International Development Disillusionment?

December 5, 2011 — 22 Comments

Maybe its the fact that its finals time right about now and I have the sleeping schedule of a neurotic tropical bat. Or the fact that I accidentally purchased a diet Cherry Pepsi from my school’s vending machine on my study break and I HATE diet Pepsi. Or maybe it’s because the winter season is upon us here in New York and having the sun start to go down at 4 pm like I live in Sweeden or something is not the business.

Whatever it is, all I can say is, what did I sign up for? By what, I mean choosing this world of “international development”?.

Don’t get me wrong. I go to one of the best international affairs schools in the world. There are so many good souls and people who genuinely care about the welfare of others not just around the world, but domestically. I have friends who have worked on everything from water projects in Malawi to improving educational opportunities for children in Harlem. I have friends who speak 3 languages, who have worked at top consulting firms, have given speeches at the UN and who have worked in the Peace Corps. Just amazing individuals.

I don’t have doubts about my brilliant classmates.

I question the international development system, and perhaps, academia’s role in perpetrating that system.

We are trained to think like short term consultants.Everything is project/program based. We are trained to measure everything through statistics, through case studies. A project seems to be measured as “successful” if you get it funded by a donor, not if it is actually needed or feasible. My mock assignments usually have something to do with making recommendations to some company wanting to do a project in another country or a government in a developing country. Are we learning how to make a living in telling developing countries what to do? Where are the assignments on how to observe and listen to communities?

I don’t really know if we are trained to question the prevailing system. After all my program is a pre-professional program, and we are here because we want to be hired into the system, right?

And back to the issue of learning how to make money in telling poor people how to live their lives…one thing that is peculiar to me is the lack of culture/history classes we are required to take. I can take courses on writing security memos in Africa, but yet, I’m hard pressed to find African history or language courses? Area studies is generally considered to be a “waste of time” at my school. Many people just opt to specialize in “harder concentrations”. How effective is drafting policies when you don’t have a sense of a people’s culture, their religion, their language, their way of life?

I know I’ve perhaps oversimplified things. But there are certain things that just strike me as odd about this world. When I voice them, many of my classmates just shrug and say, “Well, thats the way it is”. Does it have to be?

Anyway, just a quick post. Again, perhaps this is just home-stretch finals frustration.


22 responses to International Development Disillusionment?


    Good article. I agree with your sentiments completely. I have spent the last 13 yrs (all my professional life) working in investment banking “helping” companies raise funds for major projects in the developing world. These projects were supposedly of a higher calling because they sought to benefit the world’s poor. I have however come to the realisation, or at least begun to have serious doubts about the utility of my role. I’d always thought my banking pursuits were better than those of my colleagues in the hedge fund or extractive industries, but having critically reviewed the long term “benefits” of some of the projects my efforts have helped fund, I can only conclude that the real beneficiaries have been myself and the companies I’ve advised. The poor who always featured very prominently in the business plans and projects have not benefited from our endeavours, they have in some instances, been put at a distinc disadvantage because of our intervention. I’m yet to work on a project which has been funded purely on its humanitarian merits – the “impact” of profit is always the overiding reason for the pursuit of our ventures. I’m also fortunate to have been surrounded by some of the so called “best brains” in the world – we all have degrees from good schools and have been fortunate enough to go on to postgraduate education and occasionally wax lyrical about Kant, Camus and Kierkegaard. If the recent global financial crisis has taught me anything, it’s that most of the world’s woes have been perpetrated by the very individuals with some of the most expensive education money can buy.

    Your assertions are correct and it’s admirable that unlike some of us you’ve cottoned on to this at an earlier stage – and not been caught up in the rhetoric and the minutiae of statistics, reports, metrics and all the psychobabble which purports to promote productivity, while negating the very purpose of our “calling”. There’s a lot of good to be done and it seems you’re getting all the grounding, experience and dare I say, contacts necessary to succeed in doing some real good. A feeling of dissillusion is not always bad, it’s a mechanism for self reflection and can be an effective antidote to Hubris.
    I have become a father in the last few years and it surely has retuned my moral compass. I still like money but I’m keen to ensure that my endeavours yield real benefits for all around me. It is for this reason that I’m utilising all the skills, resources and little nuggets of knowledge I’ve acquired over the years to set up “operations” in Ghana my true home. True I’ve spent 90% of my life in England but I’m Ghanaian and I think England does not need me. The future is bright especially for your chosen career path, throw the rule book away and forge your own path. Be the renegade that I think you are and good luck in your finals.

    Stay off the diet Pepsi! Earl Grey tea, that will do the trick.


      Thanks so much for your response. Often I don’t know if I’m putting my finger on something or if I’m just complaining. But I’ve felt this way about the “system” for a while now. I thought that if people wondered why the international development system is the way it is, we can look to our international affairs/policy schools to see if we can figure out at least part of the diagnosis.

      I should have prefaced my post by saying I don’t have an international affairs background. I come from a “Soft sciences” background (Communication, African Studies, and Sociology to be exact) and I have appreciated the way learning about economics and statistics have changed the way I look at things, mostly for the better, I think.

      Let me ask you this: Do you think you have a different perspective because you are an Ghanaian in the diaspora, and hail from a country which is so often the beneficiary of some of these projects? I sometimes feel that having roots in a “developing” nation makes me feel more personally connected to some of these projects, rather than just professionally. When I see people and lives reduced to development babble and bullet points and statistics, I think of family, friends, and people. Where does the separation begin?

      I applaud you for yourself coming to these realizations, I’m sure many never do. Even more kudos for setting up operations in Ghana!

      They don’t serve Earl Grey Tea in the vending machines in my school. Another thing wrong with the system.



    I also work in this field, which I generally refer to as “the development racket”. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about how to answer the question I’m asked with increasing frequency, “why are you so disillusioned about international development?” One response I’m beginning to settle on is to try to place the burden of evidence on the proponents of “development”. Instead of trying to defending my disillusionment, I ask back: “what evidence is there to be encouraged about ‘development’?” People can’t even really agree on what “development” is supposed to mean, but if you took a quick sample of some of the examples people would probably cite as current success cases in development–China, India, Botswana, Ghana, a few others–would anyone even try to make the argument that those successes had anything to do with donor governments or UN agencies or international NGOs? Of course not. After about 50 years of the modern era of development assistance you can’t really find a single example of a donor-led development success, and you can barely even find someone who will hold up a particular project as an unmitigated success. But for some reason it’s the development cynics who are supposed to explain and defend why we’re disillusioned.


    “And back to the issue of learning how to make money in telling poor people how to live their lives…one thing that is peculiar to me is the lack of culture/history classes we are required to take. I can take courses on writing security memos in Africa, but yet, I’m hard pressed to find African history or language courses? Area studies is generally considered to be a “waste of time” at my school. Many people just opt to specialize in “harder concentrations”. How effective is drafting policies when you don’t have a sense of a people’s culture, their religion, their language, their way of life?”

    I think learning an African language and about culture is extremely important and is perhaps what modern development studies is lacking. You sum up the reason I took african studies with development perfectly, couldnt have put it better myself.


    Karen…. THIS… is sooooo true. That’s why when people ask my favorite classes last year somehow the only one’s I manage to bring up are my Anthropology courses which offered such rich perspective on all the things we were learning about Washington Consensus and the age of governance. I feel I am in the same place where my heart is NOT at all in consulting work but all the jobs I am interested in applying for almost require you to have been a consultant before hand. Kudos for putting it out there… The truth of the matter is we are so wrapped up in quantitative analysis, metrics, economics… we can not value the individuals. The people. Their stories and histories… There must a happy medium where the numbers we are measuring represent sustainable change… I believe in happily ever afters, lol!



      I can’t remember where I read it, but I’ve heard some voice that international development studies would do better to take cues from fields such as anthropology, sociology, and ethnography. I starting to feel like I agree..


        They did that in the 1980s, when anthropologists were hired as consultants in the development sector. However, they found it very difficult to translate and apply anthropological and ethnographic research, which is detailed, dense and ‘thick’ (see Geertz), to the needs of policy making. There is a movement underway, particular amongst some ethnographers studying literacy, to foster dialogue and understanding between academics and policy makers. Also, to translate their research into applicable insights and analysis that can inform policy.

        Karen, you would also be interested in this post (disclaimer: my own) and the discussion from students and graduates like yourself and others here:

        We touch on many of the same issues, although I come at the topic from a different angle.


    You’re absolutely right to question the ‘system’, both inside academia and outside of it.

    I’ve been fortunate enough to study development at SOAS, which as an institution has always had a very heterodox view of development in general and has been critical of the motivations, practices and policies of international development actors in particular. While in Tanzania last year, I really think that background helped me read between the lines of development policy and practice and see how disconnected it is from the reality experienced by most citizens.

    Being critical of the status quo is not enough on its own and if your alone, but without having an understanding or at least being receptive to heterogeneous histories, cultures, politics, economics, and another logic to the way of life, I don’t think it’s possible to start thinking outside the box for other (better) options. So don’t ever stop questioning the system. And good luck with your finals!


    Great post. I really see a lot of truth to what you’re saying (though I haven’t attended grad school… yet). Generally, the focus is on teaching US (westerners, for the most part) how to be part of the aid machine. How to design “effective” projects (by the numbers) and how to evaluate them.

    But what we need to learn to do is to sit back and listen – and we need to get local activists, leaders and community members trained so THEY can dictate and design projects for THEIR OWN communities.

    Sometimes I think we get so caught up in our own desire to succeed, get a nice job and gain “leadership” experience. But ultimately, any movement in history that has truly succeeded in creating justice – the civil rights movement, the Indian independence movement for example – has been led by the OPPRESSED.

    We are the elite, the 1%, not the oppressed for the most part.

    Should we really be the leaders, or the allies? I say, the allies. But unfortunately, university education these days doesn’t seem to recognize this.


    Kudos for making an appearance in Chris Blattman’s blog today.
    I’m studying Public Administration/Int’l Development in upstate NY and just returned from 3 years in the Peace Corps in West Africa. I couldn’t agree more with what you’re saying. I’ve actually often thought of trying to start a business in Africa at some point because part of me thinks that might have more positive impact overall than getting involved in the Western world of development aid.
    That being said, I have a humanities undergrad degree (French) and am glad for the chance to learn stats and econ. It may be painful, but I think if we really want to do any good, we need to understand the math, theory and policy implications of our actions. I think Blattman may be on to something with his point.
    Also, I’m glad to see someone else excited about shea butter – I brought tubs of it back with me the few times I came back and people loved it. They want me to go back to get more!!
    Have you discovered bogolan yet? It’s beautiful and I’m hoping it makes it into more mainstream fashion soon.


    I work as a volunteer in Afghanistan for a small relief and development agency. I share some of your disallusionment. The effects of multi-million dollar projects created by highly paid western development administraters are sad. The projects have to be that big to pay the salaries of the expats. Our agency has also made mistakes and wasted money. I believe the key, as you point out, is local knowledge and understanding. This is gained most of the time by listening. Even then our work is not guaranteed to produce the fruit we desire, but it’s got to be the place we start.


    Thank you for this. Everything you said is accurate.

    I am currently pursuing graduate studies in Community Development from a local university here in the Philippines and our main principle on development work is “people-centered development”. Instead of the “professionals” coming up with development plans for the poor people, the “professionals” catalyze the poor people into action. They engage the community to think for themselves and decide on what they should be doing in order to achieve a development they desire.

    In fact, we despise economic development and focus more on participation — where people have the ability to participate in the policies, process, etc. of their conditions.

    I am glad you discussed the disillusionment of “International Development” since I really wanted to pursue such a course but settled for Community Development instead. Perhaps if the idea of people participation is integrated in Int’l Dev, it would make for a more holistic module.


    Un articulo fenomenal! Este es el tipo de informacion que están destinados a ser compartidos por internet y, gracias a eso, yo
    te he podido encontrar en google. Muchas gracias por tomarte la molestia de escribirlo.

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