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: