When asked what I study at university, I’ve learned to sum up the nature of my studies in three simple words: poverty and racism. It rolls off the tongue much better then Honors Specialization in International Development and Globalization with a Minor in Anthropology. I began my university studies in International Development and Globalization as a bright eyed, optimistic student in 2013. I wanted to follow my passion and “be the change” everyone is talking about. My ambition was to change the world and make it better, but I soon realized that my dream would not be so easy to achieve.
These are my confessions:
You may be asking yourself, what the heck is International Development and Globalization? What does that even mean? No, it’s not a business program. No, it’s not populated by hipsters. And yes, it is a mouthful. Well, after my three years of university experience sitting in lecture halls and reading countless articles, I wish I could tell you what International Development truly is, but in all honestly there is no consensus on its definition. For some, Development (as it is most commonly referred to) refers to an increase in economic activity from which a country will lift it’s people out of poverty. Makes sense, right? Wrong. This is only one point of view of many.
International Development itself began after the second world war. There are three major events that shaped the concept of “development”. The first is the Bretton Woods Institutes created in 1944. Their purpose was dual, first to create a bank that would rebuild the infrastructure devastated in the aftermath of the second world war, and second, to ensure economic stability for all countries. The second event was the creation of the United Nations in 1945 to create a forum for countries to cooperate on a variety of topics such as international security and human rights. The third, and perhaps the most important, is the turn of the cold war. This clash between east and west, democracy versus communism, inspired the American president Harry S. Truman. He vowed to help lift poor countries out of poverty, stating that they lived in misery. This well meaning facade, however, was an attempt to rescue impoverished nations from the allure of communism. Basically, development began as a convenient cover story to reinforce capitalist ties and spoon feed the success of democracy.
This brief history lesson is enough to demonstrate that the concept of International Development has clearly been carefully constructed by North American and European economists, politicians and international relations experts.
Confession #1: International Development is extremely hard to measure!
My first lesson as an international development student was to be critical of the information I would receive. To analyze, dig deep, and take nothing at face value. Unlike science where quantifiable results can be concretely determined using elaborate instruments, development cannot be quantified the same way. How does one record the number of people who are hungry in a country, let alone the world? Statistics and indicators rely on national censuses for the most accurate population count; a complicated and ambitious task on it’s own without language barriers, lack of infrastructure, isolated communities, racial discriminations, and so on and so forth preventing reliable collection of data. Quantifiable results are commonly biased and therefore can only partially reflect the reality of poverty, or education, or maternal healthcare, in a given region. My very first prof explained it best: if your project’s goal is to increase the overall health of a population, one might start by attacking sexually transmitted diseases through condom distribution programs. To quantify the success of said program, one might assume that the number of condoms given will equal the number of sexually transmitted diseases prevented, but how on earth can that number be verified? A fact such as the number of condoms distributed does not take into account the number of condoms used (correctly or incorrectly), nor does it take into account the cultural or religious stance on birth control, nor does it reflect the effectiveness of its use. Suffice to say that numbers in international development can only provide for it’s observers 17 out of 20 vision: enough to see a blurry shape, not enough for a clear and precise image of the situation.
Confession #2: International Development is not instantaneous.
Given the difficulty measuring international development, it’s clear that results can take years to materialize. The Millennium Development Goals and the Global Goals for Sustainable Development promised the impossible in 15 years. In 2000 when the United Nations swore to eradicate poverty, they did so without a considerable increase in International Financial Aid by industrialized countries of the west. It should not have come as a shock in 2015 when the Millennium Development Goals were not reached. Unfortunately, the truth is that International Development is still a business. Investors and donor countries want to see results quick or else they withdraw. So projects are designed to be fast and effective, in theory. However, implementing these programs yields short term relief, but fails to conquer the problems at the root of poverty, hunger and economic uncertainty. How can the international community expect to eradicate poverty through short term projects without treating the cause at a national or international level? Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes. The exploitation of natural resources and human labourers by Europe and North America have left a tremendous tear in the fabric of developing countries; left only with a needle but no thread. Let this be a reminder that the international community must be patient with developing countries. Give them a hand, help find the thread needed to stitch their communities back together, and then step back.
Confession #3: International Development philosophy has been ruled with an iron fist for the last 60 years by white male economists from the West.
One of the very first anthropology classes I took, my professor blew my mind when she told me that the development of a society is not linear. Think about it, there is no step by step process for humans to develop. Some might point out the stone age, the bronze age, and the age of iron as undeniable markers in history around which people develop from savages, to barbarians, and then to civilized people. True, these are convenient milestones to a society’s evolution, but what if I told you that this linear conception was also conceived by a white man? Yep. Lewis Henry Morgan, an American lawyer who dabbled in Anthropology, established a hierarchy of human development, from which, many of our prejudices derive. This philosophical fiction was the pinnacle of evolution for centuries. It is this same hierarchy that has sprouted roots in “International development: we the white men from the western world have achieved industrial success and it is our duty to help other countries lower down on the development ladder to get to reach the same rung of civilization that we achieved ourselves”. Some have named this the “white saviour complex”. So let me reiterate, the discussion on International Development practices have been dominated by Caucasian men of a certain age who, in general, have not lived in said “underdeveloped communities”.
A caveat, if I may. I will not ignore the fact that these same individuals have implemented successful economic policies, or enacted political laws that benefited the development of the western world during the industrial and subsequent eras. I’m simply arguing that the discourse on development has been dominated by those not living in poverty long enough. A cookie cutter approach does not work for all the same way. It is time to open the floor to grass roots solutions and local problem solvers.
Oh man, that felt good to get off my chest. These are my confessions based off of my university experiences studying International Development and Anthropology. They are not an exhaustive list of all the confessions told by development students, but I welcome their input. I study poverty and racism because I want to put an end to both. I still have the same ambition as I did in 2013, to be the change I want to see. Learning about all of the mistakes made in International development is paramount to overcoming these obstacles… but at some point I’d like to learn what’s going well. Developing countries are tired of being portrayed as the victim, or lazy, or incapable. They are problem solvers. They have solutions and they want to be heard. Hear that profs? I want to hear from developing communities themselves and learn how they have overcome their own challenges. I leave you with one final video. As Liz Plank would say, it’s time to “flip the script” on International Development.