Is village immersion a new approach to development studies? Is suicide a development issue?

I was in Delhi this week, talking to Oxfam India and taking part in a conference on how to work on issues of governance, politics and institutional reformAmdkhar students (more on that later).

But on Wednesday I took time out to give a lecture (on poverty v inequality – powerpoint here – keep clicking) at Ambedkar University, a new social sciences outfit on the edges of Old Delhi (v atmospheric – an oasis of big trees and monkeys amid streets clogged with traffic).

The students (right) were from a new 2 year MPhil course in ‘development practice’ that gives 25 students a combination of conventional academic teaching and 8 months living in rural villages. And the students, judging by the Q&A after my talk, are top notch – not surprising since they get 8 applicants for every place.

It seems like a great idea – students live with families in villages, keep diaries, and get to know the realities of village life. Although other post grads do their time in ‘field work’, that is often more extractive (gathering data for the thesis), which is why Ambedkar calls it ‘immersion’ rather than field work.

The immersion is organized through a partnership with a rural NGO, Pradan, and takes place in some of India’s poorest states. Pradan says the purpose Ambedkhar approachof the partnership is to ‘draw well-educated youth to take up the challenge of transforming rural India. According to the course organizers,’ the challenge for the course is ‘How to move beyond ‘only writing’ on people’s miseries and ‘only practice’.

Now I’m never sure when I come across these things whether they are genuinely new, or just new to me, so over to you – anyone heard of other post-grad + rural immersion combos of this kind?

Full details here. And in case you’re wondering, the programme accepts a small number of foreign students.

The most intriguing question that came up in a lively Q&A was ‘is suicide a rich country or poor country problem’.

Subsequent in depth research (aka skimming Wikipedia) throws up a league table (in terms of suicides per 100,000 people), topped by Greenland. Top ten are:

  1. Greenland
  2. South Korea
  3. Lithuania
  4. Guyana
  5. Kazakhstan
  6. Belarus
  7. China
  8. Slovenia
  9. Hungary
  10. Japan

So the conclusion is no, there isn’t an obvious link to the stage of development. Some clear links to post-Soviet countries (Russia’s at number 13, amid a whole cluster of ex Eastern bloc countries). Anti-growthers will take note that a stellar development ‘success story’, South Korea, is at number two – a few years ago, I heard someone from the South Korean statistical office making exactly this point as he explained that Seoul was introducing new metrics to measure wellbeing in an attempt to bridge the gap between official stats and people’s lived experience.

Given the doubts over reporting, I don’t think giving the countries with the lowest rates (several at zero) makes much sense.

Any other patterns?

And here’s a youtube video (only partly in English) that gives you a nice feel for the Ambedkhar approach

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8 Responses to “Is village immersion a new approach to development studies? Is suicide a development issue?”
  1. John Magrath

    Sounds like a great idea + in line with Dr Ambedkar’s vision. Let’s hope though that the students are prepared to stay in the villages throughout the whole year. It has always been the biggest criticism of Robert Chambers, the great Western development guru, that development professionals are “season proofed” – “we travel least at the bad times during the rains + before the harvest, and when we do, stick more than ever to tarmac and places close to town…we rarely encounter or perceive the regular seasonal hardship, hunger and starvation of remoter poor people” (forward to Seasons of Hunger, Pluto Press, 2008).

  2. The University for Development Studies, which has several campuses around northern Ghana, does a similar type of immersion program for its graduates. I think it’s for fewer than 8 months, however. It also produces some really smart, engaged graduates (many of whom were my colleagues when I was working in the area a few years ago).

  3. Noah Brod

    This may not be exactly the same thing, but the PeaceCorps Master’s International Program seems fairly similar (disclosure, I am an MI student currently serving in El Salvador). It’s structured differently at every university, but basically you serve as a regular Peace Corps volunteer along with doing a traditional thesis-type project.

  4. Very interesting to hear about the MPhil course in ‘development practice’. The rural immersion component seems a great way of getting to the heart of ‘development’.

    I thought you might be interested to hear about the MA in Participation, Power and Social Change (MAP) at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). Less focused on rural immersion or traditional ‘development’ than the course you describe, it has the same ethos at heart, i.e. combining learning and practice. The course enables students to critically reflect on their own and other change agents’ practice, and to explore the challenges of participation and power relations and what it means to facilitate change through an action learning project.

    Two terms of teaching are followed by a four month period of work-based action learning or research, which can take place in an organizational context in any country of the global South or North. As examples, one recent participant has used Theatre for Development to work in Malawian prisons, and another worked with refugee and asylum seekers in south London.

    More about MAP on a blog post by Rosalind Eyben: ‘It changes people’s lives’.

  5. As the latest addition to a growing pool of social science universities, AU is doing a great job!

    But rural immersions have been a regular feature in all agriculture universities in India for decades. Both at undergraduate and Masters levels.

  6. Sathyasree Goswami

    I am a student of the MPhil Program that you are mentioning. I have come to this program after working in the development sector for 22 years now. I find immense value in the classroom session and the way the village immersion is organised. One of the most significant part of the course is action reach towards transformative praxis and this evolves when a student is in the village, unlike the project and proposal modes of the traditional development sector.