Practice-oriented education at ISS

Member for

1 year 7 months

Dr Georgina Gomez and Bernarda Coello discuss the necessity and requirements of practice-oriented education at ISS

Georgina Gomez and Bernarda Coello
Georgina Gomez and Bernarda Coello

Practice-oriented education at ISS

Member for

1 year 7 months

Bernarda Coello (BC): Hi. My name is Bernarda, I come from Ecuador and I graduated from the Social Policy for Development Major in 2018, specializing in local development. I currently work in the private sector in the Netherlands on impact investment.

Georgina Gomez (GG): I’m Georgina Gomez, ISS staff and originally from Argentina. I came to ISS in 2001 to do my MA in Development Studies, taking the local development strategies specialization. This specialization is now part of the Governance and Development Policy Major. I did my PhD, also at ISS, on local means of payment and exchange circuits in Argentina. I’ve been working as a lecturer at ISS since 2009, starting shortly after I finished my PhD. I remain convinced of ISS’ potential to change the way we do development; not only the way we think about development. We often wonder at ISS how well prepared our graduates are. What was your experience with this?

BC: I believe that we are well prepared to be in the outside world, especially when it comes to applying critical thinking. We are also (mostly) prepared to work with NGOs and in the government. However, my experience of working in the private sector was, at first, slightly challenging. My main struggle has been understanding how to communicate about development matters in a way that doesn’t come across as utopic or too theoretical.

‘I had to de-construct my own ideas of seeing the private sector as “evil”.’

I also had to de-construct my own ideas of seeing the private sector as ‘evil’. The private sector is a domain with huge potential to develop a long-term approach to some development-related challenges. As new graduates, we face a reality that doesn’t match the ISS theory. And in my case, that was frustrating. I had all these ideas about how to engage with different parties, believing that everybody was thinking in the same way or at least shared the basics of the critical approach to development that ISS has. It was a huge contrast to go from this critical approach to a more practical and real-life orientation. I see there’s still a huge need outside development academia to understand development. I also see more and more people working in the private sector that are becoming aware of the relevance of dealing with development issues; they just often don’t know how to. I have a personal vision to include development perspectives in the private sector and to do so in a responsible way; adopting an ‘ISS mindset’ to ask relevant questions that are practice-oriented is helping me navigate the challenges I mentioned.

GG: You said that you feel that ISS has a very negative view of the private sector and perhaps prepares students to work primarily in NGOs or in advocacy. Perhaps it's because there's very little real contact with the private sector and because we rarely think that our graduates are going to work in the private sector. Yet a great deal of the funding, interest and the main drivers of development these days are in the private sector: in their philanthropic projects, their social enterprises, consultancies and foundations. To be more influential and more effective, ISS should come to terms with the need to prepare students for all employers.

BC: Yes, and such employers are creating strategies to work specifically with development-related matters, especially now that the trend is to meet the SDG agenda. There I see a huge potential to bring a responsible understanding of development into this sector. There are only a few courses in the MA programme that provide us with this more practical approach; the local development course comes to mind. This course took me out of my ‘ISS comfort zone’ when I had to look into a societal problem and come up with a possible solution that would also be financially sustainable.

‘translating … radical theories into conversations in a way that resonates with peoples’ understanding and realities is challenging.’

GG:  Other alumni have commented that some of the materials taught at ISS may be too theoretical or too remote from the needs of some potential employers. ISS is top notch in a particular niche and some of my colleagues have done great work to expand that niche a little bit. However, I focus on what happens outside that niche; we can’t ignore that there is a world out there that doesn't think like us and is far from convinced of our perspectives. Perhaps we focus too much on the cutting edge, most radical thinking, and I will defend that because it shows us our goal. But perhaps 90% of the people out there are not prepared for this cutting-edge radical thinking. I think that if ISS could find ways to get this 90% a bit closer to the place we want to go, we could have an enormous impact. Can we change many people just a little bit? Overall, this path may be a more effective way to change the world: to frame a message that can appeal and generate some change among the 90%. The radical 10% get there by other means.

BC: The start of major societal changes often stems from radical, cutting-edge approaches to understanding a specific reality. However, as thoughts settle and local dynamics need to function effectively in daily life, translating these radical theories into conversations in a way that resonates with their realities and is understandable to them becomes one of the most challenging aspects to tackle. I have often faced situations or conversations in which I talked about, for example, gender and inequalities, or criticized financial inclusion approaches using theoretical terms that we learned at ISS because I saw, and still see, so much value in them. But then I realised that others didn’t always understand what I was talking about. So, I had to first understand how they see the world, be empathic and patient to talk about these concepts in more practical terms.

GG: I sometimes feel that using such theoretical language stops the conversation and works against what we are trying to achieve, to be transformative. Do we make people feel unsafe?

BC: Certainly. I had to learn to be meaningful to the private sector: instead of trying to push the agenda in an activist way, I had to meet them in the middle and understand how we use language to present the relevance of taking development matters seriously.

'However radical, all change starts with a first step.’

GG: I agree with you, but I take it a step back, to first seeing the value of communicating with this broader public and becoming aware of how we speak and how they speak. Minding that they need to feel comfortable.

BC: Yes, because in the end we may want to achieve similar goals but don’t have the same training. So instead of starting conversations with radical positions that could close doors (before they even open), we could rather try to first understand the positionality and privileges of the audience we are talking with and then present our point. I don’t think it’s about being less activist, but about being more aware of when to be activist.

GG: So, how can we translate our critical thinking into a path of concrete actions that will speak to different audiences in such a way that we can actually make an impact? One of the conversations we have had at ISS is to implement a practice-oriented specialization. We think it would make our students more employable. But what we’re saying in this conversation is that it's much more than increasing employability; it's thinking about how to move the way in which the world functions.

BC: Maybe I can give you an example of how this happened to me. I got involved in a project that was supporting a company working on financial inclusion. But there was no clear understanding about the societal problem they were solving. They only talked about a software solution. I used the knowledge acquired in the ethnographic research course at ISS and asked the COO to walk me through his day. By listening to him, I realised that they were working on financial health. They were the party creating software to ensure that people receiving microcredit didn’t fall into debt; they were preventing predatory practices in microcredit provided to retailers. I could translate the potential of their software solution and the enterprise’s daily practices into an impact narrative that opened doors to impact investors to invest in the company. Because impact investors were not thinking about financial inclusion but about resilience and the people who were getting these bank accounts. Maybe this is a more tangible example of how to bring the narrative to a different audience with ISS knowledge but in an easier way.

GG: So you're saying that practice-orientation at ISS should prepare students to interpret what different sectors of society wish to do to make socially relevant impact. To transform the world by translating diverse aspirations into various courses of concrete action.

BC: Yes.

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GG: It’s about creating commonality, what pragmatist philosophers referred to as the yoking of positions. Creating middle grounds is a very different idea than pushing to the edge, and it requires moulding agents of change for a world that understands change differently from you, that speaks various languages of change, while there is some notion that change is desired and necessary. And this goes far beyond employability or internships or including tools and frameworks in our courses that students can use in a workplace.

BC: Sure, There are many tools and frameworks that we’ll learn on the job. When we graduate, we feel that we need to know everything but employers don’t expect you to tick all the boxes and they often have a budget for team capacity building. But they will check that you’re open to learning; then they can decide to invest in you to learn even very routine tasks.

GG: Yes, of course, but for that you need to show that you are an open-minded and good learner. The implication is that employers will hire the people who can learn; those with their feet on the ground, who use accessible wording to communicate with others, are team players and who have the capacity to embrace the insights and outsides of a particular position very quickly.

BC: I would add those who are able to manage uncomfortable conversations with stakeholders and partners who think differently from them. That includes people who underestimate the complexity of development. I go back to the communication part. How can you introduce development matters in a way that a decision maker (who doesn’t see development aspects as relevant) starts to care and include them in relevant strategies?

GG: In my experience, few things are more alienating than us telling others what they’re supposed to do.

BC: Definitely, when people are clear on what they want, like entrepreneurs or investors who spent years and invested millions to build enterprises, having someone coming to tell them how they should be doing things or communicating about their work is the last they want to hear. Again, it’s a matter of considering how to communicate and finding the right timing. It’s important to study the strategy: the who, the where and the when. It’s smart to have a more active approach to these topics and to understand when it’s smarter to just feed some information for the strategy rather than being a radical activist. Especially in the private sector, you're looking for financial sustainability so that impact can continue to be created. So you have to consider when, in the process of reaching financial sustainability, is the best moment to actively apply the impact strategy.

GG: I think that the public that is furthest from our development thinking needs to be offered more explanation, more evidence and more research. At ISS we have access to a lot of research, we know how to find and assess information and we can do research and generate more knowledge. The question is how to use this knowledge as a basis for action.

BC: Well, ISS could do more applied research and apply the research it does already.

GG: So we’re saying that a practice-oriented ISS graduate can also teach and educate patiently and in a soft voice. In my experience, private sector actors sometimes have a lot of good will which simply needs a bit more guidance or grounding. What to do with good will, apart from the simplistic solutions that research has shown us are impossible or damaging? A practice-oriented ISS graduate will breathe deeply and show the research, the evidence. Or at least a few sentences that show the importance of local groups, context, bottom-up learning, and combine that with the wishes and understandings of our interlocutors. We’re well trained in seeing what others do wrong, not so much in seeing what they do right or their good intentions, or what can be drawn together into an alternative course of action.

BC: Maybe another example helps to illustrate this. A colleague did an assignment for a big fund that was mandated to invest billions of euros on impact. The question here was ‘what is impact’? The fund said they had an entire team working on this and continued to come up with mechanisms to measure impact but struggled to really understand what they were measuring and why such measurements were relevant, for them and for society as a whole. I was discussing this with my colleague and we talked about the theory of change. Teams in this fund had never heard of the theory of change, certainly not in terms of the social impact to be achieved. My colleague told me, ‘I know this sounds basic to you but they’re willing to shape their strategies and they need to start somewhere. This very basic concept for you is the highest point at which they can start their strategy.’

GG: Yes, development studies without a theory of change is like those bubbles you make with soap and blow into the air. It’s crucial to think about the first step to be able to move on to the second step and to ultimately reach the final step where we can say we have arrived.

BC: That's my point. For the international investors, this logic was not yet there.

GG: A good ISS practitioner would be one that who takes baby steps.

BC: Yes. With the private sector, we need to engage in a different way to change things from the inside.

GG: Quite frankly, the same goes for the public sector. And in every case, however radical, change starts with a first step. Perhaps a practice-oriented specialization would be one that builds the capacity to see and reproduce small steps, one at a time.

BC: Yes, I fully agree. Start by going back to the basics to evaluate the next small step required to move, just slightly, the orientation needle of the 90% of the population we talked about before. A good example is ISS’ local development course, in which students establish a clear objective and progress through small steps during the entire course to reach it. This involves adopting an interdisciplinary approach to building up strategies to navigate governance processes (including entrepreneurial governance practices) while effectively managing relationships with stakeholders at various levels.

GG: Thanks very much for the compliment to several colleagues. We feel very proud when we see that we’ve been able to support someone’s personal growth. It reminds us of meaning. And thanks very much for sharing your experiences, your examples, and for taking the time to have this conversation.