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A Cautionary Tale for International Development Students

Your perspective might change, but the world won’t—not until you leave the classroom.
These students are in for a very depressing semester. (Photo: wk1003mike/Shutterstock)

These students are in for a very depressing semester. (Photo: wk1003mike/Shutterstock)

I took an excessive number of international development classes throughout my time in University. I say ”excessive” not because I’m aware of some sort of unspoken, socially agreed-upon quota, but because I know instinctually that six is too many. In the early stages, my motivations were noble. Like many young people who harbor guilt about being born into privilege, I’d saddled myself with grandiose ambitions of changing the world and wanted to learn tactics that I could use to achieve this goal.

Unfortunately, my disillusionment eventually got the best of me and, toward the end, my only remaining motivation was obtaining an easy credit. Speaking from experience, I can explain to you how each of these classes unfolded.

Each term, a group of wide-eyed students would congregate in one of the less-loved buildings on campus, eager to learn strategies they could use to help improve the standard of living among impoverished people in developing nations. Then, halfway through the semester, we’d proceed to learn why it is stupid and naïve to believe that any of these strategies could possibly work. The arc of my study was not spiritually uplifting.

The problem with trying to teach a class about international development is that there isn’t that much empirical evidence to support any of the theories being taught.

To help you appreciate what I mean, here are a few examples of development strategies my professors lectured about at length, before eventually pulling away the curtain and revealing how utterly useless they are in affecting change:

Nations should implement powerful, independent anti-corruption agencies: Because it’s totally in the best interests of corrupt regimes to institutionalize strong checks and balances....

Diversify economic drivers of growth: I wonder why Sierra Leone hasn’t figured this one out yet. Hard to understand why a country that is primarily populated by uneducated miners hasn’t branched out and become a global robotics research and development hub.

Remove barriers to trade: In theory, this is supposed to facilitate development by forcing developing nations to discover where their comparative advantage lies in the global market. In practice, it allows foreign companies to dump their excess supply of low-quality merchandise into developing nations at incomprehensibly low prices, leaving local manufacturing companies unable to compete.

Invest heavily in education: Of all development theories, this is probably the most logical and forward-thinking. Unfortunately, even this one comes with its own set of problems: 1.) Many children in developing nations are forced to work to help support their families. Convincing them to leave these jobs and go to school can be difficult. 2.) There is a high probability that the few people who do obtain a degree in higher education will simply leave the country, ensuring the nation never sees a return on its investment. 3.) If a nation’s government had the capacity to “invest heavily” in anything, it wouldn’t be considered a developing nation to begin with.

The problem with trying to teach a class about international development is that there isn’t that much empirical evidence to support any of the theories being taught. From a cursory glance at the state of the world, it’s clear that the international development community hasn’t been particularly successful at achieving its goals. I don’t mean to say that zero progress has been made; there are a number of countries—Botswana, Chile, South Korea, et al.—where progress has been encouraging, but there is no evidence to suggest that it is possible to generalize the specific set of circumstances that facilitated progress in each of these cases.

In the classroom, however, generalizations are unavoidable. Professors are forced to cover nuanced topics—like the appropriateness of using foreign aid as a development tool—in 90-minute lectures, while also leaving time for class discussion so that some white girl named Susan can humanitarian-brag about the three weeks she spent doing relief work in Haiti. I hated Susan so much. (It made me furious to think that she’d spent three quarters of her time in Haiti cultivating Instagram likes from the plight of poor Haitians—yet she’d still managed to do more to help the world than I had.)

To be honest, though, the constant interruptions were a much-needed break from the incredibly soul-crushing content of the lectures. Professors, it seemed, weren’t content simply to describe the flaws of traditional development theories; they insisted on reinforcing their arguments by integrating devastating case studies into their lectures. I can’t count the number of times I heard a story about a nation that was finally on the path to recovery when, without warning, a rebel group decided to overthrow the government and begin ethnically cleansing part of the population. As far as impediments to development go, this is arguably the most powerful. Imagine a scenario where—against all odds—a local non-profit organization is able to help a homeless man get back on his feet by finding him a job and an address. Then, just as this man is about to save up enough money to make his first rent payment, an arsonist burns his workplace to the ground without provocation. In the first world, this is really the only comparable scenario.

As you can imagine, routine exposure to such horror stories culminated in desensitization. It simply wasn’t sustainable to allow myself to be affected emotionally each time I heard a new, harrowing tale. If I had an international development lecture at 10 a.m., I couldn’t exactly write the rest of the day off just because I was feeling sad; I had other schoolwork to complete. I can only imagine how this excuse would have gone over with my professors:

Me: Professor, can I get an extension on my paper?

Professor: It’s unfair to the other students to grant you an extension unless there were some extenuating circumstances that prevented you from getting it done on time.

Me: There were! I sat down to try and write it but I was too debilitated by my awareness of global destitution!

Professor: I don’t think that qualifies as an extenuating circumstance. Maybe if you can convince a doctor to give you a note...?


Doctor: So, what seems to be the problem?

Me: I came in here today because I was unable to turn in an assignment on time and I need a note.

Doctor: Did you have an urgent medical issue?

Me: Yeah, I sat down to write my paper, but I couldn’t do it because I was too debilitated by my awareness of global destitution.

Doctor: Are you serious? I have a Leukemia patient in the next room—

Me: Yeah, I’ve really found that it hinders my abil—

Doctor: What are you even talking about?! Get out of my office!

Toeing the line between being desensitized and being a complete sociopath, however, is a precarious balancing act. I know this because I eventually found myself having to dial it back a bit after I became a little too casual in the way I was procrastinating my assigned readings. I recall an instance where I took a break from reading about a devastating case of genocide to watch a YouTube clip of DJ Khaled advertising McDonald's. There’s nothing that says “I have the deepest respect for the victims of an unprovoked tragedy” less than watching a clip of DJ Khaled talking about sausage biscuits. In my defense, I’d reached a point where reading sinister, soul-crushing articles like this had become a part of my daily routine. Provoking a visceral reaction in me had become all but impossible because there was nothing you could say to me that I found surprising. I was like one of those annoying story-toppers, except all my stories revolved around the plight of the most unfortunate people on Earth.

It eventually became clear that I’d have to do something to re-gain a balanced sense of empathy. The first step, of course, was to put an immediate end to all international development learning. Luckily, this was easy enough to accomplish because there are little to no withdrawal symptoms associated with this particular type of cold-turkey abstinence. Next, I made a concerted effort to remain painstakingly uninformed about the nuances of global geopolitical/socioeconomic affairs. Three years into this pursuit, I can report that it is much more difficult than you might imagine. The goal has been to remain uninformed enough so as to avoid reinforcing my desensitized, pessimistic outlook on the world, but informed enough so as to avoid looking like an idiot in society. It’s a difficult balance to strike. As a semi-conscious individual with an Internet connection, it’s unacceptable for me to walk around society not knowing what Boko Haram is, but it’s also very difficult for me to learn anything about them without being emotionally overwhelmed by the horrible acts of evil it's committed.

Gallows humor aside, I do tend to wonder what the lasting effects of oversaturating my brain with information about international development have been. I’d like to think that I haven’t abandoned all hope of making a difference altogether, but if anything, my education and experience in the job market have allowed me to develop a more realistic understanding of what difference-making actually entails.

It certainly doesn’t, as I’d previously thought, entail working for an international NGO that conducts high-level policy work. After a year and a half of attempting to “bridge the gap between researchers and policymakers,” (a mission statement that, as it turns out, means carrying out extremely insular, theory-based projects for whoever was willing to give us money), I began to notice many of the same trappings as I did in the classroom. When I compared my day-to-day responsibilities with those of some of my friends who were working on a more grassroots level, everything finally clicked.

The people who are effecting change in the world aren’t sitting in a classroom debating whether or not Chile’s “economic miracle” was indeed a miracle; they aren’t entertaining misguided notions about a one-size-fits-all policy prescription to address systemic poverty; they are on the ground in developing nations, working on small-scale projects—understanding that change occurs incrementally, rather than in broad sweeps. As someone who presently spends most of his time writing Web jokes about popular culture, I’m skeptical of my current suitability as a grassroots activist. I hope one day I can regain the resolve to jump back into it.