The “development” curriculum: nine critical questions



By Dr Neil Thin

Are our ‘development’ curricula thematically diverse enough to lead students towards a balanced, diverse and open-minded appreciation of development processes?

This question may sound too obvious, but it is important because: a) we have been rapidly expanding the number and variety of courses and students taught under a ‘development’ rubric, and b) the expectations of what ‘development studies’ means have greatly changed and expanded in recent years. We have changed and diversified, but is this enough or do we exhibit problematic gaps or biases?

‘Development’ is often used as a weasel word, for example, as a euphemistic rubric under which people address mess, poverty and inequality. ‘Development agencies’ are, by default, those that address these problems in poorer countries, not the business organisations that have been responsible for most of development broadly conceived. Other rubrics are problematic and misleading in similar ways: ‘health’ and ‘mental health’ are typically used as euphemisms for illness, mental suffering and clinical responses; ‘environment’, by default, refers not to environment in general, but to biophysical harms and unsustainabilities. If we approve of these tendentious uses of these terms, we should perhaps make our pathologism more explicit and justify it, rather than hiding it behind euphemisms. If we believe such attentional biases to be pernicious, we must try harder to get rid of them.

There are lots of development (and ‘sustainable development’) publishers, journals, texts, courses and agencies that give us a very biased, restrictive, parochial or partisan version of what ‘development’ is about or what it is like or how it happens. Often this seems to happen because of over-reliance on piecemeal, additive rather than strategic approaches to learning – i.e., from failure to do higher-level analysis of the pursuit of knowledge. To state the obvious: selective attention that is acceptable at the level of a lecture, or module, or course, or an individual’s career, may in effect turn into pernicious overall bias at the level of a programme, or subject area, or school. Development studies seem particularly prone to this problem.

Some courses, texts and institutions approach ‘development’, understandably, in a restrictive manner, focusing, for example, on poverty, or social pathologies more generally, or on particular kinds of institution, or on aid-funded intentional development, or on projectised development, or on particular parts of the world. When we in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh periodically review our collective efforts at providing development education, a critical task should be to check that our overall teaching isn’t too restrictive or tendentious in similar ways. Ideally, we should aim to offer students a balanced sense of what goes right, as well as what goes wrong, including: an appreciation of unplanned, as well as planned, development processes; and, an understanding of development processes worldwide, and not just in one part of the world nor only in the ‘global south’ or primarily in countries whose recent developmental histories have been peculiarly traumatic or disappointing.

Here is a provisional checklist that we might use in assessing what kinds of selective attention (or bias) exist on our current courses, with a view, not necessarily to changing any particular course, but rather to finding ways of promoting complementarities and variety leading towards the desirable balance:

  1. Geographical focus: is ‘development’ portrayed (perhaps just implicitly) as something that mainly happens in poorer countries? Are we at risk of portraying ‘development’ as largely being about aid-funded anti-poverty efforts in poor countries, and ‘sustainability’ as being largely about anti-pollution activities in rich countries?
  2. Historical focus: is the course mainly about development today, in the future, in the recent past? Is there more scope for paying serious attention to long-term trends and to development theories and practices of the past?
  3. Negativity versus positivity: is ‘development’ portrayed in general as a set of activities that succeed in making lives go better, or mainly as a set of problems, failures and bad attitudes? Does the course include a mix of negative and positive empirical material and analytical perspectives (e.g., do modules on migration and globalisation address the benefits rather than just the problems associated with these)? Are modules on ‘health’ really about health, or mainly about illness and medical intervention? Do ‘human rights’ modules focus mainly on wrongs, prohibitions and reparations, or is positive social progress given due attention? Do modules on violence and war pay substantial heed to peace-building and overall global peace and nonviolence trends? Do modules on gender recognise gender progress, and/or the positive aspects of gender relations and gender difference, or do they focus mainly on gender-based harm?
  4. Poverty focus, remedial development and deficit orientation: related to this, if poverty and the lives of poor people are a main focus of the course, is there space in the course to consider the non-pathological aspects of the lives of ‘poor’ people? Does the course consider the relevance to anti-poverty planning of less remedial forms of development? Are the objectives of development portrayed as minimalist (getting rid of harms such as poverty and human rights abuses) or more openly progressivist (aiming towards facilitation of optimal wellbeing for everyone)?
  5. Sustainability focus: again related to the positivity/negativity issue, if sustainability is a key theme, are students invited to learn about real progress towards sustainability, rather than mainly geared towards worrying about unsustainabilities? Are some kinds of environmental problems allowed to crowd out recognition of other environmental processes, benign or malign?
  6. Actors – local/global, north/south and state/business/third sector: does the course explicitly or implicitly steer attention towards particular kinds of development actor, such as particular kinds of scientists and planners; aid agencies; northern vs. southern NGOs/CBOs; traders, investors and for-profit businesses; governmental agencies; UN and other multilaterals? Will students get from this a sense of which kinds of actor matter most for particular issues and for progress in general, and why?
  7. Intentional versus unplanned development: does the course address a variety of ways in which development happens (e.g., explicit, projectised, target-oriented) planning; explicit vs. implicit policies; intended vs. unintended outcomes (good or bad)?
  8. Balance among environmental, socio-economic, bodily and psychological goods: does the course take a predominantly materialist approach to development, or socio-ecological, or biosocial, or psychosocial? Is there a balance of emphasis on progress towards transforming environments, social relations and institutions, bodies and minds?
  9. Development practice versus ethics and theory: does the course help students to develop their understanding, not only of activities such as planning and implementation, but also of development ethics and the explicit or implicit theories that underpin development practice?

Tell us what you think about the development curriculum.

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