Applying phenomenography to development aid : should we recognise and embrace complexity in aid practice?

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This thesis is about extending understanding of international development aid. It is motivated by a belief that the current approach is caught in a spiral of self-interest and reductionist rhetoric. I argue that our understanding of development aid is limited by an inability to foster a culture informed by failure, learning, reflection and evolution. In development aid enormous cultural, political and social assumptions are made about concepts of change. These are rarely investigated to explore what the assumptions mean for different stakeholders, how they are perceived, and why they might hinder rather than enhance change. Accordingly, my thesis is about extending the parameters of development research, moving it outside its traditional fields of enquiry, and looking at how new methodological approaches can broaden our understanding of how it works. I apply a learning methodology to an international development aid intervention to explore the practical and conceptual ways individuals conceive of and relate to development aid. An integrated agricultural development case study in Mozambique is used to illustrate the variety of ways that different stakeholders relate to a development program. A learning methodology (phenomenography) is used to highlight the important differences in how stakeholders relate to a given phenomena (the program) and to establish a hierarchy of awareness that articulates the significant variations in stakeholder experiences. These variations have considerable consequence for our understanding of international development aid. My thesis proposes that a critical systems theory approach be employed in dealing with development aid and its ' wicked problems' . Given the limitations of the existing aid delivery mechanisms, the research uses a discordant pluralist approach as a guiding principle towards shaping new approaches to development practice. The research illustrates the significance of learning to development aid and argues that new methodologies should be employed to apply learning to the development process. My research highlights the limitations of current perspectives on and approaches to development aid. It challenges the focus on 'poverty alleviation' as the principle driver for contemporary development practice, and argues for a focus informed by learning and reflection. In identifying the basis for this new focus, the thesis takes a transdisciplinary approach to illustrate the essential components of how development aid works. The research draws on the academic fields of management theory, planning theory and learning theory and explores how they have been appropriated by existing development paradigms. It investigates how these theories are currently applied and argues for a broader application of their merits in undertaking development interventions. By investigating and understanding how 'learning' is applied in a development aid context, we ensure that the process of design, evaluation and delivery can be tied to experiential outcomes. These outcomes provide a rich source of reflective input into how we might perceive 'effective' development aid. The thesis does not provide a prescription for 'appropriate' aid interventions. What it does attempt to do is ask why we need to think more about the learning component of development practice, and to consider how we might develop a framework that enhances the experience of recipients and practitioners alike. To do this, we need to start thinking about designing an environment where learning takes place, identify how it occurs, how it is represented and how it can be recorded to enhance development practice.
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