Grad School and Foreign Aid (are they worth it?)

I’m sure you’re asking yourself right now, “Is a degree in international development actually worth so much time and money?”  It’s a question I’ve thought about recently as I get started on my second quarter at Korbel. In a lot of ways this question is as controversial as foreign aid itself. There are dozens of opinions about both of these issues, and, in a lot of ways, the grad system and foreign aid system are interlinked and self-reinforcing.

People asking these questions are bound to bump into Arturo Escobar’s book “Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World” (1995). Escobar mentions university programs specifically, which he accuses of propagating Western ideas about the so-called “Third World”. He argues that Western powers created these programs as a way to legitimize their continued hold on former colonies and less developed countries. To Escobar the university system is another way of hiding western imperialists’ true motives by making their meddling tolerable to donors and host country nationals.

s. india

So we start to see a feedback loop. University programs teach students that a Third World exists and that it requires a particular kind of humanitarian intervention. Humanitarians go out in the field, make assessments based on the knowledge they got in college, and report back that, indeed, there is a rich world and a poor world and the rich world needs to intervene. Korbel might be supporting these neo-neo-colonialists (or whatever they’re called), I don’t really know. I would guess, however, that a program that has Arturo Escobar on the required reading list isn’t trying very hard to manipulate us.

This brings us to the arguments about grad school. Do you really need a degree before you should be allowed to work in the field? Aren’t experience and on-the-ground connections valued more highly than academics? And aren’t most people promoted from within their organizations at entry-level positions?

A quick glance through the job listings on most development organizations’ websites shows that they prefer people with both grad degrees and “thematic” experience. Honestly, this was the main issue that convinced me to sign up for a grad degree. And if you look at the stats that DU puts out, it shows unemployment for graduates much lower than the average. Most people, it turns out, can get a job with a grad degree (disappointingly they do not have stats on job satisfaction or pay that I can find).

But then there’s the question of effectiveness. Does grad school do what we want it to? Are we better workers after we graduate? Or does school serve a purpose beyond skills training? (we could even ask the same  question of foreign aid, which has seen little direct evidence of success and plenty of political motivations). I don’t really have enough experience to say. Statistics may not be adequate to answer. Maybe someone in the field will some day post a comment explaining.

So the basic question still remains: is it worth it? My first reaction to anyone who would ask me is, “Why is that any of your business? I can make my own life decisions without some know-it-all-first-year-blog-writer trying to make up my mind for me.”

My second reaction is: Yes, it’s worth it. Because the debt and time we spend in school represents our buy in and commitment to the mission we’ve set out to do. The loan repayments may last for years, but rather than shackles they motivate us to get the most out of our careers. School is a sacrifice that represents meaning I want to see in my life.

Those who are self-motivated enough to pursue meaning without school deserve their success, but then so do those who make the enormous effort of pursuing a degree and seeking out ways of making things better for others.

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2 thoughts on “Grad School and Foreign Aid (are they worth it?)

  1. Hey there, I’m a prospective DU grad student looking at the ID and Human Rights programs. I also studied a great deal of Arturo Escobar’s work in my undergrad career. I wanted to get your perspective, maybe in hindsight now, of how DU’s programs and politics are in line, or maybe in contradiction, to Escobar’s critiques. I am passionate about what I want to do, but don’t want to waste thousands on a degree at an institution that I am not morally or intellectually aligned with.

    • Hi Lindsey, that’s an interesting question. I can hardly speak for every faculty member in terms of their politics, but I can talk about what I’ve seen firsthand. Professors can run the whole spectrum, but most professors seem to at least promote the “Do No Harm” and Humanitarian Principles. If you’re interested, some professors who like to talk about Escobar in terms of neocolonialism and dependency theory are Dr. Devin Joshi and Dr. Haider Khan.

      Among the ranked APSIA schools I’ve looked into, Korbel may be the most aligned with Escobar (at least in the Intl Dev and HR degrees). Outside of economics or security classes, we really do talk a lot about the problems with development, sometimes to a fault I feel. In the end I bet it’s unlikely you will change your convictions even if you do go to a school that thinks the West is here to save the developing world.

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