5 Things that will Frustrate the Heck out of you when studying International Development

I ran a ‘blogging for beginners’ session for my LSE students earlier this week. Some of them clearly didn’t need it. Here’s MSc Development Management student Stella Yoh.

International Development is our passion – that’s why we’re all here. It’s what keeps us going through these late nights and grey London days.

But let’s face it, it’s not always a fun ride. As fulfilling as it is, studying International Development can be a real struggle, and if you haven’t had an existential crisis by now, you sure as hell have one coming your way.

Here are the five biggest frustrations that International Development students feel at least once during their studies.

Everything depends on context. 

Sometimes you wonder if the main purpose of a top-notch education is learning how to say “it depends” with class (i.e. academic rigor).  Almost every literature you read by almost every renowned academic will talk about how context specific everything is. You will rarely find anything that lays things out in a simple manner, and even more rarely, with a clear solution. If you ever find a good, simple answer, it will most likely be wrong (think KONY 2012). This can be really frustrating to us students, who supposedly came to school to get answers. Instead, we somehow end up getting even more confused?

I think we can all relate to this


The Chicken or the Egg? No one knows.

Some people really believe in the power of institutions. Others think growth depends solely on what you’re born with. We all agree that all the “good” things (democracy, well-functioning markets and state, etc.) are strongly correlated with economic growth. We’ve all seen at least one of the numerous classic 45° scatterplots, (below):

GDP & Democracy (see original: https://economics.mit.edu/files/5677)
GDP & education (original: http://hanushek.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/Pareto Lecture.<“THE scatterplot” of international development>

But what comes first?  The good thing or the economy? Does one good thing cause another, or the other way around? Are governments corrupt because they are poor? Or are they poor because they are corrupt?  Here’s an answer: it depends.

Wear all hats, or else (but choose the hat wisely).  

International Development is a highly interdisciplinary area of study. You can’t possibly focus just on economics, or anthropology, or political science, because all of them are closely intertwined. The good side of this is that you will get a wide perspective and learn from the best practices of each field.  But this also means that you’ll face a massive identity crisis, because eventually, you’ll have to choose your main research discipline. And although all methodologies are truly valuable, some hats are more mainstream than others (i.e. get you more funding and/or job opportunities).

Learn to wear all hats, but choose your main hat wisely.

Pessimism vs. me: does it even matter?

Have you ever met an idealist senior development professional? I certainly haven’t.

The more we learn about development, the more we have to battle with encroaching cynicism. The development industry is nowhere near perfect, and there is the repeated theme of disillusioned practitioners going back to the private sector (or for some, to academia). Many others stick it out, but are well aware of their limitations.

Understandably, tackling multifaceted, deeply-rooted problems in development can be very difficult, and even some of the world’s best minds are fatalistic. Studying (or practicing) development thus requires an extraordinary peace of mind where constant cynicism is balanced out by constant optimism, like Gramsci in his prison days: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Welcome to the Real World. 

You wrote a distinction paper on climate change, but this really cool job on corporate responsibility wants someone with 8+ years of experience. Sound familiar? 

Once we survive the intellectual frustrations of the classroom, we are immediately slapped in the face by the job market. Most entry points to development organizations are highly competitive internships with little to no pay; and most decent full-time roles look for previous experience in investment banking or management consulting (or equivalent). Almost every talk and guide (like this one) recommends

Zen Riddle for Millenials – original: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFzUbgpWNf8

getting private sector experience in leading firms. But weren’t these giant corporations the bad guys? Now you’re telling us to go work for them?

This ginormous gap between what we learn and what we can actually do in real life, is by far the biggest frustration us students can have (the LSE careers blog can be a good resource, by the way).

You’ve good grades and a heart with passion, so why won’t they hire you? Welcome to the real world, mate.

Surprisingly enough, the point of this article isn’t actually to dishearten you. These are real frustrations that you will at some point in time feel when studying International Development. And despite these difficulties, most of you will end up working in development, in one way or another.

Because despite everything, you love it anyway.

Because this world, as imperfect it is, needs more people like you and I, who genuinely care about the problems and the solutions we come up with, however imperfect. And whatever we end up becoming in the future, be it investment banker or head of an NGO, we would be able to use our learnings and hopefully begin to work together to make things better, one step at a time.

So congratulations development students. We have a long journey ahead of us.


Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


10 Responses to “5 Things that will Frustrate the Heck out of you when studying International Development”
  1. Joe

    ‘Have you ever met an idealist senior development professional?’

    Robert Chambers has inspired many people for decades. And his inspiration comes from the way he mixes ideals and pragmatism simultaneously.

    Otto Scharmer is also an idealist and the basis of his theory U is ‘open heart, open mind, open will’. Cynicism is seen as the enemy of an open heart and open mind.

  2. Chris Roche

    Resonant stuff Duncan! Makes me wonder if a lot of what you describe should not apply to most applied academic disciplines if they are taught well i.e. context matters; no easy answers; the reality of how politics and power play out in most institutional settings; what employers want vs what they need. and balancing idealism and pragmatism on a daily basis. Maybe that is why exposing students to practitioners who live and can describe this stuff is so powerful.

  3. Mary Sue Smiaroski

    ‘Have you ever met an idealist senior development professional?’
    I suppose that my gray hair puts me into the category of ‘senior’ development professional. I have met many cynical colleagues over the years so recently, I have started to share a quote that I cut out and pasted on the wall next to my desk a very long time ago: “Optimism is a political act. Those who benefit from the status quo are perfectly happy for us to think nothing is going to get any better. In fact, cynicism is obedience.” (Alex Steffen, The Bright Green City). The only way to live long in this field is to truly balance pragmatism and idealism.

  4. Understanding of context definitely is, indeed, essential. One frequent reason for dev professionals becoming frustrated with the context is that they—and/or their presumably more experienced in-country (but foreign) project managers and/or overseas long-distance eager hands-on directors do not have sufficient understanding of the local context, nor how to work within that context to enhance it within the usual timebound 5 year funding structure.
    More attention need be paid to having students learn how to analyse and learn to work within and with different contexts within existing structures, not artificially implemented foreign inspired structures devised in well-appointed offices, parallel to or supplanting local structures. Learning and understanding local cultures takes time, quite often more than the time allotted to one’s project.

  5. Lacey Will

    Certainly relatable, but would be more compelling if attempts were made to reflect on how to address or manage this laundry list of frustrations. Perhaps an opportunity for collaborative blog writing amongst students. Rosalind Eyben is another example of an inspiringly optimistic yet critical development professional and scholar.

  6. Nick Langridge

    An interesting piece, and I sympathise with much of Stella says.

    The section on idealism, cynicism and disillusioned practitioners certainly rings true with me, and part of the reason why is shown in another section of the article: “Some people really believe in the power of institutions. Others think growth depends solely on what you’re born with. We all agree that all the “good” things (democracy, well-functioning markets and state, etc.) are strongly correlated with economic growth.”

    The ease with which the words ‘development’ and ‘economic growth’ seem to become synonyms of each other is worrying – growing our way out of “absolute poverty” will take at least 100 years, and it will take 200 years to reach $5-a-day. The increase in size of global economy under these circumstances will put us well beyond planetary limits. If the development industry is serious about ending poverty, and doing so within the limits of the natural world, this model needs a serious re-think.

  7. Steve Lewis

    Haha! I enjoyed this Duncan. All very true, even for those of us who by some luck have actually been able to work in development for many years.
    Remedy for cynicism – every now and again go back and work in the field. Preferably in a village, or in a shanty town, where you speak the language and not in the Country Office with nice terms and conditions in a capital city. When you work with real people every day optimistically trying to build a community project you will come out energised and encouraged.
    (Or I can’t remember, is the phrase ‘in the field’ boycotted now?)