Critiquing the developing world

By MainGate Staff
Fall 2020/Winter 2021

In 2013, the US Government Office of Inspector General issued an audit report of USAID Lebanon’s Developing Rehabilitation Assistance to Schools and Teacher Improvement Program (DISRATI). DISRATI’s aim was to support Lebanon’s public education system by training teachers, repairing dilapidated school buildings, and furnishing schools with computers. The report found that DISRATI had fallen far short of its target metrics and was not sustainable.

“What do we do with all these computers when we don’t have reliable Internet or electricity?” one teacher who participated in the program remarked.

Conceived in a Washington conference room, DISRATI is a classic example of what can go wrong when aid programs designed in Western capitals are applied in the Global South. To better grasp the problems with this approach, AUB—whose host country Lebanon is often
on the receiving end of these programs—is establishing a critical development studies (CDS) program. “We are saying that we are not just case studies but knowledge producers,” says Assistant Professor of Sociology and program lead Rima Majed.

“We don’t want to reproduce the mainstream paradigms. When we talk about poverty and its alleviation in international development, you can’t study poverty without studying wealth. You need to study the rich to understand why people are poor,” Majed says. It’s an approach that draws from critical theory, which has seen a resurgence in academia, forming the philosophical basis for a wide array of social movements. The idea is that the structure of development organizations reflects cultural biases that lead to DISRATI-like outcomes.

The new CDS program aims to question the whole system through which development programs are conceptualized and implemented. “Gender issues, for example, aren’t going to be fixed with a quota system, but with an examination of the patriarchy,” Majed says.

The idea for the program came to Majed and colleagues four years ago after finding that students interested in topics that development professionals focus on, like conflict and migration, had to patch together their own curricula. CDS will fill the gap as a one-year degreed program for development professionals that forces them to think critically about their work. Further, they won’t have to travel far beyond the university’s walls to see aid workers in action or participate in the field as interns.

“The grant we received [from the Carnegie Corporation of New York] is not just to start a program but to create this scholarly space, to get a first cohort of scholars and host a conference and workshops that bring scholars together and produce a publication, with scholars in the region getting priority,” says Majed.

While the American University of Cairo offers a development studies program, it does not explicitly encourage students to critique how the development sector operates. The program at AUB will be the first in the Arab world to offer such a critical perspective. For Majed, Beirut, with its relative intellectual freedom, is the only Arab capital where such a program can exist. Despite the country’s many troubles she says, “we still have spaces for liberty.”

 We are not
just case
studies but