Developing enthusiasm

31st March 1995 at 01:00
Tony Binns stresses the value of studying changing cultures and economies in distant places and close at hand. Geography and geographers have for many years played a key role in development education. Probably more than any other subject in our education system, geography has traditionally been responsible for promoting interest in the diversity of the world's peoples and places.

Vital educational objectives, such as global awareness and international understanding, have long been in the domain of geography in schools and institutions of further and higher education. And in the general absence below sixth-form level of the formal study of economics, sociology, anthropology and development studies, it is geography which lays the foundations for these disciplines and fires concern and enthusiasm in young people at an early and impressionable stage. This is quite a responsibility for the subject and its teachers. But it is because such concerns are at the heart of geography that the subject is so immediate, exciting, topical - and popular.

"Development" can be examined in any spatial and social context, whether at home or overseas. Dudley Seers identified the key objectives of development as the reduction of poverty, unemployment and inequality ("The Meaning of Development", 1969). "Development education", I would argue, takes this further and should be concerned with promoting a better understanding of the patterns and processes both at home and overseas which affect the present state and future improvement of human living standards.

Quality of life, as measured by a range of variables (for example, life expectancy, infant mortality, calorie intake, literacy, access to health services and clean water) which are identified in the United Nations Development Programme's annual Human Development Report, can be evaluated in Britain or Germany as well as in Burundi or Ghana. However, too often we find it convenient to ignore the existence of such problems at home, probably because these issues are too controversial when considered in a local and more familiar context. Instead, we prefer to focus our teaching about such issues on distant and less familiar Third World countries, portraying them as uniformly full of "doom and gloom", in contrast to our own apparently problem-free domestic scene.

Why should we conceal from our young people that the Third World is incredibly diverse and that exciting and positive things are happening there, and that poverty, unemployment and inequality are major problems at home too?

Just a few weeks ago, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's report, Enquiry into Income and Wealth, revealed that income inequalities have widened further and faster in the United Kingdom than in almost any comparable country, to the point where the bottom 20 to 30 per cent have failed to benefit from the rising prosperity of the past 15 years. The report warns that unless the poorer groups are reintegrated into society ". . . all of society will end up suffering the consequences". Such matters should concern us all.

Geography's interest in distant places and development can be traced back to 19th-century explorers such as Livingstone, who received much interest and support from the Royal Geographical Society. Britain in those days viewed development rather differently from today - in political and economic terms as extending the Empire and expanding trade, and in social and cultural terms as "civilising" indigenous peoples and spreading the gospel.

This longstanding link between geography, exploration and commerce in itself provides a strong historical justification for geography's involvement in development education today. As a former colonial power and a major trading nation, which disseminated its culture and values across the globe and derived much wealth from colonial expansion and commerce, we should all be aware of the underlying historical processes which have led to Britain's present position in the world.

My own commitment to development education was greatly reinforced during my first visit to Africa in 1974, when I discovered that so many of the images which I took with me to Sierra Leone were disturbingly inaccurate and biased. Returning home, I initially became involved with the Birmingham Development Education Centre, since when I have taught in the School of African and Asian Studies at Sussex University and also on a number of extramural continuing education courses. Many of my former students are now involved in a wide range of development-related work at home and overseas.

Since the introduction of the national curriculum in 1991, progress has been made in teaching about distant places and development, though school inspections indicate scope for strengthening this further. Although "development" as a thematic study is only specifically mentioned at key stage 3, teachers must recognise the many opportunities for introducing development-related issues elsewhere in the curriculum.

The primary school where I am a governor organised a very successful "Gambia Day", linking with curriculum work on Africa and "other" cultures and greatly assisted by the link we have established with a Gambian school. Exciting cross-curricular work in some schools, using drama, indigenous literature and music has strengthened that vital "sense of place". Sixth-form students and my undergraduates at Sussex University have benefited from fieldwork in Gambia, Kenya, Morocco and Zimbabwe, enhancing their understandings of different peoples and environments, as well as enriching their studies.

The Geographical Association's International Committee has done much to stimulate interest: the three-year "area link-up" with West Africa (1993-1996), two conferences on development education, and two books on "International Understanding Through Geography", are just the tip of a large iceberg.

Development education in the UK is strong, vibrant and highly relevant and deserves much greater respect and attention from schools, society and government. It encourages global awareness and international understanding, as well as empathy and concern for others. As such it shares many of the objectives and values I would also associate with geography.

Dr Tony Binns, president of the Geographical Association 1994-95, is senior lecturer in geography at the School of African and Asian Studies, University of Sussex.

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