By Karen Attiah
Maybe its the fact that its finals time right about now and I have the sleeping schedule of a neurotic tropical bat. Or the fact that I accidentally purchased a diet Cherry Pepsi from my school’s vending machine on my study break and I HATE diet Pepsi. Or maybe it’s because the winter season is upon us here in New York and having the sun start to go down at 4 pm - like I live in Sweden or something is not the business.
Whatever it is, all I can say is, what did I sign up for? By what, I mean choosing this world of “international development”?.
Don’t get me wrong. I go to one of the best international affairs schools in the world. There are so many good souls and people who genuinely care about the welfare of others not just around the world, but domestically. I have friends who have worked on everything from water projects in Malawi to improving educational opportunities for children in Harlem. I have friends who speak three languages, who have worked at top consulting firms, have given speeches at the UN and who have worked in the Peace Corps. Just amazing individuals.
I don’t have doubts about my brilliant classmates.
I question the international development system, and perhaps, academia’s role in perpetrating that system.
We are trained to think like short term consultants. Everything is project/program based. We are trained to measure everything through statistics, through case studies. A project seems to be measured as “successful” if you get it funded by a donor, not if it is actually needed or feasible. My mock assignments usually have something to do with making recommendations to some company wanting to do a project in another country or a government in a developing country. Are we learning how to make a living in telling developing countries what to do? Where are the assignments on how to observe and listen to communities?
I don’t really know if we are trained to question the prevailing system. After all my program is a pre-professional program, and we are here because we want to be hired into the system, right?
And back to the issue of learning how to make money in telling poor people how to live their lives…one thing that is peculiar to me is the lack of culture/history classes we are required to take. I can take courses on writing security memos in Africa, but yet, I’m hard pressed to find African history or language courses? Area studies is generally considered to be a “waste of time” at my school. Many people just opt to specialize in “harder concentrations”. How effective is drafting policies when you don’t have a sense of a people’s culture, their religion, their language, their way of life?
I know I’ve perhaps oversimplified things. But there are certain things that just strike me as odd about this world. When I voice them, many of my classmates just shrug and say, “Well, that's the way it is”. Does it have to be?
Anyway, just a quick post. Again, perhaps this is just home-stretch finals frustration.
Attiah is a Ghanaian-American master's student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. She holds research interests in broadcast media and citizen participation in Africa.