Thursday, July 30, 2009

What is development studies good for?

Most people who come to the topic of development studies do so because they are interested in a particular region or problem. They realize that sometimes it is useful to have exposure to both broader views and narrower perspectives and analyses. For example, someone visits Ghana and becomes interested in learning more about why the people of Ghana are so much poorer than people in the developed countries (the broad view), and also whether spending two weeks volunteering on a Habitat for Humanity building site in Tamale, Ghana, would be a worthwhile way to spend their time (the narrow view).

The broad view enhances the contextual knowledge required to be a person of solidarity operating in a globalizing environment of increasing connections and significant inequality. Certainly we would think it somewhat arrogant to express opinions about poverty in Ghana and know nothing about how the economy and society of Ghana functioned. The minimum we might expect from a person interested in poverty in Ghana would be the capacity to fit Ghana into a broad schema, or model, of the essential features of developing countries. Such a schema or model makes generalizations about the multitude of regions that one might think of grouping under the rubric of “developing.” Some of the generalizations might be commonplaces: “In Ghana as elsewhere, people are motivated by a mix of material incentives and non-material goals.” Analyzing these commonplace generalizations is important, because often newcomers to development studies fall into the lazy trap of thinking that poverty is due to an indecipherable “culture.” A good chunk of the work in mounting a general schema is in leveraging people’s intuitive sense that culture matters into a more nuanced sense of how cultures matter.

The narrow view develops the analytical tools and experiences that enable a person of solidarity to be an effective agent of change. We should not applaud the do-gooder who botches a job, even as we acknowledge that botching a job is an important way that people learn! Some due diligence should happen before a job is undertaken. All sorts of examples come to mind. Some are simple common sense, involving learning from the experiences of others. Should a small village library classify books according to the complicated Dewey Decimal System? When installing a borehole well, will the villagers have the ability to maintain and repair the mechanical parts? Others are more complex and have to be thought about. When installing the borehole well, should it be the private property of a villager or should it be owned collectively? In setting up a computer lab where digitally-challenged villagers will pay a small fee for use, what incentives guide the computer lab manager in straddling the challenge of ensuring lots of users and minimizing costly breakdowns?

As these questions illustrate, some of the reflections in the broad approach (about what motivates people) are important for the narrow view (how to structure a contract to ensure long-term success).

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