Who Gets to Criticize the International Aid System? Not Grad Students, Apparently.

September 5, 2012 — 6 Comments

I graduated this past May 2012 from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) with a Master’s in International Affairs. I’ve had several months to think about my time at Columbia, and more time to think about my reasons and motivations for going to graduate school and sticking with the program.

But what is sparking my post today is a critique I randomly came across today on my post “International Development Disillusionment” . I honestly had not been alerted to this post on AidSource entitled “Another Student Figures Out Aid is Messed Up” written late last year by an AidSource member, “J”.

Nevertheless, here is my response albeit late:

I have been examining my reasons for attending graduate school for international affairs lately post-graduation. Going in, I was never interested in being an “aid worker” or in “humanitarian work”. I chose Columbia because the program was so broad with their definitions of “international development”. Meaning, students were there who were interested in international finance, economic development, political development, security, energy, environment, media, and urban planning, just to name a few paths. I wanted that broad choice. SIPA is not a school that solely trains people going into the global aid industry. I would venture to say that very few of my classmates were actively looking for work and experience solely in relief work.

I will admit, that I was naive in choosing a school that was so heavily pre-professional when I was, in my heart of hearts, probably looking for a more flexible, academic program that would have allowed me to learn more about my area of interest at the time, which was studying burgeoning issues of media development in developing countries. I will say that post graduation, being exposed to statistics, economics, budgeting, and project management makes me a more well rounded person/applicant for many jobs and plenty of those outside of international development. I’m happy for that.

Going to graduate school was the first time that I was exposed to the world of “international development” as industry. (Yes it is a “world”, and an “industry” with players, norms, and conventions). I learned things about that world that I was not sure that I liked, and I still feel that way after graduation. The world of short term projects and reducing questions of improving people’s lives to case studies and statistics just may not be my calling for now at least. Part of the reason people go to school is to figure out what they would enjoy doing and not enjoy doing. They are perfectly entitled to do so.

I never went to school to be an aid worker, or a humanitarian relief professional, at least that I can see in the short term. J writes in his post that he was not “non-plussed” by my post and that my “soda machine criticism” of international development system is “old, old news in the aid world”. I respect everyone’s opinion on what I write. However, let it be known that I was never writing to impress the “aid world”, nor is it my lofty goal going forward in the future. But what J said, that the fact that “aid is messed up”, still speaks to an international aid system that keeps chugging along despite having serious flaws.

The original intent of my first post was, “What role does academia and our pre-profressional schools play in this flawed system that we have?” J never quite addresses that.  J is right, however, that grad school prepares you for a job….. in a flawed system. I was in classes learning from professionals teaching us international development schemes that have not worked for thirty or more years (Ask me about my class on public sector reform in developing countries). I know students from developing who got frustrated with the program, and got tired of challenging the curricula and professors espousing a very Western-centric view of development. Some even left the program. I would invite J to actually address my main point about what role our schools are playing in perpetuating an aid system that is “messed up.”

The point I take the most issue with is this:

“You have to earn the right to get all to get all angsty about how messed up aid is. Yep, the truth is out there for anyone to see. But as unfair as it perhaps is, we don’t really respect dissenting voices from those who have not  actually been there “whether “been there” means having spent the last 10 years running distributions that went nuts, being tasked with impossible decisions, or simply clocking some hard time as a cubicle farmer in an NGO HQ.”

So basically, aid is messed up, and we know it, but you aren’t allowed to criticize it because you aren’t one of us and you haven’t been suffering in the trenches long enough. I think this line of reasoning is quite unfortunate, and if “J” is claiming to speak for a mentality that others in the aid world share, then perhaps this is one of the chief reasons that the international development system is flawed. A lack of respect for dissenting voices from anyone outside of “we” and “us” is more than troubling, it is dangerous. So who is allowed to criticize the messed up aid world? Students cannot? Young people cannot? How about those from developing who are supposed to be a part of the people that aid is supposed to help? They usually aren’t the ones running distributions. They are not the ones who are in the cubicles of NGO headquarters making the decisions that are purportedly supposed to improve their lives. I respect humanitarian workers and all that they aim to do for others who are less fortunate.. But I would hope that they would at least respect dissenting voices of the system they have chosen to work in.

I am not old enough to have amassed 10+ years of aid/relief experience. But my family does come from a country where development workers, humanitarian assistance, and international aid have flowed in for years. I spent time living there, and was a part of some development projects that were questionable at best. That’s not an acceptable basis for me to ask questions? Along with my experience in grad school, that I’m not allowed to criticize aspects of the international development system is like saying I’m not allowed to say there’s a fire unless I’m in the flames….despite the fact I can already smell the smoke from where I stand.

I think it is regrettable that AidSource didn’t use the opportunity months back to engage with me and others who are in graduate school or thinking about graduate school for international affairs and development. Calling me “somewhere between naive and arrogant” for questioning academia and international development is pretty unfortunate characterization. as I never once said that my 2 years worth of graduate school coursework was going to equip me to change the world. Some of the commenters came to my defense and said I should be invited in to participate in the comments section, but that never happened. Instead of insularity and snark, a thoughtful, inclusive dialogue on academia, international development, and aid would have been a learning opportunity for all of us, this student included.

I would love to hear from “J” and those inside and outside of AidSource on how our schools are doing, preparing people for the world of international development, and how graduate programs could better prepare students for that life, or even further yet, how academia can improve  the international development system as a whole.

6 responses to Who Gets to Criticize the International Aid System? Not Grad Students, Apparently.


    Reading this blog, I vomited in my mouth. Surely, had I graduated from Columbia, I would have understood. Given that the author is FROM a country that received aid, she MUST know. Thank the lord thar academia AND the aid world will now bask in the glory of her doubly enlightened advice. Perhaps she can skip the tedium of ‘work’ and move directly to consulting? I hope so. For the sake of the most vulnerable. Excuse me, I need to vomit.


    The ability needed to size up a difficult situation and offer a way forward, yes, may come from some hard knocks. It may also come embracing the curiosity and courage it takes to have honest conversations about “what works.”

    I’ve seen vastly experienced and “respected” humanitarians with no clue of how to create meaningful engagement with the people they’re serving. For anyone who wants to criticize the aid system, I say welcome…as long as you know where “solutions” have a chance of being found.


      Thanks so much for the comment. I think at the time, I was just curious about this new world of “international development” I had found myself in. I’m not so much one to stand from afar and take pleasure in throwing rocks at a system, but I just wonder if one of the solutions could at least come from the institutions that are churning out bright and eager new minds who are interested in helping others. But I’m glad that there are people like you and others who are interested in having dialogue about these problems with newbies like me!

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

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