Policy & Practice - A Development Education Review



What Questions are We Asking? Challenges for Development Education from a Discourse Analysis of National Surveys on Attitudes to Development in Ireland

Reflections and Projections: Policy and Practice Ten Years On
Spring 2015

Eilish Dillon

Abstract: Since the 1980s, there have been many attempts to survey attitudes to development in Ireland.  Among these are four surveys of a national sample of the Irish adult population on attitudes to aid and development cooperation and two of a national sample of university and third levels students on attitudes to development issues and global development.  This article questions the questions asked in these surveys.  It draws on a discourse analysis of question construction with reference to three broad discourses of development; modernist, patronising and critical.  The article argues that, despite some reference to a critical discourse, questions asked in the surveys predominantly reflect modernist and patronising discourses of development.  These discourses reinforce stereotypical, depoliticised and ethnocentric assumptions of development, deny the complexities of the challenges facing the world today and present development cooperation largely, and uncritically, in terms of help or aid.  Questions are raised about the implications of this analysis for development education and for further research in this area.

Key words: Attitudes; Development; Surveys; Modernist; Patronising; Critical Discourses; Development Education.

There is considerable interest among development educators in attitudes to global development, and several articles published in Policy and Practice over the years have made some reference to ‘attitudes’ in their discussion of development education (DE) or global citizenship education (GCE). This paper draws on discussions of approaches to GCE (Andreotti, 2006) and of discourses of development education (Bourn, 2011; Troll and Skinner, 2013) which suggest that attitudes, assumptions and questions differ, depending on the approach to development education adopted.  In the spirit of calls for development education to be more ‘political’ (McCloskey, 2011) and to reclaim its radical roots, I question the construction of surveys in Ireland on attitudes to development with specific reference to the questions therein and the assumptions associated with them.  I argue that the questions asked predominantly reflect patronising and modernist assumptions which seem to disregard the complexities and inequalities of global social, political and economic relationships and practices, and which present an unquestioning valuing of development cooperation largely in terms of ‘helping’ or aid.

          Some of the questions I have had about attitudes to global development were sparked, in the mid-1990s, when I first heard of the national surveys of attitudes to ‘aid’ or ‘development cooperation’ in Ireland (ACDC, 1985, 1990; Amárach, 2013b; Weafer, 2002).  These questions were reignited with the publication of the most recent of these surveys (Amárach, 2013b), with its report of attitudes remarkably similar to what I had read in the 1990s, especially in relation to the questions which have been repeated over time.  This suggested the need to question, not only the attitudes reported, but the surveys themselves, and the assumptions which underpin them. 

          Many people regard surveys/questionnaires as blunt research tools.  Thus, it would be hard to disagree with Gibson and Dalzell’s critique when reflecting on the 2002 survey on development cooperation, that surveys ‘of this nature can only scratch the surface of attitudes’ (quoted in Weafer, 2002: 41).  Weafer concludes his research by making reference to the value of ‘benchmark data for comparison’, saying that ‘quantitative surveys are inherently limited in their contribution to the “why” of research’ (2002: 25).  The tension between the search for benchmark/comparative information and the desire to improve what has gone before is a central one for survey designers in this genre, and one which many grapple with when making decisions about what questions to include, how to word them and what can/should be left out.  It is clear that the surveys under consideration here reflect some of these tensions, and the limitations associated with them.  Though the language has been updated in more recent ones, with new questions being added all the time, there is still an attempt to hold onto ‘old’ questions in order to provide some comparative information.  This serves to create patterns of question construction in these surveys with the repetition and legitimisation of concepts and terms which reinforce powerful stereotypes about development that many development educators would question.

          A significant limitation of some of these surveys, which needs to be kept in mind, is that they survey attitudes to ‘aid’ and ‘development cooperation’ rather than to ‘development’, understood in broader terms.  The association between Irish Aid and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and these surveys is a likely reason for this, with three of them commissioned by the Irish government and the most recent by Dóchas, the Irish association of non-governmental development organisations.  A broader focus on development is addressed in more recent years, to a greater and lesser extent, in research undertaken by Connolly and colleagues (2008), Devlin and Tierney, (2010) and Amárach (2013a).  Despite their limitations, over the years, these surveys have been quoted widely and have been an important advocacy tool in the development of policy on international development in Ireland, especially when it comes to showing ongoing public support in Ireland for ‘the principle of overseas aid’ (Amárach, 2013b: 1), or the need for development education.  Having formed such an important bedrock of knowledge about attitudes to and understandings of development cooperation in Ireland, it is surprising that, to date, there has been little critique of them.

          In this article, I attempt to offer such a critique.  In doing so, I am drawing on post-development critique and applying a general approach to critical discourse analysis, which addresses ‘both text and context’ (van Dijk, 2006).  In what follows, I provide an introduction to discourses of development cooperation in Ireland before exploring the construction of survey questions.  I conclude with a brief discussion of the implications of this analysis of surveys for development education. 

Discourses of development cooperation in Ireland

Introduction to discourse critique

The application of a discourse critique to development, global development or development cooperation is associated with the post-development turn in development theory (Escobar, 1984/5, 1995; Esteva, 1993; Ferguson, 1990; Sachs, 1993).  From the 1980s, drawing on the work of post-structuralist theorists such as Foucault, and in tandem with postcolonial thinking (Said, 1978; Spivak, 1988), critics like Escobar and Sachs have questioned the taken-for-granted modernist and Eurocentric assumptions in development thinking, policy and practice.  In offering a discourse critique of development policies, programmes and projects, they have questioned the language of development, not for its own sake but for how it reflects assumptions and attitudes, and shapes thinking and practice.  These assumptions relate, for example, to notions of progress, underdevelopment, needs, expertise and helping. According to post-development thinkers, development discourse reinforces a superiority/inferiority relationship between the global North and South.  They are critical of the assumptions of modernisation thinking, for example, the idea that ‘we’ in the ‘North’ are ‘developed’ and ‘they’ in the South are ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’, and that ‘if they follow our lead they will catch up and all will be well’ (Dillon, 2003).

          Despite many criticisms of post-development over the years, there is widespread recognition of the role that discourses and concepts play in shaping development realities and relationships. One of the lingering influences of post-development thinking, and relevant to this critique, has been its application to analyses of representational practices (IDS, 2006), narrative analysis (Carr, 2010) and, what Cornwall calls, the ‘constructive deconstruction’ of the language and concepts associated with development discourses.  For her, examining the ‘buzzwords’ and ‘fuzzwords’ of development involves:

“Dislocating naturalised meanings, dislodging embedded associations, and de-familiarising the language that surrounds us becomes, then, a means of defusing the hegemonic grip – in Gramsci’s (1971) sense of the word ‘hegemony’ as unquestioned acceptance – that certain ideas have come to exert in development policy and practice” (2010: 15).

Discourses of development cooperation

Many associate ‘development cooperation’ with state development assistance policies influenced by the post-Second World War drive towards ‘development as modernisation’.  Arguably, it is a rather ‘out-moded’ term with NGOs rarely using it and only five references to it in the Irish government’s policy for international development (Government of Ireland, 2013).  In summary, and drawing from post-development critique as well as the work of Andreotti (2006; 2013) and others, I am suggesting here that there are at least three broad discourses of development cooperation in Ireland which are reflected in the national surveys of attitudes under consideration here.  These can be categorised, simply, as ‘modernist’, ‘patronising’ and ‘critical’.  Though outlined separately in the discussion here, there are overlaps in these discourses (as reflected in Table 2 below) and no three categories can or should attempt to capture the complexity involved.  I use these three categories for analytical simplicity, recognising that they can be otherwise articulated and further refined.

          A modernist discourse of development cooperation reflects the assumption that development is about modernisation, with countries separated into the ‘developing’ and the ‘developed’ and often graded as such based on a range of measurable criteria such as GDP, economic growth, access to basic services, democratisation etc. (e.g. the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)), all of which are open to critique (Walby, 2009).  The model of development is based on Western modernity’s ‘shine’ (Andreotti, 2013).  Causes of poverty are seen to be located internally within ‘developing countries’ (Desai, 2012) for example ‘corruption’, ‘natural disasters’, and ‘a lack’ of education or healthcare, and aid and technical assistance are valued as forms of development agency to meet the needs of people in ‘developing countries’ (Willis, 2005).  A modernist discourse reflects attitudes which are underpinned by the following assumptions: the valuing of progress (through, for example, better education, healthcare and good governance); a depoliticised analysis of poverty (lack of consideration of the broader power structures which affect global poverty) and technical responses to same.  Where such approaches take account of globalisation, it is often to view global interconnectedness as an opportunity for trade and investment, which Sachs (2005) associates with ‘enlightened globalisation’.  With reference to Ireland’s new policy for international development, Zomer (2015) argues, for example, that ‘trade promotion is mentioned time and again, but the key question of how we balance the short-term interests of trade promotion with the longer-term interests of creating a sustainable world goes unanswered’.  Modernist discourses, as understood here, are rarely critical of neoliberal globalisation but where they are, such criticisms can be understood to be about prioritising reform rather than systemic change, poverty reduction rather than tackling the root causes of poverty, and promoting foreign direct investment and entrepreneurship in the countries of the global South which gives primacy to the economic over the political or social.

          A patronising discourse of ‘development cooperation’ (acting as a patron of others associated with paternalism and with connotations of condescension) is underpinned by assumptions related to trusteeship.  Trusteeship involves a sense of responsibility for the well-being of the ‘other’ through aid and ‘helping’ (Gronemeyer, 1993) or ‘volunteering’.  Associated with contemporary manifestations of development’s colonial roots, Cowen and Shenton (1996: 43) argue that trusteeship is ‘exercised by the knowing and the moral on behalf of the ignorant and corrupt’.  Linked to ethnocentrism, viewing global realities through one’s own lens, ‘othering’ the people and situations of the global South, and coloniality (Mignolo, 2000, 2002), a patronising discourse involves the justification for relationships of development cooperation based on positions of superiority-inferiority, with agency assumed to be held by ‘the developed’ who work ‘for’ and ‘on behalf of’ those in need.  In this case, people in ‘developing countries’ are often referred to as ‘victims’ or ‘the poor’, constructions which deny agency and often dehumanise people.  Trusteeship also has roots in the type of development cooperation associated with the charitable impetus to ‘help’, ‘give’ or ‘donate’ and, in this context, is often based on humanitarian or moral ‘grounds for acting’ (Andreotti, 2006: 47).  Many of the actions and assumptions related to trusteeship can have very positive associations, e.g. they are often linked to community or locally-based responses to poverty and inequality, but there is a tendency here for service-based depoliticised approaches at this level rather than advocacy-based, critical ones which take account of power relations and broader power structures. 

          A third discourse of ‘development cooperation’ could be called a ‘critical’ discourse. Drawing from neo-Marxist critique and critical, participatory development approaches (Chambers, 1997; Freire, 1970) as well as post-development, such a discourse suggests the centrality of critical engagement with local and global power relationships.  It draws on critiques of economic globalisation and the inequalities resulting from market-led neoliberalism (Rapley, 2004), e.g. through unfair trade, illegitimate debt and the marginalisation of different groups in society.   From this perspective, it addresses the responsibilities of elites, e.g. financial institutions, multi-national corporations and ‘the 1 percent’, for the creation of systems of exploitation at local and global levels.  Though sometimes linked to articulations of how the global North is exploiting the global South, increasingly a critical discourse of development cooperation can be located in the context of an understanding of ‘asymmetrical globalisation, unequal power relations, Northern and Southern elites imposing their own assumptions as universal’ (Andreotti, 2006: 47).  When influenced by critical participatory understandings of development processes (Chambers, 1997) critical development cooperation is about working with groups, movements or communities to overcome exploitation and to create alternatives.  Here, people are regarded as subjects, not objects, of development processes, and this ‘people power’ sees agency represented in notions such as ‘active citizenship’,  ‘resistance’ and ‘resilience’ and in phrases such as ‘nothing about us without us’. Gaynor, for example, contrasts an ‘individualist, apolitical approach to activism with an emphasis on volunteering (a charity model) and consumerism as a way out of poverty’ (2015: 15, forthcoming), with a more critical approach to global citizenship, which, she argues, ‘entails critically interrogating the dominant narrative – always asking why’ (2015: 30, forthcoming).  Within this broad critical discursive framework, as outlined above, post-development and postcolonial influences have led to questioning of the notions of development or development cooperation as organising principles.  In this case, value is placed on how diverse knowledge constructions, networks or ‘meshworks’ of engagement (Harcourt and Escobar, 2002), and self-reliant, sustainable communities as well as social movements can chart alternative futures.  From this perspective, a critical discourse of development cooperation places value on horizontal rather than hierarchical relationships, e.g., through ‘solidarity’ (Desai, 2002), ‘commoning’ (Esteva, 1998; McDermott, 2014), ‘dialogue’ and working ‘with’ rather than ‘for’.

Questioning the questions

This section draws on a discourse analysis of the constructions of questions in the national surveys in the light of the three discourses of development cooperation introduced above.  Six surveys are analysed here – four of which reflect responses from a national sample of the adult population as a whole and two of which reflect a national sample of third level students only.  Questionnaires from two surveys undertaken by Development Education for Youth (DEFY) (Wegimont and Farrell, 1995 and Wegimont, 2000) with people between 18-24 years of age (1995 and 1999) were unavailable and are therefore not addressed here.  Other research with young people, which employs qualitative tools, though not analysed, is referred to later (Devlin and Tierney, 2010).  Though by no means a full and comprehensive analysis of all the possible options in this regard, the survey questionnaires were analysed with reference to the use of concepts and terms associated with each of these discourses.  Key concepts and terms are outlined in Table 1 below, which includes the number of instances of their occurrence in each of the surveys analysed.

          By applying this simple content analysis to the construction of questions, it is possible to categorise the number of questions in each of the surveys with reference to the discourses discussed above, or a combination thereof.  Open questions, as understood here, largely relate to questions about information.  These are outlined in Table 2.

Table 2. Number of questions in each survey categorised by discourse

The discussion that follows offers one interpretation of the question construction in the surveys.  It focuses, in particular, on the themes of ‘self and other’, ‘agency’ and development relationships between Ireland and ‘developing countries’.

Surveys of Irish Adults, 1985 and 1990

In terms of constructions of self and other, there is a clear modernist distinction in the early surveys between Ireland and the ‘Third World’ or ‘developing countries’ (all questions 14/14, 1985 and 7/8 questions, 1990, with 21 references to the ‘Third World’ in 1985 and 18 in 1990).  In the 1985 survey, e.g. Q1 is phrased as follows: There are various reasons as to why countries in the Third World are poorer than countries like Ireland.  Foreach of the statements below, how important or unimportant do you think it is as a reason why Third World countries are poorer than countries like Ireland?  

          When it comes to agency and development relationships, the concept of ‘helping’ is used regularly in the early surveys (10 references in 1985 and 15 in 1990).  In 1985, Q3 asks: Some people are for, and others are against helping countries of the Third World. Personally, are you?  A further suggestion of Ireland’s role as ‘helper’ is reflected in Q4 in the 1990 survey: Most people in Third World countries live without enough food, education and health care.  Do you think that Ireland, as a country has any responsibility to help the people living in these conditions?  The use of the term ‘help’ in association with ‘responsibility to’ (Andreotti, 2006: 47) here suggests notions of trusteeship rather than the critical understanding of relationships as ‘solidarity’, for example.

          In the early surveys, there is also a dominant patronising association between ‘helping’ and how one can fulfil one’s responsibilities through charity and aid.  In 1985, Q7 asks: Did you give money or were you involved in another activity?  While this suggests openness to other activities beyond ‘giving money’, it is followed by Q8 which asks: Thinking about the money you gave, did you contribute to a single collection, to more than one collection, or did you commit yourself to an on-going contribution such as a standing order?  Again, though followed by Q9 which looks at other forms of ‘help’, the next three questions address money given, e.g. Q10: About how much money did you give to help the Third World last year?   These five questions on money given are followed by the two last questions in the survey, which address aid.   The predominance of questions here which address money given by respondents and through aid, though not stated as such, gives the impression that this is the main way in which Irish people can ‘help’ so-called ‘developing countries’ and that this is what development co-operation is about.

Surveys of Irish Adults, 2002 and 2013

One might be tempted to ‘write-off’ the early surveys as reflecting out-dated understandings of development co-operation with a sense that things are understood in much more complex and political ways today.  While this may be the case, it is not reflected in the discourses which are evident in the most recent surveys of Irish adults.  Even though the language has been ‘updated’, questions are still generally framed as if development cooperation is something ‘for developing countries’ or about ‘Africa’ with developing countries constructed as ‘poor’ and Ireland constructed as a ‘helper’ of ‘developing countries’ through aid and other actions. 

          The two most recent surveys of Irish adults represent an expansion from the earlier ones with 30 questions asked in 2002 and 22 in 2013.  In terms of constructions of ‘self’ and ‘other’, they repeat the separation (seen in the earlier surveys) between Ireland and, in this case ‘developing countries’, or ‘countries of the Developing World’.  This distinction is made in 26/30 questions in 2002 and in 15/22 in 2013, with 43 references to ‘developing countries’ in 2002 and 17 in 2013.  In 2002 and 2013, Q1(a) asks: When I say to you Developing Countries, what words or images come to mind?   A second opening question in 2002, Q1(b) asks: Can you name any ways in which Ireland helps developing countries?  By Ireland I mean Ireland in the broadest sense – the Irish people and the Irish Government.  Having sought responses to words or images which come to mind in Q1, for the 2002 questionnaire, the interviewer explains: the following questions are about developing countries or what some people might call the Third World.  In particular, we will be talking about countries in Africa, as well as parts of Asia and Central/Latin America, which are poorer than Ireland and other industrialised countries.  Gibson and Dalzell comment that ‘the survey goes on to explain the “right answer” to the image puzzle, and in doing so determines the course for the rest of the survey’ (2002: 41). 

          In 2002, links between developing countries and poverty are repeated in questions 11, 12 and 13.  Though the 2013 survey does not confine itself to references to ‘developing countries’, e.g. Q2(a) asks: How informed do you consider yourself on global issues including development aid?, which constructs the question critically, there are references to ‘developing countries’ in 7 of the questions asked.  The connection between ‘developing countries’ and ‘poverty’ is maintained in 2013 (with 13 related references and 17 direct references to ‘poor countries’), with a repetition of some of the questions used in previous surveys.

          As in the earlier surveys, in terms of agency and development relationships, the repeated use of the term ‘helping’ gives the impression that Ireland (and the Irish) have agency whereas those in ‘developing countries’ do not, and that this agency is limited to patronage and associated with trusteeship.  This is not always the case in options offered to questions asked but, again, the predominance of the language of ‘helping’ appears to out-weigh the other suggestions for action given (for example, there are 29 references to ‘help’ or ‘helping’ in 2002 and 28 in 2013, with no reference to tackling poverty in 2002 and 4 in 2013).  In 2013 respondents are asked to say how they feel about a series of different statements (Q2(b)), e.g. I want to bring about positive change in the world; I feel helpless in bringing about positive change ... I am confident in my ability to influence decisions in my local area ... I am confident in my ability to influence decisions affecting other parts of the world.  Here we can see a move away from the association of ‘developing countries’ or ‘countries of the developing world’ with being ‘helped’ and a move to a more global construction of ‘action for global change’.  Unfortunately, this rather more critically structured question, is followed in 2013 by Q3 which asks: Which of these following statements best indicates how you feel about the Irish Government giving aid assistance to developing countries?, suggesting a likely association between ‘aid’ or ‘helping’ and what constitutes development cooperation.

          As reflective of the objectives of the research and the interests of the commissioning body, the National Committee for Development Education (NCDE), the Irish government’s development education body at the time, in 2002, there is a series of questions on perceptions of knowledge and information sources regarding ‘developing countries’ (Qs 3-10).  There is also a significant number of questions in that survey specifically on ‘aid from Ireland’ (6/30 questions).  These are interspersed with questions about how important it is for Ireland to help (Q17), ways in which the Irish government ‘helps’ ‘developing countries’ (Q18) as well as questions regarding how respondents have helped developing countries in any ways (Q24).

          In the 2013 survey, questions on aid focus more strongly on the work of ‘charity organisations’ (4/22 questions) than on government aid (2/22 questions) with three additional questions on aid or donations in general.  This is understandable given that the survey was commissioned by Dóchas, the Irish association of non-governmental development organisations, rather than the Irish government, though, like all the other surveys, it was at least part-funded by Irish Aid.  There are questions about what respondents have seen or heard about what is being done to reduce poverty in poor countries (note the modernist construction of ‘poverty reduction’), followed by questions on charities in relation to donations (Q19), factors which affect trust in a charity (Q20) and their use of images of positive progress and impact of their work (Q21).  The final question in the main part of the survey in 2013, Q22, asks: Below are some statements on how aid is helping to reduce poverty in poor countries. I would like you to tell me which statements you feel are the most believable (options include: aid gives people key skills and tools so they can lift themselves out of poverty, aid delivers lasting benefits, a little aid stops a lot of people dying unnecessarily, when we give aid we help others, but at the same time we help ourselves ... aid helps many people). The construction of this question presents an uncritical portrayal of aid, with the question of how ‘believable’ each statement is offering no opportunity for critique or the presentation of alternative views.

          In 2013, though there is some expansion of questions asked and options offered, which suggest a critical discourse, these are clouded by the language of trusteeship, transaction (Murphy, 2014), help and assistance associated with modernist and paternalistic discourses.  As in previous surveys, different parts of the world are simplified and homogenised as ‘poor’, largely separate from and in need of our ‘help’ through aid.

Surveys of University and Third Level Students, 2006/7 and 2012

As indicated earlier, the surveys conducted in 2006/7 and 2012 differ from those discussed above in that they surveyed university students (900) and third level students (1,000), rather than a sample of the ‘national adult population’, addressing ‘development issues’ and ‘global development’ rather than ‘development cooperation’.  Despite this, the 2006/7 survey ‘was designed to replicate as many as possible of the Irish Aid/MRBI questions of 2002 [Weafer, 2002], in order to allow some direct comparisons with the most recent in-depth analysis of wider public opinion in Ireland’ (Connolly, Doyle and Dwyer, 2008: 8).

          When it comes to understandings of the self and other, agency and development relationships between Ireland and ‘developing countries’, because it replicates many of the questions asked in the 2002 survey, the questions in the 2006/7 survey reflect the same discourses and assumptions.  Given that some questions were added in place of others, or modified, there are some interesting features about the question construction in 2006/7 not seen in previous surveys.  Two questions (Q23 and Q24) are included on the Millennium Development Goals.  There is a question, (Q16), which asks respondents to name some organisations that are involved in providing aid to developing countries, and Q18, which questions what respondents believe are the top three priorities of the Irish Government’s aid programme to Developing Countries, is significantly re-worded from the 2002 version of a similar question.  Another re-worded question, Q29, asks: How do you think you can help people in poorer countries, if at all?  In the other surveys, this question is generally asked as follows: 2013, Q11: There are various ways in which a country like Ireland can help Developing Countries.  How helpful or unhelpful do you think each one would be?  Connolly and colleagues (2008: 21) point out that:

“the answers to this question were interesting in that the range of issues selected suggests a  more active view of students’ own citizenship and engagement with development than was evident in other questions in which they were asked what ‘Ireland’ could do to help developing countries”.

          While it is not possible to suggest a causal link between this change in response and the change in question construction, it is interesting to note that changes in another question in 2006/7 also elicited different responses to previous surveys.  Q11 asks: There are various reasons as to why Developing Countries are poor.  Here, though the overall construction of the question mirrors previous manifestations of this question, the options are worded more simply, e.g. war, corruption, low status of women, prevalence of HIV/AIDS, debt burdens, they lack education and training.  In this case, though

“education ranked most strongly ... structural issues also feature quite strongly in student perceptions of what influences poverty, with ‘developed countries taking advantage’ and ‘debt’ being prioritised as important by over 80% of respondents. Natural disasters and population growth ranked quite lowly in comparison, and were regarded as much less significant by students than by respondents in the 2002 poll of the general public” (ibid: 218).

          Despite the rewording of some questions and the inclusion of others, question construction in the 2006/7 survey does not challenge the largely dominant and patronising construction of questions in previous surveys.  Arguably, this is done to much greater effect in the 2012 survey, which was commissioned by SUAS Educational Development and undertaken by Amárach consultants (2013a).  In terms of the construction of ‘self’ and ‘other’, in 2012 there is still an assumed acceptance of the notion of ‘developing countries’, with the term cited 33 times.  On the other hand, there are more references here, than in previous surveys, to ‘the world’ (7) and an attempt to separate ‘developing countries’ from their association with ‘poverty’ or ‘the poor’, with no references directly linking them.  Despite this, Q3 makes reference to the standard of living of developing countries and Qs 8-9 ask about poverty reduction in developing countries and the aid that Ireland is providing to developing countries.  In these cases, though the immediate association between ‘poverty’ and ‘developing countries’ is broken, the broader association is there in the modernist and patronising constructions of ‘poverty reduction’ and ‘aid’.  It is clearly not simply a case of replacing one term ‘developing countries’ with a more critical term, ‘the world’, when questions are constructed around these critical terms which reflect modernist and patronising assumptions.In 2012, agency is constructed in a number of questions in terms of ‘action’. Q6, for example, asks: How important, if at all, do you think it is for us here in Ireland to take action on global development issues?  Q16 also focuses on taking action on development issues.  The replacement of the patronising terms of ‘helping’ ‘developing countries’ with ‘take action on global development issues’ represents a critical departure in the construction of these questions.  As in the 2006/7 survey, in 2012, Qs 10 and 11 replace the otherwise articulated question: There are various ways in which a country like Ireland can help Developing Countries.  How helpful or unhelpful do you think each one would be?  In 2012, the reconstruction of this question into two separate questions does not follow the personal contribution route of the 2006/7 survey (see Qs 29 and 30 discussed above), but rather asks people to rate the efficacy of non-governmental and government actions (Q10) and actions in relation to the ways in which Irish people support developing countries (Q11).  Though the use of the terms ‘actions’ and ‘support’ in the construction of these questions in 2012 can be interpreted more critically than the patronising and charity-orientated concept of ‘help’, prevalent in other surveys, options offered include those which reflect a depoliticised understanding of agency related to trusteeship, charity or individual actions.  In the same questions, some options construct agency more critically, e.g. Q10: creating a better awareness and understanding among the Irish public of development and development issues, advocating for debt reduction at international meetings and advocating for fairer trade rules at international forums.  In Q11, options include lobbying the Irish government (writing a letter, sending an email/postcard, signing a petition) and taking part in a public meeting/demonstration on behalf of developing countries.  Along with terms such as ‘advocacy’, ‘lobbying’ and ‘demonstrations’, comes the patronising ‘sting’ in the critical ‘tail’ with the latter being equated with action ‘on behalf of developing countries’ rather than ‘with’ people ‘globally’, for example.

Some implications for development education

A principal implication of this analysis for development educators is the importance of interrogating the questions we ask, the language we use and our own assumptions of development.  As identified above, much of the development language that is often taken for granted reflects modernist and patronising discourses of development cooperation based on ethnocentric, limited and stereotypical assumptions and understandings of what development involves, of  ‘us’ and ‘them’, of who has agency in relation to development and of how ‘development’ can be achieved.  When applied to this language use, whether in talk, textbooks, or in national surveys as I have done here, undertaking a ‘constructive deconstruction’ (Cornwall, 2010) of this language gives us an insight into assumptions about global development.  Elsewhere, I have argued that while development education may be strong on advocating alternatives and on addressing structures of inequality, it has been weak on interrogating the assumptions it often employs (Dillon, 2003).  In prioritising this focus on the assumptions which underlie the questions asked in surveys of attitudes, I support Andreotti’s call for a ‘critical’ as opposed to ‘soft’ approach to global citizenship education and the criticality she associates with ‘critical literacy’ (2014).  It is clear that the surveys analysed here are strong on the replication of modernist and paternalistic assumptions but weak on criticality.

          The type of qualitative research employed by Devlin and Tierney with young people and youth workers on ‘development and global justice issues’ may offer a more critical alternative.  In this case, ‘questions fell broadly into four clusters’.  These related to how ‘participants see the world’, how they view the ‘main relationship/links between and within different parts of the world’, what they ‘identify as the key global justice issues’ and what they think ‘is being done/should be done about these issues’ (2010: 32-33).  The construction of these ‘cluster questions’ clearly reflects a significantly more critical construction of global development issues than most of the questions in the other surveys, and arguably engaging in participatory research could allow for the kind of criticality that Andreotti (2014) calls for above.  On the other hand, this kind of non-representative, participatory research does not as easily address the need for benchmark, comparative information as surveys do and it is often under-valued by comparison with research that can produce statistics. 

          A further implication of this analysis for development education is the importance of exploring the questions we ask in research and in development education practice more broadly.  When it comes to questioning, it is often as illuminating, from a discourse analytical perspective, to identity what is not asked as much as what is.  Across the national surveys, there are relatively few references to anything which would suggest a critical discourse of development cooperation.  Even where questions are constructed critically, they are surrounded by others which represent modernist and patronising assumptions uncritically.

          When it comes to understanding the role of the Irish government in relation to development cooperation, questions are usually limited to development assistance and aid, and even in that case, they allow for little critique.  Throughout the surveys, there are no questions about Ireland’s role in development cooperation at EU level, its engagement in international trade or agricultural policy negotiations which affect global development, or its role in relation to the UN, and there are no questions about the relationship between Irish NGOs and the Irish government.  In most of the surveys, NGOs are referred to as charities (usually as ‘Third World charities’) rather than NGOs.  This is likely because of public familiarity with the term ‘charity’ rather than ‘NGO’.  Nonetheless, its use serves to reinforce the paternalistic association of agency with charity.  Governments in the countries of the global South are associated with ‘not doing enough’ or ‘corruption’ and there are no specific references to civil society social activists or transnational advocacy movements.  References to ‘lobbying the government’ and to ‘meetings and demonstrations’ in the 2012 survey are welcome, but they do not reappear in the 2013 survey.  Though development issues and concerns change, it is surprising that, despite its mention in the 2012 survey, there are no questions specifically about climate change in the recent survey.  The concept of globalisation is used in the analysis in 2013, but it does not appear in any of the questions and the few references to ‘my local area’ and ‘other parts of the world’ are overwhelmed by the number of binary references to Ireland and ‘developing countries’.  It is only in recent surveys that development education and activism appear to be considered as part of development cooperation, and even there, they are marginalised in the context of the predominant focus on ‘helping’ and ‘money given’, especially in the 2013 survey.Though there may be many valid reasons why this long list of possible areas of questioning has not appeared, this focus on questions asked (or not) is an important one for development education research.  Without questioning the questions we ask about global development and development relationships in development education, it is possible that we are reinforcing the stereotypes and unequal power relations many of us seek to challenge.  Andreotti, in her introduction to Bryan and Bracken’s research sums this up well:

“if the connections between power relations, knowledge production and inequalities are overlooked, the result is often education practices that are ethnocentric (projecting one view as universal), ahistorical (foreclosing historical/colonial relations), depoliticised (foreclosing their own ideological location), paternalistic (seeking affirmation of superiority through the provision of help to other people) and hegemonic (using and benefiting from unequal relations of power)” (2011: 6).

          In some ways, this paper is a call for development education to engage more directly with post-development theory and discourse analysis.  In his treatment of discourse analysis in international development studies, Della Faille (2011: 26) argues that ‘there is a general epistemological resistance to discourse analysis in international development studies’.  Despite some work in this area, he argues that it is marginalised within the field and that in order to become more influential it needs to be more theoretically and methodologically rigorous and focused on more detailed empirical work.  Ryan offers some useful suggestions in this regard for the ‘discourse analyst’ or ‘discourse activist’ and for the ‘reflective practitioner’.  I think they can also be applied to development educators.  She argues that:

“examining discourses and understanding the discursive climate is an essential part of challenging oppressive ways of making sense of people or of the world.   The reflective practitioner can investigate how certain discourses can be challenged or ousted by discourses more adequate for the project of human and planetary well being” (ibid: 9).

          Without understanding the discourses, language, ideas and practices that are shaping our assumptions as development educators, it is very difficult to challenge these assumptions or to create alternatives.


In this article, I have highlighted the predominance of modernist and patronising discourses of development in the construction of national surveys of attitudes on development in Ireland.  In the context of the interdependencies of a globalised world (Sparke, 2013), the changing context for international development cooperation (Trócaire, 2011), and the complex socio-political and economic structures which create poverty and inequality around the world, e.g., through the dominance of neoliberalism (Giroux, 2014; Rapley, 2004), these discourses reflect depoliticised, stereotypical and ‘silo-ed’ notions of development, which belie the kinds of approaches required to meet the many global challenges of today and the different approaches to development cooperation evident in the Irish global development sector.

          I have concentrated here on critically analysing the construction of questions in national surveys.  Arguably, further research needs to explore the link between question construction and attitudes expressed.  Though outside the remit of this paper, findings of the most recent surveys would suggest that not only do questions largely reflect modernist and patronising discourses, but attitudes expressed do too (see, for example, Amárach, 2013b and Gaynor, 2015 forthcoming).  A major challenge for development educators is to question why.  Why in the face of the complex challenges affecting our world today, is the default position a modernist and patronising one?  Previous research suggests that this is the case at second level (Bryan and Bracken, 2011) and in NGO framing of development representations (Murphy, 2014).  As argued here, this is certainly the case with the national surveys.  The question remains to what extent it continues to permeate other aspects of development education.


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Eilish Dillon co-ordinates the MA in Development Studies at Kimmage Development Studies Centre, Dublin.  She teaches sociology of development, research methods and a course on globalisation and movements for change and has been active in development education in various contexts since the 1990s. 

Dillon, E (2015) 'What Questions are We Asking? Challenges for Development Education from a Discourse Analysis of National Surveys on Attitudes to Development in Ireland', Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review, Vol. 20, Spring, pp. 37-62.