Policy & Practice - A Development Education Review



The Times they are a Changing: What Role for Development Education in Times of Economic Crisis

Creating New Economic Paradigms: The Role of Development Education
Spring 2012

Ruth Doggett and Fleachta Phelan

“The only truth is music”.  Jack Kerouac. 


Lately, it seems the music reflecting most truth is the Bob Dylan song released in 1964, titled ‘The times they are a changing’.  As development educators in Ireland, we find ourselves acting in a rapidly changing local and global context.  Opportunities for change are tangible, the big development frameworks are being renegotiated, new and transformative social movements are gaining momentum in different parts of the world, and the 2012 World Economic Forum theme called for ‘a great transformation’.

This article will argue that if development education (DE) is in support of a society – that is: ‘critically aware of, knowledgeable about and responsive to the issues of global interdependence; that expresses meaningful actions in solidarity with those who are oppressed or poor, and through actions that support local change in support of sustainable development, human rights, social justice and the eradication of poverty’ (Krausse, 2010: 19) – then we desperately need to heed Dylan’s call to ‘keep [our] eyes wide [for] the chance won’t come again’.  The article will begin by exploring the assumptions inherent in the current dominant economic paradigm and present evidence that a shift in thinking may already be underway.  It argues that development education is well placed to support and nurture a debate on economic approaches, and to broaden and enrich it with a global perspective. 

We discuss Comhlámh’s (the association of returned development workers and volunteers in Ireland) approach to, and rationale for, educating for economic justice and argue that the global economic crisis clearly opens up an opportunity to explore new and alternative economic paradigms.  In particular, we consider the importance and impact of global trade on development and poverty eradication, and the ongoing opportunities for change at policy level.  International trade policies are one practical expression of the current dominant and damaging economic framework and thus we see DE as having a role to play in supporting people in Ireland to debate and discuss alternative economic paradigms, and to use our democratic voice and take action to bring about change.

The ancient Greek word ‘krisis’ (the root of the word ‘crisis’) itself calls for judgement, turning points and new beginnings. Can development education embrace the new reality, and live up to its potential by creating ongoing local-global solidarity, supporting people to develop a real understanding about the root causes of global injustice and supporting action at a local and global level to address them?  At such a crucial time globally, wouldn’t it be irresponsible not to?


Development Education’s Role in Nurturing a Shift in the Dominant Economic Paradigm 

In the period since the industrial revolution, and particularly since the last comparable global crisis, the Great Depression of the 1930s, a focus on economic growth for development has become the norm and the dominant index for human development.  Sustained growth is a central tenet of the current global economic system. Until the recent global financial crisis this principle seemed sacrosanct, and went largely unquestioned by the general public and most commentators or experts, along with an acceptance of the importance and efficacy of privatisation, free markets, economic globalisation and deregulation.  This paradigm reinforces and feeds the notion ofHomo Economicus; that is, the assumption that people are primarily motivated by self interest and the desire to maximise their own wealth.  It is also the model underpinning dominant models of development, which depend heavily upon gross domestic product (GDP) as the primary indicator of development.  If development education is to play a role in creating new economic paradigms, we must first recognise the pervasiveness of these assumptions and acknowledge our role in supporting society’s need to undergo a fundamental shift in how we see ourselves and understand our interdependence in a globalised world.

There is, however, evidence to suggest that this shift is in process.  History shows us, as for example with the historical move away from Ptolemy’s long believed theory that the earth was the centre of the universe, or more recently the international acceptance that climate change is a real and pressing global problem, that change begins as a slow shift, with emerging evidence giving rise to gradual questioning.  This questioning eventually achieves momentum and the acceptance of a new paradigm.  Within development discourse, Amartya Sen’s (1999) description of Development as Freedom and subsequent contributions by scholars such as Martha Nussbaum (1995, 2000, 2003a), may be seen to reflect changing perspectives, with the emergence of the capabilities approach as a predominant model for human development and wellbeing.  The creation of the United Nation’s (UN) Human Development Index, inspired by the capabilities approach, and the emergence of the New Economics Foundation’s ‘Index of Human Well-being and Environmental Impact’ or its ‘National Accounts of Well-being’, challenge the assumption ofHomo Economicus and highlight the fact that averaged GDP figures or economic growth rates can mask huge inequality within nation states.

India, for example, is much-cited as a model of development engendered by economic growth, with supporters of this approach arguing that the gradual liberalisation of its economy since the 1990s has resulted in sustained high growth rates which have in turn propelled development.  However, it is important to note that during this period income inequality increased in India, while 43 percent of Indian children are currently deemed to be underweight or malnourished. In fact India contains more malnourished children than all of sub-Saharan Africa, and one in every three malnourished children in the world lives in India (Alliance Against Hunger and Malnutrition, 2011).  Moreover, World Bank development indicators note that over 75 percent of people in India live on less than $2 a day, which severely challenges the notion that increased economic growth results in poverty reduction (World Bank, 2011).

Beyond the individual approach to development, concepts of ecological debt attempt to establish and raise awareness about the economic value of ecosystem services to the planet.  Also, the work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level, argues that more equal societies result in healthier, happier and more successful populations, and contributes to an ongoing debate on the role of economics, growth, profit and wealth distribution in human society and development.

As development educators, in this context, we should also draw on recent research outlining the importance of frames theory and cultural values in ensuring the efficacy of our work.  The Finding Frames (2011) and Common Causes (2010) reports reinforce the need for development educators, as part of wider civil society, to play a direct role in championing values such as ‘empathy towards those who are facing the effects of humanitarian and environmental crises, concern for future generations, and recognition that human prosperity resides in relationships – both with one another and with the natural world’ (Crompton, 2010: 5).  At the same time, development educators should challenge the primacy of the values of self interest dominant in the industrialised global North espoused within mainly economic paradigms of development.  The questioning of global and local economic systems is taking place more widely than in a long time, and it is our role as development educators to nurture it, to activate and reinforce ‘beyond-self values’, encourage diversity of perspectives and increase the capacity of the public to engage in a critical analysis of, and debate on, our current economic frameworks and paradigms.


The Importance of Trade Justice for Development

Both the priorities which trade rules and policies seek to promote and protect, and the very structures and regulations (or lack thereof) that govern our international trading world, are a direct reflection of the values and assumptions of the dominant economic paradigm.  The current global trade system keeps the global South poor, stuck in the role of exporters of unprocessed goods, which the global North then uses to fuel its industries and continued economic progress.  Historically, rich nations reached their level of economic development through developing (and at times protecting) their economies, continually expanding their capacity for value addition and moving into more lucrative industries and sectors.  However, impoverished nations are being prevented from climbing up the economic ladder in the same way as a result of the economic paradigm which insists that free trade, liberalisation and competition are paramount.  A global 'race to the bottom' in terms of wage rates has also had negative impacts for workers in the global South and North. 

Fundamentally, trade justice matters if we are serious about moving towards a world without poverty.  Statistics on global trade, such as the potential value of trade to impoverished countries compared to aid, are contested and sometimes hard to come by.  However, most commentators on all sides of the political spectrum seem to agree that increased and fairer trade would be of benefit to countries of the global South and could lead to reduced poverty.  The European Union’s (EU) latest communication on trade and development shows that Least Developed Countries (LDCs) only account for 1.3 percent of world trade, with their share of world GDP having declined from 0.7 percent in 2000 to 0.6 percent in 2010, despite containing 12 percent of the world’s population, (Directorate General for Trade of the European Commission, 2012).  Europe, by contrast contains 7.3 percent of the global population, but accounts for 20 percent of global trade. 

Addressing global trade injustices could help to narrow these trading inequalities and make a big difference to the economies of Southern countries.  For example, the Fairtrade Foundation UK has estimated that addressing US and EU trade distorting cotton subsidies could result in an increased income of $250m each year for LDC and cotton-dependent Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali.  In the US, subsidies go to 25,000 cotton farmers, while 10 million farmers depend on cotton for their income in West Africa (Fairtrade Foundation, 2010).  In another example, Comhlámh’s policy report (2010) notes that Kenya’s use of export taxes as a tool for development resulted in the creation of 7,000 more jobs, increased incomes for another 40,000 people, and boosted earnings of €8million in the leather processing industry, over a short number of years.  And yet the EU is asking Kenya and other poor countries in trade negotiations to sign away their right to use export taxes as a pro-development economic policy tool.


Trade Policy from Global to Local

Bearing in mind Ireland’s position as a member of the EU, there are numerous opportunities for local action supported by development education having a global impact.  At an international policy level, a lot is happening on trade and there are a bewildering number of processes to follow.  Significant civil society protests in 1999, aligned with a strong line from countries of the global 
South in trade talks, resulted in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations launched in 2001 being announced, with much fanfare, as the Doha DevelopmentAgenda (our emphasis).  And yet a decade has passed without wealthy countries agreeing to a global trade deal that addresses the concerns of impoverished countries.  In response to the lack of movement at the WTO, rich countries have embarked on a series of separate, bilateral or multilateral free trade agreements with individual countries or smaller regions.  These agreements conveniently enable them to adopt a ‘divide and conquer’ approach, securing trade policy concessions from smaller groups of countries which had refused to yield under pressure in WTO negotiations, where there is greater strength in numbers among countries of the global South.  The intricate and complex web of these bilateral trade negotiations and agreements makes it much harder to follow and monitor what is happening in terms of trade policy and its impact on development.

The next level of international trade policy is European.  The key actor defining the trade policy of EU member states is the European Commission.  For many years, concerns have been raised that Europe's trade policy rides roughshod over the rights of countries of the global South to define their own economic policy, and to develop their own economies, just as EU member states did over decades previously.  Comhlámh believes that Europe's current trade policy undermines the EU's laudable commitment to development, and may in fact perpetuate poverty, inequality and hunger in some of the poorest countries in the world.  Moreover in recent years, while development policy debates have stressed the importance of policy coherence for development, it is arguable that EU development policy is becoming more coherent with trade policy, rather than the other way around. 

The Directorate General (DG) for Trade of the European Commission recently published (in January 2012) a communication on Trade and Development, which does nothing to address the substantial and numerous issues and concerns raised by development activists in the global North and South.  Disappointingly, it appears to be more informed by European business interests than by promoting pro-poor economic development or respecting the right of impoverished nations to use the same economic policy tools that European nations used while developing their own economies.  Moreover, it blithely ignores the ongoing public and intellectual debate around economic orthodoxies, the wisdom of deregulation and the relationship between economic policy and society.  Amazingly, the communication does not even mention or acknowledge that there are different schools of thought when it comes to how trade can promote poverty eradication.

As regards Irish policy on trade and development, there is much to engage with and pay attention to.  Just under a year ago the traditional junior Ministry for Development became the Ministry for Trade and Development (note that trade comes first in the title).  The increased Irish focus on the linkages between trade and development is also to be seen in the new Ireland-Africa strategy, published by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in September 2011 at the first ever Ireland-Africa Economic Summit.  The strategy outlines a move to deepen and develop Ireland’s connection with the continent of Africa, towards a strong political and economic partnership that is mutually beneficial, and in particular supports development in Africa.  There is much positive development potential in the strategy, but other parts raise concern for those who work on trade justice issues, that Ireland’s relationship with Africa could move to prioritising economic benefit for Ireland over poverty eradication outcomes for our partner countries.  There has been surprisingly little discussion and debate on these policy developments among development sector actors in Ireland to date. 

This policy environment clearly provides the development education sector with a role to support the making of local-global links, and joining the dots between public debates around economic approaches, policies and orthodoxies here in Ireland and those in the global South.  Many complex economic justice issues, such as the role and extent of taxation of different actors in economies, the legitimacy and payability of debt, the appropriateness and efficacy of external economic policy conditionalities, such as liberalisation, privatisation, deregulation, global competition etc., are being debated and discussed as Irish people feel the impact of the current economic paradigm at home. Such a debate is important, and development education can bring its expertise to bear in supporting a deeper, more critical debate, and in promoting a long global view on these interconnected issues.

It is also key in DE that as well as fostering critical engagement and debate, we also discuss and promote the potential and possibilities for action outcomes.  At a surface level it may seem impossible to identify exactly how civil society can play a role in shifting the current economic paradigm to one which places human and ecological well being at its core.  But focusing on trade injustice, as one example that has a huge impact on development, can provide a practical avenue for focussed attention allowing people in Ireland to demand the foregrounding of beyond self values and the advancement of human well being across the globe.


Comhlámh’s approach to Educating for Economic Justice

For many years, Comhlámh has questioned and debated the way that international economic, finance and trade policy operated, pointing in particular to the devastating impact on impoverished countries of current trade injustices.  Using interactive development education methodologies we have emphasised concepts such as interdependence to our participants, outlined the role of global trade rules and structures in perpetuating inequality and injustice, and highlighted our capacity to influence those structures as consumers, citizens and community members.  Although an engaged core of our learners have been active on these issues, the perspectives we highlight in our work of Southern movements challenging global economic injustices, have at times seemed abstract to participants who have lived lives of material comfort and lack of economic want during ‘Celtic Tiger’ Ireland.

In contrast, today we find people in pubs, bars and around the kitchen table, debating and questioning the finer points of international economic and financial policy, the relationship between economic policy and society, the role of international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank (ECB) and others in defining global economics, and the importance of economic sovereignty.  Arguably, countries in the global North, from Ireland to the United States to Greece, are finally catching up on debates on the functioning of economics that have been taking place in the global South for decades, if not for generations.

People in Ireland are now experiencing the structural adjustment, policy conditionalities, diminished public services, enforced privatisation and sell-off of national assets that many countries of the global South have struggled with for decades, often as a result of the trade polices mentioned above, or as a result of policy conditionality from international lenders like the IMF (see for example Christian Aid, 2004 and 2005; Debt and Development Coalition Ireland, 2010; Afri, 2010).   The debate around development, and the role of economic policy and its impact on society, has now returned to the global North.  Many people are eager to question global and local economic systems, policies and institutions in a way that they never would have a decade ago, understanding at a personal level the potentially devastating impact of adhering to a flawed economic orthodoxy on human life and well being.  The formation of Debt Justice Action, a new alliance of academics, community groups, faith groups, Irish trade unions and crucially, global justice organisations, to campaign on Irish debt issues with a global perspective, is just one example of the potential for positive local-global links and action for change in the current economic situation, nationally and internationally. The ability of people in Ireland to make these connections may also have contributed to the recent findings of the latest Eurobarometer poll on development aid published by the Directorate General for Communications in November 2011, which found that Irish people identified trade and finance as the most important policy area apart from development aid in terms of having the biggest impact on impoverished countries.

As international development and trade policy becomes more complex, but also more immediately relevant to a nation undergoing its own structural adjustment, Comhlámh believes development educators are well placed to draw out the local and global connections, and facilitate the ongoing public discussion about economic policies towards reflection, action and engagement.  For development and democracy to work, citizens must be engaged, active and constructively question their political representatives on their policy choices.  Development education’s discursive, open, experiential and participatory approaches can help to create a safe and inquisitive space where active citizens question the rules and orthodoxies of trade, finance, and economic policy.  As educators interested in bringing about a more equal world, we can promote constructive questioning, and deconstruct the Thatcherite notion that ‘There is no alternative (TINA)’ to the current economic paradigm, while not necessarily advocating for any particular ‘right answer’. 

Perhaps the most useful role that development education can play is highlighting and reflecting the experience, perspectives and policy alternatives of communities in the global South who are living through poverty, debt, economic policy conditions and lack of economic sovereignty.  These people and movements have challenged the economic orthodoxy locally and globally for decades, with concepts like Mother Earth, illegitimate and odious debt, and alternative trading patterns, rules and approaches.  A conversation on alternative visions for the world must be nurtured, highlighting positive alternative approaches at grassroots or international level, where economic policy is balanced by social and environmental need.

Comhlámh's forthcoming report, ‘Southern Alternatives on Trade and Development’, aims to highlight a range of alternatives to current trade rules and policies, as proposed by people and organisations in the global South.  We hope that it will provide policy makers, politicians, educators and most importantly people interested in local and global development with ideas and inspiration for alternative economic models that support and develop all strata of society.  Comhlámh’s activities include an annual Trade Justice Course, monthly development debates on topics such as economic growth and development paradigms, and issue-based workshops, which aim to facilitate critical discussion in Ireland on economic justice.  We also try to provide ideas on how people can engage for change through advocacy, lobbying, awareness raising or campaigning.  In doing so we see our development education work as responding to the need for people to be critically aware of issues related to the current economic paradigm and ready to respond to the injustices perpetuated by it.


Global and Local Solidarity with ‘the Oppressed’

For many years Comhlámh has engaged in development education, policy and advocacy work on international trade and economic justice issues.  It has not always been the easiest topic to campaign or communicate on, but we continue to believe it is a primary root cause of global injustice and poverty which deserves attention.  As development educators, we must acknowledge the complexity of development and the realities facing the global community, recognising with honesty that there are no quick fixes or easy campaign wins.  Supporting people to express meaningful actions, engage in solidarity and contribute to the development of a new global economic paradigm requires us to understand that, as the New Economics Foundation observes, ‘people are not like the passive automatons of economic textbooks.  They have goals, beliefs and aspirations and they actively construct the world around them through the ways in which they talk, behave and make meaning’ (NEF, 2009: 15).

Supporting the public to come to a point of critical understanding of the root causes of global injustice and poverty requires that we do not shy away from what can sometimes seem impossibly technical and complex, or underestimate the willingness and capacity of the public to engage with these difficult development areas.  Our experience of working on international trade demonstrates the importance of providing a space for people to take meaningful action in solidarity with communities in the global South, enhance their capacity to make local-global links, and to become citizen experts on complex issues.  Many development workers and volunteers returning from time overseas identified unfair trade as a key obstacle to development in their discussions with Comhlámh staff.   Sean, a long-term member of our Trade Justice Group, often speaks of being shocked to see Italian tinned tomatoes for sale in markets in Botswana, where he was volunteering, at cheaper prices than those grown locally by subsistence farmers.  Stephen, another trade justice activist, spent time in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and observed there the economic challenges faced by small farmers, making the connection and joining the Trade Justice Group when he returned in order to take action on the issue.

These returned development workers have greatly contributed to the voices of people in Ireland concerned about development, bringing the perspective of activists and movements in the global South.  Over the years trade justice activists and movements in the South have appealed to us and other European actors to maintain pressure on our governments to introduce trade policies that are pro-development.  Comhlámh is affiliated to an ad hoc but effective global trade justice alliance, which collaborates with civil society groups in the global South and shares information and analysis with European actors, who then amplify the concerns of Southern movements and governments and call on EU and national governments to factor development in when defining trade policy.

The ongoing debates about the real purpose of an economic system in terms of its impact on human well being, the poorest and most vulnerable people locally and globally and the planet, the viability of alternative approaches and the ability and opportunities for  all sectors of society to influence economic and trade policy equally will no doubt continue.  But the current national context, and possibility for people in Ireland to learn about and from, the experience of their counterparts in the global South, is clearly full of potential for demonstrating beautifully the local-global links, exchange and interdependence which development education strives to make real.


Supporting local and global processes of change

Opening up a complex issue of injustice for people without providing them with options for engagement and action towards change can leave participants depressed at the scale of the problem and feeling disempowered.  However supporting participants to think about the power they have as individuals, community members, consumers and citizens can spark people to act for change.  Comhlámh has regularly encouraged participants in our development education work to engage in the range of actions available to them to address this issue.  This can include buying Fairtrade products, raising awareness among their communities about economic injustice, asking shops they purchase items in about their supply chain, and of course, crucially, engaging as active citizens with their political representative at both national and European level.

As a local action they also have the opportunity to discuss how Ireland and Europe's trade policy can have a positive impact towards reducing global poverty and inequality, and the potential for thinking differently about economic paradigms and orthodoxies.  Politicians from all political spectrums who have heard from our supporters have highlighted the importance of citizens raising this topic with them, and been very complementary about their engagement.  For example former Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for Dublin, Eoin Ryan, in the lead up to the 2009 European elections, wrote to a constituent saying that ‘I think that it is of the utmost importance that people such as yourself bring your concerns and these issues to our attention’ after he had been in engaged in discussion on trade justice.  Similarly, former Minister of State with responsibility for development Peter Power wrote to Comhlámh’s Trade Justice Group in 2009 saying:

“I would like to take this opportunity to complement the members of the Trade Justice Group who give up their time to campaign on the important issue of fairer international trade rules and practices which hold such potential for developing countries.”

Training participants have described how positive and inspiring they have found the experience of discussing alternatives with their TDs (members of the Irish parliament) and MEPs.  For example, one participant said: ‘it made me feel more involved in the democratic process,’ while another observed: ‘I truly feel more empowered with regards to “politics” which hereto was a bit of a scary arena for me!’


Please Heed the Call: Don't Stand in the Hall

It is clear that the time is now for development educators to engage with the difficult but important conversations around economics, finance and society, which are taking place here in Ireland and in other nations of the global North.  We have a tremendous opportunity, and perhaps a responsibility, to bring a global perspective to bear in public discussion, towards the development of a new economic paradigm which places values other than profit, growth and wealth at its centre and enables an equitable and sustainable world.  If we in development education truly believe in a world where people understand the importance of, and take action for, sustainable development, human rights, social justice and the eradication of poverty, then now is a key moment.  While development education alone can clearly not save the world from runaway climate change or eradicate global or local poverty, the consequences of inaction for the planet, and for local and global communities everywhere, are stark and devastating, with the continued acceptance of the current economic paradigm putting the economic and social interests of the few above the many.  If we do not respond to this opportune moment for development education moment, surely we will kick ourselves in years to come!  Let’s be brave, roll up our sleeves and believe in our power to change the world.

To give Dylan the final words:

Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.



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Ruth Doggett is the Development Education Programme manager in Comhlámh and also works as an independent education consultant. She is a qualified second level teacher with 13 years experience in formal and non formal education settings in Ireland, the UK and New Zealand.  She holds a Masters in Education, Gender and International Development and has a particular interest in education for social justice.  Ruth can be contacted at ruthdoggett@gmail.com

Fleachta Phelan has worked in Comhlámh since October 2007.  Her job title is Policy and Advocacy Officer but she is based in the development education team, and enjoys walking the fine line, and feeding off the creative tension, between development education, advocacy and campaigns!  Her work involves a particular focus on trade justice, and the impact of EU trade policies on countries of the global South.  Before working in Comhlámh she spent two years living in New Delhi, India, volunteering with a small Indian NGO which campaigned on global justice and human rights issues.

Doggett, R and Phelan, F (2012) ‘The Times they are a Changing: What Role for Development Education in Times of Economic Crisis’, Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review, Vol. 14, Spring, pp. 85-99.