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.