Wait, wait..hold on….yup, still Disillusioned!

December 18, 2011 — 2 Comments

I’m poking my head out from finals to thank everyone for the comments and feedback on my last post, “International Development Disillusionment” . The last post questioned the role of academic institutions in the system of development, specifically programs that train students to work in international development.  Comments both online and offline in the way of face to face conversations with some of my classmates have given me more food for thought. Some of my classmates have brought up great points. One in particular said he has appreciated how grad school has exposed him to viewpoints he never would have come across before. Others still come because they are interested in changing their career directions and move from the private sector or government to development work.

I agree with points raised by Akhila in her blog response, specifically the part about students being trained to be leaders, implementers, recommenders, rather than allies, supporters, and observers.

I also agree with Chris Blattman’s points about grad school being a good place to gain technical skills. I’m grateful I’ve gotten to learn about statistics, STATA, and a little bit about Excel. I would like to learn more about content analysis programming and project design, its true.

However….*quick gut check*….yup, I’m still a bit disillusioned.

I’m questioning the system, at this point in my studies. Yes, we could debate about which university has the better/worse program, about courses, and curricula, but it still does not remove the big, gray, shadowy question mark that appears in my head when I ponder the development industry. (Yes, I said industry)

I’ve gotten the chance to be able to get out of the library and attend Africa related events and ceremonies where pretty wealthy and powerful people attend. I think more of my classmates should try to get out more and explore gatherings in both NYC and DC. There is more to “development” than meets the eye in your typical econ or policy memo writing class.  Lets just say, I’m starting to get the feeling that for all the development projects and theory I learn about, what it all comes down to, is….money.

I’m just going to call it like I’m seeing it.

There are powerful Western interests deeply embedded in African affairs. I mean, how can I try do design development projects to help the people of Equatorial Guinea when E. Guinea’s dictatorial leader Obiang is propped up by Western leaders and given awards at fancy DC garcinia cambogia dinners?

I was at the Sullivan Foundation Awards ceremony on the 15th in DC, attended by the likes of USAID, and the World Bank (I saw you, Paul Wolfowitz!) and members of the African diplomatic corps…and I could not help but think to myself as Obiang gave his speech and accepted some Beacon award…”Jeez, the odds are stacked“. While my academic ideas of development might revolve around things like microfinance, mapping, consulting, monitoring and evaluations, theres another side to international politics that revolves around personal relationships, “favors”, Western interests, and corruption.

You can’t learn this in a classroom.

Look at the elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I have many friends at my school who have done and will do great development projects there as a part of their coursework. But as I write this, the West stands largely idly by as Kabila makes off as the “winner” of an election that can only be described as political theft of the highest order. No doubt there are very powerful international political and corporate interests that benefit from access DRC’s minerals and keeping Congo painted as a hopeless, dark case.

Back to my point, there is a SYSTEM at work here. We aren’t taught to question why the United States seems to hold the threshold for democracy higher in some countries in Africa than others. Or learning how to break the chain of  corporations exploiting African child labor (Here’s looking at you, Victoria’s Secret). But  like I said in my last post, I guess I’m to be  keeping my head down and aiming for a career in short term projects while larger international political forces at work are creating long term, potentially negative effects in African countries.

The post got a little bit more “rant-y” than I meant it to be. I’m sure I’ll return back to normal soon.

2 responses to Wait, wait..hold on….yup, still Disillusioned!


    Thanks again Karen for releasing much angst that many that empathise with. It is always instructive to keep the big picture in mind. That being said, systems are constantly evolving and changing. And, it is further instructive to keep the aid and development system in the big picture. It is a very young system when looked at historically. Barely 60 years old. Yet, it has come along way in that short amount of time. It is hard to say what, if any, our small collective actions will have on the evolution of the system in 50, 100, 200 years time. Perhaps the next Sen is studying right now. At the same time, lets not get lost in the big picture. Our individual actions do matter, and do have real-time effects.

    Yes, we are part of an industry, and you are not the first to call it that nor is it that shocking. But, there is a lot of value in our studies. The connections, friendships and network I made during my studies will last my lifetime. The internship I completed was indescribadly moving and forceful. No, it did not prepare me completely for professional work, but nor could it or should it. What would be the purpose of employment if we learnt and knew everything at graduation?

    I would just end by saying within conversations such as these, we should (without be preachy) be mindful of our privilege. That we get to attend such courses, go to gatherings of like-minds and be inspired, and work for change within a system that in constantly changing. For that, I will always be grateful.


    In the intro class for the development studies program at GW, we’ve read a lot of material/had many discussions critiquing the development industry for some of these very same reasons. What I am disappointed by–and I just finished my first semester, so I may be pleasantly surprised soon–is that at the end of the day, it’s hard to come up with many alternative careers for those interested in the broader picture of what development is “supposed to be about” rather than joining the system. I haven’t come across enough practical opportunities for people interested in addressing the overarching political or economic interests that hold back development.

    Also, I continue to sort of be appalled by those classmates who still pretty visibly go with the flow: they seem fine combining the development-as-community-service concept with treating developing countries as children (which becomes “telling developing countries what to do”).

    Basically just wanted to say that I’m in a similar boat. I’m hoping some brilliant thoughts/alternatives will come out over winter break..

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