Looking inside the ‘black box’ of Development Studies
Kamna Patel, UCL
This blog makes three points: firstly, it makes explicit where and how I’m situated in the question ‘what’s wrong with Development Studies and how can we change it?’; secondly, it offers a term that can help us to grapple with this question; and then thirdly, it zooms in (or out, depending on where and how you are positioned) to see ‘Development Studies’ in some political and economic logics that are in evident circulation in UK universities.
I’d like to start my contribution with a reflection on positioning. I am someone who is affiliated with and holds ‘global north power and privilege’ (a term I borrow from GADN – the Gender and Development Network). I work for a UK university on an open-ended contract in a development studies department that has a long history of training professionals for careers in the otherworldly ‘tropics’. Our longevity, and that of other 70+ year old development studies departments, speaks to a resilience and will to survive, as much as reading or maybe even writing of new mood music. My position has undoubtedly shaped my deep encounters with development studies and the personal frustrations I have in the execution of my job (by frustration I do not refer to an emotional state, but in the sense of being frustrated by process, politics and market logics, themes I’ll return to).
Alongside this, for the past 18 months I’ve been working with a UK INGO to support an agenda of anti-racism in the whole of their work. A role I took on to really understand what repairing the sector – repair in the fullest sense of reparations – might look like, and one where I’m learning about the role of development INGOs in movements of global civil society. As part of this role, I have re-engaged with former students (my own and others) deep in the world of development and humanitarian practice and have seen Development Studies reflected back to me.
This means I grapple with the undercurrent of – echoing the words of Oliva Rutazibwa – ‘what does it mean to talk about and practice ‘development’ from the north?’
So, to the question at hand and the second point I’d like to make: this question – What’s wrong with Development Studies and how can we change it? – captures the circular logic of naming problems and solving them that runs throughout ‘development’ as a practice and the studies such practices have informed. Perhaps those who posed the question poured over the word ‘how’ and whether it should be ‘can’, settling – for whatever reason, on an idea that Development Studies can solve what’s wrong with it, should try and solve it, and not that it’s very existence it what is wrong with it.
‘Development Studies’ is a black box (that’s the term I want to offer). This black box is something like how Henri Lefebvre describes ‘urbanisation’. He says of urbanisation, “We know what enters the box, and sometimes we see what comes out, but we don’t know what goes on inside.” (p.17) It’s a term used to designate a ‘blind field’ or a void. With Development Studies, we seem to throw all sorts into the box and fall back on ‘multi-disciplinarity’, ‘trans-disciplinarity’ and/or ‘global’ as terms to describe its content, or perhaps more actually describe what enters the box, perhaps we point to graduate outcomes, research grants, papers and books to describe some of what comes out, but not what actually goes on inside the box.
To thinking about the black box of development studies, I want to add something else, something that does not describe what enters the box, or what comes out, but what the existence of the black box enables (which speaks to what goes on inside), and that is projection. Because it is a black box, we can project whatever we want into it and there are no disciplinary rules to tell us we are wrong – be it the ‘Truman project’ or ‘Bandung project of southern solidarity’; neoliberal visions for kinder economic growth or Marxist and decolonial calls for anti-capitalist economic logic; or a necessity for a career in the sector as a practitioner, or useful to learn technical skills for improvement at ‘home’ (wherever that is), or an avenue to explore being a global citizen. Into the black box we can project our hopes, aspirations and critiques, whatever they may be.
This is not to say that ‘development studies’ has no defining features. In his 2007 paper ‘The impossibility of development studies’, Stuart Corbridge tells us Development Studies is conjoined in a double commitment: one to the principle of difference (for ‘us’ to exist as a legitimate field of study and inquiry, requires the construction of ‘them’, a geographically, culturally, economically and materially different space and body); and the principle of similarity (and the use of policy instruments including education, to make ‘them’ like ‘us’). Corbridge does not position this state as either an entirely positive or negative thing. But uses it to flesh out the contours of development studies. He posits: “Development studies does not just look in on the worlds it seeks to describe; it helps to produce them.”
This is what makes the idea of projection into the black box an intriguing and possibly dangerous prospect (depending on your point of view): the orientation to practice – without demands for deconstructing our projections (or imaginations of development) and unpacking our positions.
My third point zooms in and tries to shine a light on the black box from a very particular positioning – from my position – to see something of what goes on inside. Here, I’m drawing from a paper I wrote recently on ‘Being cosmopolitan: Marketing development studies in the neoliberal university’.
Through the rubric of branding, I am going to focus on an aspect of the relationships between Britain, the discourse of ‘Development’ and the neoliberal university’ – and what sits at the centre of these relationships – UK development studies departments and their offers of Development Studies.
I offer three brief scaler insights:
The first, concerns the idea of ‘Nation-Branding Britain’.
In a competitive and lucrative global higher education marketplace, UK universities – underwritten by the UK government – drive to package UK higher education as a desirable product and the ‘British brand’ as one associated with globally recognised quality. Critics have long argued this type of nation-branding performed by UK universities generates and plays on a discourse of the relative superiority of Western education and knowledge.
At this scale of nation-branding, international development is pivotal in branding post-colonial Britain. This is evident at two moments: the creation and the dismantling of the UK Department for International Development (DFID). Marcus Power discussed how in the 1990s under Tony Blair’s Labour government, a ‘new’ Britain was purposefully reimagined and remade, in which the idea of DFID encapsulated a global moral authority of a post-colonial Britain, a Britain “reborn free of an imperial past”. Following the announcement of DFID’s merger with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2020, there was lamentation for a globally respected and morally upstanding British export. The former Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, remarked in an ahistorical and decontextualised statement, “Just as America was a military superpower, Britain was a development superpower with its tentacles and work spreading all around the world”.
Drawing these nation-branding discourses together, marks the UK as a uniquely desirable destination for the study of development. This context is relevant in light of international student choice literature which finds a hierarchy of prospective student decision-making that runs from selecting a desirable country, then a ‘prestigious’ institution, and finally an interesting degree course.
The second insight concerns branding the neoliberal university.
The university brand is a unique competitive identity that captures the values a university wishes to project externally, for example ‘excellence’ or ‘being global’. In a competitive marketplace, a successful brand identity defines a university’s offer in relation to other institutions – for prospective staff, students and funders. The extent to which a brand identity is aspirational or reflects actual performance is subject to debate. Most usefully, we can regard the university brand as ideological and a means to convey a particular purpose.
In the UK, this increasingly means demonstrating public worth in ways attuned to the ideologies of those in political power. Education is never for its own sake, but to do something. Which leads us virtuous corporate slogans such as ‘Meeting the challenges of our world’, or ‘meeting grand challenges’, that do not just speak to the merits of a particular university but are a response to a desire for the university to be seen as global, impactful and a public good that serves us all. Universities that have their own international development department engaged with the practice of ‘development’ are a useful demonstration of its corporate virtue.
The third insight concerns branding of development studies departments themselves via the courses they offer.
This kind of branding it tied to a university brand: so if a university brands itself as ‘excellent’ then departments demonstrate how. This is typically done with reference to named staff as experts, to subject rankings, and the outcome of the latest Research Excellence Framework (REF) emblazed on a departmental webpage.
Additionally, course marketing serves to inform prospective students about course content. Here, clarity and accessibility of information on course assessment, content and structure are particularly important alongside exciting prospective students. It is within this objective to stir excitement and pique interest in a course, that imaginations of development in development studies courses are captured and textually and visually represented.
When I looked that this is greater detail, the imaginations of development are reminiscent of the type of representations employed by northern development NGOs, which have been heavily and justifiably criticised. Yet, of course resonate with development studies students and meets their expectations of development (projecting into the black box).
Of relevance to the branding of development studies courses are ideas of cause-related marketing and the construction of development as a consumable ethical product (I’m not suggesting that degrees are fungible with t-shirts, though there is something about purchasing affiliation with a cause). The packaging of development studies courses is supposed to generate a type of global citizenship where ‘global citizens’ (domestic and hypermobile international students) are sold the capacity and self-belief to intervene to bring about change in societies, based loosely on an individual sense of responsibility for the Other.
So, what’s wrong with Development Studies and how can we change it? Well, inside the black box (a term I hope can help us grapple with this question), in the UK, we can see the workings of the neoliberal university, discourses of ‘development’, and Britain and its standing in the world. UK development studies is beholden to these forces. The growth of development studies departments in UK universities and the expansion of offers to undergraduate study, needs to be situated within these logics.
Whatever change we may want to make to Development Studies, must surely entail a deliberate deconstruction of our projections (or imaginations) of development, and the unpacking our of positions; a far greater scrutiny of what happens inside the black box of development studies; and a serious reckoning with the legitimacy of UK development studies departments and the range of political causes they serve, intentionally or unintentionally, of the kind that UK INGOs are in the midst of.
- Read the next blog from the conference: Centring social reproduction in the study of development by Sara Stevano, SOAS University of London
- Download the full set of conference responses
Read the previous blogs:
- What’s wrong with Development Studies and how can we change it? An introduction by Pritish Behuria and Tom Goodfellow
- The need for South-centred theorisation in Development Studies by Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven, King’s College, London