5 Things that will Frustrate the Heck out of you when studying International Development

February 15, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

I ran a ‘blogging for beginners’ session for my LSE students earlier this week. Some of them clearly didn’t need it. Here’s MSc Development Management student Stella Yoh.

International Development is our passion – that’s why we’re all here. It’s what keeps us going through these late nights and grey London days.

But let’s face it, it’s not always a fun ride. As fulfilling as it is, studying International Development can be a real struggle, and if you haven’t had an existential crisis by now, you sure as hell have one coming your way.

Here are the five biggest frustrations that International Development students feel at least once during their studies.

Everything depends on context. 

Sometimes you wonder if the main purpose of a top-notch education is learning how to say “it depends” with class (i.e. academic rigor).  Almost every literature you read by almost every renowned academic will talk about how context specific everything is. You will rarely find anything that lays things out in a simple manner, and even more rarely, with a clear solution. If you ever find a good, simple answer, it will most likely be wrong (think KONY 2012). This can be really frustrating to us students, who supposedly came to school to get answers. Instead, we somehow end up getting even more confused?

The Chicken or the Egg? No one knows.

Some people really believe in the power of institutions. Others think growth depends solely on what you’re born with. We all agree that all the “good” things (democracy, well-functioning markets and state, etc.) are strongly correlated with economic growth. We’ve all seen at least one of the numerous classic 45° scatterplots, (below):

But what comes first?  The good thing or the economy? Does one good thing cause another, or the other way around? Are governments corrupt because they are poor? Or are they poor because they are corrupt?  Here’s an answer: it depends.

Wear all hats, or else (but choose the hat wisely).  

International Development is a highly interdisciplinary area of study. You can’t possibly focus just on economics, or anthropology, or political science, because all of them are closely intertwined. The good side of this is that you will get a wide perspective and learn from the best practices of each field.  But this also means that you’ll face a massive identity crisis, because eventually, you’ll have to choose your main research discipline. And although all methodologies are truly valuable, some hats are more mainstream than others (i.e. get you more funding and/or job opportunities).

Learn to wear all hats, but choose your main hat wisely.

Pessimism vs. me: does it even matter?

Have you ever met an idealist senior development professional? I certainly haven’t.

The more we learn about development, the more we have to battle with encroaching cynicism. The development industry is nowhere near perfect, and there is the repeated theme of disillusioned practitioners going back to the private sector (or for some, to academia). Many others stick it out, but are well aware of their limitations.

Understandably, tackling multifaceted, deeply-rooted problems in development can be very difficult, and even some of the world’s best minds are fatalistic. Studying (or practicing) development thus requires an extraordinary peace of mind where constant cynicism is balanced out by constant optimism, like Gramsci in his prison days: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Welcome to the Real World. 

You wrote a distinction paper on climate change, but this really cool job on corporate responsibility wants someone with 8+ years of experience. Sound familiar? 

Once we survive the intellectual frustrations of the classroom, we are immediately slapped in the face by the job market. Most entry points to development organizations are highly competitive internships with little to no pay; and most decent full-time roles look for previous experience in investment banking or management consulting (or equivalent). Almost every talk and guide (like this one) recommends

getting private sector experience in leading firms. But weren’t these giant corporations the bad guys? Now you’re telling us to go work for them?

This ginormous gap between what we learn and what we can actually do in real life, is by far the biggest frustration us students can have (the LSE careers blog can be a good resource, by the way).

You’ve good grades and a heart with passion, so why won’t they hire you? Welcome to the real world, mate.

Surprisingly enough, the point of this article isn’t actually to dishearten you. These are real frustrations that you will at some point in time feel when studying International Development. And despite these difficulties, most of you will end up working in development, in one way or another.

Because despite everything, you love it anyway.

Because this world, as imperfect it is, needs more people like you and I, who genuinely care about the problems and the solutions we come up with, however imperfect. And whatever we end up becoming in the future, be it investment banker or head of an NGO, we would be able to use our learnings and hopefully begin to work together to make things better, one step at a time.

So congratulations development students. We have a long journey ahead of us.

February 15, 2019
Duncan Green