Development Encounters

Darryl was a member of the Tide~ Kerala 2007 group. He spent 8 months based at Tide~ to develop his PhD based on a variety of Tide~ global learning experiences

From early development encounters to contemporary development encounters: some initial reflections.

Development encounters are, for me, routes to engagement for individuals and groups in developed countries with ideas of international development. Many people use the term development encounter to discuss a range of activities but there has been little attempt to develop a clear conceptualisation of the term and to link it to development education.

This brief article aims to offer a stimulus for thinking and discussion around the idea of the development encounter and its origins. The following discussion is only partial and forms part of my initial doctoral research in development education.  

Early encounters: a continuing legacy?

Arguably, early development encounters were rooted in organised and institutionalised encounters in ex-colonies and focused around travelling to distant locations to find out about different cultures, traditions and peoples. Obvious connections are to be made with ‘practical anthropology’ (as discussed by Malinowski, 1929) and its potential uses in colonial rule, but also in the interests of education and exploration. Early anthropological studies were focused on travelling to distant countries and employing a set of methodologies that involved ‘going native’ and carrying out field research in exotic locations to find out about the distant other. Seminal research with native tribes, still referred to today in sociology and anthropology, by Malinowski, Mead, Radcliffe-Brown and Leach amongst others, have paved the way towards a particular conception of development encounters (continually reaffirmed in contemporary development research projects) as engagements that take place in the south - a narrow conception that is still prevalent in some circles today.

Evidence from development studies texts (based on research by Humble and Smith 2007) indicates that the idea that you have to travel to developing countries to encounter development is still prevalent today. The focus of research methods texts is one particular example that continues to suggest that research on development must take place in developing countries and guidance is readily available about travelling, settling in to the field and engaging with local people. The emphasis here is very much of development as a ‘southern project’ which is constructed around a narrow conception of a development encounter which involves travelling to developing countries to ‘do development’.

Dr Matt Smith describes this as ‘the palm tree effect’ in which there is a prevailing assumption that we can only ‘do development’ in places where there are palm trees – in the geographical south. This is, perhaps, an example of how development work has become exoticized in recent years through the popular media and through a multi-million pound global gap year industry (Simpson, 2004 discusses this further).

Contemporary encounters: a different mould?

But is this really the case? Haven't alternative development encounters been a feature of the development landscape in the UK for some time? If we take development education organisations then I would argue their function has been to create development encounters in the UK, engaging northern constituencies with ideas of development since the mid 1970s. These encounters are quite often supplemented through personal encounters (study visits to developing countries and visits by people from developing countries) but are primarily about creating spaces to allow people in the UK to encounter development in the classroom, in the community centre or in the high street, through local and national initiatives.

Development education can, and in some cases does, facilitate the implementation of development encounters in the UK; there is a case to be made for considering local and national development issues in the UK when exploring the idea of development encounters. Organisations, like TIDE, construct programmes around development issues within the UK, thus creating encounters or learning opportunities around these issues. Accepting that development is something that we all have experience of is arguably an important aspect of development education work that contributes to the wider goals of empowering learners to recognise ideas around global interconnectivity, empowerment and social change. However, there are risks here and these centre around just how much development education becomes all inclusive and at what cost. Is there a risk of adding further confusion to our understanding of development education? In many ways this does signal a need to rethink contemporary development encounters.

Educators and practitioners are continually constructing development encounters within the UK, they provide opportunities, knowledge and spaces for groups in the UK to engage with ideas as well as peoples and places associated with development (at all levels). They create development encounters for a diverse range of constituencies and for a diverse range of purposes that range from imparting knowledge, to encouraging people to become critically astute and morally engaged citizens. All in all, the focus of their efforts is in creating a range of development encounters that constitute a space to understand, engage and act as global citizens.

The concern is that this idea of the development encounter is often ignored in discussions. Development Education as a form of development practice is generally overlooked within the academic and wider literature. Questions must be asked as to why this is the case. Parallels must be drawn between historical approaches and we must consider why certain development encounters are considered to be more legitimate than others. Further debate and discussion needs also to consider: through what processes are development encounters created? What are the political, institutional and personal pressures that shape the way development encounters are created?

How we make sense of these diverse forms of development encounters is very much linked to our personal understanding of development and how we begin to think through the diverse sets of practices that come under the banner of development education. This is relevant whether we consider ourselves to be practitioners, educators or consumers of development. This article has briefly introduced just a small part of the discussion but aims to stimulate debate and discussion about what constitutes a development encounter and how we conceptualise different types of development encounter.