Views from another place

12th July 1996 at 01:00
The Southern Perspectives on Development series Starting Points. Colonialism and its Legacy. Distribution of People and Resources. Production and its Effects. Rights and Choices.

The Development Education Project Pounds 8 each, or Pounds 35 per set, plus postage and packing, from DEDU, 151-153 Cardigan Road, Leeds LS6 1LJTel: 0113 278 4030 Age range 11-16

Michael Storm on the world seen from the perspective of developing countries. The Southern Perspectives on Development series is an ambitious project generated by an impressive collaborative network. Funding has been assisted by the EU, the Central Bureau for Educational Exchanges, and three major aid agencies. A group of teachers was involved, and, interestingly, a "Southerners' Core Group" and organisations in Kumasi, Ghana, and Bombay. The series title reflects these links, although the long-established perspective of virtually all development education materials means that Southern inputs don't really result in any startlingly novel emphases.

The curricular scope is equally ambitious. The five books deal with the power of words and images ("development", "poverty", "interdependence" etc); the historic and contemporary interaction between the West and the wider world; people and resources; employment, urbanisation and global dynamics; human rights, models of development, aid issues.

This panoramic sweep lends some credibility to the editorial claim to relevance for English, history, humanities, religious education, personal and social education and cross-curricular themes. The series will undoubtedly attract geography teachers, who nevertheless might find its predilection for global generalisations frustrating; references to countries and regions generally float free of any locating or contextualising detail.

There's a useful exploration of the various measures of welfare - Gross Domestic Product, the Human Development Index, the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare. We are reminded that GDP can conceal vast social and regional inequalities within a country. At this point, it might have been helpful to stop and take a close look at a specific country (maybe Tanzania or Nicaragua, still wistfully venerated by Dev Ed writers). Later, a "good" cartoon character instructs a churlish Westerner - "the problem of poverty has nothing to do with where people are" - which eliminates a large swathe of national curriculum geography at a stroke. Environmental and demographic explanations of the global welfare gap secure only six dismissive sentences.

The classroom photocopiable materials are not tacked-on afterthoughts, but integral to the series. About 30 pages of each 72-page A4 paperback are designed as worksheets. Some tasks are fairly challenging - "How do Export Processing Zones compare with Gandhi's principles about village industry?" - but there are rather too many simple matching or recapitulating exercises.

A preoccupation with "stereotyping" is a hallmark of Dev Ed materials, which, as here, employ their own distinctive definitions; "a categorised caricature, expressing a power relationship". There's quite a gap between this and the mainstream dictionary definition - "a fixed conventional image", or the process of "characterising too readily". Southern Perspectives is not above a bit of "stereotyping". It would be inconceivable, for instance, for a factory owner to be portrayed without a gigantic cigar and a glass of champagne.

In the South, he (it's always a he) exploits child weavers by pretending they're members of his family. In the North, his speech-balloon says: "How am I supposed to make a profit if I have to install anti-pollution devices in my factory? Besides, I live in a nice village miles away". Southern characters tend to emit more acceptable sentiments: "In my culture we feel sorry for people who build up a lot of wealth, because it shows that they have no friends or relatives to share with." Indeed, the only non-saintly representatives of the South (apart from factory owners and those who plead with multinationals to invest) are anti-birth-control husbands who do not "realise or care about how badly their wives feel".

It is clear that the authors are well aware of the "Pandora's Box" nature of Dev Ed. The teacher is advised to "try to discourage wild caricatures" and to "be prepared for negative stereotypes". Classroom hazards are signalled in advance; students may well be puzzled as to why Southern countries make such efforts to attract foreign investment and why they prioritise exports, when any sensible key stage 3 pupil, having digested this series, can see that they'd be better advised to opt for a happy self sufficiency.

Dev Ed's insistent twin preoccupations - with establishing that "development" is a Northern concept, "consistently challenged by the South", and that so-called "poor" societies are in important respects richer than ours - can create something of a dilemma for the teacher. If these messages are taken to heart, then the rationale for studying development issues may seem to be somewhat weakened. This dilemma, and many others, is strongly illuminated by this enterprising series.

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