What is International Development?

For today’s post we hear from 2019 MIDPA President, Emily Meggs, and her dilemma in answering the popular question most International Development students get asked at barbecues- what exactly is International Development?

Photo Source: Australian Artist Solidarity 2019
http://www.australianmaristsolidarity.net.au/first-meeting-marist-international-development-agencies/

A few days ago I was sitting with my friend Hoeun in a café; conversation inevitably turned to our jobs and degrees. We both work in customer service industries, her as a medical receptionist, and myself as a retail sales assistant in a department store. One of the things that we bonded over was the difficulty of explaining our degrees and what it is that we want to do with them with our respective clients. Quite often we hear “oh international development, what’s that?” And so begins the protracted and difficult explanation or tangent of what it is that we study.

A few days ago I was sitting with my friend Hoeun in a café; conversation inevitably turned to our jobs and degrees. We both work in customer service industries, her as a medical receptionist, and myself as a retail sales assistant in a department store. One of the things that we bonded over was the difficulty of explaining our degrees and what it is that we want to do with them with our respective clients. Quite often we hear “oh international development, what’s that?” And so begins the protracted and difficult explanation or tangent of what it is that we study.

I remember the first day of my master’s course, I was so nervous; I felt like I was 17 again and starting university for the first time, who did not know where anything was. The first class that we take looks at the history of and issues related to international development. I spent two hours listening to my lecturer define what is and is not international development, and afterwards, I was still no clearer on how to succinctly define and explain what international development is, let alone describe it to someone who hasn’t heard of it.

All I could conclude was that international development is “fluid” and full of overlapping themes and ideas. Colonies = bad, but decolonisation = troublesome. I could say that international development is rooted in poverty alleviation and ‘third world inequality,’ but that ignores vital work that is done in post-conflict societal reconstruction, sanitation, ethical fashion and decent labour conditions, sustainability, health, and the big, bad elephant in the room; climate change. See, it’s not so simple to describe it.

Sometimes I say international development or NGOs and I hear “oh you mean The U.N.” Who wouldn’t want to work for The U.N., but this cannot be exclusively considered as international development, especially considering the increasing use of contract work, corporate social responsibility, and the encroachment of private enterprise in development. 

Then there are the people that conflate international development with international relations, and you have to tell them “sort of, but not really.” Now I believe that there is overlap between the two, especially because it was a big part of my undergraduate degree, but I also see international relations as a chess game that emphasises the power of both the state and free market. This could not be more different to international development that emphasises the needs of people to improve quality of life and often has to rally against the state and the free market. The overlap occurs between the global governing institutions that regulate debt, money, and resources, often to the detriment of developing economies and lining the pockets of wealthy international creditors.

The final common answer I get is, “ah so you want to save the world.” There are some that do have an idea what development is but assume that you have ideas to change the world, that we can “fix” poverty and the refugee issues that keep coming back into fashion every election cycle. This is not so easy. Now we can have a lengthy and protracted discussion about this, but my mid-twenties brain does not necessarily have the knowledge or experience to solve these issues. I might have general knowledge about these issues, but this may not be my area of expertise or interest due to the broad nature of development.

International development and the issues surrounding it are too complex to merely reduce it to a sentence. Usually, if someone can understand a part of what international developments constitutes, I often think “eh close enough,” rather than spend the next 15 minutes of my shift trying to explain exactly it is what I want to do. International development is so much bigger than the sum of its parts, and after two years and 66 credit points, I am still no closer to being able to succinctly describe what international development is.

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