Expert Interview Series: Brendan Rigby of WhyDev on Getting Started In Development Work

Brendan Rigby is the co-founder of WhyDev. He is a global education and literacy expert.

WhyDev was started by you and your partner, Weh Yeoh, in response to a lack of student voices and critical discussion about development theory and practice. To start, can you talk a bit about what you mean by ‘development theory’, for people unfamiliar with the term?

Development theory is a fragmented collection of theories on how individual communities and countries achieve economic, social and political change. It is often dominated by economic theories and the discipline of economics, but also includes a range of academic disciplines from education and gender to communications and media.

What are the risks of biased or incomplete theories regarding development work? Why is it it important to have diverse viewpoints and demographics working together, in development work, to truly cultivate a healthy global culture?

The risks are enormous. The sociologist Basil Bernstein put forward the idea of the pedagogic device, which is a concept describing the translation of theory and knowledge into teacher’s classroom practice. Development actors use similar pedagogic devices to translate development theories into policy and programs that will impact the lives of real people, often with unintended consequences. Often they go searching for silver bullets to ending global poverty. However, if we work collaboratively and challenge each other’s viewpoints regarding how we theorize and make change happen, we can avoid repeating the mistakes of many failed silver bullets and programs.

What were some thoughts or perspectives that were being left out of the development theory conversations that you sought to correct with WhyDev? How much has that changed in the seven years since you started, and in what ways?

One of biggest ongoing concerns is the portrayal of so-called “beneficiaries”, and the reproduction of inequalities through discourse and language. How we talk about development and those involved is critically important, but often given little thought. Those who are targeted by development policies and programs are often left out of the decision-making process. They are often not involved in the design of programs, their implementation or evaluation. They are treated as passive recipients, who have little to offer because they might lack a formal education. Aid recipients, beneficiaries and target communities are portrayed as props in media and communication materials, with little or no agency. We’ve seen some change in dialogue and discourse with development actors adopting more positive portrayals of people and looking at communities through a strengths-based approach. The default, however, is still to consider poor, uneducated beneficiaries as incompetent, undignified and miserable. We have started to understand better that poverty is multidimensional and this understanding needs to be reflected in our understanding and portrayal of people’s lives.

The site DevelopmentNow.org describes development work as ” helping a country become more competitive across many overlapping sectors, from health, to education and many places in between.” What are some of the in-between sectors that are also important in development work?

I would dispute that definition as wholly superficial and lacking. Reducing development work to enabling competition is reductive and unhelpful. Development work should be defined by collaborative efforts that are evidence-based to support individual, communities and countries achieve economic, social and political change. It is hard to pin down development, because development can be everything and applied to every country. The United States of America has a lot of development work that needs to be implemented.

Unfortunately, development is often associated with “developing” countries. But, if development work is about economic, social and political change then it is relevant to every country and essentially encompasses every sector from agriculture and manufacturing to local government and early years learning.

They also talk about the key to development being sustainability. Why is it important to make sure that not only each sector is working, independent, but that all the systems are working together, as well?

We are realizing more and more that we cannot look at development work in compartments and silos. Systems thinking and complexity theory have revealed the interdependencies, non-linearity and adaptiveness through which change occurs. It is not about ensuring that all systems are working well together, but first understanding those systems and how change emerges. Sustainability can only be understood through systems thinking.

In today’s globalized culture, development work is essential for a fair and just society, healthy cultures and ecologies. Can you touch on, briefly, how globalization helps create the conditions that make development work necessary? Why is it important we address these imbalances, to fix the systems we already have in place?

I’m not sure globalization helps create the conditions for development work. Neoliberal policies, conflict, gender inequity and colonialism are just some of the past histories and present actions that have created the conditions of development work. Clearly, the current system of economic order is unjust and inequitable. Wealth is held and passed on through the hands of a handful of people. Despite progress in the number and ratio of people living in poverty, inequality is rising. The rationale for fixing the system is very strong, but the how is less certain.

For someone thinking of getting into development work as a career, how can studying the top NGOs and their employees help them get started in that industry?

If you want to work in development, look beyond the big International NGOs. Development work can be found in your own country, working on issues relevant to your communities. I think the most important step to take is networking and reaching out to people working in different sectors and organisations to talk to them about their work. Everything always looks better from the outside and it’s hard to get an inside look at organizations. Take up internship and volunteer opportunities to get this inside look. This can be at smaller organisations, not just your Oxfams and World Visions.

What are some of the non-financial benefits of working in development work and aid work, for people considering getting involved in the industry?

There are a lot of benefits to working in development, depending on the organisation you work with and how your role is defined. It is not axiomatically “good” to work in this industry. It is hard. A good organisation with effective leadership, a healthy culture and a clear vision to creating change can be nourishing to work with, however. There are also often increased mental health risks associated with humanitarian and development work that often go unreported and undiscussed, so keep that in mind when choosing development work as a career.

What are some of the most important countries and cultures in need of development work, at the moment, and why? What could happen if they don’t receive the aid that they need?

The United States is a country most in need in regards to significant economic, social and political change. In regards to humanitarian assistance, those countries include Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia.

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