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Is There A Future for Development Education in the USA?

Development education crept onto the American scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  It gradually expanded until it reached its zenith in the early 1990s.  Since then it seems to have been in a slow decline.

What are we to make of this phenomenon?  Is development education dying, or is it merely going through the low point in a cycle?  If it has a future, what is that future likely to be?  These are questions implicitly raised by the articles in this issue of Hunger Notes.  On the whole, the articles present an encouraging prospect.  So perhaps it is proper to introduce them with a brief overview of the discourager elements.


Photo: Renee Devereux, Peace Corps volunteer

Development Education—An Imperfect Rainbow?  A central idea of development education is communication, between people and across countries.  Kindergarten students celebrate the opening of their new kindergarten in Mensase, Ghana.  The kindergarten construction was funded by the Corcoran/Roberts Peace Corps Partnership Project in Syracuse, New York, which raised $14,000 in their annual effort.

A History

First, however, a bit of history about the World Hunger Education Service (WHES).  Although WHES had come into existence in 1975, the term “development education" was virtually unknown in the United States until the late 1970s.  During the 1980s, it became increasingly recognized as a distinct activity, although within the formal educational system it has always been seen as a part of the larger concept of “global education."

For non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that carried on informal development education, the Biden-Pell Amendment to the 1981 foreign aid bill (named after the two U.S. senators who proposed it, Joseph Biden and Claiborne Pell) led to the first government funding of development education.  The term “development education" is not used in the law, which speaks only of providing “assistance to private and voluntary organizations engaged in facilitating public discussion of hunger and other related issues."

Although the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) allocated only modest funds to its grant program for development education (about $2.7 million per year at its peak), NGOs were required to match government funding with money from their own budgets, thus stimulating a substantial increase in spending on such activities.  And by 1993 the program had provided assistance to a wide range of U.S. non-profit organizations, a total of 88 having received Biden-Pell grants.

The rising interest in development education led to a meeting in 1984 in Brattleboro, Vermont, at which a number of NGOs (mostly private voluntary organizations carrying on overseas development operations) hammered out a document called a Framework for Development Education in the United States.  In a statement of principles, the document declared:

Development education has as a primary goal the building of a committed constituency for development both at home and abroad.  It begins with recognition of global interdependence and the continuing need for justice and equity in the world.  Its programs and processes convey information, promote humanitarian values, and stimulate individual and community action aimed at improving the quality of life and eliminating the root causes of world poverty.

Over the following years, development education became modestly professional, promoted particularly by InterAction, the coalition created in the mid-1980s of U.S. NGOs engaged in international development and relief work.  USAID began holding an annual conference on "dev ed" theory and practice, and the International Development Conference added the topic to its biennial agenda.  A newsletter for development educators was started, and later a computerized clearinghouse of information was established in New York.

Emphasis on interdependence reflected an increasing awareness of development education as a rationale for active US involvement in world affairs.

The emphasis on interdependence in the Brattleboro framework document reflected an increasing awareness of this concept as a rationale for active U.S. involvement in world affairs.  In the 1970s the oil embargo had demonstrated U.S. vulnerability to distant events.  The series of UN-sponsored conferences, beginning with the 1972 Stockholm environmental conference and continuing with those on food, population and women, brought global issues to organizational agendas, and this trend continued in the 1980s.

It was reinforced during that decade by the appearance of Ted Turner's Cable News Network (CNN) which provided immediate worldwide coverage of news, and by a number of television specials on global issues, many of them supported by the Better World Society (a non-profit education group strongly backed by Turner).  Development educators began to pay more attention to the power of the media.  An example was "Prime Time to End Hunger," an NGO-stimulated collaborative effort of the three major U.S. television networks, in which the themes of hunger and poverty were introduced in six very popular television shows during the first three weeks of December, 1989.

Development educators began to pay more attention to the power of the media.

At a different level, an advocacy group called RESULTS effectively promoted meetings of concerned citizens with the editorial boards of local newspapers and the preparation of articles for publication on "op-ed" pages.  At the same time, a small body of journalists began to express an interest in contributing to the education of U.S. citizens in world affairs. Main Street America and the Third World, a collection of articles from local newspapers across the country showing how local communities are connected with developing countries, became a popular text for development educators. (Main Street built on a pilot project conducted as early as 1974 called "Columbus in the World, the World in Columbus," which examined the international links of Columbus, Ohio.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, working relationships were established between many U.S. NGOs and the newly emerging NGOs in the South.  Southern views on how rich countries should amend their lifestyles had an increasing influence on U.S. NGOs' thinking about development.

Southern views on how rich countries should amend their lifestyles had an increasing influence on US NGOs' thinking about development.

Owing to these changing views and other factors, representatives of a number of NGOs met again in Brattleboro in 1990 and adopted a new framework for their educational activities.  Abandoning the term “development education," the group called “education for global change," declaring:

In 1984, when a Framework for Development Education was published, our goal was to build a committed constituency through programs and processes that would convey information, promote humanitarian values, and stimulate individual action aimed at improving the quality of life and eliminating the root causes of poverty.  We have made some progress toward that goal.

The time has come, however, for a new vision and a new goals statement.  Our goal for the decade that will take us into the 21st century is more complex, more difficult, and even more urgent.  The new global vision of our interdependent world requires nothing less that a decisive movement toward a just, attainable, and inclusive global community.  It will require: 1) transformation of institutions and systems, 2) participation in popular movements for global change, and 3) establishing new lifestyles for individuals of all generations, genders, ethnic and religious groups.

The new global vision of our interdependent world requires nothing less than a decisive movement toward a just, attainable, and inclusive global community.

Although the phrase “education for global change" never took hold and the ambitious goals of the second Brattleboro declaration are far from realization, the momentum for development education carried forward into the early 1990s.  For example:

One major event was the initiation in 1993 of an Alliance for a Global Community under the aegis of InterAction (with a $1 million grant from AID) whose aim was to strengthen the capacity of, and provide resources to, American private voluntary organizations (PVOs) to carry out development education.

At the same time, there occurred an increasing engagement by American NGOs in preparation for and participation in the series of United Nations conferences held during the 1990s on environment, population, social development, women, etc., each of which provided a timely framework for educational activities.

The 1990s saw a noticeable intensification in the advocacy of NGOs involved in development work.

The 1990s also saw a noticeable intensification in the advocacy of NGOs involved in development work.  A good example was a letter sent in November, 1993 to President Clinton urging a reallocation of budgetary resources from defense and foreign intelligence to sustainable development programs.  The letter was signed by the heads of 117 NGOs covering a wide range of interests-- environment, population, peace, education, humanitarian relief, agriculture, health, children, refugees and religion. (After the 1994 election, NGO advocacy-- including creation of various coalitions-- expanded even more).

The 1990s evaluation report estimated that some 37 million US citizens had been reached by these projects in some fashion.

Another significant event of the early 1990s was a thorough independent evaluation of the first 10 years of USAID-supported development education projects.  The evaluation report estimated that some 37 million U.S. citizens had been reached by these projects in some fashion.  Overall, the report found, these individuals, compared to the general U.S. public, showed stronger support for foreign assistance and understanding of the U.S. stake in the developing world.

In 1994, a new USAID activity, called "Lessons without Borders," was initiated, although quite separately from the Biden-Pell program, to take advantage of the expertise that USAID has acquired in dealing with urban poverty, health and environmental problems in developing countries.  The program makes this expertise available to U.S. cities that face similar problems and that in fact often lag behind the accomplishments abroad (e.g., the infant mortality rate is higher in many U.S. urban centers than it is in many developing countries).  This kind of "reverse aid" was seen as offering the possibility of affecting many U.S. citizens' opinions concerning aid.

The Situation at the End of the Decade

Despite all that has been accomplished, the outlook for development education today has many discouraging elements.

As I look over the scene, I see that funds for the USAID development education program have shrunk to less than 40 percent of what they had been in the program's heyday, and the annual AID conference on development education has been reduced to little more than a one-day training session on the complexities of applying for an AID grant.  Several activities, barely alluded to in the historic sketch above but significant as reflections of development education's one-time vitality, have disappeared, including:

  • The Development Education Clearinghouse run by the American Forum for Global Education;
  • The Development Education Annual, a yearbook produced by the American Forum which appeared for several years in the late 80's and early 90's; and
  • A development education research network among academics which had a promising start but soon faded away.
  • Support for the newsletter, Ideas & Information About Development Education, once shared among three organizations, is now given only by the International Development Conference (IDC), and attention to development education at IDC conferences has visibly declined.
  • The ambitious Alliance for a Global Community has vanished.

Yet, the picture is by no means wholly barren.  While InterAction's Alliance for a Global Community no longer exists, the organization is reaching out to community leaders through a new program called "Global Connections: A National Conversation about a Changing World."  A vigorous voice has appeared in the National Peace Corps Association which strongly urges its Returned Peace Corps Volunteer members to carry out the Peace Corps’ “third goal" of educating Americans about overseas realities.  And USAID, even with its much smaller dev ed resources, has brought about an interesting series of "partnerships" between development-involved private voluntary agencies and U.S. mass membership organizations.

Possible Reasons for Development Education's Present State

So is development education in trouble?  Perhaps in fact it is still going on but has increasingly lost both its identity as a separate field and a common agreement on its scope and goals.

This would not be too surprising given the fact that "development" itself is more and more difficult to define.  As we look back, we can see that the concept of development has been steadily expanding since it first came into common use nearly 50 years ago.  It has long since outgrown its original wholly economic definition and now embraces an array of other components-- social, educational, gender, environmental, governance, and more, as the many UN global conferences of this decade’s first half dramatically manifested.  Moreover, considerations of equity, justice, participation, transparency, etc., have become deeply embedded in the development concept.

Thus, it is more and more difficult to make a meaningful distinction between Third World development  and the many issues which now characterize global interdependence-- health, migration, food security, population growth, and many more.  And a phrase such as "sustainable development," which attempts to embrace these various elements, has many interpretations, both domestic and international.

A phrase such as "sustainable development" has many interpretations, both domestic and international.

In addition, during recent years, fissures have appeared within the development community which, while they undoubtedly existed earlier, had been less prominent.  For example, the World Bank has long been considered a major engine of development by most development-engaged people, but there are a significant number of others who have seen it, to one degree or another, as quite the opposite.  Indeed, on a broader canvas, arguments among development activists are common as to whether the development enterprise has "succeeded" or "failed" and in what particulars, and to what degree.

All these factors mean that educating about development increasingly overlaps with educating on many other topics (environmental education, gender education, etc.), gets pulled in differing ideological directions, vacillates between emphasizing the various U.S. stakes in international development (economic, security, humanitarian) and longer-term global goals such as eradicating poverty, needs to keep widening its focus to deal with domestic issues, etc.  Spin-offs may appear, such as a new field called “sustainability education."

Development education has doubtless also suffered because of the reappearance of a strong isolationist streak in American politics which has diverted energies within the development community to a more active advocacy role.  Since the 1994 election, friends of international development have been in a defensive mode, fighting to hold the line on budget cuts affecting the entire international operations of the U.S. government.  NGO energies and funds were channeled to new emergency advocacy coalitions, while within AID the allocation for development education was slashed.

Development education has also suffered because of a strong isolationist streak in American politics.

Finally, there is the always troubling question of how to evaluate development education's accomplishments.  If our goal is not just to impart knowledge but to change attitudes-- for example, to produce more public support for U.S. policies and programs which help bring about development abroad-- then the USAID study tells us that changes of attitude do occur among specific audiences exposed to specific material.

But, looked at over a span of years, public opinion polls have generally shown a remarkably consistent level of majority public support for foreign aid programs (here I am using aid as a surrogate for international development) over many decades, both during the Cold War and since.  It runs somewhere around 60 percent.  We all know that it isn't intense or deep or expressive, nor well informed, but it exists.  And it seems to be formed from personal value systems, personal experiences, and awareness of world realities gained largely through the media.  And, probably, through the formal education system.  So where does development education as a separate enterprise really fit in? 

Andrew Rice has devoted most of his professional life to international cooperation for economic and social development, with particular attention to the engagement of civil society and to the importance of public understanding in the United States of the U.S. stake in worldwide sustainable human development.  He was one of the founders of the Society for International Development, an international professional organization of which he was executive officer for nearly 20 years.  He also was a founder of the International Development Conference (IDC), a U.S. educational coalition on development issues of which he has been President and Chair and now is Chair Emeritus. For the past 12 years, he has edited IDC's quarterly newsletter, “Ideas & Information About Development Education.”

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