Reframing international development studies
From left: Abuja, Nigeria; Kerala, India; and Marrakesh, Morocco. (Photos by Ovinuchi Ejiohuo, Sreehari Devadas and Max Brown, respectively; cropped. Courtesy of Unsplash.)

Reframing international development studies

International development studies (IDS) faculty have been integrating critical development theory and critical numeracy into a curriculum that surveys the history, theories and experience of economic development in countries worldwide.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, July 25, 2022 — “The international development studies (IDS) major attracts students who are passionate about changing the world. They do not just want to learn more about why we face such urgent global problems, whether it is staggering disparities of wealth between the rich and poor, ecological devastation or gender and racial injustice; they want to know what they can do to change things,” says UCLA professor Jennifer Jihye Chun, who became academic chair of the IDS program on July 1.

A sociologist specializing in labor issues, Chun is a member of the permanent teaching faculty of the International Institute who also has appointments in Asian American studies and labor studies.

“To figure out what needs to change and how to go about it, I remind students that we need to continually interrogate the frameworks we use to understand international development. In some cases, there have been significant improvements and transformations. In other cases, conditions have become much worse, deteriorating to levels that deprive families and communities of their most basic needs, be it access to clean water, healthy food or safe housing.”

Taking stock of 70 years of political decolonization

The end of the World War II, decolonization and the independence of African and Asian countries coincided with a massive institutional effort on the part of advanced industrial nations to provide development support and expertise to “third world” nations.

The United Nations and its multiple arms dedicated to development and humanitarian goals (among them, the UN Development Programme, the Food and Agricultural Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Food Programme), together with a host of national agencies and multinational nongovernmental development organizations, were founded in that period and have grown exponentially since.

“The ways in which people have taught development theory were, to me, really out of date,” says Kevan Harris about graduate school curricula that presented successive theories of development. Harris, another member of the IDS faculty, is a comparative historical sociologist who has a joint appointment in the International Institute and the sociology department.

Chun concurs, “I found myself asking, ‘When do I stop teaching theories of modernization and underdevelopment, or cover different pathways to national industrialization?’ We struggle to rethink how to teach development studies because development as a field has been tied to a particular set of frameworks developed in particular time periods.”

Adds Harris, “The world looks very different today than it did 20 years ago, when IDS went from a small boutique major to a supercharged, very big major during the 1990s.” In addition to profound changes in the “geography of the global economy” over the past two decades, he points to progress in poverty rates in certain regions, as well as the decline in the significance of the IMF and the rise of China as an alternative source of development finance.

Alden Young, an IDS faculty member with a joint appointment in the institute and the African American studies department, comments, “We’re trying to train students not to approach development with a colonial mindset — that we’re coming to save backwards people — but to think of new ways to structure the global economy. The faculty [comes from] a nice array of disciplines, so students get to see development studies from different approaches — whether political science, sociology or anthropology.”

“Faculty were hearing that students wanted a curriculum that was much more [oriented toward] critical development studies,” says Hannah Appel, who teaches in both the institute's IDS and global studies programs and has a joint appointment in the anthropology department. “What has development been? What have its outcomes been? What would decolonial development look like? What would anti-racist development look like?”

Comments Chun, “I taught about participatory budgeting in Brazil in my course, Culture, Power and Development. When students learned that the mayor of Los Angeles was trying to adopt participatory budgeting three decades after it was introduced in Brazil, it showed them that alternatives are often created and incubated in the Global South.

“Those are the moments when I see students’ light bulbs go off: ‘Oh, this isn’t just us teaching the third world, there are things we need to learn.’”

Adds Young, “One of things we have to fight against in development studies is that we [in the Global North] have all the answers and that we’re here to give answers to other people without engaging with the knowledge that’s being produced around the world.”


A recent book published by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), which publishes
books as well as academic journals, including Africa Development and Journal of Higher Education in Africa. (Graphic: CODESRIA.)

Program review brings changes

After undergoing a periodic review in 2017, the IDS program implemented a number of changes. A new introductory core course (Introduction to International Development Studies) was introduced in 2018, the sequencing of the material taught in the four required core courses has been enhanced and the curriculum gives greater attention to issues of race, gender and migration.

In addition, two new upper-level courses have been added: Decolonizing Political Economy: Colonialism and Development, and Political Economy of Climate Change. The IDS program has also developed a robust — and popular — honors program for students who wish to complete a senior research thesis under the guidance of a faculty advisor.

After meeting certain prerequisites, students can apply and, if accepted, declare their major as early as the start of their sophomore year. The early declaration gives them a longer period of time to build their knowledge of development theory and the history of developing countries and world regions.

Beyond coursework, the IDS program consistently supports student-initiated organizations, such as the Global Development Lab @ UCLA, which has funded numerous small development projects abroad. The International Institute also offers its IDS and global studies students (as well as other undergraduates) opportunities to do summer travel study programs, study abroad programs and/or earn credit for internships with local, national or international nonprofit organizations, using an international framework that puts their work in a global context.

Concurrently with these changes, former IDS chair Michael Lofchie encouraged a cohort of younger faculty to “decolonize” the way in which the major addresses development in its core courses. Lofchie, a professor of political science at UCLA, was instrumental in founding the international development studies major in 1987 (and the global health minor in 2015) and served as academic chair of the program through the end of 2021.

Expanding the framework for analyzing development and underdevelopment erases colonial concepts such as first, second and third worlds and puts an emphasis on factors that create structural inequalities.

“Under Mike Lofchie’s leadership, the IDS program dismantled the divide that separated learning about the Global South from the Global North. This shift in framing is opening up discussion to talk about, for example, Indigenous peoples’ struggles over sovereignty and resource extraction, such as pipeline development, as part of the study of development,” says Chun.


Standing Rock Reservation, which crosses the bortder between North and South Dakota. Signs in front of Oceti Sakowin
Camp during Dakora Access Pipeline protests of 2016. (Photo: Becker1999 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; CC BY 2.0.)

“Rather than focus narrowly on what’s happening ‘over there in the Third World,’ we are learning about what has and is continuing to happen to marginalized communities that have been systematically disempowered by the legal system, the political economy and socio-cultural systems, including in the territorial borders of the U.S. and other wealthy industrialized nations.”

The restructured curriculum is being well received by IDS majors, many of whom wish to pursue careers in development, humanitarian work and human rights. As the program's 2022 activist and academic awardees attest, the program draws diverse students whose professional aspirations share a common goal of international equity and justice.