The intellectual spoke the truth to those who had yet to see it, in the name of those who were forbidden to speak the truth: he was conscience, consciousness and eloquence.
It would be unfair for me to neglect the field that sparked my interest in international development; Academia- the ivory towers, the enlightened population, the expansion of the mind (for merely thousands of dollars in tuition per year). It is within the context of academia and more specifically ‘international development studies’, that I became familiar with a plethora of ideas that I had not previously encountered:
Neo liberal development?
Rostow’s stages of development?
World bank/IMF structural adjustment programs?
Critical development theory?
The beginning of my academic career can be characterized by first intrigue into all of these new theories, second a confirmation that these were the right ways of viewing the world and lastly an anger at the rest of society for being so oblivious to these right ways of thinking. I would like to believe that I have evolved in my relationship with academia and have come a long way from this pretentious thought pattern but who knows. What has certainly happened however is that I have experienced academia within a variety of different settings, both in North America and the UK, through classroom settings, lectures, events, conferences. I have experienced it as both the student and as the ‘expert’. My feelings regarding the institution have shifted at different times and can be summed up as:
‘This is the most inspirational space, allowing for the critical perspective to flourish, there is no other space quite like this and I will stay here forever’
‘These people are so disconnected from reality, what are we doing sitting in our classrooms discussing people who we do not really know anything about. This is all bullshit and I cannot wait to leave’
While my perspective on the academic institution has clearly not been completely positive, I have continued my involvement within academia. Most recently, I attended a conference focused on new approaches to development and communication. This conference offered a variety of ‘experts’ within the field, speaking about topics of development and communication. In this conference I sat in on presentations regarding radio-based projects in Thailand, technology based teaching in the United States, a critical review of non-profit policies through discursive analysis etc. One of the keynote speakers at the conference was Dr. Sina Odugbemi, the Head of the World Bank Communication for Governance and Accountability Program. While many of the presenters had origins in the ‘developing’ world, there was little question about the institutionalization of a specific understanding of development, through academia. Why did development studies focus almost completely on the ‘third world’? Why did their societies need to be restructured to look more like ours? Was it the structure of the ‘first world’ that needed to be targeted in these development conferences?
Similar to the problems I have with other forms of development in North America, I often perceive a disconnect between academia and the issues/people being examined. This ‘we know best’ attitude, illustrated by the quote at the beginning of this blog, often abounds within academia and results in this atmosphere where those who were able to pay thousands of dollars have somehow become enlightened and know better than the rest of society.
A prime example of a theory that facilitates this ‘we know better’ attitude is ‘false consciousness’. False consciousness is a theory derived from Marxist theory on social class, although Marx never used the term. A simplified explanation of this term, is that false consciousness is characteristic of members of the lower classes of society. Meaning, those from this class, for a variety of reasons are not really aware of why they have come to be in their condition. They are unaware of how the upper classes continue to keep them in their place in society, through exploitation, dominant ideology etc. This type of thinking often pervades development studies. In my experience, academic scholars have moved away from thinking they are best equipped to create development frameworks on their own, and turned to a more grassroots, involve those who are developing approach. There is still however, this academic community where ‘experts’ speak on behalf of the population they have studied, as I experienced in the communication and development conference.
To critique this aspect of academia, I turn to Foucault (yes I am using an academic to critique academia…go figure).
While Foucault has become a celebrated academic, he was greatly critical of the role of the academic. Foucault challenged the idea that it was the academic’s role to spread knowledge to the rest of society on behalf of some disadvantaged population. This critique becomes especially important in international development studies, where we study the conditions of a group of people we define as disadvantaged. Barry Smart, explains Foucault argument:
Foucault’s [theory] has direct implications for the nature of intellectual work and for the role or function of the intellectual in modern societies . The traditional role ascribed to the intellectual has been to reveal the truth to those unable to see it or speak it. The function of such a “universal” intellectual has been to uphold reason, to be the “master of truth and justice” to represent the universal and to some extent to be the ‘consciousness-conscience of everyone”. Such a neutral and benevolent conception of the intellectual’s role and function has been disputed by Foucault on the grounds that evidence exists (e.g May ’68; prisoners rights and protest movements etc.) which suggests that ‘ordinary’ people have knowledge of their circumstances and are able to express themselves independently of the universal theorizing intellectual- that is the masses no longer need a representing or representative consciousness, they already have a knowledge of their conditions.
While Foucault’s ideas were based on a western context they do act as a serious challenge to academics in the field of international development. What role must us enlightened ones occupy, if those in African, South American, and Asian nations are aware of their own reality?
You mean they understand that they should not have to drink unclean water?
They know their conditions are different than ours?
They are aware of the methods necessary to improve their conditions?
If individuals are aware of their own conditions and know the methods to overcome them, what role then, can the academic play?
Smart summarizes Foucault’s ideas regarding the role of the academic:
Foucault acknowledged that forms of knowledge held and expressed by people have been blocked, prohibited and disqualified by and through a system of power of which intellectuals have been the principal agents. Hence for Foucault the role of the intellectual was to be concerned not with expressing the truth of the collectivity but with combating the forms of power in which intellectual activity was embedded.
It is this idea then, which I have tried to illustrate in my other blog posts, that efforts of ‘development’ need to take place within the space of the ‘developing world’. Rather than spending all of our efforts spreading knowledge about conditions in African villages, perhaps academics in the field of international development, can examine why institutions have been set up to exclude those in the villages from speaking on behalf of themselves. Why must anthropological research be the only means for ‘the locals’ to speak about their conditions? Why must those from African nations come to western institutions to learn about themselves before they are viewed as authoritative figures on the issues? Why does reading academic texts mean that we know what those in the ‘developing’ world are thinking?
I do not claim that academics are unaware of the inherent contradictions of their positions, as I have been involved with many that focus on these issues. There can be a great deal of self-reflection and self critique even within the ivory towers. I just believe that more of this needs to take place, especially within the field of international development. It is a disservice to international development studies programs, to be completely focused on theories pertaining to ‘helping’ the ‘developing world’. Rather what is necessary is an examination of those changes that need to take place in western contexts, starting with academic institutions. I hope that programs can integrate this sort of critical analysis rather than continue to speak on behalf of a ‘disadvantaged’ population.