Dear First-Year Student in the International Development Studies Program…

A letter from a PhD candidate to new graduate students entering the field.

[This blog post was originally published on the Guelph Forum for International Development, 2016]

International Development Studies (IDS) is still a relatively new item on the list of graduate university programs in Canada. In 2015, ten universities offered IDS degrees at the Master’s level. Three Canadian universities currently offer interdisciplinary PhD programs in IDS. This blog post makes a passionate case for the valuable contribution of this academic discipline in shaping the 21st century. It aims to distinguish between idealism and realism in the decision to pursue the study of international development at the graduate level, address existing misconceptions about the academic subject, and thwart some of the criticism that has been levelled against it.

IDS as an Academic Discipline

What exactly is development and how can it be studied? International Development Studies, in short, is concerned with the process of qualitative socio-economic, cultural and political change (which we call ‘development’) on a global level. Students of IDS learn to look at existing realities from the perspective of the developing world. As a deeply interdisciplinary field, it has moved beyond its original focus on economics to include a rich array of subjects ranging from epidemiology to gender studies.

Like other social scientists, IDS scholars sometimes find themselves on the defensive when the ‘scientificness’ of their discipline is questioned. Likewise, there appears to be a distinct line dividing development practitioners and development scholars. The author of this article won’t be the first or only academic who has been scoffed at as a ‘paper pusher’ by staff members of non-governmental organizations who have toiled at the front lines of the world’s disaster zones. Nevertheless, the past decade has witnessed a rise in the popularity of the discipline among graduate students. This calls for a reflection about the academic field as it evolves and its tangible contributions in an increasingly globalized world.

This piece presents a set of deliberations from a graduate student nearing the end of her doctoral program about what the new generation of IDS students should know as it enters the field. It examines ideals and realities in the scientific study of international development, then looks at the question of ‘scientificness’. To exemplify how higher education in development can contribute to knowledge-building processes that ultimately inform development practice and policy decisions, the essay briefly highlights IDS debates concerning three specific global challenges – (1) modern conceptions of development and underdevelopment, (2) the sustainable alleviation of food insecurity, and (3) the interrelated processes of globalization and migration. It ends with an appeal for a non-utopian understanding and a pragmatic valuation of the role of International Development Studies in an increasingly globalized world.

Ideals and Realities of International Development Studies

There are a number of obvious motivating factors that initially drive students to apply to a field of study entitled ‘International Development’. In the most hyperbolic sense, those considering IDS may picture themselves as future development scholars in a tropical country, surrounded by the adoring faces of underprivileged locals looking up to them as they introduce an ingenious solution to the ‘problem of poverty’ or ‘hunger’ or ‘inequality’. They may have international travel experience or even have volunteered on a trip to build a school in a remote African village. They may have watched ‘development celebrities’ like Jeffrey Sachs visit exotic-looking places with Angelina Jolie on MTV and intend to follow in their footsteps. Although this is certainly an overdrawn caricature of the challenging thought process accompanying the selection of university programs, it is not a significant stretch to assume that a generous portion of idealism drives the motivation of most students who decide to submit their application to an IDS program. (I know this, because I myself was that student when I applied to a PhD program four years ago.) This is both a strength and a stumbling block for the academic field. It has intrinsic appeal to motivated applicants, but the loftier the expectations, the greater the potential for disillusionment.

International Development is a field in flux and some age-old stereotypes need to be overhauled. An overused platitude that reliably appears in student essays for introductory development courses is: “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” These students have grasped that simple handout solutions to overcoming development challenges are outdated. What they don’t tend to see, however, are the intricate complexities invoked by the simple slogan. Experts on gender issues will point to the fact that local development outcomes might in fact be improved to a greater degree if you teach a woman how to fish. Those dealing with environmental sustainability might instead be concerned about what happens if the water is polluted and the fish disappear as a viable food source. A critical scholar, in turn, might point out that fishing skills are useless to the man if the owner of the pond decides to build a fence and restricts access to the fishing grounds. Finally, the new student may be interested to know that under very specific conditions, there can actually be substantial benefits to providing free handouts after all, for example in the shape of cash transfers. We’ll get back to this point below.

In order to generate convincing arguments in development studies, students are required to immerse themselves in the literature of the field. Understanding development and underdevelopment begins with the study of their origins and the acknowledgement that the lifestyles of people in the global north not only created ‘underdevelopment’ over the course of centuries, but continue to perpetuate global inequalities to this day.

When it comes to solving concrete problems, it is important to note that International Development Studies is rarely considered an independent discipline in its own right. Graduate students are faced with the task of disengaging from a personal interest in broad and complex themes (such as ‘poverty’ or ‘social inequality’) and focusing on a very narrow subject area for their research – which necessarily comes at the cost of letting go of many other fascinating topics to study. Nonetheless, the study of development issues ultimately requires an underlying understanding of the ‘bigger picture’ and the enormous complexities at play. Issues such as ‘poverty reduction’ and ‘food security’ are intricately intertwined with other complex topics including ‘global environmental challenges’. Those who study current development-related problems must also come to the realization that the greatest development challenges don’t only affect ‘them’ but more accurately apply to ‘all of us’. Today’s IDS students will be the vanguards of a new and truly globalized discipline.

What is Scientific about IDS?

To illustrate the value of the academic study of international development, it makes little sense to equate it with the positivist study of natural sciences. It has long been established that social scientists do not deal with unchanging laws of nature but with less palpable social phenomena, institutions and power relations. Besides, it is the inescapable intrusion of subjective valuations and debates that animates the study of the social world. Can international development studies be ‘scientific’ nonetheless? Is it able to generate and disseminate generally valid knowledge? These questions go to the core of the eternal epistemological debate: “How do we know?” Development research is rich in methodologies, ranging from large-scale surveys to participatory action research. There are those who strive for quantifiable and hard statistical data and those who prefer thick descriptions and qualitative methods to generate knowledge. Acknowledging the advantages of both approaches, there are also more and more scholars who combine the two. After all, triangulating evidence using multiple methods helps us validate research findings and generate knowledge. All of the strategies require systematic and disciplined methods of acquiring verifiable data.

Numerous real-world challenges are tackled with the help of the knowledge generated by international development scholars. Below are three examples for how IDS is helping us find solution to existing problems.

IDS Approaches to Global Challenges

(1) Overhauling Conceptions of (Under)development

IDS scholars spend a surprisingly large amount of time contemplating theoretical models and debating definitions of fundamental concepts. One of the most influential contributors to the field is Amartya Sen, who undertook the task of re-branding development. The Nobel Prize Laureate helped us move away from the narrow understanding of development as an economic concept to the broader vision of “Development as Freedom”. Rather than measuring development in monetary terms, the crucial factor in his eyes are people’s capabilities that is, their opportunities to engage in the activities they want to engage in. This has been illustrated with the simple example of two individuals: a wealthy person who is fasting, and a poor person who is starving – although both of them are not currently eating, the first one can choose to eat and be well-nourished, while the second one does not have this capability. Sen’s concept is characterised both by simplicity and a remarkable degree of descriptive and explanatory power. It has been influential in shaping development policies, which increasingly strive to create environments to improve people’s capabilities to live healthy and long lives.

(2) Finding Sustainable Solutions to Hunger

The problem of food insecurity, for many, still invokes images of dropping meal packages from the sky to save starving families and their children, whose distended bellies have been paraded through all media channels. Without a doubt, emergency food aid still exists and effectively saves lives in humanitarian crisis situations. However, studies by prominent development scholars like Christopher Barrett, Daniel Maxwell and others have shown that in many circumstances, in-kind food aid can seriously worsen the situation on the ground. They threaten the livelihood of local farmers, who cannot compete with foodstuff that is provided for free. Whenever local markets are functional, it turns out to be much more effective to either purchase the food for aid rations locally, to distribute food vouchers, or to simply provide cash grants to food insecure community members.

In fact, recent systematic studies of the impacts of cash transfers suggested that in particularly poor communities, even unconditional cash transfers (that is, money handouts with no strings attached) can have positive long-term effects on poverty reduction, productivity, and growth. Based on this research, the world’s most prominent provider of food assistance, the UN World Food Program (WFP), has fundamentally changed its tactics. Whenever possible, the WFP now procures food locally, and has added cash and voucher programs to its strategic repertoire.

(3) Globalization and Migration

Globalization – the increasingly close international integration of markets for goods and services, factors of production, labour and capital – is the dominating trend of our current era. It not only affects our economy, but also our politics and cultures. Today, as debates about free trade agreements (such CETA, TTIP, TPP and NAFTA) are turning the news into an alphabet soup, we already witness unprecedented levels of cross-border activity. Ironically, some of the most ardent supporters of lowering trade barriers to allow for the free flow of goods have considerable problems with the idea of lowering restrictions that govern the cross-border flow of people. Yet, increased migration is a logical consequence of globalization. As French economist Thomas Piketty outlined in his 2013 bestseller “Capital in the 21st Century,” global inequalities are worsening as the rich get richer while the poor are not catching up. He and many others have called for policy solutions to reduce global disparities. IDS scholars study migration patterns and the important flow of remittances between countries, but also the rural-urban dimensions within countries. Their insights will shed light on how to eventually turn the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ into a development opportunity.

The Role of IDS in the 21st Century

Students of International Development Studies help solve broad problems through evidence-based argumentation: by developing theoretical models and studying practical interventions, by working both from the top-down and from the bottom-up and by spreading the word about research results to their peers. International Development scholars are not the same as policy makers or development practitioners, and they are not the same as philosophers – but they collaborate with all of these groups. They are geographers and anthropologists, economists and historians, they are political scientists and sociologists, experts in agricultural practices and women’s issues, education, health, and environment. They represent the pieces of a complex puzzle and together, they tackle some of the most pressing challenges the global population faces today.

Welcome to the exciting world of International Development Studies!

Steffi Hamann is a PhD candidate in the collaborative program for Political Science and International Development Studies. Born and raised in Germany, she worked for the German development agency GIZ in Berlin prior to coming to Canada to pursue her doctoral studies.