Thursday, 6 November 2008

Embarking on my studies

After working for six years in the Development Industry, I have taken a break to study development theory in London, UK. I arrived here on the 19th of October from Liberia, West Africa where I have been working for the past five years, first with the World Food Programme (WFP) and then, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The degree that I will be reading is Violence, Conflict and Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

The fact that I am here completely blows my mind and, has been blowing my mind for a long time because to put it simply, I was never quite convinced that I should study development in London, one of the main heartthrobs of the Western World, in order to enhance my own career with the United Nations while supposedly working for the poor and helpless of the world. The inherent contradictions of this arrangement never sat easy on my mind. Although this higher qualification is essential for me to progress in my career, I always wondered why the heck my extensive experience and commitment was not enough. As naive as I wanted to be, there was no way out of it. If I were so committed to my career and the kind of work I do, I would have to undertake at least a master's level degree to get a grasp of the theoretical framework of development and, the irony is that the best schools teaching development theory are situated in the West.

I have never really seen my fledgling career with the United Nations as saving the world, as many of my more naive or pouffy-egoed colleagues would think they are doing. Nah, I am not so arrogant to think that I was doing anything to improve the lives of my host country's citizens by earning the kind of salary I was earning driving around in $ 40,000 UN Land Cruisers living in the better areas of town. And I do enjoy going to one of the two fancy sushi bars in Monrovia on a Friday night to shrug off the stresses of saving the world!

Ever since my first field trip - which was to Kabul and what a memorable time I had in Afghanistan - I have always seen my experience in the United Nations as a Pakistani as an incredible privilege. Afterall, I myself hail from the developing world and, like to identify with my fellow Third Worlders. We are all in the same boat! Crushed under the weight of colonialism, neo colonialism, neo-liberalism and whatever isms there out there. I know a lot of people from the so-called Third World itself want to look ahead and, not include the history of effects of colonialism in everyday discussion, but the truth is that colonialism did not occur in ancient history. On the cosmic scale of things, it happened yesterday. How much it disrupted and distorted societies and politics really depends on what region one hails from and, Africa probably suffered most from it, but it is part of our history. And, I firmly believe that those in the developing world should identify with each other and forge closer ties. Hance, I also like to imagine myself following in the footsteps of my father who served in the Pakistani Foreign Service for 35 years and associate myself with diplomacy.

My imagingings aside, I can't believe, for instance, that I am here in London, a functioning society and state at least on the very basic level, and can enjoy twenty-four hour electricity and running water. These are amenities which I have to worry about in Monrovia on a daily basis - imagine the plight of the ordinary Liberian! I find it spectacularly amazing that this stable and wealthy world is separated from one so poor and dysfunctional by a mere eight-hour flight. The world I come from has roads riddled with potholes, where a post conflict government is completely dependent on the international community for basic law and order, where it takes 6 hours to traverse a 100 km road in the bush and, where life of the ordinary citizen is a daily struggle. It is a struggle which could be completely invisible to a person working for the aid industry even within a country such as Liberia. It is a struggle one comes to comprehend and appreciate if one chooses to. Imagine the kind of world we live, then, where wealth and dire poverty are separated in today's modern world only through very superficial distance.

Moreover, I find it so ironic that I am going to study the conditions of conflict, the horror of violence and impediments to development in countries in Asia or Africa, for example, under an academic microscope in a place called the School of Oriental and African Studies in the capital of a country which not very long ago have the biggest empire in the world. [KaChing for the UK - they have scores of students living here, spending money on rent, books, the tube, tuitition and the rest of it. It is great how they continue to benefit from colonialism, war and conflict] And, as much as I think SOAS is one cool place, I would have imagined they would have gotten rid of the Oriental in their name by now.

There is a certain degree of guilt and dilemma inside me. I find the whole prospect of studying the tragedy of war and conflict, the lumping of it as it inadvertently happens even in an ordinary conversation, from an academic armchair incredibly arrogant. Equipped with this degree, I will be able to sign better contracts for sure but, I am not sure that I will have any better understanding of the plight of developing countries. Coming from a developing country myself and, having spent a lot of time in post conflict states, I pretty much understand the problems and what should be done. And, I suspect that so does the average person in Asia or Africa, for example.

What really got me going right before I arrived in London was my Holy-Grail-like search for the elusive British student visa in West Africa. As Monrovia does not have British diplomatic or consular representation, I went to our neighbouring Ghana to apply for one. When I got there, I was told to get my ass to Sierra Leone by the British authorities in Ghana as flippantly as if it were just a matter of me hailing a taxi and going to Freetown. I flew back to Monrovia, re-did all my paperwork, applied for the Sierra Leone visa and flew to Freetown. I applied for the student visa, was unpleasantly informed that the Commission would not make consideration for the fact that their colleagues in Ghana had screwed up and I had already lost time and had to wait for three weeks. I asked the Liberian Embassy in Freetown to issue me a travelling document so I could return to Liberia without a passport which they were very kind enough to do so. I returned to Freetown exactly three weeks afterwards only to find out my student visa application was rejected on grounds of financial consideration. Basically, I had failed to show enough cold cash in my bank statements despite the fact that I was planning on staying with my brother and would not need the full prescriped amount as I would not need to spend a penny on accommodation. I was thoroughly humiliated and disgusted by these Brits and, how they dismissed my application which I thought was pretty sound and straightforward. I found it hard to believe that these twits thought I was going to be a liability to their government or society while I would be in London, that I would want to, for example, stay on in their dreary country even one more second than I would have to after the completion of my degree. Heck, I had studied in the UK before for my undergraduate degree, had left upon completion and had now worked for the UN and, had full support of my employer in applying for a student visa. The wonderful thing about the visa application process was that the Brits had not bothered to even inform me my application was rejected before I even bothered to fly to Freetown from Monrovia. I had to fly back to Monrovia as the Commission would not re-open for another five days and return to Freetown to re-apply. I spent untold amounts of money on flights, hotels and visa fees. I had to push myself to go through this humiliating process again, that I was doing this for my education and nothing more. I ignored once again the concentration-camp-like style of the British Commission where applicants were given numbered tags to hang around their necks, herded into groups to the next waiting hall, speaking to the officer through a thick glass when submitting the application, and submitting facial and finger-print scans. All the people were so quiety lest they upset any of the Commission staff. I was disgusted at the idea that this Commission was charging a couple hundred dollars or more for various kinds of visas in a country that is considered one of the poorest in the world. Does the UK really need the money? Did it not feel ashamed of levying such fees in such a poor country?

But here I am after harassment by the British authorities and long, painful existential dilemmas. Because I had missed three weeks of lectures and classes, I plunged headlong into the thick of it.

I must say that I am not sorry I am here. The lectures and classes have been incredibly stimulating so far. I find it reassuring that a lot of the limitations to development which I have observed and mentaly muddled through are being discussed here. I was throughly amused when one of the main lecturers for the Theory, Policy and Practice of Development class said that if he and many of his colleagues had their way, the class would entirely be a class of history! I was nodding vigorously to myself when I heard that. I am fully engaged when going through the questions surrounding the role of NGOs and how they may be actually weakening the state and inadvertently promoting neo-liberal agendas as opposed to the openly neo-liberia policies of the IMF and World Bank. Among the reading I have done so far, I fully agree with Alan Thomas' point, for example, that development has been reduced to a practice as practiced by UN Agencies and NGOs as opposed to any larger theory of social change, that the vision of development has merely been "reduced to targets and the process of development to techniques."

All in all, I must say and I am extremely pleased I made it. I am grateful to all the loved ones who continued to persuade me that what I embarked on is a worthy endeavour despite my rantings and doubts.

This blog will record my thoughts on all that I will encounter academically in my course. I am sure I will end up ranting a lot but hopefully, there might be a moment of lucidity here and there.

No comments:

Post a Comment