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.

Teach Series: Sustainable Fashion

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Thank you to everyone who came along and participated in our first ever Teach Series event this Wednesday. Our inaugural student speaker was the Association’s own Lead Writer and Website Designer, Ida, discussing how the fashion industry relates to international development.

We were delighted with the turn out but for those unlucky enough to miss it,  Ida has summarised her presentation and captured highlights from the fantastic discussion that came from it. We have even included some relevant links for further exploration of the topic.

And as always, we invite you to continue the discussion in the comments section below.

Fashion and Society

Consumers have been led to expect more variety at a lower price, putting pressure on companies to produce higher volumes at lower costs. This economic and profit-margin squeeze ultimately lands on the factories, who compromise human rights, wages, safety and working conditions.

The reason companies are interested in production locations such as Bangladesh, is the overall low costs but also that there are low regulations and not many limiting laws, allowing companies to put unreasonable pressure on the factory managers.

Corruption is a huge problem in the fashion industry. One student highlighted that a common practice in Cambodia is to pay up to two months wages to the ‘insider’ who got you the job. A debilitating societal tradition if you are already living on the poverty line.

We also heard of garment workers beginning to mobilise and demand their rights, putting overdue pressure on governments.

 

Fashion and the Environment

The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry globally. The value-chain is filled with problems of water, chemicals, trash and so on.

Cotton is highly water-consuming, it takes up land that could have been used for agriculture and heavily relies upon fertilisers that seep into groundwater and pollute local water sources. Certain fertilisers have been linked to waves of farmer suicides in India.

There is also a huge energy cost to clothing: in production, transport, when we wash our clothes, iron them, dry clean them, drive them to the second-hand shop, ship them overseas for charitable causes and so on.

All this energy is wasted when we do not keep our clothes for a long time. The lifecycle of clothes is short, we put our clothes in landfills, which produce methane. Or we give it to charity, to a friend or companies that will recycle it, depending on its quality of course.

 

Fashion and the Pressure of Consumerism

We use clothing as a key personal identifier: clothes are our chosen skin. A responsible sustainable approach to clothing could focus on letting only a few pieces of clothing identify us, rather than a continuous change of outfit or refreshing our ‘look’ define us.

Gender plays a role in consumerism, women are expected to look a certain way when they go to work e.g. wear high-heeled shoes. The men in the room also contested that there are plenty of pressures on them! Media reinforces expectations of how everyone is supposed to look.

It is very important that we do not only consider how the ‘West’ consumes and exploits the ‘South’. A participant pointed out there is a growing middle class in many countries such as India, China and Brazil, that partake in high consumption as well.

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Fast Fashion and the Recycling Norm

When we give our clothes to charity we think we are doing good. However, one study found that there are so many clothes given to charity that even if it was given away for free, there would be too much to go around. Another study found that only 20% of the clothes are used or resold.

The question is what happens to everything else? Much of it is shipped to places like Haiti, disaster areas. The problem with this is that the local markets cannot compete with the low prices of these clothes, ruining their chances of starting up their own locally produced clothing stores.

 

Who is Responsible for the Fashion Industry’s Habits?

The question was posed: who is responsible for the social and environmental issues linked with the fashion industry?

We as consumers have a choice to only buy from places that support our own values in terms of production. To ignore societal pressures to look good in a fast-consuming world.

However looking at the production side this could lead to economic problems for garment workers. If the consumer demand falls for cheap clothing or if we buy less they potentially lose their only source of revenue.

This is a central and essential question linking capitalist consumerism and neoliberal development. Who is responsible to action change in the industry? Would this change be beneficial for all or just a clearing of consciousness for the consumer? Leaving local ecosystems destroyed elsewhere…where do you see the responsibility falling?

 

Further Exploration of the Subject

These are a few apps designed to help you buy more ethically: ‘The Good On You’ and ‘Shop Ethical’.

Here’s an Ethical Fashion Guide:

http://www.baptistworldaid.org.au/assets/Be-Fair-Section/Ethical-Fashion-Guide16.pdf

Further information can be found at these two websites:

http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/detox/

http://fashionrevolution.org

 

And as always, there are some fantastic TED talks on related topics:

https://tedxsydney.com/talk/fashion-as-a-catalyst-for-social-change/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= d4VTPLpfGq0

 

Final Remarks

The Association have discovered that Monash University does not have an ethical policy surrounding its supply chain, for example where it sources Monash uniforms or your Monash hoodies. If you are interested in becoming an agent for change on this matter, please contact Ida.

Thank you again for your excellent participation! Please do share below if you know of any other apps, websites, articles or brands that can help everyone be inspired to consume more ethically.

You can find the presentation here.