Question: How do we get past Development-as-Charity Education? 

Bryan and Bracken in their recent study  Learning to Read the World – Teaching and Learning about Global Citizenship and International Development in Post-Primary Schools (2011),  make a strident case for more critical learning approaches in Development Education.

They ask some well-needed questions about what’s happening in the Irish school system and the issues they have with what they call the ‘three F’s’: Fundraising, Fasting and Having Fun in aid of specific development causes.


To share a few nuggets:

The framing of developing countries or their inhabitants as ‘unlucky’ or ‘unfortunate,’ relative to a ‘lucky’, more fortunate ‘us’, further naturalizes global inequities as a consequence of the human condition rather than an effect of specific historical and contemporary internationally derived political-economic arrangements, interventions, and practices, such as loan conditionality, debt peonage, colonial and neo-colonial forms of exploitation, resource extraction and so on.  (p. 76)


The ‘band aid’ approach to Development Education is most evident, perhaps, in the ways in which CSPE texts promote overly-simplistic, quick fix, and ultimately ineffectual solutions to global problems. While implying the need for political and social change, CSPE texts tend to privilege understandings of Global Citizenship Education that are premised upon individual actions and are largely devoid of a struggle to alter or dismantle existing institutions and structures that lie beneath the injustices they seek to inform students about. (p. 76)


Grounded in expressions of concern and a desire to ‘help’ or to ‘make a difference’, interventions of this nature reduce the lives of inhabitants of the Global South to ‘causes’ about which ‘we’ in the Global North can feel good – or at least better – about ourselves; they narrow the possibilities for understanding development and development activism within alternative paradigms and frameworks while offering assurance, absolution and resolution to complex realities which would require radically different responses if they were to be meaningfully addressed. (p. 77)

We are interested to hear what others are thinking on these big issues:

Are you on the same page? Is there a need for “radically different responses” ? What are they?

Are these authors being too critical and sweeping in their views of charity-type approaches?

Is there an inextricable power imbalance that permeates our understanding of the Global South and therefore the interventions that we engage in?

Is n’t it that humanitarianism – that will to help and care for others less fortunate – a universal value that, despite ourselves, informs our efforts to grapple with the complexity of the inequalities and injustices of the world?

In our own school programmes, we are used to hearing those genuine well-meaning words, such as:

“If we were in the same situation, we would like them to help us”;

“We want to show them that they are not alone”;

“We went through similar situations in the past, so maybe they will listen to us”.

Does such reasoning necessarily mean we are simplifying and stereotyping what we do?

Or is there a quid pro quo sense of justice, of equality and collective solidarity that is embedded in their humanitarian outreach?

We would agree that the Development-as-Charity approach is prevalent in Irish schools and there needs to be a radical overhaul of the curriculum.

Does the Development-as-charity approach need to be completely scuppered though?

Or is it also fair to say that we need to hear more about social justice…its not-so-distant relation?

If facile and over-simplistic reasoning and the affective heart-tugging that goes with it is the real enemy, maybe we have to just start asking a few basic questions to separate the intention from the action for a few moments.

We always recommend when debating the local-global issues and the actions which can be taken in addressing them, that we take a good look at what is already happening in the school and the community around us.

Good education practices involve different perspectives, probing dominant discourses and challenging stereotypes. It is also a lot to take on!  The educator’s job is to keep the critical focus and to work within contexts of the life-world that we live in.

If there is a cake sale for “somewhere in Africa” in school or kids are packing bags in the local supermarket for the local GAA club, then we need to start there and see the goodness of a typically good intention. Asking if it helps or is just another sugar-coated pill may not go down too well, especially if you have had a lot of goodwill from everyone around you.  A real 3F experience!

Taking it from there, we can also keep asking how the charity approach reflects our sense for justice. We need to keep looking around for examples in our school and community.

To give an example: how we link the local to the global and vice versa is an essential challenge that most teachers and learners meet, and in our view, is only properly tested when we start talking about the actions that we want to take in order to address those local-global issues. All it takes is one person to utter the age-old adage: “Charity begins at home”. On the level of action, there is often a local v. global tension that is often based on where we focus our energies. Charity ends at home too for many of us. We don’t have the luxury to “do charity” for others. It should n’t be much of a step to add: “Justice begins at home too”.

It may be a little harder and it may get a bit personal, but we need to tease out what our sense of justice is and how we deal with injustice. It may highlight some uncomfortable contradictions between our lifestyles and our actions.  It may show the ineffectual nature of some actions, but also mean we spend more time thinking about what should be done before we engage with what can be done in a school setting. And keeping the watch on what’s around us. Listening to differences, probing, challenging, seeking alternatives.

There are many things to question about our own dominant paradigms and discourses.  While reform is very much on the agenda these days, teachers and learners need to feel that they can take more ownership of the curriculum.  As Bryan and Bracken point out, and as our own experiences have shown, there is a healthy appetite among teachers and learners for critical thinking on development issues.

This book gives a refreshing jolt to a very much required debate.

Feel free to download  and engage with us…

Learning to Read the World_FinalReport