'International Development' is a Loaded Term. It's Time for a Rethink. 3/5/2017
Published by THEGUARDIAN
Our organisation was formed 30 years ago to share ideas on making the poor richer. Now a new mindset has led the organisation to change its name
People would always give me a quizzical look. “And what is that, exactly?” they would ask, if brave enough to reveal their naiveté about what was to become the next decades of my life.
“Well, it’s the study of how to help poor countries become richer,” I would explain of my choice to study international development.
“Oh that’s very good,” my friends and family would invariably reply, my obvious altruism shining through. (Cough.)
And that’s where it would end. The next part of the conversation about macroeconomics and international trade policy is rarely the stuff of great chit chat or dinner conversation outside of our specific professional bubble.
So what does international development really mean? And why is my organisation now dropping it from our name, changing it to Thousand Currents?
Making people richer by promoting economic growth has been the assumption at the centre of international aid and philanthropy since it began. Early modernist theory taught us that if “traditional” societies could be helped to develop in the same manner as more “developed” countries, there would be prosperity for everyone.
But this ignored the colonial roots of the sector and the inequities that existed in so-called rich countries. Today, more and more people are recognising that neoliberal models of development belie the ecological realities of the earth’s capacity, as well as basic human rights.
In 1985, when the founders of my organisation came together with like-minded people – those who wanted to build on local wisdom and create an alternative to top-down development – the name International Development Exchange (Idex) seemed right. The organisation strove to ignite cultural exchange and also change how US citizens related to the global south. They were not united around raising GDP, but around improving people’s economic opportunities, working conditions, health, education, and overall wellbeing.
Since I finished graduate school and since Idex began its work over 30 years ago, the international development field has changed. It is now a loaded term, carrying the weight of parachuted-in “expertise” and resources perhaps best described by Ross Coggin’s 1976 poem, The Development Set:
We bring in consultants whose circumlocution
Raises difficulties for every solution –
Thus guaranteeing continued good eating
By showing the need for another meeting.
I was focused on HIV as my career began. The premise was that more information would result in changed behaviour. I was trained to be a technical expert, flying across oceans to share my knowledge with villagers about how to develop a project budget and obtain funding. Wouldn’t well-planned projects deliver just that? I quickly realised that my fancy education did not teach me about crucial contextual knowledge that creates space for dialogue, critical thinking, collective decision-making, mobilising networks, and holding powerful external actors accountable.
The limitations of thinking of development purely from a western-defined, economic growth-fuelled perspective are hard to ignore. Neoliberal development policies and approaches have resulted in economic, social, and environmental failures. Our global food system is broken, dominated by corporate-driven agricultural policies that push out small-scale farmers. The world’s richest 1% now have more wealth than the rest of the world combined. Unchecked natural resource consumption has led to a climate crisis that threatens our planet and our collective futures.
And that is why last year, after 30 years, Idex decided to change its name.
We wanted a powerful concept from the natural world to express the positive, transformational changes emanating from women, young people, and indigenous leadership in the global south. Though we suffer setbacks – such as the jailing of Stella Nyanzi in Uganda, the death of Sheila Abdus-Salaam in New York City, or the murder of natural resources defenders in Honduras – grassroots organisations and movements on all continents are bucking the “old school” paradigm of development.
What hasn’t changed in 30 years is that the people living and working closest to these problems are the source of the solutions. Currents, like visionary grassroots leaders and locally-led solutions, have force and direction and are part of a moving, interdependent global picture.
Today, Thousand Currents is focused on addressing our shared global challenges, not just the issues faced by a marginalised community or a poor country. That requires new approaches from donors in acknowledgement of this complexity – unrestricted financial support, multi-year timeframes, and new skills and personnel that reflect the world we want to see.
We dropped “international development” from our name, because when small, yet formidable pockets of people power come together, that’s when Thousand Currents sees results.
Old notions of development no longer serve us, and neither do rote bureaucratic responses to our urgent problems. We must move faster, think more creatively, build stronger relationships, and engender more effective collective action.
Currents affect every single person on the planet every single day. And all of us – donors, grassroots activists, UN employees – are currents of change.