Learning

An Unexpected Return To History

It is perhaps a little paradoxical to say that, in studying the Internet, I have discovered a new love of history.

Maybe ‘love’ is a little strong; let us go with ‘appreciation’. After years of hating history at school, and not understanding why studying history was important, I have unexpectedly found it to have woven itself back into my academic interests. Bear with me: I promise there are some reflections here that I hope we can all learn from!

Let me start with why I never liked history in the first place. For me, history was always associated with learning the names and dates of Anglo-Saxon battles. I remember learning about the Romans. I know that Henry VIII had six wives, three of which were called Catherine. I have sparse memories of dressing up in a pinafore and a bonnet, and going on a school trip to a place where we made bread. We studied World War I and the Battle of the Somme. These examples do not mean to trivialise the importance of these moments in history; nor to attack the design of the UK’s History curriculum. For whatever reason, History was just not a subject that I saw the point to. And so, when we had to make our subject choices in Year 9, I chose Geography and my days with History were over.

The revival of history in my educational interests first emerged in my undergraduate years. It was while at SOAS that, for the first time, I came across histories I was interested in. I wrote essays on the impact of colonial legacies on democratisation processes in Africa. The contribution of Botswana’s historical pre-colonial institutions in its management of ‘diamond-led’ growth. The importance of the 1951 Geneva Convention in shaping current policy approaches to refugees and forced migration processes. And the representation of South Africa in films such as De Voortrekkers (1916), Jim Goes to Joburg (1949) and Come Back, Africa (1959).

All of a sudden I found myself fascinated, disappointed, enraged and intrigued by these historical narratives.

Again, during my current postgraduate studies, I find myself drawn to history. This wouldn’t be much of a revelation was it not for the fact that I study the Internet – that whizz-bang, techie, supercharged technology that has come to revolutionise, re-define and re-network the world. What has amazed me is that there is space even here, for a consideration of historical narrative. Mark Graham, for example, compares the discourse around the arrival of the British East African railway (which connected Mombasa, Kenya to Victoria, Uganda in 1903) to the discourse around the arrival of undersea fibre-optic cables in East Africa in 2009. The hopes pinned on each period of connectivity transformation for sparking Africa’s growth and development are strikingly similar.

For anyone interested in the media and journalism, Elizabeth Eisenstein’s book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change is a powerful read. In this current age of digital journalism, citizen journalism, free press debates, issues of censored journalism, and a multiplicity of other issues currently swirling around in the complex media ecosystem, a look back at the days of the first printing presses in Western Europe is fascinating. The parallels between the tensions of new media then, and the tensions of media change now, are striking. And then there’s Tom Standage’s book The Victorian Internet (1998), which tells the story of the telegraph and how it transformed the Victorian world in a fashion not dissimilar to the transformative spread of the Internet.

This blog article is not meant to debate the parallels and differences between previous technological revolutions and the revolution of the Internet. Despite the historical parallels the Internet is arguably unprecedented in its potential and impact. Rather, I highlight these examples to frame two key reflections that I think are worth sharing:

History has to be relatable. My hate-love-appreciate relationship with the study of History is testament to how important it is that the subject tells histories you can connect to. For whatever reason, my 11-year-old self never connected with the Anglo-Saxons, or the Romans, or even to World War One. At SOAS, I found a closer connection to historical narratives in my studies – perhaps because my parents, and extended family, are all from South Africa. And while studying my postgraduate degree here in Oxford, I found a connection to the historical work of authors such as Eisenstein and Standage – likely because my work experience is in online and digital journalism.

History is about learning lessons. Finally, I ‘get’ the point of studying History. This might sound a little cliché, but, fundamentally, the study of History allows us to better understand our present, and to better plan for the future.

If we can learn lessons from historical experience then we can make better choices.

For development, the connection here is pretty simple. Relating in some way to historical narratives of development will a) avoid repeating past failures and b) encourage better decision-making and policy choices. For example, how are m-agriculture development approaches learning from the mistakes and challenges faced by more ‘traditional’ development agricultural interventions? How well do development practitioners and policy-makers understand, and take into account, historical context?

Ultimately, I have found that it is important to study historical narratives because it forces us to look backwards. In this age of the Internet – where time and distance are compressed, where the pace of life has sped up, and where the world never ‘switches off’ – it is important to not get swept up by the speed afforded by technology and the excitement of the ‘future’.  Rather, in this fast-paced digital age, there is perhaps an ever-greater need to make an unexpected return to history.

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Experiences

An Internship For Hypocrites

Mt Meru, Tanzania

I’m sitting on the front porch of my little house on Themi Hill. Far in the distance I can see stunning Mt Meru shining above the city – a view I will enjoy for the coming ten months. One week ago I moved to Arusha in northern Tanzania to work for Germany’s state-held development agency “Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit” better known by its acronym GIZ.

The local units consults the East African Community during its integration process. A great opportunity to kick-off a career in international development you might think. And yes, you’re right – the project is incredibly promising and already after one week I feel that I will massively profit from this long internship. Nevertheless, even looking at this beautiful scenery spread out in front of me I can’t lose an uneasy feeling deep inside of me.

Let me step back six years:

Right after high-school, I decided to do some good old volunteering in a children’s home in South Africa for a year. Half-way through our time we had the chance to listen to a representative of the GIZ office in Pretoria (let’s call him Jake) talking about careers in their little club. This was my first contact with the weird world of development. Having so much fun living in South Africa but also being enthralled by the country’s complex history I soaked up everything Jake said. He told us that they need people with ‘degrees in some solid fields’, so I started studying Economics. What timing! The crisis humiliated the discipline and crushed my motivation to go ahead in the field. I looked into alternatives and switched to Maastricht’s lefty-green-alternative Liberal Arts College, the UCM. A great program that I can only recommend to anybody interested in a holistic undergraduate education. This move also signified the beginning of me doubting that I should see Jake as a role-model.

I started picking courses outside Economics, studying critical theory, learning about the concept of neo-colonialism and getting to understand that there are some shocking problems in the industry. Many times I heard that everything the West does to ‘help’ the Global South is pure neoliberalism, patriarchal and on average causes more harm than it does good to the partner countries.

Now, I’m really up for the ‘practice what you preach’-approach to living your life and usually hate the type of people that were part of the Marxism Society in College only to become an investment banker a few years later. Yet, here I am sitting in Arusha going back to work tomorrow in a field that I have often condemned in my academic papers. GIZ might not be the worst of them all, but already after one week I have had some prejudices confirmed: power struggles with the ministry, end-of-the-year spending spree (Mittelabflussdruck as the Germans call it…) or the expensive workshop that seems to interest only 3 of 30 invited local partners.

So why am I here anyway in the Geneva of Africa – as one of the expats called it – if I’m just whining about it?

Maybe because I wanted to see for myself, maybe because development cooperation is what I know best and maybe because I simply think that my specific project is obviously an exception. I am convinced that regional integration is in fact a good way forward for East Africa and believe that the GIZ team does a good job of fostering that process. This is probably what everybody in this game thinks about their own work, allowing the bigger picture to vanish quickly as you get sucked into your career. The uneasy feeling hasn’t left me yet and I remain deeply undecided. Am I studying the enemy or turning into a hypocrite that might continue to sit on Themi Hill and pretend to unite East Africa?

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Advice

Course Reviews: Communication for Development at Malmö University

There are a lot of development related degrees out there. So many, in fact, it can be overwhelming. To help people out, we’ll be running several reviews of courses. If you would like to contribute a review of a course you’ve taken or if you want to attract more students to your programme please email development.intern.blog@gmail.com

comdev1

Communication for Development (ComDev) is an interdisciplinary field of study and practice, combining studies in culture, communication and development integrated with practical fieldwork. It explores the use of communication – both as a tool and as a way of articulating processes of social change – within the context of globalisation.

While Communication Studies commonly is associated with concepts like information, media and messages, Communication for Development not only encompasses these terms, but also embraces a much broader approach. ComDev focuses on approaches that work to facilitate dialogue and define priorities for messages and information, but most importantly, on social processes to involve people in their development – making people active participants, and not only passive receivers of messages and information.

From its start in 2000, ComDev set out to be an academic programme available to everyone, everywhere, even those students unable to relocate for their university studies. One of the key aspects of this approach is our livestreams where our students can follow the lectures in real time, no matter where they are in the world. These livestreamed sessions also allow students to interact with their peers and the teachers and to engage in group discussions and assignments.

Our student body is diverse: culturally, geographically and in their academic and professional backgrounds. This allows our students to deepen their knowledge within their existing area of expertise while also gaining a broad overview based on the academic backgrounds and practical experiences of their peers, allowing them to be able to work both interdisciplinarily and transculturally in their future professions. Many of our students and alumni work in professional media companies, international organisations (governmental and non-governmental) or are undertaking doctoral studies.

The programme runs part-time over two years and is conducted online with the opportunity of attending two or three weekend seminars in person. During their first year, our students receive a comprehensive overview of globalisation and an introduction to the field of Communication for Development. During their second year, the students are introduced to the use of new media and ICT in a development context and receive a thorough introduction to research methodologies in order to prepare them for their final thesis.

The benefits of studying in an international setting with the opportunity to interact with students from all around the world is a great asset to the programme and in combination with students who are working in ComDev-related fields, the opportunity to share experiences provides added value. ComDev embraces the international mind-set when planning for seminars and to date we have held seminars in Bosnia and Herzegovina, India, South Africa and Tanzania to name a few and we encourage our students to attend the seminars in person if they have the opportunity.

When writing their theses, we recommend students to conduct field studies and our students have had the opportunity of doing fieldwork in countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Egypt, India, Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa. We always encourage our students to think outside the box and employ innovativeness and creativity to their fieldwork experiences. ComDev theses have included documentaries, short films, photo essays and a wide array of dissertations presented in exciting and original formats.

As an addition to our master’s programme, we offer a part-time course called Advances in Communication for Development, which aims to enhance skills and deepen knowledge in the strategic use of media and communication in development cooperation. Students are given the opportunity to independently plan, implement and evaluate a ComDev intervention. From 2014 this course is also offered as Commission Education for organisations and companies.

Web: www.mah.se/comdev

Twitter: @mahcomdev

Facebook: www.facebook.com/comdevmalmo

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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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