History of the IDS Program

Meandering Reflections on the Creation and Evolution of the IDS Program.

Professor Albert Berry,

Written for the 25th Anniversary Celebrations of the IDS Program, November 2009.

Getting Going and Keeping Going

As I recall our early discussions about this program (initially among Rorke Bryan, Richard Sandbrook , Pedro Leon and myself, a group thereafter expanded to include a number of others) we shared the view that many of the contributions that Canadians might make to social, political, and economic progress in the developing world would call for people who embodied not only such obviously desirable traits as enthusiasm, tolerance and a desire to make a difference but also a wide-ranging theoretical or academic preparation and some early experience of life in a developing country, confronting or getting involved in and thinking about the challenges of such countries. We all agreed that various disciplines needed to be woven into the program; the question was where to place the emphasis. We also agreed that the academic learning experience would be more productive when combined with field experience, and that the latter should also yield more valuable learning when combined with the academic side. The senior thesis, and the idea that it would usually be built around field experience or issues/ problems observed in the placement country, was part of this package, in which we hoped the academic and the practical would be bounced off each other and to some degree integrated.

Two suited men talking

On the academic front, we agreed that a valuable combination of knowledge and skills would combine the social science side with the physical science side. Although environmental issues were much less dominant in people’s thinking then than now, we saw other merits to knowledge in the hard sciences. It was already clear from the experience of programs like the American Alliance for Progress, that receiving institutions in the developing countries often felt that the young people who could make the biggest contribution were the ones who knew something about agriculture, or land conservation, or business skills or computers or something else on the science/technical side, broadly defined. None of us thought that this combination was the only useful way to go, but rather that a program designed this way could provide a valuable mixture of knowledge and experience that was not (at least at that time) the focus of any other programs available to students interested in work in developing countries. We recognized that an extra year tacked onto one’s undergraduate career could be a problem for some students, but on balance the placement has remained an attractive feature of the program.

Developing a curriculum that was not just a somewhat accidental packaging of already existing courses in the various disciplines (the way some programs have in fact been put together) called for considerable thought about what a good combination would be and for the creation of several new courses. The four of us represented physical geography, political science, economics and languages so almost by definition we as a group considered those areas to be important. As we have reflected various times over the years, it was probably easier and hence more likely that such an interdisciplinary program be created at UTSC than on the main campus of the U of T or in other large institutions because at a small campus in which a number of disciplines came under the same division, we already knew each other and found it easy to get together and talk about the program.

Would we be able to attract an adequate pool of candidates with both the academic credentials and the other qualities we saw as important? I remember that Rorke was optimistic that there would be enough students interested in development study and work, able to maintain high academic performance and also able and interested to do so across the physical sciences-social sciences divide. I confess to taking a wait and see approach; perhaps Rorke had done more informal market research than I had. In any case, he was a source not only of enthusiasm, which I think we all shared, but also of confidence that indeed everything would come together. His knowledge of and familiarity with the potential for identifying good placements was another aspect of his leadership.

Language courses were a natural part of the program since many placements occur in countries where the language is not English. The program was fortunate to have the interest and support of a good number of faculty from language and literature. Horst Wittman (director of CO-OP programs 1989-1994 and also heavily involved with the NGO Horizons of Friendship) and Pedro Leon, supervisor of studies 1989-1994, were among the professors who played prominent roles in the program.

Needless to say, it was pivotal to have support from the administration at UTSC. Professor Joan Foley was Principal during the planning phase and always provided strong support; both of her immediate successors, Ron Williams and Paul Thompson did as well, as the program worked its way though various challenges and a financial crisis when the CIDA grant with which it was launched came to an end. Ralph Campbell, principal before the program began, and an agricultural specialist with field experience in development, was another valued supporter, and for a time chair of the Board of Advisers.

We were lucky also to begin with Arthur Sheps as Director of the program. He brought extensive knowledge of and contacts in the Canadian development community. As other co-operative programs were initiated at UTSC we eventually shifted to a system of one director for the group, The four coordinators, beginning with Paul Shaffer, then Jane Maxwell, Catherine Moffat and now Katie Boomgaardt have all brought much dedication and talent to the program, and we on the faculty have enjoyed working with each of them. This is perhaps not too surprising, since most people who work in and around development are unlike the Wall Street type “me-firsters” whom we have all loved to hate over the last year or so. I also remember fondly our secretaries and program assistants, who often doubled as personal mentors to students and kept us in line as well. Carol Nicholls personified the best in the program and her premature death was a reminder that one should appreciate such people when one has them.

In short, we had many things going for us at the start, or we would not have gotten off the ground, and a lot going for us since then as well, to help us to deal with the various obstacles that have emerged along the way. Together with the merits of smallness in establishing programs like this one came the disadvantage that, given the limited size of the faculty, we could not cover as many areas of possible interest to the students from our own faculty resources as could a large institution. We did our best to resolve this problem over the years through a combination of making new hires that fit the needs of the program, drawing on stipend (temporary) faculty, and arranging for some courses to be taken at St. George. When IDS became a separate discipline (around 2000 if I recall) with a budget to hire some faculty on its own was in recognition of this difficulty and others.

Small programs face a variety of other problems that more traditional discipline groups do not. One is that the institution’s responsibility for the program is not automatically lodged in a unit like a discipline. Hires, retirements, sabbaticals and waxing or waning personal interest it the program mean that the overall degree of faculty involvement can vary considerably over fairly short-periods and there is no person or group automatically responsible for keeping everything on an even keel. As a result, the program has not always received the same dose of attention from what one might call the “core” faculty as a group. What has often saved us in this regard is that other faculty members, with no or less formal responsibility to the program at a given point have nonetheless been willing to devote time and attention because they value it and value the presence of the students in the development area. They have complemented such central figures over the years as Sue Horton, Paul Kingston, and Michael Bunce.

Just as faculty involvement has its ups and downs so does institutional support. Of course, these ups and downs are sometimes explained by the ups and downs of the program’s success. At other times, though, there is a challenge of keeping the upper administration informed about a program which is small, numerically speaking, does not fit the usual disciplinary mould, and involves a non-academic component, the placement. Inevitably, some administrators understand what the program is about better than do others. The natural rotation of personnel, both in the administration of the program itself and at higher levels of the College create a challenge of maintaining continuity and having a decent institutional memory on what has happened before.

Changes with Time.

The most obvious contrast between now and 25 years ago is in the number of students taking IDS-related courses at UTSC. Not all of this, of course, can be attributed to the presence of the program; there was already a good number of such courses in the curriculum before it was created, and a good number of students taking them, but we did not give any degrees in development studies, neither the specialist-coop degree, nor the specialist non-coop, nor the major or minor. The growth of these latter three degrees has been more striking quantitatively that than of the number of co-op students which has always been limited by the cost and our budget limitations, among other things. The general increase in interest in development studies courses and programs across Canada over the last few decades shows that our experience has not been atypical, even if we still think we have one of the best (the best??) programs. In the first year our core course, IDSB01 and IDSB02 included only the co-op students, fewer than 15 that year; these courses now approach 200 students, most of whom are of course not in the IDS co-op program. We still hope to get to know most of the IDS specialists and some of the majors, but it is not as quick as in those first few years. I remember, with Richard Sandbrook, meeting that first class in the Political Economy of Development, and getting our first glimpse of what the students brought to the classroom. I hope it was as exciting for the students as it was for us. That first small class had an unusual number of transfer students so we got an early look at some of the prior backgrounds from which students might slide into IDS.

Inevitably, the content of the curriculum has been a source of continuing discussion and sometimes disagreement, and it has evolved a good deal over the years. A number of students have found the science component either hard or not a primary interest. The same can, I am sorry to report, be said for some types of economics. Among the courses that became more popular over the years were anthropology, an area from which we did not happen to have a member in the founding group, and such placement-relevant courses as project management and the ethics of development. Both of the latter two were created substantially in response to student interest/pressure as they confronted issues that they wished to study in a more organized way. My course on small enterprise was created in part with the idea that its content would be relevant to some IDS students. Human geography as a field has also been important to us, both in the interest and support received over the years from faculty members like Michael Bunce, and by the “internal interdisciplinarity” that tends to characterize it. The health area is one where rapid growth of student interest has gone hand in hand with new strength on the faculty side, as represented by Anne-Emanuelle Birn and, until she left, Sue Horton. Leslie Chan, our current supervisor, helps to keep us au courant though his involvement in media studies and in new technology and such of its uses as improving the diffusion of the content of health and other journals published in developing countries. Most of what he does was of course not yet doable when the IDS program was started.

We have over the years changed the core content of the program in line with who was available to teach what, with the considered views of the students, and with other changing factors. We have typically defended the physical and social science combination on the grounds that it remains a very useful one, that it is how we developed this particular program so we have developed an expertise in it, and that students who find the combination not right for them do have options in other universities. It has remained one of our trademarks.

It is both inevitable and a commonplace in business studies to note that good products get imitated, and also that when the demand for a type of product is expanding the supply naturally tends to grow as well. That has happened. And while increasing competition from other institutions can be uncomfortable at times, it should be welcomed for a number of reasons. The Canadian (or non-Canadian) interested in development studies in this country is certainly provided with more quality options than was the case 25 years ago. Competition keeps us all on our toes, and it invites specialization among the various institutions provided degrees in the area. While we have modified our curriculum over the years, we have certainly not modified our view that the broad contours of the package add up to a good program.

The rising interest in development issues at the university level over the years has reflected the increasingly heterogeneous character of our population, most notably in Toronto, but country-wide as well, with many young people having roots in developing countries and a natural interest in them. Another factor from which we benefited was the appearance of “World Issues” courses in high schools. I remember how many of the students we interviewed cited such courses as having heightened their interest in development. I hope it is also true that for other reasons, including moral ones, our population has become more concerned with problems of poverty and its accompanying ills.

Placement Challenges and Others

Apart from the need to identify placements that would provide enriching experiences for the students—a task harder at times than at other times as the NGO world has evolved and suffered its own ups and downs, but generally admirably handled by our coordinators, two other special challenges/issues have always been there.

Safety of students when abroad has always been a concern of the program, and our apparatus to deal with it has gone through several iterations as we learned more about the dangers and the best way to prevent them and to respond to them. There have been bad experiences. I suspect that the biggest improvement over the years has not been anything we could do but simply the arrival of email and the cell phone, both of which provided our students (and so many other people in developing countries) much better access to the outside world than before.

Less obvious is the danger of disillusionment by the student during his/her placement. I do not recall the extent to which we recognized in advance how sobering an experience in a developing country could be for many students. While it is a truism to say that if one is ever to be a good operative in many areas of development one has to be a realist in terms of what can be achieved, what combination of types of people one may wind up working with, the institutional flaws that characterize all or nearly all institutions, and so on, it is a good question when in one’s career this can best be absorbed, what is the best preparation to help one to keep it in perspective, etc. Although often painful, an understanding of the world’s warts is a necessary ingredient to thinking about which paths of cooperation do hold the greatest promise.

It has usually been possible to generate a debate, involving both students and faculty, as to the ideal distribution of student time between the academics and everything else. We know that many genuinely interesting and important things can pull students in many non-academic directions and that a great deal of valuable experience does occur outside the classroom. Students often get involved in local NGOs, protests, and other social causes. We except and welcome this. Still, the program necessarily reflects the fact that universities are primarily there for academic learning. Result: the periodically overloaded and bleary-eyed student.

The world has changed too, in many and important ways.
1. Environmental issues and especially global warming leap to the fore as the dominant threat to humanity over the coming decades and century.
2. The world moves towards becoming more multi-polar with the bursts of growth in China and India especially.
3. The developing world as a whole continues to register significant gains in per capita income, health, life expectancy and literacy and other indicators of progress, but where the gains are being made undergoes some significant change.
4. The rate of poverty reduction in the world slows in the 1980s and 1990s, partly due to rising inequality in many countries.
5. Sub-Saharan Africa replaces Asia as the locus of a disproportionate amount of world poverty
6. We learn (or relearn, depending on how long our memory) just how incompetent an industrial country government can be and how much of a threat it can pose to world stability and progress.
7. We relearn that the world economy and the US economy in particular are badly governed in terms of keeping systemic risk down.
8. Development assistance from most industrial countries shrinks and changes orientation in various ways.
9. Economic policy in many developing countries lurches from probably too interventionist or inefficiently interventionist to not interventionist enough and then (perhaps) back towards the centre.
10. Canada’s world role shrinks in general as we lose much of the “reliable honest broker” medium power role we played for some time after World War 11 and do not to date find a substitute medium-power role, even though individual Canadians have made great and widely recognized contributions (Steven Lewis, Louise Arbour, Romeo Dallaire and many others). And maybe if we look at all of the efforts that are a bit below the radar screen they do add up to a great deal–an interesting issue for thought. Some of my colleagues have done things worthy of national pride, though not necessarily known outside groups of specialists.
11. The ways in which people interested in contributing to development can do so has changed in certain ways, as have the regions which can benefit from outside help, and these changes are very relevant to our program and our students.

What has stayed frustratingly the same since the program got started.

There has been a good deal of socio-economic progress over the last 25 (and over the last 50-60) years. But the world still has a long way to go. The allocation of world resources remains disastrously bad. One of the best uses of resources, from both industrial and developing countries, is on improving agricultural technology accessible to small farmers; this can have big positive impacts on perhaps 2 billion people. The annual budget of the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) is about half a billion dollars, i.e. 25 cents per potential beneficiary. The costs of the war in Iraq, including some of the indirect ones, is well above a trillion dollars, so over 200 dollars has or will have gone there for every dollar in the CGIAR budget over the last 10 years. Fifty years from now the net socio-economic effect of the war will probably be judged to have been negative. So we spent over a trillion dollars to get less than nothing, when with a few billion a year extra we could have greatly affected the lives of so many low-income people. This is mind-blowing incompetence at a world level. And although the USA bears the responsibility for much of the worst misspending, we all bear the responsibility for not spending enough in the useful ways.

Perhaps the other greatest challenge to do better is in the area of women’s rights/gender justice. Achieving success here is many times more complicated and difficult in policy terms than improving agricultural technology and putting the new discoveries at the disposal of small farmers. Perhaps there has been more success than actually meets the eye. But certainly gender injustice has not given away as much as extreme poverty (defined by family income) has.

Making a Difference

Our graduates have, not surprisingly, found themselves in a wide range of activities. A taxonomy of activities relevant to international development that I find useful is:
i) Bilateral and multilateral aid-related activities
ii) NGOs, international or developing country
iii) Developing country governments
iv) Academic and research centres
v) Private corporations
vi) The media and other (non-academic) writing

I know we have graduates in either all or almost all of these categories; the possible exception is developing country government. In all cases I am confident that they are doing useful things. A year or so ago I met in the subway one of the (few, I think) graduates who went on to do an MBA; our discussion was too brief and truncated (as subway discussions are) but I came away having seen the social twist (corporate responsibility, in modern parlance) that the student was giving to his work in the company. A number of our graduates in the first two categories have moved to policy-making positions.

In those cohorts of students that I have known the best and followed after their graduation, a majority have gone on to graduate school within a few years, by which time they have figured out what they want to do, and have then pursued further studies in a wide range of areas from forestry, health, political economy of development, economics, political science, agricultural science, MBA, law and others.

The bottom line is that we have former students with a wide range of postgraduate training and/or work experience, doing a wide range of things; of those in more narrowly defined development work, many having done both fieldwork and policy work. Given all this it is clear that the collective knowledge and understanding of our graduates is impressive. Which leads me to think that we should find a wealthy donor who would pay to bring them all together for a couple of weeks to exchange ideas and give us at the end of it their condensed and refined wisdom on development (and other ) issues. (If we cannot find said donor, I hope that the get-together on Nov. 7 will have something of this flavour to it and add to the ongoing interaction among those graduates who have been able to keep in touch with each other.) At that retreat, we would hear views on how accurate are the various critiques of development theory and practice, on what really matters to successful development, both institutionally and policy-wise, on what successful development means in the first place, and all of those issues that have harassed us over the years. Most important, we will hear what those now working in the area see as the best directions for our current students to be taking and what that implies for the program and the curriculum.

While we would not be so out-of-touch as to expect our former students to remember all the content of the courses they had with us, it would be nice to know how much of it they now think was rubbish or otherwise not useful, how much was of some value and how they would write a text book now if they had the time. I note that some of the graduates have already contributed to textbooks in development.