What do we mean by 'development studies'? Reflections after 20 years of the MPhil

16 June, 2017

On Friday 2 June we welcomed many former students back to Oxford to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the MPhil in Development Studies. It was a great opportunity to consider the evolution of the degree and to learn about the amazing and diverse career paths of our alumni.

The celebrations also gave us the chance to reflect on what development means and what our mission should be. Does the distinction between developed and developing countries still make sense?  Is it still useful to teach development? Frances Stewart summarised the debate nicely when she asked whether we should call ourselves 'development studies' or 'global studies'.

Independently of what we call ourselves, the discussion is important because it reflects different views about how the world looks today and what our challenges for the future are (in the age of Trump, Brexit, high inequality and many other interconnected processes). As far as I understand, based on the discussions we had on Friday, the case for moving beyond 'development' to think about the 'world' or the 'global' rests on several connected arguments:

  • The 'imperialist' character of the development project. The post-colonial notion of development relied (implicitly or explicitly) on the assumption that the rich countries should be emulated. The ultimate goal of development was to promote economic growth, structural change and institutional modernization so that all countries would look like North America, Western Europe or Australia. Moreover, studying development was almost always about studying the 'other', those left behind. This approach may be particularly inadequate at a time when a majority of the world’s population lives outside the rich countries (India and China together constitute almost 40% of the total); many rich economies are facing significant crisis (more on that below); and some of the most exciting socio-economic innovations at the local and regional level are taking place in developing countries.
  • The difficulties of distinguishing who is developed (or the 'centre' in a more structuralist terminology) and who is developing (or the 'periphery').The emergence of China as an economic and political power makes talking about centre and periphery harder than ever before.It is not only that China is the largest economy in the world (and India the seventh and Brazil the ninth) but that China has emerged as a reference point in many recent processes: think about the Spanish prime minister trying desperately to sell public debt to the Chinese government; or the growing importance of China for Latin American and African exports; or its role in climate change negotiations after Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Accord.
  • Related to this, the existence of acute political and economic challenges in developed countries. Many developed countries are dealing with growing inequality, social and political discontent and economic stagnation, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis. In this environment, are their challenges so different to those in developing countries? Don’t all countries need to talk about basic income? Isn’t the future of work a problem everywhere? And can we really assume that the quality of democracy is better in the US than in, say, Uruguay?
  • The growth of global challenges. Climate change and environmental degradation, migration and refugee flows or the management of global capital may be at the heart of development debates… but they are primarily global challenges. Globalization has made the world interconnected, and may force us to study these interconnections more than anything else.

These are obviously significant challenges that encourage us to think about what to teach in development studies and how. Yet how significant are they? Should they force us to abandon the notion of development or the existence of centres and peripheries? Should we move away from development studies (or even international development) to think about the whole planet? I am not so sure. If we consider the structure of the global economy today we immediately see that:

  • The differences between the standards of living of most countries in Africa and Latin America and the US are today larger than 50 years ago. Moreover, the poorest people in the US have higher income than 70% of the global population according to the fantastic work of Branko Milanovic. Catching up is an exception, not a rule. Critics will answer that catching up should no longer be an objective given the current environmental crisis. This may be true but it does not negate the fact that there are structural differences between developed and developing countries and that almost all the people that struggle for daily survival are still located in the same parts of the world as in the past.
  • Many of the rules that prevent economic and social change (think about intellectual property rights or trade rules or the distribution of royalties in art) are still imposed by developed countries that continue to 'kick away the ladder'.
  • For all the problems that the US and Europe have faced recently, the 2008 financial crisis was a good reminder of the global structures of inequality. The demand for US dollars actually increased after the crisis… moving flows to the country that had created the mess in the first place! Can you imagine what would have happened with the currency of any developing country after a crisis like that? Or think about the role of the welfare state: Spain has struggled a lot recently but the levels of poverty have not increased nearly as much as those in Latin America in the 1980s and the Spanish middle class is still standing.

There is little doubt that the world is today very different to how it was in the 1940s and 50s when development studies (and structuralist economics) appeared. Of course, our future is interconnected and capitalism’s capacity to create good jobs and coexist with equality is in question everywhere in the world. Yet in trying to adapt to this new world, we run the risk of forgetting that people have almost opposite opportunities depending on where they were born, and that the divide between most developing countries and developed ones is still as large as ever. Studying those inequalities and considering how they can be overcome at the local, national and international level is important and may require talking about “international development” for quite some time. The good thing (without wanting to boast!) is that our Department has all the tools to participate in these conversations, including great alumni, fantastic research on global but also national and local challenges and the commitment to see a world from a multidisciplinary perspective.

Find out more about the MPhil in Development Studies and the 20th Anniversary celebration.

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About the author(s)
Diego Sánchez-Ancochea
Professor of the Political Economy of Development and Head of Department

Keith Barnes Photography