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Moving Upstream in the World of International Development by Jonathan Dawson

I spent 15 of the richest years of my life in Africa.  I positively soaked up the generosity, the earthiness, the gift of being able to find joy in the face of whatever life throws one’s way. 

And then I left.  A big part of the heart-wrenching decision was that I just could no longer, hand on heart, feel that I was more part of the solution than part of the problem. 

True, I did have the privilege of association with lots of seriously talented and committed organisations, including working closely with the organisation that Fritz Schumacher himself created, the Intermediate Technology Development Group (since renamed Practical Action). 

But even so, I just could not persuade myself that we were generally addressing causes rather than symptoms. Having a natural predisposition to think in systems, my gaze was continually pulled upstream, beyond the reach of the projects’ scope for intervention, where lay the real causes of the problems we were seeking to address.

My misfortune was that my professional life in Africa coincided with the lost decades of structural adjustment – the one-size-fits-all market fundamentalism that was imposed on much of the global South from the early 1980s onwards.  I remember it as a period when in response to the system’s severing of limbs, we development workers were left to apply band-aids.

There have been some advances since those days, not least in the form of occasional papers emerging from the World Bank and the IMF exhibiting some humility and recognising the various short-comings of their macro-economic approach. 

The aid industry has seemed to me to remain largely stuck far further downstream than is appropriate and necessary. 

In a piece for the Huffington Post a couple of years back, I referred to it as being imprisoned in a ‘linguistic prison’, where the language and framing employed – in terms, for example, of ‘aid’, ‘charity’, ‘third world’, ‘development’ and ‘underdevelopment’ - seemed to make it all but impossible for development policy-makers and practitioners to get to the roots of the real causes of poverty……and, thus to find authentic solutions.

In short, things are finally moving in the field of international development.  These initiatives in France and UK mark a critical shift in the linguistic framing of the issues that is opening the door to new possibilities for intervention that were previously obscured.However, over recent months a flurry of green shoots have popped their heads above the surface, with Schumacher College having a modest role to play in the process.  First, Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist working out of Goldsmith’s College in London published The Divide, an excoriating demolition of the many liberal myths that surround development issues, empirically nailing global poverty as the natural result of a systematic draining of the human and monetary wealth of the global South. 

Consider, for example that for every dollar of aid the South receives, it loses $24 in net outflows in the form of the repayment of the interest on debt (whose capital has been repaid many times over), unfair trade practices, payments for patented products, repatriated profits, etc. 

Next to show up on our radar were Gael Giraud, chief economist at the official French development  agency (AFD) and Cecile Renouard former AFD board member, drawn to Schumacher College by its reputation for radical curriculum and holistic pedagogy.  Last month, Gael brought 20 of the Paris-based AFD team (pictured) to Dartington for a week-long retreat and strategic review (with ample time devoted to singing, dancing, Deep-Time-walking and all of the other ingredients that coalesce to make the college such a transformative experience).

Jason taught on the course and shared with us his work as an advisor to the UK’s Labour Party on international development policy.  Labour’s recently published policy review paper, A World For the Many, Not the Few, clearly bears the imprint of Jason’s thinking, calling for a form of development assistance that addresses global power imbalances and whose focus is on social and ecological justice.

Meanwhile, at the college a new form of curating – the creation of bespoke strategic retreats for ethical organisations – is gathering pace.  Already, we are in discussion with the creation of a course for a French development NGO who have come our way following a recommendation from AFD.  And, to cap off this good news story, Jason Hickel will be joining us as one of the guest presenters on our Beyond Development Masters elective (that is also open to the general public) next March. 

Watch this space for further developments!

Jonathan Dawson convenes the MA Economics for Transition.