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The Development Studies Association is the UK's learned society and professional body for academic teaching and research, policy and practice in the field of international development.
While the annual conference is a principal focus for the association, the DSA is active throughout the year through its many Study Groups. All those involved in development whether as teachers, researchers, consultants or practitioners, are welcome to join both the Study Groups and the DSA itself.
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My summer took me back to the village in Bangladesh where I did research for my PhD, 33 years ago. It had been 16 years since my last visit, and I was unnerved to find that I no longer knew my way around, there were so many new houses, including some in disco colours that would have been unthinkable in the old days when walls were mud and a tin roof still a bit of a novelty.
The materiality of development was all around me. Roads with smooth, all weather surfaces that meant electric-powered cycle rickshaws could glide effortlessly along them. Drains. Shops and tea stalls, new schools, smartly tiled mosques, refurbished (if a little shabby) Hindu temples; power tillers replacing bullocks and threshing machines human sweat for beating out the grain. Running water on tap, from deep-set boreholes with electric pumps. Everyone has some kind of toilet in or near the house, no-one goes to the pool or the riverside any more. And the sounds of prosperity also: motorcycles and trucks gunning it down the roads; the late afternoon cries of ‘Aie, Aie, Aie’ as women summoned ducks and geese back from the pools into the houses; dramas of dance, song and dispute trumpeting from multiple televisions.
There were of course some warning signs that all was not without cost. The price of paddy had fallen, and people were worried about the level of yields, whether the fertility of the soil had been harmed by too much artificial pesticide and fertilizer, too many harvests in quick succession. I wondered at the impact of so much ground water extraction on underlying water table levels. There were also stories of suicide, and whole families who had fled the village because they had got into such debt that they could not see how they could ever repay. And houses still under construction, for several years a building site become a home, which suggested an uncertain economy, where hoped for income somehow hadn’t materialised.
While the bulk of changes I saw came from personal endeavour, public service-wise there seemed some way to go. While more children were going to school, the quality of the education they were getting still seemed rather poor (I was roped into some impromptu tutoring by some enterprising 8-10 year olds!). And the old darkness was still there around health-care, the doubt and distrust of doctors of all stripes, the sense of serious need mis-matched with any confidence of how or where to go to meet it.
But overall my sense was that the village was doing well, that life for most people was better than before. And there were pleasing comic reversals, such as finding this time the cameras turned on me, whereas before I’d been the one turning the lens on others. I also observed how development brings a loss as well as gain of competencies: how was it possible, people asked, for me to sleep in a room without an electric fan? You’ve all gone soft, I said, in the 80s there was no electricity, and we all managed to survive the heat!
But perhaps, despite all the changes, my main feeling in coming back to the village was the same as it has always been. What an immense privilege it has been for me to be able to share something of the life of that place. How blessed I have been by the generosity of all those people who have welcomed this strange foreign woman into their lives.
I hope you have had a good summer and are returning refreshed to face the new academic year!
Best wishes to you all,