Why grad school?

Yesterday was the first orientation day for new students at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. As a second-year student in a two-year degree program, I helped out by facilitating a lunch conversation and attending an event in the afternoon in which all the incoming students interested in “global policy” had the chance to speak to relevant faculty, staff and current students. Through the course of the day, I had numerous opportunities to try to answer that perplexing question, “what are your goals for after you complete your degree?”

Ever since completing undergrad I’ve known that I ultimately wanted to work on issues of international development. However, this has always presented a dilemma. I wanted to work on development as a practitioner, from a policy standpoint; I didn’t want to be an academic. But, as I implied in my earlier post, I’m not particularly interested in working within development institutions that use technical solutions without addressing underlying power dynamics and challenging the interests that reproduce those power structures.

In practice, this means that I would be extremely hesitant to take a job with institutions like the World Bank, IADB, USAID, certain major international NGOs, etc. It’s not that I don’t believe there are jobs within those institutions that involve truly beneficial and important work (though if I probe deep enough I can find plenty of dependency-theory bones in my body). It’s just that the particular lens through which I view “development” means that I want to have a role in which I can be advocating for more systemic change than is possible through those institutions.

The problem is that this eliminates the vast majority of employment opportunities within what is commonly conceived of as the development field. So my struggle is finding a way to fit myself into the development policy world in some capacity that does not preclude advocacy for big-picture, potentially radical change. There are some professional organizations in which this is possible – and I believe that I actually worked for one of them, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, although GTW’s focus is slightly more limited than my personal interests. But I chose to go into a grad program in part to give myself the opportunity to explore new possibilities through the connections and resources that are available at major universities.

It’s been fruitful so far, mostly through my independent research. As I’ve mentioned, this summer I had the chance to travel to Colombia to do academic research on one aspect of “development” that I believe is incredibly important but haven’t worked on much before: the nexus between development and human rights. That experience was the first step in the process that I hope will culminate in a publishable academic paper, as well as a series of advocacy pieces that will hopefully be relevant to the debate around the U.S.-Colombia FTA.

I have specific faculty members and grants to thank for this opportunity; it may not open doors for me on its own, but it’s certainly expanded my ideas about the kinds of work that may be possible for me in the future. There are a bunch of organizations in Colombia that are working towards real structural change through a combination of research, organizing, public education and advocacy. There is also a transnational social movement (loosely defined) seeking justice for communities under threat, a movement that needs researchers, organizers, advocates, and more. I know through experience that I’m not an organizer, and I’ve had a bit of a go at advocacy; I’m now working on my research skills and looking at some of the opportunities those skills might create.

So, even halfway through my graduate experience I’d say I’ve already gotten something valuable out of it. At least, that’s the positive spin that I was trying to deliver at yesterday’s orientation. I’m pretty sure I believe it myself.

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  • Lungi Wallah  On September 6, 2011 at 11:11 am

    I’ve just started at the type of organisation that perhaps you wouldn’t want to work out. Part of it makes me sick, and while we might (or might not, sadly) be doing good work, we are also reinforcing plenty of power structures and hierarchy of the society we’re in. It sucks, it’s largely unexamined, and it’s quite profitable for us to leave it unexamined.

    But why does that mean that change could come from without? If I can make a small change in my project, that affects a lot of people. Can’t structural change come in small steps, not just big ones?

    In part I’m inspired by a quote cited in Arturo Escobar’s /Making and Unmaking of the Third World/, on working “in and against development”. Part of this, as Escobar writes, is acting as a “mediator” between different groups. Being a positive force from within big development organisations is surely a chance to reshape them?

    And just a cheap parting shot: do you feel your graduate school and the system of higher education that you’re within are “addressing underlying power dynamics and challenging the interests that reproduce those power structures”? 🙂

  • Brandon Wu  On September 6, 2011 at 3:02 pm


    Thanks for your thoughts. I certainly don’t want to belittle anyone working within the kinds of organizations we’re talking about. I think you’re raising a couple good points (let me know if I’m putting words in your mouth): first, why I appear to have such faith in change from “outside the system”; and second, why can’t structural change be incremental, and be implemented from the “inside”.

    I think I can address both points at the same time. I think that systemic social change needs to be an inside-outside game – that is, to reform an institution or a system, we need change agents working both within and without that institution or system. I come from a social-movement background, and that’s the strategy that, for example, worked for activists trying to derail the 1999 WTO Ministerial talks in Seattle. Granted, systemic change didn’t necessarily flow from that event, but there was an important disruption that brought important issues into the public consciousness, empowered developing countries at the WTO, and thus forced a change in the way that WTO negotiations were conducted. In Seattle and the lead-up to Seattle, activists on the outside working with certain negotiators on the inside made that happen. It took both inside and outside forces, and the results were somewhere between incremental and radical.

    I just happen to be more interested, personally, in working on the outside and advocating for radical change. But I absolutely recognize that people interested in structural change are needed on the inside as well, probably working on more incremental goals. So I applaud you for being wherever it is that you are. (Also, I don’t want to imply that there’s a predetermined outside/radical vs. inside/incremental dynamic – I think you can work on the outside for incremental change and on the inside for radical change, but it does seem like the opposites are more likely.)

    It’s interesting that you use Escobar as a referent. I think that in his work, especially “Encountering Development,” he makes a much more radical argument than I do that systemic change really does have to happen from the outside, because if you’re working within the system of development you’re trapped within the discourse of development. I’m not familiar with the specific quote you mentioned – it’s been probably 10 years since I read that book – but I don’t think Escobar has a whole lot of hope at all for development as traditionally conceived.

    As for your parting shot, no offense taken, and I’ll respond to it in all seriousness 🙂 I actually do think that academic institutions are in a position in which they can challenge the status quo in systemic ways. Of course, that academic literature has its own discourse, and that academic institutions have their own power structures and political tussles, but some of the most cogent and powerful critiques of “development” as an institution are coming out of academic research projects. Escobar’s current work is a good example – he continues his critique of development by studying place and resistance in the Colombian Pacific, and contributing his knowledge and his skills to some of the social movements and organizations working in that region. He’s a prominent academic at a major institution (the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) who is, indeed, “addressing underlying power dynamics and challenging the interests that reproduce those power structures.”

    For me the real challenge is translating academia – whether as a producer of academic research or a consumer of it, as a student – into concrete action.

    • Lungi Wallah  On September 7, 2011 at 8:24 am

      Hey Brandon,

      Good to read you further, and your thorough reply to my comment. I should also say that a good deal of me agrees with your position, or at the very least finds it very tempting. I am trying to decide how many moral compromises I would have to make before I look for a different work!

      With your reply, I’m in full agreement with you, I think. The dynamic of change in an inside-outside game is an interesting one, and I hadn’t thought about it like that before. Maybe this is one of the kind of “mediations” it is important to do, or to encourage.

      In your first post you also mention about going where one has can use one’s skills. This seems especially important, and in my case perhaps I am better suited to working on the “inside” of a program rather than the outside. My own plan was always exploratory and investigatory: I’ve gone in fully conscious that the development industry has lots of problems, but with the limited aims of (1) making a small positive difference, and (2) staying for 3-5 years “to get to know the system” before making a longer term decision about whether this is something I want to do more permanently, and which way I would like to act in it.

      As for Escobar and academia! First academia, because it’s simpler: the translation into action (or into wider communication) is the vital part. One of the power problems in academia is its elitism and ivorytowerization of knowledge. Again acting as an inside-outside mediator is the key…

      Escobar certainly comes down very hard on development. Even though he warns that changes to development will be reproductions of the old system, he also does give space, at least in the section I am quoting from, to the idea that one can work “in and against development”. (He is quoting, but sympathetically so). He would agree that the offices of the World Bank, USAID, etc are not the place to do this from!



  • By On comments « Power and Participation on September 6, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    […] replies to them) can be found here, in response to my post about USAID Administrator Raj Shah, and here, in response to my skepticism of development […]

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