Studying international development during the Covid–19 pandemic
Written by: Dana Unzicker and Fabian Tigges
Term One: International Development Group Photo (Source: authors)
The advent of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020 radically changed the setting and conditions in which we study and think about international development. In this article, we want to reflect on how these extraordinary circumstances impacted our postgraduate studies in international development that took place at the University of Warwick. Despite the limitations on teaching that came with government guidance and national lockdowns, we made incredible progress as students of international development in an ambivalent study setting, where, on the one hand, we were virtually connected to students and scholars across the globe, but, on the other, were physically bound to our desks at home.
It is evident that the research object of development studies has been deeply impacted by the effects of the pandemic. Besides the obvious and disastrous impact on global health, the pandemic pushed more people into poverty, increased the global shortfall of employment, and reinforced and exacerbated existing inequalities. Furthermore, the interruption of global value chains challenged processes of ever-increasing global economic integration.
It was in this setting that we studied and discussed current issues and actors in international development, covering topics like globalisation, gender, poverty, inequality, trade, structural adjustment policies, food security, the everyday political economy of microfinance, and many more. All these issues were affected in one way or another by the pandemic. Some have experienced the acceleration of existing trends such as a shift in power relations in the globalisation debate, in others, the pandemicincreased awareness of already existing human crises as in the case of food security. Yet, the study of international development post-2020 goes far beyond the effects of the Covid-19 crisis, despite its unprecedented nature and omnipresence in public and academic debates. A key lesson learned from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic has been its effect of drawing our attention to the invisible. For instance, the pandemic has shed light on critical issues along the lines of race and gender inequality as well as economic inequality and (inter-)dependence in the construction of global value chains. Our wonderful professor taught us the importance of visibility in the study of international development; how paying attention to the numerous invisible actors and their relations to a visible decision-making elite is essential when reflecting upon power relations in the global political economy. Beyond that, in impacting the ways in which we study and research, the pandemic not only drew attention to visibility but also, and crucially, to who is heard in the discourse of international development.
While visibility of issues and actors in international development was the key take-away from this year of study during the pandemic, it also closely relates to the overarching concept of space that accompanied us throughout the year. While we started our programme in international development in face-to-face classes on campus in Coventry, the winter lockdown sent us back to online teaching for the whole of spring term, where different living rooms became visible – or not, when cameras remained switched off. Many student homes became a place of both rest and study, as our classroom transformed into a virtual space.
International Development Symposium (Source: authors)
Throughout the year, we engaged with scholars from across the globe, making our classroom virtual and also global. The year culminated in the Warwick Symposium for International Development in the last week of spring term at the University of Warwick, where we discussed the study of international development in times of Covid-19, listening to inspiring presentations and talks by students and scholars, and findings from the WICID everyday in lockdown project. The pandemic thus created a somewhat ambivalent offsetting for our seminars. On one hand, we remained connected to our coursemates (some in the UK, some overseas) as well as with scholars from different parts of Europe, Hawaii, Canada, and India. On the other hand, the national lockdown bound us to our desks at home, making it our place of study and living. Hence, we were in a position, in which we communicated with the world, discussing international development and the global economy, while we were unable to freely leave the house and explore our local cities.
This was and is, of course, a challenging situation. However, it also serves to emphasise that our perspectives are limited in certain ways, framed through agenda-setting of powerful actors, and focused on particular regions and actors in the world. It highlights that we tend to view the world through particular lenses and angles that facilitate and allow us to see and hear certain actors and challenges, while at the same time preventing us from seeing and hearing other voices that are marginalised by different means. In a sense, this draws attention to the importance of space: To reflect on where we stand in different spaces but also to re-think space in order to render visible or hide challenges and connections between them, and to amplify or exclude different voices.
From scholars in the field, we learnt that the pandemic required a reconsideration of the role of the researcher and different research methods. This allowed us as students and our teachers to reconsider how we study development. Shifting the classroom to the virtual space made it possible to connect with scholars across the world to exchange ideas and research findings. This experience gave us new ideas for how to overcome some barriers to the global conversation on development, connecting people from different cultural and geographical backgrounds, but also, and crucially, made us aware of the barriers that remain. For instance, we speak different languages, live in varying time zones, and not all of us are privileged enough to have access to the technology required to connect to the world or to the funds necessary to pay university tuition fees.Thus, some barriers – shaped by (postcolonial and gendered) power relations – remain, and we need to be aware ofthem, when studying and thinking about development.
In a nutshell, the past year of studying international development during a pandemic has stressed the importance of reflecting on our own positionality as well as on what is visible and whose voice is heard when thinking about and doing research in the field of development studies. It is a challenging time to study international development as the pandemic put numerous constraints on research and exacerbated pre-pandemic problematics. Nevertheless, the pandemic also opened spaces to render visible the invisible, to challenge power relations, and to provide a momentum for change. Finally, we are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to learn from our classmates, scholars from around the world and the opportunity to make the best out of a tough year!
Dana Unzicker is a Postgraduate student of International Political Economy at Warwick. Her research interests are centred around globalisation and inequality. She studied “Theories and Issues in International Development” as an optional module and is a member of the Warwick Global Development Society exec board. In October, she will continue her studies at the University of Konstanz to obtain a Double Degree in Politics and Public Administration from Konstanz and Warwick.
Fabian Tigges is a Postgraduate student of International Political Economy at the University of Warwick and of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Konstanz. He is currently working on his MA dissertation with the title “From Austerity to Recovery Spending: Contemporary Economic Thought in Times of Crisis”. Since October 2020, he is an executive board member of the Warwick Global Development Society. He is also a student research assistant at the chair of political science and international politics of the University of Konstanz.