The No-Nonsense Guide to International Development

I am doing an independent study for a class and part of the ‘research’ is understanding the history and evolution of development studies as a field. This of course necessitates an understanding, even if cursory, of the history of development. Ambiguous, contentious, contested, the list of adjectives is endless and is you can see fraught with doubt. Of course at this stage in my program I cannot claim complete ignorance of the history of development, but my understanding is fragmented, often starting arbitrarily post the second World War. I am not going to devote this post to rehash what has been said and written eloquently by many others, I will save that for my’research’. But I will strongly recommend ‘The No-Nonsense Guide to International Development’ by Maggie Black to you.

I came across the name of the book in a bibliography in another book ‘The Radical History of Development Studies’, which I found to be a useful foundation as I try and understand development studies and programs in the 21st century (would you be surprised if I told you that most of the programs are concentrated in North America and Europe – check out the CGDEV website for more details). Also here is a graph I made made based on this data and never used for a presentation:

So I ordered it through the wonderful Inter Library Loan service that the university has, something I did not even know was a possibility till I came to the university. It is a tiny book and when I started it, I thought it would be a quick read. It was, but it wasn’t as quick as I thought, because its simple, concise and aimed-to-be-understood sentence structures had a lot to offer.

It starts by outlining when the term development started to be used. She highlights that even though many from the South such as Gandhi, Mao have contributed to the ideas that are now part of development, the term as we know it was birthed in the post second WW era. She succinctly outlines how the meanings of the terms have evolved over the years, how the stakeholders have expanded from just the governments to civil societies and communities themselves. She runs us through all of those milestones, which for many were road to destitution, the structural adjustment plans, the push for free-markets and more. She talks about how folks like Yunus have put forward ideas such as microfinance that go against the traditional view of large-scale, top-down ideas but these too have been co-opted into the mainstream agenda.

If you have interest in understanding development and international development (and the latter term is even more contested, with some saying there is no such thing, only international development agencies), I would recommend reading the book. I want to end with some lines from the end, which I thought were useful, concrete, and offered something instead of just adding to the confusion:

“Acknowledgement is made that there is no one route to sustainable development. But the development establishment does not seem to understand the implications of this for policy in institutional terms…Perhaps the leaps of understanding, structural inhibitions and obduracy of vested interests are just too daunting.” (p 109)

“It had become clear that interventions to support livelihoods not only had to fit economic and social realities but also to contend with power structures. If they did not, vested interests might destroy them or co-opt every benefit to themselves.” (p 112)

“How could an end-state and a process – ‘development’ – that was meant to be synonymous with poverty reduction have been subverted in such a way as to reinforce the poverty of millions of people?” (p 130)

“Despite five decades of dashed hope, the development industry is not in retreat: far from it. More studies and analyses of its various dimensions are produced by the day. More people are employed. More research students ponder ‘knowledge transfer’ and ‘participatory appraisal’… But then development has always suffered from oversimplification both of the problem and the prescription.” (p 131)

“The proliferating international circus – the conferences, summits, commissions, and their magisterial inquiries into the state of the world’s this or that – too often imply that, if only the world can reach consensus around key policy principles, the obstacles to development will crumble.” (p 136-137)

I will stop quoting the book at you now and hope you get a chance to read it and reflect on what it is saying. Now back to the hamster wheel of graduate school.

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