My Feelings on Academia

Posted in Uncategorized

[In which I try to make a slightly shorter post and also the first one in a long while.]

Occasionally, I have this feeling. It usually comes when I’ve had a particularly good experience in my currently very academic life. Maybe because I’ve had a really good and thoughtful conversation with someone. Maybe because I’ve had some kind of affirmation from an actual academic or a peer that I’m pretty good at this stuff. Maybe because I’ve just really enjoyed a day of wandering around this little old city and thinking big thoughts while staring at bricks, and reading lots of words while drinking lots of coffee.

The feeling, expressed inadequately with language, goes something like: “Oh man, it would be super awesome to do this forever. I want to just wander around universities and think for the rest of my life. How great would that be?”

And then I realise that my idealised vision of the university life I want, and the impression I have of the reality of academic life, do not match up.

Because actual academic life seems to have all this hierarchy and social capital stress and bureaucracy and job insecurity and stuff that does not match up with my ideas about tweed and books and thinking-as-a-profession.

But at the same time, how cool is it to have knowledge and ideas as your job?

Basically I want to be an academic if being an academic was like being an Ancient Greek philosopher. Minus the slavery, etc.

I occasionally get very sad about all this. Because, I mean, first my international development identity crisis, then an academic identity crisis, too? Next you’ll be telling me I can’t actually be princess of the sea monsters when I grow up.

Maybe I can ride on all this open access stuff that’s happening and just be a guerrilla intellectual. Then I’ll live in a castle with a bunch of other intellectuals and have lots of great thoughtful conversations while drinking wine.

Anyone want to be guerrilla intellectuals with me?

(We can have sea monsters in the moat.)

A summer full of projects

Posted in Uncategorized

I attend a strange university, which structures the lives of its students in bouts of intense work and inactivity that are of almost equal length.

One such four-month blocs of (academic) inactivity is stretching ahead of me now – though I won’t have a lack of things to fill it with.

Some of the projects I have accumulated for the summer:

  • Beginning work on my undergraduate dissertation, involving original research on the interactions between local and external knowledge about agriculture in Southwest Uganda.
  • Writing an analysis of the processes of meaning-making in Norway following the events of July 22nd from the perspective of construction of a narrative of collective trauma – hopefully to be published in some academic capacity.
  • Traveling to Uganda for the second time to participate in a grassroots agricultural project there, and doing fundraising for the project beforehand.
  • Preparing for my role as Projects Liaison for Durham University International Development Society, primarily by compiling a resource of information about critical perspectives on development and the philosophy of grassroots work for society members and project leaders.
  • Reviving this blog and finishing some of those half-written posts I have stored.
I hope to have more activity here soon, possibly narrating some of the work I’m doing on these various pursuits.
If anything, it will be a summer for working on my project management and self-starting skills.

Merchants are nevertheless in business for themselves.

Posted in Uncategorized

In summer 1996, after an interview with a man who had always seemed a bit aloof around me and mildly suspicious of my work, I asked Nnamnawé what people had thought of me and my work when I first arrived in Kuwdé (I had told them that I was a university student and wanted to write a history about Kuwdé). He said that there had been many theories. Some thought, because I wrote everything down and had begun by doing a census, that I was an undercover agent for a foreign government and that some harm would soon befall them: planes would drop bombs from the sky, they would be subjected to a new regime of forced labor, or some such. Others thought I might be there to steal spirit power from the sacred forests. Still others thought I was a development worker and would bring some form of material aid to the community – a well, a hospital, a better school.

“And now?” I asked. “Do they think differently?” He hesitated, smiled and said, “Yes, we know now that you mean no harm. But, of course,” he added, “we also know that this is your ‘commerce’ and that ‘merchants’ are nevertheless in business for themselves.” ,,

Charles Piot, 1999. Remotely Global p. 115-116.

It’s a matter of nuance.

Posted in Development


People are not invisible, though you might be blind.

Listen to people, don’t speak for them.

Offer, don’t impose.

Support, don’t “save”.

Sympathise, don’t patronise.

Understand, don’t simplify.

Try to be an ally, don’t try to be a leader.

It’s not about your power, it’s about theirs.

Self-satisfied superiority

Posted in Development, Quotes

Came across this quote while reading about indigenous self-determination.

Philanthropic hubris led to the notion that if only some individuals could be liberated from the thraldom and superstition of their origins they might in turn stand as a model for others to follow. Absolutism was built into humanitarian effort. The notion that a people was impoverished and suffering led easily to the conclusion that they were improvident and wanting in the attributes of the hardworking and prosperous. The goal of assistance led almost inevitably to that of “improvement” – usually in the image of a dominant society. Perceived failings become object lessons for reform. The self-satisfied superiority of the benevolent translated effortlessly into their intolerance of the underprivileged. The major contradictions of liberal assimilationism were its reliance on imposed liberty, choices made available by constraint, and self-sufficiency promoted through the elimination of autonomy.”

Ronald Niezen, “The Origins of Indigenism”. Page 211.

Three simple steps to saving the world

Posted in Development, News

[In which I link to some resources for understanding the Kony 2012 thing more complexly and shoehorn the whole issue into thoughts I've been thinking lately about simplifying complicated ideas (look out for a post comparing this whole thing with the recent Durham charity debate). What was that about seeing the whole world through certain organizing narratives? *cough*]

You know what people like? They like simplicity. They like clear and simple narratives to help them understand a world that is often complex, confusing and frustrating.

They like it even better when those clear and simple narratives come with directions for action. Now, these can’t just be any directions: like the narratives they’re based on, they have to be simple. Ideally, they have to not be very difficult to carry out – if too much effort is required compared to the cause or the individual’s involvement, people are good at losing interest very quickly. There also has to be some kind of direct consequence associated with the action – people need to feel like what they are doing is going to make an immediate, tangible, real difference, if possible right at the second they take action.

This is the principle that lies behind political ideologies and religions. It is also the principle that lies behind a lot of activism, both my past and current understandings of development, and the KONY 2012 movement.

Just $30 to save the world.

The narrative in KONY 2012 is so simple, the viral video that has made it famous literally explains it to a 3-year-old: There is a bad man named Joseph Kony, who is committing a lot of evil deeds in Northern Uganda and other countries, deeds which are epitomized by his abducting of children and forcing them to fight in the Lord’s Resistance Army. There is also a good man named Jason Russell. Through Invisible Children, he is working to stop the bad guy and bring him to international justice. The directions for action are even simpler: spread the word about Joseph Kony and make him (in)famous! The tangible reward: this will force the (American) government to pay attention and to bring Kony to justice. By tweeting and sharing the story about Kony’s evil and buying IC’s action kit, the ambiguous “we” can stop him!

It’s a good narrative delivered through a really well-produced video with an uplifting call-to-arms message that requires a “just right” level of action, which is why in the last 24 hours it has gone insanely viral. If you haven’t seen it, you must have given up Facebook for Lent.

But, to quote John Green, the truth defies simplicity. Organising narratives are very useful tools to motivate action – but they cannot, particularly not excessively simple ones like the KONY 2012 narrative, give a full picture of the reality of a situation. And in the case of KONY 2012 (and most other simplified understandings of complex problems), the simplifications and re-representations that have gone into creating the narrative could have dangerous ramifications.

More intelligent people than me have written about exactly how and why the KONY 2012 story is problematic, so I’m just going to give you a few links (the main reason I’m posting this is that I kept finding stuff I wanted to spam Facebook with, and was running the risk of everyone unfriending me for it):

Visible Children provides an introduction to why the KONY 2012 campaign is problematic:

Justice in Conflict gives some facts about the issue:

Solome Lemma describes the decontextualising, Americacentric, disempowering “White Saviour” narrative that lies under KONY 2012:

How Matters sees the Invisible Children founder’s response to the problem as coming from a heart that’s in the right place, but ultimately an overly simplistic and dangerously disempowering idea:

“He can’t handle the discomfort of that situation and so makes a promise to Jacob to change his life, to alter a history-laden, deeply entrenched socio-economic-political conflict, which he at that moment presumably knows very little about.”

Securing Rights on Kony 2012 as an organizing narrative:

If Invisible Children isn’t trustworthy, where should information come from? A round-up of alternate sources of information about Kony and Uganda:

Wronging Rights – an old review of one of Invisible Children’s other documentaries:

“Their work is (a) kind of obsessed with glorifying the filmmakers, (b) based on a creepy, White Man’s Burden-y savior complex, and (c) taking up resources that could be occupied by “intelligent advocacy.””

Awareness is a good thing, and this campaign has certainly made a lot more people aware of the LRA’s atrocities. But viral media and internet memes are not the same as political movements, and no conflicts that go on for decades are actually so simple that they can be explained to a 3-year-old or solved by clicking “share” on Facebook.

None of us can avoid structuring our understandings of the world through narratives. That is how our minds work. But we can at least be aware that’s what we’re doing, and try to be careful about which narratives we choose. Just because something seems simple doesn’t make it true – in fact, it’s probably just the opposite.

On futility and hope.

Posted in Development

…and something in between.

[In which I write the first post in my blog, and employ a lot of clichés (see if you can spot them all!) to explain how I feel about the idea of “development”, and why I’m involved in it.]

Hi, I’m Iris and I’m interested in international development.

At least, that’s how I used to be able to introduce myself and my primary interest, if someone asked. (In this hypothetical context, I apparently obnoxiously wear my interests on my sleeve even more than is actually the case – which is already pretty obnoxious. See for reference: this, my first blog post.) Since then, I have come to question pretty much every part of that sentence (apart from “Iris”, and I’m not always sure about that either).

International development used to seem to me to be a very simple concept, although a difficult goal to achieve. My understanding was: There is a lot of injustice in the world. There is a massive gap between rich countries and poor countries. In the poor countries, a lot of people suffer and die from hunger and other easily preventable problems, largely because of the rich countries. This has happened because the poor countries have been left behind in the progress that the rich ones have enjoyed. This is unfair, and we have to change it.

Oh, simplicity, how I miss you.


This concept of development is usually illustrated with pictures of children.

Because of this understanding, I decided that I wanted to get involved with international development, and began to study it (somewhat extracurricularly, though it comes up in Anthropology a surprising amount). And the more I learned, the more I realised how wrong I had been – and how wrong the concept of development and the way it is often practiced can be.

I learned that often, projects fail because they are based on faulty assumptions about what the problems in a given area are, how they can and should be changed and who should be doing the changing. I learned about cultural imperialism, about the idea of “progress” as a Western invention and imposition. I learned about the idea of charity as a continuation of the “white man’s burden”, manifested in voluntourism and the inherent arrogance of “development work”. I learned about the marketisation of aid, about the transformation of the third sector into a business, with market competition and selfishness like any other. I learned about unintentional harm caused by well-meaning interventions, about the danger of “development” as a concept, and the frustration and futility of any attempt to “do it right”. I learned about any meaningful shift toward better practice being reduced to a set of buzzwords, and employed dishonestly and superficially.

I learned, basically, that when it comes to “international development”, the road to hell truly is paved with good intentions.

How many have you counted so far?

And it made me very, very sad, and dejected and frustrated. It made me question all the things I thought I knew about what I wanted to do with my life, and why, and how, and where. It was, as much as anything can be, the cause of an identity crisis.

Why, then, am I still the president of my university’s International Development Society? Why am I involved in what could be described (though we try not to) as a development project in Southwest Uganda? Why am I writing my undergraduate dissertation about local knowledge in development, and why am I hoping to work in the third sector, in “international development”, when I graduate?

Because I know that change is possible - just look at the entire history of the human species. Sure, a lot of the time the world sucks. Mostly, when we try to solve one problem, we end up creating several others. That is inevitable. But we can solve problems, and we can create change.

The fact that the idea of “development”, in the sense of “here come the brave Europeans to save the world and bring enlightenment to the poor to raise them up to glorious, wealthy bliss”, is deeply problematic and highly invalid, does not mean that the problems that have prompted us to employ it as a goal and a practice are any less real. People are still starving, and suffering, and dying of preventable diseases, and there are still things that can be done to stop that from happening.

And they don’t need me. The people of the “third world” need me and other European and American do-gooders to “save them” like a fish needs a bicycle. (Which incidentally is approximately how much I need to be desperately needed in order to find doing something worthwhile.) I’m not here to burst dramatically through a door and announce “Never fear! Change is here!” – but the fact that other people are makes me think that there just might be some value in figuring out why, and how to change their minds.

This just makes me happy.

The way to do that, I think, is to learn not just about futility, but about hope and the possibility of change. It’s to try to work out not only what the problems with current ideas and practices are, but how they can be made better. It’s to see if there is anything I can do, even something small and unimportant, to help make that change occur.

And that’s difficult and frustrating and, by any account I’ve heard, a lot like beating your head against a brick wall. But it’s not impossible – so why not try?

Enough head-bashing could break it.