Graduate school & the development industry

(Update, 8 January: Hi MR readers!  Thanks for stopping by; I’d welcome your thoughts.  I should add that this post isn’t meant exclusively as a critique of SAIS, but as a representative experience of many of the schools that offer MAs in development.)

Greetings from the other side of A) the new year and B) grad school!  With the help of several supportive professors and a lot of late nights in the library, I pulled off a six-course load this term and graduated a semester early.  Now that I’m done thinking intensely about development for classes, I’m looking forward to returning to doing the same on this blog.

In my not-so-copious free time over the last month, I’ve thought a fair amount about this blog post and its trenchant criticism of the MA in international development at SIPA, much of which I share.  Of course, there were plenty of things I enjoyed about my time at SAIS, chief among which were writing my independent study on post-conflict reconciliation in Burundi, the many insightful lectures I attended both on- and off-campus, and the company of my classmates.  Nearly all of my individual courses also proved valuable, taught by knowledgeable professors or practitioners and covering a wide range of development-related topics.  However, the metanarrative of “how development happens” which these courses created is troubling to me on some levels.

A bit of background here.  I studied international development in undergrad as well, at Dartmouth’s geography department, which (among the human geographers) largely espouses a critical geography approach.  I didn’t come away from this with anything like a canonical understanding of what development was or how it worked, but I did come away firmly convinced that context and history matter deeply, that my own understanding of the world is incredibly partial, that power relations are inescapable, that humility and a willingness to continually learn from as many sources as possible are the primary tools that ought to be wielded by the Westerner fortunate enough to participate in this whole development enterprise.  The two years I spent in Africa after undergrad only convinced me of the depth of my own ignorance on matters development-related, and of the fallacy of assuming that poverty somehow stripped people of agency, or neutralized questions of internal politics.

That said, my geography courses did tend to pass over the types of structural questions addressed by political science and economics, and when I was applying for graduate school, I chose SAIS in hopes of remedying this.  There were some ways in which this certainly succeeded.  I appreciated my courses in microeconomics and monetary theory, and was definitely intrigued by the insights of my political science courses on democratization, corruption, and African politics.  My introduction to development course also provided a useful overview of growth theory, and contemporary views on “bringing the state back in” to the development process.  There were absolutely elements of SAIS academics that I am grateful for.

This doesn’t obviate my concern that many other aspects of one’s SAIS education prepare one for working in the development industry, rather than trying to understand the political and historical contexts in which one’s actions occur and work in humility and partnership towards a development-oriented end.  We’re taught about the evolution of Western thought on development; we’re never taught about what life was like for ordinary people in the days of import-substitution industrialization, or during the reign of the Washington Consensus.  We’re taught about the myriad policy failings of African governments, and the proliferation of NGOs in response; we’re never told to consider taking African politics seriously.  Discussion of conflict is completely relegated to the Conflict Studies department, even though civil war has been the biggest menace to development in many African states.  National and sub-national histories are entirely absent, as is any nod to the importance of local languages.

Sometimes the whole experience felt like the world that we were studying in development classes had been colonized by homo economicus, who’s largely rational and comprehensible, though occasionally driven to irrationality by some moral failing like greed or stupidity.  He has no pride or fear or compassion; he engages in neither petty quarrels nor heroic self-sacrifice; he has no social context or history.  He is the ideal target for manipulation by the development industry.  And he isn’t real.

In many ways, I think that SAIS is doing the best it can.  Students have access to a broad range of development-related subjects; they’re required to learn a foreign language; our professors are often thoughtful and compassionate, encouraging of critical thought.  But I worry that SAIS leaves us just educated enough to be dangerous – to be hired by the World Bank and the INGOs to make decisions on behalf of the poor in accordance with contemporary development theory, without any requirement to understand an area’s political and historical context first, and without any sense that the poor have agency of their own, and with insufficient thought to the power dynamics of the relationships between aid agencies, national/sub-national governments, and ordinary people.  I worry that the real assistance that the development industry does provide will be accompanied by other harms, born of ignorance and power, to those people who can least afford it.  And I don’t know how to change this system.

11 thoughts on “Graduate school & the development industry

  1. Hi Rachel! I stumbled on your post via Dean’s twitter and really appreciated reading it, particularly since I am thinking about grad school myself in the not-too-distant future. I would love to share your thoughts with more youth interested in development by cross-posting your blog to the Akili Initiative (, a journal for students that I co-founded last year. Would that be all right? Hope you are well and thanks again for your thoughtful reflection.



  2. Excellent critique. I was struck by your comment: “…the world that we were studying in development classes had been colonized by homo economicus, who’s largely rational and comprehensible, though occasionally driven to irrationality by some moral failing like greed or stupidity.” It reminded me of the idea behind “Monoculture: How Our Era’s Dominant Story Shapes Our Lives” by F.S. Michaels. If you haven’t read it, I think you will enjoy it.


    1. Thanks for the link! Your point about the power of dominant narratives is a good one, and I think that’s very much what happens in development as well.


  3. Great post. I think one of the best things SAIS could do would be more proactive recruiting (of students mostly, but also profs) from non-econ or poli-sci disciplines.


  4. “That said, geography does tend to pass over the types of structural questions addressed by political science and economics”
    – I think that geography, being as broad as it is, probably could better address some structural questions than it currently does. Could you elaborate on specific structural questions that you think geographers seem to have overlooked?

    Much of your critiques of what seemed missing in your degree are what I love most about approaching things from a geographical perspective. As the eminent Canadian historical geographer Cole Harris wrote, geography “is a whole complex of phenomena, many or all of which may be studied individually by other fields but which are not studied elsewhere in their complex interactions …seeing together the complex of factors that make up the character of places, regions, or landscapes.”

    Maybe the development industry needs more geographers, or at least practitioners ready to think the way geographers do. And, probably, academic geography needs to pay more attention to the challenges of the structural contexts of the places and spaces they study, as important and complex factors in the shaping of those landscapes.


    1. Hi Yolanda! Thanks for your comment. You made a good point about the way I phrased that comment, and I’ve changed it to “my geography courses” instead of just “geography,” since I can only respond to what I saw of the discipline during undergrad. In short, though, we never studied anything like economic growth or political systems in my geog courses, and my further studies have suggested the importance of these topics alongside geographical insights. (The Dartmouth geog department was often quite critical of economics, in fact, and I’d pretty much written off that area of academia entirely until I discovered development economics.)

      I think you’re completely correct that the development industry needs more geographers, though. The quote from Harris is fantastic – would love to see an understanding of that imparted to students studying development!


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