A Manifesto, Of Sorts: Part I

Tomorrow, I will attend my first class as an Oxford University graduate student. It’s not likely to be a particularly dramatic moment, given that the lecture is on qualitative research methods. It will, however, mark my official entrance into an academic discipline that is, to say the least, a mess.

Occasionally, I wonder about what I’ve gotten myself into by studying development. To some extent, the state of the discipline is evident from the state of our subject matter. Chemists are managing to develop new medicines, astronomers are discovering new galaxies, and development scholars are wondering why—fifty years after we really started working on the problems of the third world—there are eighty countries and most of a continent posting essentially negative economic growth rates and a billion people worldwide who are malnourished (an absolute all-time high for humanity).

Obviously, scholars of development aren’t entirely—or likely, even largely—to blame for the state of the undeveloped world. Still, though, it’s hard to see how our discipline has contributed positively to the situation. In the 1950s, we espoused absolute faith in state-driven economic planning and macro-economic management; in the 1970s, we switched to expounding the merits of the unfettered free market and punished states that followed our previous advice. We told newly formed governments to build factories as fast as they could, and then backtracked when easily foreseeable consequences for rural farmers appeared. We told them to borrow and then pushed punishing adjustment programs onto them when they weren’t able to pay back their loans.

At its origin, development studies was a profoundly optimistic affair. We figured that there is nothing intrinsically inferior about the Third World, and as a consequence, there is no intrinsic reason why the residents of these nations should eat less, die younger, and suffer more. Now, it seems that most of development studies is afraid of its own shadow, scared to aspire to more than simply fulfilling “basic needs.” I read a book—misleadingly entitled A Radical History of Development Studies—that suggested that maybe development studies shouldn’t be about figuring out how to develop impoverished regions, or even identifying measures of what development is. Instead, development scholars should aspire to nothing more than creating a “discourse” about “what it means” to study development. It all strikes me as a bit post-modernist. If I wanted to deconstruct everything, I would have studied comparative literature; has our discipline been reduced to studying the study of the discipline?.

A few rock-stars of the field still write books, like Jeffrey Sach’s The End Of Poverty, that claim to offer solutions to previously intractable problems within 300 pages (yours for $24.95). The rest of us write articles published in obscure journals systematically dismembering these naïve visions, while pointedly failing to offer any proposals of our own. It’s a position in which I found myself this summer; collecting data to prove a development project was useless, but making no effort to replace the failed but well-intentioned effort with something else.

At our introduction meeting with the other master’s students, one wise second year told us we needed to figure out what exactly we wanted to get from studying development. I’m going to take it and invert it, and write a bit about what I want studying development to actually be. Like my prior post on England, I’ll post this so I can come back later, and cynically laugh about what a wide-eyed, idealist imperialist I used to be. Probably within a week, these principles will seem as misguided as the ideas of the pamphlet I pictured above seem today, but for now, I’m going to try to stick to them.

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