Friday, 23 November 2012

Why should you do the MA in Poverty and Development at IDS?

By Roger Williamson
Photo of Roger Williamson
You are obviously interested at some level – or you would not be reading this.

Some obvious objections. There are other development studies courses around. Yes, but the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) has a concentration of 100 development researchers allowing for a range of specialisms, and a genuinely inter-disciplinary approach. As my PhD supervisor told me, most of the important and interesting work to be done is multidisciplinary and none of us are properly trained in all the subjects we need and how they fit together, being taught in the multidisciplinary environment of IDS gives you a good grounding and establishes the work habits for a career of acquiring other skills you need “on the job”.

It’s expensive. Yes. Education is expensive – but not as expensive or damaging as ignorance. If you want to be a development professional get trained properly. The alternative is likely to be too damaging to poor people later and will not do your career any good. The other news, however, is that MA courses are expensive - and IDS does not compare badly even on price alone in a UK or international comparison.

Things are very turbulent just now – “I am going to wait until it all settles down a bit”. Don't. It's not going to settle down. Do a course which helps you deal with complexity, risk, uncertainty. If you want clarity and simplicity get a job selling bread. You will know at the end of the day if you sold more than yesterday.

Where will I end up working?
You don’t know and we don’t know. However, IDS alumni end up working with government, in NGOs or international development agencies, academia and other stimulating arenas. However, more and more these days’ people end up with a “portfolio” career, rather than one employer for a lifetime. You need interdisciplinary skills, flexible approaches – the IDS courses prepare you as well as any can. I have employed and worked with a number of colleagues with an IDS training.

So – what are the positives?
A huge plus is the other students. You will not be in a room with people who are just intellectually smart careerists. The other students are also high performers, but they have at least two years’ experience working in development. It is a small intense community – with many of the students from countries of the Global South. A mixture of small group study; one-on-one supervision for your dissertation on your theme of choice.

The course is demanding – you can’t do much more in a year
In the autumn term, students have to do three core modules mapping out the territory in poverty and development. There is more choice after Christmas – doing Aid and Poverty and/or Poverty, Violence and Conflict – or one of these courses and one from a lengthy menu of optional modules. From May – August, attention is focused on a 10,000 word dissertation. This either rounds out the course or is the ideal preparation for a student who wants to go on to a PhD. (I have some advice on a PhDs as well – only do one if you think the subject is really interesting and important, and/or you need it for your career).

IDS is a fantastic intellectual environment
There is the challenge of the other students and excellent study facilities in a world class development library. There is literally no “upper limit” to the resources available in the library or on line – and you will be shown the skills to access it.

Then, of course, there is the opportunity to hear a constant stream of challenging speakers on development in lunch time and evening presentations from external speakers and IDS luminaries such as Richard Jolly and Robert Chambers.

Recent MA students I have talked with (not a big enough sample to help me pass the quantitative methods elements of the course, I grant) also stress the important opportunities for some students through IDS to be employed as researchers on projects alongside study. It gets you experience, it gets you known, you earn some money.

I wish I had done this course. Being a visiting fellow gives me an insight into IDS, and I am impressed. I have had a career working with NGOs and organizing development related conferences for government - and the graduates from this course and other IDS MAs are exactly the type of people I wanted to recruit to my teams – well-qualified, well-motivated, open to new approaches, wanting to make a difference.

In Brazil in 1983, I talked with a top cartoonist, Claudius Ceccon who worked with the Catholic Bishops which sided with the poor against the military dictatorship. The Church was producing excellent campaigning material against poverty and human rights violations. I asked why they produced the material so well and carefully. He replied: “The poor deserve the best”. I feel very strongly indeed that if people are not well motivated to work with and on behalf of the poor, and if you are not well trained, you really should be doing something else. Development is littered with examples of the damage done by self-appointed and mistaken “experts”. The interview process should sift out people with the wrong motivation and the course should get you well trained.   

Health warning: This blog is based on insufficient research, not enough in-depth conversation with current or previous students – so should you ignore it? No – check it out for yourself. Is it the course for you? Apply and ask the difficult questions. Or if you find another course at IDS or elsewhere which will equip you better do that instead! A career in development is like the marathon – and this course is like a good pair of running shoes to help you on your way.

About the author
Roger Williamson is a Visiting Fellow in the Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction Team at IDS. He has had a career in NGOs, including work as Policy and Campaigns Director at Christian Aid, a major development organization. Until taking early retirement he organized nearly 80 international conferences for the British government at Wilton Park.