A Manifesto of Sorts, Part II

Circumstances (that is, reading) always intervene, and so I failed to post my principles before classes actually started. Still, though, my first few courses—which were fascinating—made me think I am wise to commit to some view of development before too long, and I become jaded, cynical, or (worst of all) realistic.

Two incidents seem to confirm some of the problems in the field which I wrote about previously. The first was during our “Core” class, when the head of the department (a “Professor” rather than a “Dr”, which is a big distinction here) delivered a brilliant summary of two-hundred years of development thinking in ninety minutes. Near the end, Ramin—an extremely blunt and brilliant Iranian student who almost made a D.Phil cry by ripping into his research methodology—started arguing with Professor Fitzgerald. The topic of the argument wasn’t particularly interesting, as at this point most of the students asking questions are doing so only to prove that they are smart enough to be in the program. At one point, though, Fitzgerald asked him, “Why are you here? To learn about the way things are or the way they should be?” He seemed to imply that the correct answer was to be here to learn about the way things are. But isn’t the whole purpose of development to bring the way things are more in line with the way they should be? Or are we really only here to document and catalog the sorry state of the bottom billions?

The second incident occurred during our Research Methods course (which is substantially less dull that it sounds). We were going through the ideal steps of a research project, and one M.Phil student asked the instructor (a Dr this time!) whether there should be a final step to the process: sharing our results with the people we study. It’s a sensical suggestion: putting research into the hands of those most able to use it. There is ultimately something that strikes me as unethical about “development” scholars studying impoverished communities, publishing their results in scientific journals, and never transmitting any of the information they gathered back to their subjects. The instructor’s response to the suggestion, however, was that sharing useful conclusions is “a good idea” but not part of the formal process. The interchange was remarkably close to one I had this summer in Uganda, when I asked my employers if they ever planned to use the results of their “development” study to further the aims of, well, development. Their response was, at best, equivocal.

As I’ve mulled these experiences over, I’ve settled on a few little maxims to use to remind myself of what it is I’m supposed to be doing here.

1. Everything is urgent. Oxford is the original location of the “ivory tower” of academia (it’s on the south side of campus), and I’ve already realized that the “Oxford Bubble” can seem as impenetrable as the one surrounding Princeton. Still, I don’t want to forget that just over a month ago, I was in rural Uganda, interacting with villagers suffering from AIDS and malnutrition whose prospects for social and economic mobility were nil.

Development is, in the end, very urgent business, not just because it is morally compelling but because problems of global inequality and environmental degradation, with which development is closely intertwined, are growing to the point where the West will eventually no longer be able to ignore them. While rushing programs has led to many misguided interventions, development cannot adopt the deadline-free, infinite time frame approach of much of the rest of academia.

2. Think big. My previous research has been ethnographic, and as a result I think I have a pretty good sense of the importance of locally grounded, small-scale research. Huge quantitative studies making sweeping generalizations, in my view, tend to erase individual agency and ignore human variation. Still, I think that acknowledging this limitation is very different from consigning development to make only trivial claims and piecemeal proposals. Human beings have accomplished such absurd feats—we’ve walked on the moon and blown up tens of thousands of people in one go—that it seems overly pessimistic to aspire to nothing more than achieving a small reduction in the number of starving people. If we propose only small ideas, we have no chance of achieving big goals. With development, I’d rather shoot for the moon and miss than spend my whole life developing “Research Driven Interventions” that involve more evaluation than intervention.

3. Stay positive. This summer, I had a conversation with an anthropologist friend, who explained to me the various ways that Western attempts to help Sudan—such as the “Save Darfur” rallies that failed to rock the nation a few years ago—lacked a nuanced understanding of the region and, as such, were unlikely to accomplish anything. She was probably right. Still, it was a bit disappointing when I asked her, “What should we do?” and she responded, basically, “Nothing.”

Academics are trained to be critical. We read articles in order to find holes, mistakes, and assumptions. We treat development projects the same way we treat texts: we try to show how they are misguided and identify where and why they are failing. What has dawned on me, though, is that critiquing things is actually really easy: I barely know anything about development and I can still read a popular development text and explain why it is bullocks. The real challenge is to actually come up with new ideas. I have an increasing respect for people who propose things and then are willing to weather the inevitable attacks that accrue to anyone who chooses to actually stand for something.

I hope that person is me.

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