Development Education: where we’ve been; where we need to go

This blog was written to stimulate discussion at an Irish Development Education Association seminar in Dublin on 4th May 2016.  It is based upon my own thinking about what has been achieved over the past three decades, some trends and patterns I see dominating at the moment (not all positive) and what I feel we need to revisit, recover and re-energise, if we are to have the impact we desire.  In a sense, it’s a case of ‘Development Education: back to the future’.


At the core of the argument is a simple yet, for me, hugely important issue – DE gets much of its mandate, its content, its values base and its specificity from its roots in development practice and theory (in that order) locally and internationally.  Most of our many successes have been closely associated with that specificity and if we dilute it (or, worse lose it), the rationale for our work is gone.  And, I believe our particular character and contribution to education (and development) is ‘at risk’.  Revisiting our past, reflecting on it, learning lessons etc., is vital in sustaining the agenda and building further.

I write unapologetically from a non-governmental organisation perspective; that is my background, my passion and my focus.  I recognise the need for and value of other DE perspectives – youthwork, adult education, schools, colleges, activism etc.; these add so much to the richness and depth of our trade.  However, I feel that the NGO perspective has been weakened and routinely absent from discussion and debate in recent times yet it still has an immediacy, relevance and credibility much needed in DE.

A further note: I am sticking with the term ‘Development Education’ not because I haven’t considered its downsides (I have, and at length) or because I reject other related areas (e.g. human rights education or environmental education etc.; each with its own specific and necessary focus and immediacy) but because DE brings a distinctive contribution and history.  And, also because I find other, all-embracing characterisations (especially global education and its variants) far too vague and, I must add, far too ‘academic’ (in the narrowest sense).   Attempting to shoe-horn environment, human rights, development, interculturalism etc., into one all-encompassing category (or worse, definition) makes no sense to me.

There are many issues that need highlighting; limitations of time and space allow only a few so I have chosen to focus on 5 arguments. Some of the points I wish to make will sound negative (and, to some extent they are but we do need to face up to them, debate them and learn from them and then move on) – there is much to celebrate and, inevitably much to be critical of.    It is not possible in this context to adequately address each issue raised in a nuanced and discursive manner, so some points are made baldly and the need for more considered discussion will have to await another day.

1. DE has had many significant successes and we need to revisit them, learn from them and build further on them

Some that stand out for me include our involvement with the anti-Apartheid campaign (see the chapter on this in Tom Lodge’s masterful Sharpeville); with ‘Central America’ in its many phases and guises (on this, see Dermot Keogh’s work and the Jean Donovan lectures UCC); with the early campaigns on aid and 0.7% (especially the work of the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace) with issues such as Fairtrade and Debt (visit the UCD James Joyce development studies collection for free to access these resources); with the development of CSPE, the Politics and Society curricula and the NCCA Intercultural Education Guidelines ; with the Concern Debates (see Finding Our Voice), Gorta-Self Help Africa’s Young Scientist endeavours in the Science for Development award; the many excellent resources on anti-racism produced by NYCI and DEFY (explore these in the resources library).

Additionally, many DE activists (but by no means all) became directly engaged in ‘local’ issues – the nature and character of Irish ‘development’ and poverty, Northern Ireland, exclusion in the Republic, environment, trade etc. (see ‘Half the Lies are True’, Northern Ireland: A Place Apart, the popular version of Brian Harvey’s work study on Poverty in Ireland for the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust etc.

While DE alone did not raise or promote these issues, it did make a distinctive and measurable contribution to them.  But perhaps one of our most abiding contributions was to ‘sell’ Ireland’s ongoing involvement in the Third World to consecutive governments, political parties, educational structures and institutions (and the ‘public’) in addition to convincing Irish Aid (and some NGOs) to stay in the ‘DE game’ when, over many years, voices questioned its relevance.

Central to our engagement with these issues was the legitimacy that ‘overseas’ involvement gave us; in making our arguments, we were able to draw directly on Irish involvement (NGO and governmental) and experience; they provided an immediacy and relevance that added huge value (a good example here would be Trócaire’s Fala Favela).  It contributed ‘dirt under our fingernails’ to the public debates, arguments and vigorous disagreements; it went way beyond political theory and perspective and rooted much of our work in a specific ‘reality’.  And, it provided a language and currency that the ‘public’ could relate to.  Linking DE directly to current issues (and especially their impact on the poor and excluded ‘with whom we work’) is hugely important and, I fear, something that is weakening today with significant potential consequences.

2. A second success involves the very effective and enduring partnerships forged with organisations, structures, movements and professionals over many years.

Looking back to the 60’s and 70’s, DE was overly (and many times negatively) dominated by ‘aid’ NGOs; this routinely limited scope, reach and impact (it also led to hilarious debates on the control of DE – a subject for another day!).  However, we were able to transform that equation by building important partnerships with other structures and movements – the trade unions – see, for example Forging Links: Trading Places: You and Your Unions Role in Global Solidarity as mentioned in the Trócaire history of DE; with faith-based groups (see the DE classic It’s Not Fair published by Christian Aid); with curriculum units and networks (City Of Dublin VEC CDU, Shannon Curriculum Centre, the Curriculum Centres in Mary Immaculate college, St Mary’s in Belfast and St. Pat’s in Drumcondra); with specific colleges and universities; with NYCI ; with certain VECs (Limerick, Donegal, Dublin etc.) and adult education groups, with many ‘solidarity’ and campaigning groups etc.

This effectively meant that NGOs no longer mediated the agenda (thus driving it way beyond ‘aid’); significant numbers of people became involved professionally as well as institutionally and the whole agenda was no longer seen simply as one for the ‘converted’.

Partnership is now taken for granted (while often being ignored in reality) but, in my view, its definition has become far too narrow and this is folly; partnership across society ‘at large’ is crucial to our intended objectives – placing primacy on one sector or group is severely and unnecessarily limiting.  Emphasising one ‘partnership’ over others; implying that DE and its issues is a ‘youth’ agenda (and primarily ‘youth’ when in school or college) is clearly silly and needs to be directly and robustly challenged.

A related downside of this success has been the significant withdrawal of (too) many NGOs from effective and sustained DE.  This has contributed to the creation of a landscape where DE is losing key elements of its rich and diverse roots and where urgent and pressing development and human rights issues are side-lined and where ‘activism’ is deemed inappropriate to DE.  The NGO movement (as a whole) needs to rediscover its ‘mojo’ in this regard.

At present the dominant ‘site’ of energy around DE is that of the Irish Aid agenda and its funding modalities; this is not positive for Irish Aid or for DE – it will lead to scenarios witnessed in other countries where government effectively controls the agenda, its priority foci and its politics.  An alternate ‘site’ of energy contributed significantly by aid and development NGOs is urgently needed if only to generate and stimulate other, vital agendas.  Effectively handing Irish Aid the ‘whip hand’ in DE is folly – the dangers of ‘state capture’ of civil society agendas is discussed in more detail in this article Too much problem solving and not enough mischief making in the journal Africanus (2012).

3. Our success is not without significant weakness

The growth of DE and its accompanying professionalisation in recent times (very narrowly defined as essentially having a ‘degree’ in the area) although necessary has come at a cost. We are now (overly) dominated by academicism (as distinct from effective and informed reflection, research and reading); before engaging we must now have our concepts straight, our theories of change agreed and our research done (and published in the right places and in the right language).

This argument will be interpreted as an attack on academic involvement in our trade – it is not; DE requires a solid research and reflection base but it must not be reduced to the rarefied language and concepts of academic journals and discourse – our primary audience is the public, not each other.  Overall, too many of the dominant voices in DE have become those of the academy; too many DE experts (what a ridiculous phrase!) and consultants have very little experience in delivering the trade and it now feels to this old observer that DE fieldworkers have become a rare breed.

The professionalisation of our trade have engendered another obstacle; our work must now be grounded in theory; measured and evaluated, frame worked, assessed and measured ad absurdum.  We now spend a disproportionate amount of our time administering DE and, sad to say, those supervising the measuring don’t even agree what our goal is – ‘a radical, informed, active, critical citizenry’; a fundamental critique of those forces creating and sustaining poverty and inequality?  I leave you to answer that rhetorical question.

4. We are losing necessary balance

Poor planning, weak and inconsistent delivery, self-indulgence, ‘mickey mouse’ funding; fashions, in-house politics and an ongoing haemorrhage of staff has significantly weakened the balance in our trade. Adult education, youth-based DE, activist DE, trade union or faith-based DE, our partnership with the women’s movement etc., are now significantly constrained and limited and we are in danger of reducing human rights and human development to being a syllabus or curriculum responsibility (never mind the extra-curricular) – schools and colleges are now ‘the answer’ – this is unfair and unreasonable and does not stand up to scrutiny.  This point will be interpreted as an argument against schools and formal sector work – it is not.  It is a plea for significantly better balance in the spread, impact and societal base of our work.

In the course of the recent GENE review and subsequent Irish Aid focussed discussions, there has been insufficient conversation and debate on adult, youth, community, sector-specific ‘public’ education and activism and this needs to be challenged.  The language and concepts now underpinning the dominant conversation on DE are in danger of becoming far too narrow and limited with significant dangers for the future.  The conversation flips all to easily between DE, curriculum, young people, schools as if this was our core agenda – it is not; our core agenda remains global inequality, poverty and hunger, women’s rights etc., all viewed and pursued through an appropriate, robust and informed educational ‘lens’.  It is not (primarily) about the next planned syllabus reconfiguration.

5. We need to rediscover and re-energise DE’s mojo – educationally sound activism

We have much to be proud of; we have come a long way from our Cinderella phase; we have had many successes (which urgently need documenting!); we have grown as a movement and the quality and quantity of our work has hugely (but not always) improved.

Our understanding of educational needs and processes has deepened considerably (perhaps more so than our understanding of development and human rights issues?) and we have a considerable body of practice to build on.

But…and the but is important, it seems to me we have lost some of our passion, our anger and our activism.


Details: sign up for the IDEA Conversation Series talk #2 taking place on 4th May via IDEA or email:

Parents’ Association Tackling FGM and early childhood marriage

Tom O’Connor reports from County Kajiado, Kenya, on a local community’s response to female genital mutilation (FGM).

Sometimes in life, we get an opportunity that 99% of other people will never experience; a chance to meet somebody who you regard as an inspiration, a hero.  It is one of those moments that will stick with you for the rest of your life.

For the majority of people who are fortunate to have such a moment, that person would be a celebrity, somebody with a global profile; a Nelson Mandela, a Malala Yousafzai.  But for me today, it was an ordinary person, or rather a group of people, born into a life very different from my own, thousands of miles away in rural County Kajiado, Kenya, in a small community called Maparasha.

Maparasha is remote.  To reach this community you have to drive about 40 minutes off the main road from Nairobi to Tanzania through the remote countryside of southern Kenya. But unlike our countryside at home, the landscape is not green; it is yellow, brown, red, the resource-starved colour of an arid land that has not seen rain in over 2 years.

B.Christian Tørrissen 'A group of Maasai men showing their traditional
Photo: B.Christian Tørrissen ‘A group of Maasai men showing their traditional “jumping dance”‘ (2012) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia

The people who live there are Maasai.  We would know them from the BBC advert of a few years ago which showed their traditional “jumping up and down dance”.  Teenagers might recognise them from a One Direction video of a few years back.  If anyone is an avid reader of National Geographic, then I’m sure that the Masai appear regularly as one of the most fascinating tribes in the whole world.

As nomadic pastoralists, the Maasai way of life depends on their livestock.  Cattle are the key currency, source of food and sign of wealth, and so when the rains do not arrive, the water sources dry up, and the land no longer produces, then the people suffer, their animals suffer, and so the people suffer even more.

In a world which, for those of us from the West, seems ever more connected, where I can sit in the garden of a hotel in Nairobi and find out what is happening in that exact moment in Dublin through Twitter, when I can call my family over the internet and tell them how my day has been without a second thought, it can sometimes seem incredible that the traditional way of life for some communities elsewhere has changed very little.

In many ways, their culture, their traditions, their day-to-day existence remains untouched by the wider world.  The mobile phone is of course present, but being able to call your neighbours has not changed the reliance on livestock, nor has it changed some of the traditional cultural practices of the Masai.

Unfortunately, these include early childhood marriage and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).  I’m sure I don’t need to go into the specifics of FGM.  At this point, I’m sure we are all aware of the horrors of this practice and the physical and psychological impact it has on girls who are forced to undergo the procedure.

For the Masai, FGM is a rite of passage signifying that a girl has become a woman and is ready for marriage.  But she is not 18 as we might expect in the West, nor is she even 16.  Traditionally, FGM is carried out on girls as young as 9 or 10.

If you are a woman, can you remember yourself at that age?  If you are a man, then how about your sisters or your friends?

You wouldn’t even have completed primary school, yet Masai girls of the same age are dropping out of school, being cut and married off.  Within a couple of years they will probably have their first child.  Maybe they’ll have 2 or 3 by the time that you have sat your junior cert or GCSEs…

At Aidlink, we work with the Girl Child Network, a local Kenyan organisation on the Schools Sanitation Improvement Programme which aims to tackle harmful cultural practices such as FGM and early marriage in the Masai community by enhancing girls’ participation in education.  Evidence shows that the longer we can keep girls in school, the less likely they are to undergo FGM.  If you can teach a girl about her human rights – for example, to not be cut, to not be married off, and to go to school – then she understands and is more likely to reject such harmful cultural practices.

There are many barriers to achieving this aim, not least the lack of sanitary facilities in school for menstruating girls.  The programme therefore provides basic provisions that we take for granted every day, access to water, latrines, sanitary towels and a changing room.

Perhaps the biggest barrier though is the attitude of the community.

FGM and early marriage are deeply embedded as part of their way of life.  It has been that way for hundreds of years, why should they change now?

Parents Association at Maparasha Primary School
Photo: Parents Association at Maparasha Primary School (6th Nov, 2015) by Tom O’Connor/Aidlink

And so that is what I mean when I talk about meeting some heroes today.  The picture above is of the Parents’ Association at Maparasha Primary School.  With training and support from Aidlink and the Girl Child Network, these 6 people are at the forefront of the fight against FGM and early marriage in their community.

Being willing to stand up for anything in life is difficult, but it takes particular courage to stand up to your family, your neighbours, your whole community, and tell them that what they believe is wrong and harmful; that the girl child is not worth less than the boys; that if you let her go to school then she too can achieve great things; to be willing to call the authorities and report your own community members who do not respect the rights of their children and have them cut and married off.  It is because of the courage of people like the Maparasha Parents’ Association that we are starting to make inroads in the fight against FGM.

What used to be celebrated in the community has now become taboo, with those who insist on continuing to carry out FGM on their children now doing so in secret.  Whilst many have abandoned the practice, there are of course those who push against the trend.  And so for as long Masai girls continue to have their rights violated, Aidlink, the Girl Child Network, and most importantly local community groups such as the Maparasha Parents’ Association will continue to speak out, advocate and educate.

It is easy for outsiders to criticise the Masai, but we are just that, outsiders.  We do not understand their culture, their norms their traditions, and so whilst some people will listen to us, the majority will not.  It is why people like the Maparasha Parents’ Association are so vital.

Outsiders can apply pressure but change must come from within the community, and in that regard, the Maparash Parents’ Associate are a beacon of light, leading the way for others to follow.


Note: this blog is based on a projects field trip visit in November 2015.

What does signing the Paris Agreement mean to young people in Ireland?

Today is Earth Day.

And today United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is inviting leaders from all UN member states to attend the official signing ceremony of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

This is a historic day for international action on climate change, a day which young Trócaire activists have been eagerly awaiting.

Five months ago, 28 young people from across the island of Ireland took part in Trócaire’s annual Climate Change Challenge. This was a deep experiential learning programme over four days that explored the causes, effects and actions needed to tackle climate change.

As part of the weekend, on Sunday 29 November, these young activists took part in the Dublin People’s Climate March.

Photo: Climate Change Challenge participants at Dublin People's Climate march (29th Nov 2015) by Trócaire
Photo: Climate Change Challenge participants at Dublin People’s Climate march (29th Nov 2015). Copyright: Trócaire.

They joined thousands of other activists to demand that political leaders attending COP 21 in Paris set aside their differences and agree on a strong and effective global plan to tackle climate change.

One such Climate Change Challenge activist is Noelle Healy, a student from Milstreet Community School in county Cork.

Remembering the day of the march, Noelle said:

“I learned a lot from the march and I will never forget the experience. It made me feel like my actions made an impact, that my voice and opinions on climate justice were heard and I that I made a difference in the world.”

Her classmate, Kaytlin Murphy, said

“I got to march with 5,000 people who felt the same way I did about climate change, it was inspiring.”

The climate change impacts already being felt in developing countries was a critical issue for the young activists.

Leah Fields, from Killinarden Community School, Tallaght, in county Dublin, said:

“Some countries, especially developing countries are already feeling the effects of climate change, causing major devastation such as drought, flooding, food shortages and increased migration.”

On 12 December 2015, political leaders from 196 countries finally agreed a global climate deal in Paris.

The ‘Paris Agreement’ represents a welcome milestone in uniting the world against climate change. However, the deal contains significant weaknesses, not least the absence of human rights and the protection of the world’s most vulnerable people.

When asked how she hoped the Paris Agreement will impact people in developing countries, Kaytlin Murphy responded

“We in the global north are causing most of the damage resulting in climate change but it is people in the global south that are affected the most. This agreement shows everyone how people all over the world can work together to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.”

There are still a few steps remaining before the Paris Agreement comes into force.

For one year, from April 22, the Agreement will be open for signing by member states. Then countries will need to engage in a national process to accept the Agreement in their own country.

When at least 55 countries accounting in total for at least an estimated 55% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have accepted the agreement, it will then be implemented.

Amy Logan giving a class presentation on Climate Change by Trócaire
Photo: Amy Logan giving a class presentation on Climate Change. Copyright: Trócaire 2016.

“Signing of the agreement is a historic day which gives prominence to a pressing issue that we face today. It will mark the beginning of a journey to stand together in the fight for climate justice,” said Amy Logan, a student form St Comhghall’s College in county Fermanagh.

Leah Fields also agrees with the significance of the event at the UN Headquarters in New York.

“When the leaders come together to legalise the agreement from COP21, it will become an important feature in current and future generations.”

But our young activists are not leaving change in the hands of world leaders. Following the Climate Change Challenge, many have made personal behaviour changes and are spreading the word about the need to act locally for climate justice.

Leah shared:

“I have started to make small changes in my everyday life to help stop climate change; such as turning off switches when they aren’t being used, starting to buy Irish products, spending less time on my phone and sharing what I have learned with my family and friends.”

These young people are keenly aware that their peers need to realise that their own actions are contributing to climate change, and to encourage them to be part of a more just future for our people and planet.

“I hope that the young people in Ireland understand the seriousness of this issue and know what they can do at an individual level to help both the current situation and the future” comments Amy Logan, “I have tackled the issue by raising awareness through class presentations in my school; I hope the students will make small changes like recycling, as this will have big effects.”

Noelle Healy hopes that young people will embrace their power,

“I’d like to see other people in Ireland become more aware of the causes, effects and solutions of climate change. If people knew more about climate change they feel more motivated to do something to help tackle the issue. Young people have the opportunity to change outcomes when they work together. Knowledge is power.”

Kaytlin Murphy feels there needs to be more opportunities for young people to engage with the issues of climate change:

“In school we ran a Climate Change seminar with Trócaire and seven other schools in our area. I think this should be done all over the country as it makes young people my age more aware of climate change and it would help them to understand ways of causing less harm to our environment.”

So while the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon uses his influence to secure the ratification of the Paris Agreement, young people such as Amy, Leah, Kaytlin and Noelle will continue to exert their passion and influence over peers and their wider community.

For Trócaire’s Development Education team, COP21 was not the end of the climate action journey but merely the beginning. As we enter into the third year of our programme on climate justice, we will seek more opportunities to partner with young people, their educators and institutions.

We cannot forget about mental health when striving towards the SDGs.

Two of my major passions in life right now are mental health and development issues. The two often live independently of one another in my head, switched on and off as work requires (this is in fact what I suppose I should want; in reality both occupy my mind a lot of the time).

I realised the other day however that these two topics are not mutually exclusive- and since then a cacophony of questions have absorbed my mind on this. To try bring myself some answers, I conducted some research on the intersection of the two, and what I found brought me to a position that I believe to be quite important – Mental health and well-being MUST feature in our discussions and actions on the sustainable development goals.


Where does mental health feature within the SDG framework?

Goal three is ‘ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages’. A bit vague, but we have the worlds ‘well-being’ so we are on the right track. Things take a nose dive however when we get to the targets.

Target 3.4 is the only mention of mental health:

‘By 2030, reduce by one third premature mortality from non-communicable diseases through prevention and treatment and promote mental health and well-being.’

First, lets tackle the part on ‘non communicable diseases‘ which are ‘also known as chronic diseases [and] are not passed from person to person. They are of long duration and generally slow progression’. This includes cancers and diabetes.

I could not find out if depression (and death by suicide) is included in this concept of non communicable disease, but my best guess is that it is, given that it is in the same task as mental health and well being. There is no mention of suicide in any other goal or task.

The WHO has found that 800,000 people die by suicide every year. This figure is undoubtedly conservative also, with many religions and laws condemning and banning suicide, its prevalence is bound to be under reported. 800,000 is a huge number of deaths for an illness which is not mentioned in our global framework for health development.

Is mental illness and suicide a problem for all?

Countires with highest rates of suicide and their HDI ranking. Sourced from WHo and HDI report
Countries with highest rates of suicide and their HDI ranking. Sourced from WHO and HDI

I took a look and found that suicide is a global issue, but it does disproportionately affect countries ranked lower on the human development index. So we can see that death by suicide is a major health problem across the globe that disproportionately affects developing countries and yet is not explicitly mentioned in the SDGs.

Therefore if we want to take a globally representative stance rooted in data, then we must advocate for suicide numbers to be featured in our fight against non communicable diseases. We must keep it on the agenda. Other causes of death have specific targets and goals, we should expect suicide rates to get the same attention.

What about overall mental HEALTH?

The second part of target 3.4 (‘promote mental health and well-being‘) is even more vague. Mental health is defined as:

 ‘a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.’

Granted both mental health and well-being are difficult to measure, but they not impossible. Take this graph from the Happy Planet Index:

Experienced well-being. Source:
Experienced well-being. Source:

What we can see is that well-being IS disproportionately experienced across the world. Green countries represent countries with higher experience of well-being, red indicates lower levels. However this article from the World Economic Forum found that

‘A key insight is that some countries have managed to generate well-being improvements for their citizens beyond what would have been expected by their wealth levels or growth rates.’

There is more to improved well-being than economic development. We must do more than promote well-being as an idea; we need to find out scientifically how to cultivate it across the board.


It is not good enough for ‘developed’ countries to condense suicide rates into other diseases, because it does not affect us as much as those in developing countries.

It is not acceptable for us to write off our task of nurturing well-being as ‘promotion’ , particularly when we already enjoy higher levels of it.

Facilitating improved well-being should include funding of scientific research, formulation of expert-led promotion plans and real actions that promote real change. Suicide, mental health and well-being have been living as abstract concepts for too long, and they have been too silent in the world of development. It is time that we promote them in the context of development as real and important issues that deserve time and attention.

If the Sustainable development Goals cannot do this, then they are not the framework for change that they set out to be.