On the making of academic country experts in international development

Just last week Thursday 12th March, 2015, I attended the 6th Annual Sheffield Institute for International Development  (SIID) Postgraduate Conference here at the University of Sheffield. This year’s theme was “Reflecting on development: Global narratives, local realities”  with a number of interesting PhD student presentations. A thought-provoking keynote address by Prof. Diana Mitlin raised a number of issues in my head that framed my thinking throughout the day. The biggest of these issues was the tension academics faced in making general conclusions based on specifics. The PhD is supposed to make a contribution to academic knowledge but how do you generalise when you only study a very specific case? This is something that I will continue to wrestle with until I submit my own thesis but for now the issue I want to address is how does one become an academic country expert especially in international development (development studies). What the keynote address did for me was to open up a frame within which I could consider the processes in which people become academic country experts.

I have often mused about the making of academic country experts in international development since my first MSc programme at King’s College London. The conference last Thursday provided a full day setting in which I  was ‘forced’ to pondered on what I find to be a very interesting aspect of academia. How does one arrive at being known as an academic expert of country X and in some cases not only an expert in a specific issue area but an expert of all development issues in that country X. I also find that more often than not these experts tend not to live in this country X. Moreover this situation is most prevalent when it comes to all the country Xs in the Global South (for want of a better signifier). If you need evidence, turn on your TV to BBC or CNN in times of a ‘situation’ in a country X and see which academic expert they call to come and give their opinion about the unfolding ‘situation’ in country X. Of course you are unlikely to find an academic expert from country X being called to offer insight to a ‘situation’ taking place in the UK or the US. The question I ask myself at such times is this; can we not find any academic from country X with the requisite expertise to give us an opinion on unfolding ‘situations’ in the very country he resides in?

The conference last week felt almost like it was specially organised on Ghana. Aside my own presentation on “Today is party A, tomorrow is party B”: Interactive Governance of the Elmina 2015 Vision, there were three other presentations on Ghana, land of my birth, dealing with architecture, energy and agriculture. Now this write up is not about the presenters who I must say gave me new insights about my own country through their research but I am talking in more general terms. Indeed I will argue that a PhD student who has spent 3-4 years studying a specific issue on Ghana can be considered an expert (to some extent) on that issue in Ghana. My concern has to do with when that expertise is extended and generalised to cover other issue areas or indeed the same issue area but in a different part of the country. The dynamics are not always the same even in the same country. Take the example of an academic who did his 3-4 years PhD on country X and then after he starts working as a lecturer/researcher makes an academic visit to country Y for about 3-4 weeks. This academic then goes on to write up a paper on country Y based on his 3-4 weeks academic visit which is then followed up with another paper comparing country X and country Y. This academic is in no time going to be considered as an academic country expert of not only country X, but country Y as well even as s/he keeps on writing and presenting about these countries. This is notwithstanding the fact that s/he only visited country Y for just 3-4 weeks, although to be fair some try to visit once in a yearly while (in some cases the visit is spread to other neighbouring countries in order to increase the countries of expertise).

There are numerous questions that remain;  how long should one stay in country X for research in order to become an expert? Do you have to go to country X every year in order to maintain your expertise?What are the academics in country X and country Y doing? Are they not experts enough? Is it because they don’t publish as much or don’t win grants and funds to study their own countries that is why they are not considered experts? Is it a matter of a prophet is not accepted in his own country? Or is it that these academics are not asserting themselves? More questions than answers. I do think that the big issue of the need for academics in country Xs and Ys to publish in order to assert themselves has also opened doors for their exploitation. The number of bogus academic journals that are targeting academics in these countries have increased and these academics even have to pay to publish (this will be for another blog post).

So what I want to find out from you my dear friends and colleagues is what you make of how one can be considered as an academic country expert. Do you feel like an academic expert of country X?

2 thoughts on “On the making of academic country experts in international development

  1. Hmmmm, I think Anthropologists like Van der Geest for instance could be considered, knowledgeable, not an expert on Ghana. I dont know how anyone can become an expert on any group of people. He or She is only an expert to the extent that his or her audience are ignorant about country X. and so His or Her little knowledge and research over 20 years, “staying three months each year”, becomes somewhat of an eye opener for the recipients of the information. But you are right. in such instances it is best for persons from country X to be contacted. you cant call yourself an expert of my home and marriage simply because you visit once every week for 20yrs. you can only be an expert to the bloke who doesnt know me at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Those are very good points that you’ve made Boulard. I very much like the idea of someone being considered as ‘knowledgeable’ rather than as an expert. The use of the word expert to me is loaded with meanings that confers power (in it’s various forms) to an individual. I guess it takes humility to accept that we are only just knowledgeable in a very small area of what we’ve studied.


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