of politics in development work. As William Easterly noted in his most recent book (echoing themes already present in works by James Ferguson and others prior), development organizations tend to mystify the deeply ideological roots of their policy prescriptions and the subsequent political effects of such policies in technocratic rhetoric and claims of impartiality. In such a way the World Bank, an organization with a policy history that mirrors the ideological trends of its American host (such that neoliberal structural adjustment reforms became popular during the Reagan era), can be depicted as an impartial organization advocating empirically proven  policies. Many development interns and practitioners seem to get lost in the technocratic rhetorical haze and forget, or completely ignore, the political elements of this line of work.

However, when the BRICS nations founded their new international bank the global media was able to perceive this move as one with deeply political roots and implications.

The ability to distribute aid is a mark of power; even more so, the ability to determine the ideological character and political directions of this aid. The media is not hailing the bank as a new contributor in the fight against the common scourge of poverty, but a diplomatically complex assertion of growing power and international influence among BRICS nations.

One must turn to President Kim to hear the politically sterile, familiar discourse of “the global confrontation of poverty.” While development organizations have often succeeded in their efforts to appear apolitical, here his remarks stand in contrast to a mass of geographically diverse journalists, making his apolitical representation of the World Bank seem – quite candidly – illusory.

Political jostling and diplomatic hissy fits aside, I am eager to see what will come of this new development bank.

As former World Bank economist (and Nobel prize winner) Joseph Stiglitz indicates in his appearance on Democracy Now, this new bank will only expand investment within the “developing world” and encourage further efforts to stimulate economic growth therein. With reserves of over 3 trillion its seems China’s greater participation (and that of the other BRICS) in the development industry is long over due, and a serious opportunity to better meet the needs of the world’s poorest.

Further, this new bank, which will likely pull from demographic and geographic circles underrepresented in Washington, will expand the development policy debate to include previously unheard voices (essentially the goal of development blogs like this one and Why Dev). The familiar danger of “group think” among policymakers can perhaps be staved off through the inclusion of these new diverse contributors (especially since a voice on the international stage tends to be loudest when its orator has full pockets).

Of course there are also new dangers. We must be wary, as with the World Bank, of hidden political rationales embedded in what I am sure will be the technocratically defended policy proposals of this new development bank. Their foreignness to Western observers makes them no less likely to fall into the typically western pitfall of propagating their own cultural hegemony and privileging their own ways of being, thinking, and prospering in their policies.

In short, this new bank is a bit of a mystery. Its institutional history is only about to begin. Here’s to hoping its better than that of the World Bank.

Hell, if nothing else, maybe they’ll even give me job. No one else seems to be interested. 

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