International Development – My Voyage Through Uncharted Waters

This is a guest post by Lydia Bennett-Li, who graduated from Sussex this summer and was a participant in the research for my book. In this post, Lydia reflects how her year-long placement at an Indian research organization has shaped her post-university journey and better understanding of the challenges of international development research. Thank you Lydia!

My journey as a student of International Development (ID), as I am sure every ID student would agree, was and continues to be a voyage through uncharted waters.

I decided to apply to ID fairly last minute. Like many prospective students I have met over the years being a Global Studies Ambassador, I was drawn to study ID as a result of reading, watching and learning about issues in the developing world. I must admit, I was naive in this sense. My understanding of ID at the time was limited to rather stark issues, such as education, hunger and inequality. It was only after commencing the course and learning from experts in the field, that I truly began to understand the complexities and contradictions of the developing world. While learning in this way opened my mind and broadened my understanding of ID, it also led me to become increasingly confused as to what I should do with myself post-university.

A photo taken during my time working in Goa, India

I knew by the middle of my second year, that I no longer wanted to work for a charity, or as an academic, or as an ID practitioner. I decided to take a year out and work for a mental health research organisation in Goa, India. I worked within a large substance-use disorder project, that was designing a mobile-based intervention for hazardous drinking among Goan youth. During my time in this project I learnt an incredible amount. From core research skills, to project-based management, I was able to gain some genuine, practical skills that I knew would put me in good stead for a career in ID research. However, I just did not enjoy working in research. I loved my team, and I loved that our work was aiming to have a positive impact on youth in the area, but I struggled to enjoy the bureaucracy that came with the project. I was shocked at just how important the funders of the project were in the decision-making processes, and was unsettled by just how much finance seemed to impact our work, sometimes with considerable ethical implications. I decided to do some research into the finance side of research projects, and other charity-based programs, and came across the huge world of audit. 

Learning about how charities, corporations and other organisations are obliged to report on their finances, and in some cases their social activity appealed to me hugely, and I spent a considerable amount of time trying to understand just how it all worked. I learnt about financial reporting, fraud, social audits, ISO standards and more. Over time developed a keen interest in pursuing a career within which I could create positive change both globally and locally, through ensuring that the financing of development projects, international aid, CSR and other such things, is both ethically sourced, and ethically spent. I applied for a number of graduate programs in financial audit, and accepted an offer with a Big-4 Accountancy firm in London. I am somewhat unsure as to how I will fit in within a global corporation such as my new employer, especially given my background in ID and understanding of the impact that these such corporations can have in the developing world. However, I feel that the best way to make change is from within.

A visit to Mumbai with friends during my time in India

I am excited to now be starting this new chapter of my career. Although I feel I will be diverging from a career directly working within the field of ID for now, I think that spending the next 3 years qualifying as an Auditor, will put me in a good position to effectuate change within the field of ID in years to come. I am lucky though, as I will be able to continue to exercise my passion for development through the non-profit organisation I co-founded while I was working in India. Generation Mental Health was created out of the recognition of two gaps. The first being a significant gap in representation of the diverse mental health needs of different communities worldwide. That is to say that leadership in the field of global health is heavily skewed to the global north, making policy, treatment and more often culturally inappropriate. The second gap we recognised was the gap in opportunities for young people from these diverse communities to undertake capacity building opportunities necessary in order to make change at the broader level. Myself and my fellow Founder and Co-Founder realised after reflecting on our own positions, that it was only because of our western educational backgrounds, and our families financial statuses that we were able to embark on international placements at such a young age. Without the reputational support of our universities, and the financial support from our families, it would have been impossible for us to take a year out of our lives to work and learn in India. As such, we created Generation Mental Health, whose mission is to build the next generation of leaders in global mental health through providing funded capacity-building opportunities to young community leaders, especially those from low-resource settings. 

From left: Jackee Schess, GenMH Founder; Sonali Kumar, GenMH Co-Founder; Myself, GenMH Co-Founder

Although Generation Mental Health is just over a year old, we have achieved an incredible amount since our conception. Our team and advisory boards now span over 5 continents, our campus chapters have fully launched and are expanding across campuses in the US, and our Michigan Campus Chapter will be hosting our very first conference this November (2020). I am proud to be a part of this wonderful and exciting organisation, not only does it bring me closer to my passion for development and mental health, but it allows me to learn new things every day. 

Studying International Development, for me, has been a challenging yet career-moulding experience. While I now will embark on the first step of my career in an industry outside of ID, I hold close to my heart the knowledge, ethics and critical eye that I have gained through my studies. International Development is, as far as I am concerned, not a degree with the sole purpose to get you a job at the end of it. Instead it is a process of learning, critiquing and learning more, which I will keep with me for the rest of my life. 

Lydia Bennett-Li


Academia and activism: a student’s story

“I studied International Development with Spanish”. The sentence that often requires a deep inhale prior to saying it and tends to lead to blank faces and a polite smile. Admittedly, I had no idea that my degree existed before I found it a few months before applying. I also had no idea that I would graduate with this degree let alone with a concept of myself being an activist. This thought bubble is a journey through my 3 years of studying, campaigning and volunteering. I suppose having just graduated my thoughts have turned to reflections on how my degree was taught, what activism means and the links and contrasts between academia and activism. I’ll write a bit about these reflections and my experiences and will hopefully convey why the question “What did you do at uni?” could have a sentence long, or day long, answer. 

University of Sussex campus, the place where a lot of these thoughts and reflections started

I left school with the thought that university wasn’t for me as I hadn’t come across a course that I thought would interest me for 3 years and I didn’t like the idea of getting in debt for the sake of it. I was, and still am, interested in so many different things and did not want to narrow down and focus on one subject. When I found International Development at Sussex it seemed to be a varied option that would suit me. I remember looking at the module list choices for the course and thinking that each one of them looked so interesting I wouldn’t know how to choose (I now always would advise to-be students to do the ‘does the module list look exciting’ test before applying to anything). Broadly speaking, I studied anything related to how the world has changed, is changing, and could be changed. And since it is called International Development, different aspects of the course could be related to anywhere on the planet and any of its inhabitants. Critical thinking and taking a holistic approach was a theme throughout most modules but each module had multiple different contexts, opinions, theories, examples and angles to consider the content from. My modules have included studying the history and legacy of colonialism, environmental perspectives of development, theories of race and ethnicity, international education, research methods and development economics. Due to this wonderful buffet of options, I think the course and its mix of topics about people and places could be used in so many scenarios. Recently, I have come to realise how well matched studying International Development is with involvement in activism.

Alongside the course, I joined the Sweatshop Free Campaign which aimed to raise awareness of workers’ rights abuses in the electronics industry and get Sussex to affiliate to a worker led monitoring organisation called Electronics Watch (which they did-yay!). I also co-founded SEASALT Housing Co-operative, the first student housing co-operative in the South, and have gained a lot of skills and knowledge in the housing sector, particularly community led housing. These activities have been referred to as activism and I’ve come to see them as such.  Before University I had always been active in writing to my MP, joining initiatives and voicing concerns but had never thought of the word activism to describe this. I think all too often the word activism is overshadowed by radical activism or direct action and stereotypes take over. This certainly is a respectable type of activism but I sometimes feel like it dominates people’s minds about what activism is and sometimes even scares people off. To me, activism is simply being active and acting about things that matter to you no matter how you do it. I suppose I have reached this conclusion since being called an activist and these voluntary roles being called activism. If I were to say to people that I was involved with activism at university, I doubt the emailing and formal meetings necessary for the Sweatshop Free campaign and planning application proof reading necessary for the Housing Co-operative would spring to mind. Without going too much on a tangent about activism, the point I’m trying to get across is that I feel the term itself is often misunderstood and misrepresented. Acknowledging the wider umbrella of what falls under activism is really important and activism should be used as an inclusive term for active actions that may not be action packed- but still create an impact.

SEASALT Housing Co-operative banner at an event

So for me, being at university wasn’t just the course, it was also these activist activities, extra lecture series, and societies. It was having the space to think about, talk about and read about the world and people around us. I joined the campaign and the Housing Co-operative primarily to gain some new skills and meet new people. Only during the last few months have I come to appreciate quite how much I learnt from them and quite how relevant they have been for studying International Development and vice versa. To go back to the analogy of the International Development course being like a buffet, I suppose the involvement in the activist areas feel like the crockery and cutlery. They help the food-the thoughts, knowledge, analysis, critical thinking, be used and organised. And just like a buffet without food, my experiences and knowledge gained in the activist roles would be less wholesome without the course. This analogy is perhaps a slight exaggeration but the sentiment is there. Now that I’m applying to jobs I really see that the academic side of university and the activist side complement each other. 

When thinking about how this has occurred, sometimes it is a chicken-or-the-egg situation- I can’t discern which came first, academia or activism. And other times it’s a scrambled egg situation- I can’t discern whether the ingredients were academia or activism. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the clarity is lost on the details because the mutual usefulness and value is clear. For example, during academic studies, I have been particularly interested and passionate about participatory development as an approach and have enjoyed it when modules have touched on this. Outside of campus, as part of SEASALT Housing Co-operative, I have received training in, and participated in, community engagement and consensus decision making. I feel that this practical, hands on involvement has given me some tools to implement and visualise how participatory development approaches could be enacted, but this is closely entwined with the knowledge and understanding gained from the lecture theatre and readings. In fact, my interest in participatory development and autonomous grassroots organisations sparked from academic study may be why the co-operative sector particularly caught my curiosity in the first place.

Another example is that during the Sweatshop Free campaign I sometimes took a step back to question if what we were doing was the best approach and had appropriate, targeted outcomes. Pre-University me would have probably got on board with a campaign for workers’ rights without really thinking about the impacts or complexities of the issue and just assuming it to be ‘right’. I was slightly naïve and lacked a lot of insight about what lies under the world’s surface- I had never properly studied colonialism before for example (which as a British citizen, I am still shocked that up until the age of 20 I could name more famous Tudors than Countries in the former British empire). Student and graduate me sees these issues with a more nuanced and critical mind-set. The passion for issues related to workers’ rights has remained, but what has changed is my realisation that nothing is as obvious as it may seem and most issues don’t have quick, easy fixes. Studying International Development therefore encouraged me to look at the campaign from different angles and step back to ask questions. My involvement in the campaign later also influenced me to write a dissertation about Electronics Watch in a 3rd year module called Business, Development and Corporate social responsibility. That dissertation was the first time in the course I had linked activism and academia and it was a really interesting piece of work to write and I would argue that academic knowledge is valuable in activism. I analysed the Electronics Watch model using academic literature but also touched on aspects of the campaigns and activism to encourage affiliation.  

Sussex Sweatshop Free banner at freshers’ fair

International Development as a course was therefore successful in increasing understanding, awareness and knowledge about an array of topics, people, places, ideas and theories. It engaged with case studies and made students think critically. However, I think there were some missed opportunities to integrate practical, creative skills and alternatives to teaching and learning. As the above examples from my experiences hopefully suggest, academia and activism go well together and influence each other. Seminars often revolved closely around discussing readings and the contents of the lecture which is interesting, but moving beyond gaining knowledge to learning how to apply it would make some modules far more relevant to the world beyond academia. I always enjoyed learning about case studies where the norm was broken and the unexpected happened, and learning in situations where the norm was broken. Within practical and creative activities, I think it is important to relate academia with lived experiences of students to make it feel relevant and to avoid perpetuating issues sometimes found in development. For example, we were once asked in seminar to write what we would include in an educational curriculum for a country that most of us had never been to. Although the activity was arguably practical and creative, it would have been far more appropriate to talk about countries we had some familiarity with. This would have applied academic knowledge to lived experiences and avoided a subconscious sense that knowledge gained at a Western institution is more important than hearing the lived experiences of people in the country in question. I recognised and appreciated when modules were taught in creative ways, going further than just discussing academic literature with a list of questions and pushing us to be creative in our responses too. The idea of creative universities and taking a good look at how social sciences are taught at universities is overdue and will only improve what and how students learn.

Learning about such examples and in innovative ways also plays into the idea of ‘critical hope’, which I think is essential in International Development. Critical thinking is really important but sometimes it is easy to criticise, evaluate and overthink to a point where you feel you’re verging on entering a pit of despair and having an existential crisis. By learning that there are alternatives, innovative models and approaches and learning some tools to see how these could work is vital. With a focus on hope, being critical is conducive to finding an outcome rather than being critical for critique’s sake. My involvement in activist work has hugely helped with learning tangible techniques and gaining experience relevant to the course but also the course has helped me engage better with activism. I leave Sussex with optimism about the future and an appreciation of the different aspects of my education. I leave with an identity as both an activist and a graduate and will carry my critical thinking glasses wherever I go. And these glasses are probably the reason why I think there is scope to improve and broaden the societal concept of activism, the joining of activism and academia and the course itself. I also leave Sussex with a potentially lengthy answer to “What did you do at Uni?” which often leads to blank face and polite smiles.

Care in the time of COVID-19

A sign in a neighbor’s garden offering help to those who have to self-isolate

I can’t believe that my last two blog posts from Germany were written only a month ago – it seems like a lifetime has passed and the world is a very different place to what it was in early March. As well as adjusting to working from a home and keeping up with feeding two teenage boys, I have been trying to come to grips with what the COVID crisis means for my book, which after all focuses on the contributions of creative teaching to better prepare students to address global challenges. After initially being overwhelmed by the huge amount of information available, I am slowly beginning to make some sense of some of it. In this, somewhat meandering, unfocused and tentative post in keeping with the general uncertainty of the situation, I explore what some aspects of design, particularly the concept of wicked problems and the emphasis on care and empathy, can contribute to an understanding of COVID-19. This draws on the design chapter of my book (which is building on longer-standing research on the role of design in development) I am currently writing. This is the first of several COVID reflection posts, with the second one focusing on economic implications.

Wicked problem were first defined by Horst Rittel as ‘social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision-makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing’ (as quoted in Richard Buchanan’s useful overview article of design). In contrast to clearly delimited problems that follow linear processes to a precise solutions, wicked problems are indeterminate because they have no clearly defined limits and more than one possible explanation and are symptomatic of higher-level problems. Many contemporary challenges are wicked problems because of their complexity and interconnectedness, and the COVID crisis is no exception. While medical at its core, it affects many other areas of social, economic and political life. Wicked problems call for different disciplines to work together to understand them and formulate responses; for COVID-19 that has encompassed medical (treatment and public health campaigns), economic (eg. various government wage and business support schemes), social (spatial distancing) and political (closing of borders) responses. According to Buchanan, design as an inherently integrative discipline can enable this cross-cutting approach because it offers an expanded imagination that is not directed towards quick, technological fixes but ‘toward new integrations of signs, things, actions and environments that address the concrete needs and values of human beings in diverse circumstances.’

The Estonian government’s proposal to hack the wicked problem of COVID-19

Another relevant concept is that of care, which is by no means unique to design; Ana Agostino, a Uruguayan feminist academic has written here about the importance of re-asserting care for each other in this collective crisis. In making the design connection, I draw on Bruno Latour’s keynote address to the 2008 International Conference of the UK’s Design History Society. For Latour, ‘designing is an antidote to hubris and to the search for absolute certainty, absolute beginnings and radical departures.’ Design is more humble, modest and cautious because its practitioners realize the complexities of current challenges and the unintended consequences of possible solutions. Design turns objects into matters of concern and care, as the fragility and interconnectedness of humans and the world in which they are entangled become urgently apparent. Latour draws on German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and his notion of spheres into which humans are enveloped from birth to death, on a personal and collective scale. References to life support systems seems especially pertinent when juxtaposed to images of Corona patients on ventilators and the latters’ global scarcity (but also the grassroots innovations resulting from necessity being the mother of invention). Here breathing – the most basic of human activities – needs intense medical intervention. In the context of the COVID-crisis, Latour has developed an exercise of taking stock of activities that have now been suspended to see which ones we would like to reanimate after the lock down and which ones we would like to abandon for good. Exploring our reasons for these choices will yield insights into personal values and having conversations with others about what choices they would make might open up opportunities for political changes.

While the role of technology in this crisis is a much larger discussion, I do want to finish with a digital initiative I like, which is #BlossomWatch. This is a campaign by the UK’s National Trust to emulate Hanami, the Japanese tradition of celebrating cherry and other spring blossoms and the promises they hold. The idea of #BlossomWatch, which invites people to share their photos, is to allow people who cannot currently go outside to enjoy this wonder of spring. This then brings me to empathy (as practiced by designers, care professionals and many others), as the ability to imagine other people’s situations and feelings. Following calls for spatial distancing, which might be a more apt word for what we are being asked to do and the resulting new forms of sociality, is presented as needing to protect vulnerable groups and the NHS, in the case of the UK. It is also about trying to imagine what it might feel like to self-isolate, to have lost one’s source of income, to have to work from home and care for toddlers or home school at the same time. There have been so many amazing responses to these challenges that manifest our collective capacity to empathize with and care for each other, however small the contribution might be. In the spirit of humble interventions, here is a photo from the splendid blossoms outside our house. Stay well!

Spring blossoms outside our house