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Development Is Political. Why Does Anyone Pretend Otherwise?

Development experts tend to depict their policy recommendations as technocratic and impartial. That is to say, economic policy and governmental reform, when it has originated from with the development bureaucracy, is often endowed with an apolitical quality. Its proponents will laud such a policy as time-tested, proven, and driven by empirical studies. However, a perceptive eye reveals that development is often, or perhaps always, DEEPLY political and highly influenced by certain ideologies.

Imagine if an organization arrived on the East coast of the US and advertised that it knew exactly how the US should reinvigorate its economy and initiate new growth. It would probably receive more than a few skeptical raised eyebrows from the American populace. Even more, if it suggested its plan was apolitical, something both the Republican and the Democrats might agree upon (simply unimaginable considering the current political climate), there would be furore. Our bitterly partisan politicians would certainly be quick to discern with whom this organization’s ideologies aligned. What’s more, nobody would take this claim of impartiality seriously, seriously undermining the credibility of the organisation as a whole. So why do development organisations maintain this charade?

A peak into development history (and quite a history it is) is quick to yield quite a few examples of this routine deception. “Structural Adjustments” are probably the poster child for policies that rely heavily on certain political and ideological trends. These policies emerged in the 1980’s in an era of neoliberal enthusiasm led by figures like Ronald Reagan and Margret Thatcher. Based on what is now called by prominent development historians (such as Irma Adelman) the “government is evil” school of thought, these structural adjustment programs propagated a variety of liberalizing policies on much of the developing world. At the time, these policies (for example the reduction of barriers to trade, or minimization of state budgets) were sold as necessary steps on the road to development. Of course hindsight indicates otherwise, and it is now quite clear that these policies were more informed by ideology than the sort of impartial reasoning upon which they were sold. For more information on the effects of structural adjustment policies look here.

Recent events further reveal the political nature of development work. It was discovered by the AP that USAID was the mastermind behind a Cuban twitter platform that sought to both stir up unrest among Cuba’s youth as well as gather personal data on the websites users. An explicit hope of the program was to initiate a sort of “Cuban Spring” – or, to put it a little less gracefully, regime change. Such a program is not that unlike many other ill-fated foreign policy moves by the US, but the fact that the operation was funded by USAID might be a bit more surprising. The American consciousness is more likely to associate the USAID logo with a selfless humanitarian and his bags of disaster relief food aid (the sort of “beneficent” charity work that often brands development more generally) than with diplomats or military strategists. Americans simply do not see aid as a mere “carrot” among various sticks in the diplomat’s political toolbox, but stories like this belie that reality.

We can see the political influences on development organizations themselves, rather than their policies, through recent news concerning World Vision. A major evangelical development organization, World Vision, announced last week a policy change that would allow the organization to hire employees in same-sex marriages, and then promptly rescinded it following outrage from quite a few of its supporters. Here we see the globally contentious issue of gay rights impacting the bureaucratic procedures of World Vision, mechanisms which are often assumed to be crafted with only the efficient execution of development work in mind. Again, it is clear politics pervades development, even into the realm of internal organizational matters.

In short, politics is an inevitable part of the development industry. Though we may try to separate our policy recommendations from the cultural biases, economic ideologies, and power relations of our respective nations, we have a remarkably poor history of doing so.

So why is it then that the politics of development is so rarely given its due as a condition that profoundly affects the way in which policy is executed?

A few issues may be at work here. For one, the development industry generally seems to be plagued by a chronic lack of controversy. That is not to say that we do not have our debates, often even with raised voices (did anyone else see that Twitter battle between Sachs and Mwenda!?). However, the “business of doing good” is often protected from necessary scepticism because of its good intentions, especially from the critiques of external voices. I suppose no one wants to be the critic of the hard working humanitarian [Ed: except Bill Easterly and his tyrannical experts].

Second, while the professionalization of development has its perks, the new(ish) infrastructure to educate and train practitioners has only further veiled the political nature of this work. There are hundreds of schools across the globe, in major international hubs, as well as tiny colleges (like the one I attend), that offer degrees in Development Economics or Studies. While this can lead to a better informed and highly professional development practitioner base, it also augments our capacity within the industry to make our recommendations appear impartial and empirically grounded. Our supposed authority as experts and technocrats finds new life thanks to our various development degrees and certificates.

This post does not intend to be a call to action, as I see no way development may be depoliticized.

Rather what is necessary is an industry-wide paradigm shift to a mindset which recognizes the highly political nature of our work. When public policy comes up around the dinner table at a family reunion, I take each Aunt or Uncle’s policy recommendations with a grain of salt, keeping in mind their respective political ideologies, not to mention my own. Especially candid family members often announce their party affiliations before descending into awkward, and vaguely confrontational debate. Development “experts,” on the other hand, must only announce their various credentials, their numerous degrees, or their hard-earned experience elsewhere to gain entrance into the highest echelon of policy circles abroad and to speak with an almost unquestioned authority once within.

I do not believe it is unreasonable to hold development experts, in the very least, to the same degree of scrutiny one might apply to a casual family meal. Let’s face it, Uncle George, I love you, but we will never agree on issues of American public policy….. we probably shouldn’t on development policy either.

(Final Note: Read James Ferguson, “The Anti-Politics Machine” if you want to know more about the ways in which development work is obscured from its political and ideological roots!)

 

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Experiences

Reflections & Ramblings Of A Development Undergrad

I have to admit that I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with being an undergraduate development student. First of all, you ask a lot of questions and get very few answers. Second, you are trained to be so critical of the development ‘industry’ that you end up not really knowing why you’re there in the first place (Karen Attiah wrote a great blog on ‘International Development Disillusionment’ here). And third, you probably have to defend your choice of doing a Development Studies degree more than with any other subject, which quite frankly, can start to grate a bit after a year or two.

A lot of people probably see undergraduate development students as young people whose lives were changed on a gap year trip to meet kids in ‘Africa’. Certainly, the automatic assumption that my degree is about “charities and Africa and stuff, right?” is not an uncommon one. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are perhaps a few of those students around, but most of us are actually just young people who want to understand the world better. A development studies degree doesn’t teach you how to “do” development, it teaches you to think about why there is such a thing as development (or the lack of it), and because of that, I believe quite strongly that Development Studies is a valuable undergraduate degree regardless of whether or not you actually then go into ‘development’.

It took me two “gap years” after school (working at a national newspaper, not on a beach in Thailand) before I actually decided what I wanted to study at undergraduate level.

A social scientist at heart, I considered various options of studying Economics, Geography and Law before deciding wholeheartedly on a Development Economics degree at the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) in London. Even then, by second year I re-titled my degree to Development Studies and Economics (which might sound like a negligible difference, but it meant I was exempt from quantitative methods and econometrics, happy days). With the new title, my degree structure became more flexible and allowed me to take modules from other disciplines such as Politics and Film Studies. To any student out there in the midst of a development degree, or thinking about doing one, I can’t recommend this highly enough: the more diverse and multi-disciplinary you can make your development degree, the better.

One of the things I love most about the BA Development Studies degree structure at SOAS is that you can’t do ‘straight’ development studies – you can only combine it with a second subject such as politics, anthropology, Swahili, religious studies, law, or, as in my case, economics. It’s a structure that I would recommend keeping an eye out for at other universities, and if not, at least look closely at the extent to which you will be able to tailor your degree and/or take elective modules from other disciplines. At the same time, you will need to also demonstrate in some way how your interests are focused: whether that be by concentrating your electives in a particular field (in my case it was film and media), becoming an active member of particular societies or groups at university (for example, I interned at the university radio station), or narrowing your academic interests at postgraduate level.

A friend of mine who is also graduating this year, said to me the other day “I have no skills! I’m a jack-of-all-trades but master of none!”

Although I can easily relate to her sentiment, I think that the multidisciplinary nature of a development studies degree can easily be turned into an advantage if you design it to your strengths and interests.

Development as a concept is enormously challenged and contested, but in my view that is by no means a reason to avoid studying it at either undergraduate or postgraduate level (I’ll be talking about postgrads in my next blog). If anything, I would argue that development studies is more relevant than ever given its ever-expanding mandate in the current global environment.

Just the other day I was at a talk with a UNHCR representative on the Syrian refugee crisis response, who said that the international community needed to start to “think more developmentally” in how it deals with forced migration and refugees. If you start to think of Development Studies less as a way to learn how to ‘do’ development, and more as a way of learning to ‘think’ differently about development, then I hope you’ll find it as valuable and rewarding a degree as I have.

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