Critical Development Forum

The Critical Development Forum (CDF) was a student-driven organization dedicated to advancing a critical public dialogue about international engagement and "development," through interdisciplinary forums, workshops, and critical personal reflection at the University of Washington from 2011-2013. I founded the CDF with two colleagues from Engineers Without Borders and was the facilitator of the organization from 2011-2012. Our principal goal was to channel the good intentions of the University of Washington campus away from paternalistic and often unethical voluntourism and towards a commitment to solidarity that starts at home.

 Photo by Tom Paulson of our May 2011 panel, "Can You Save the World?" (a tongue-in-cheek title) which drew over 250 students into a tiny room to debate their role in global development and global justice efforts

Photo by Tom Paulson of our May 2011 panel, "Can You Save the World?" (a tongue-in-cheek title) which drew over 250 students into a tiny room to debate their role in global development and global justice efforts

Story

My research in Nicaragua in 2009 left me very disillusioned about the idea and practice of "development" and more cognizant of the essential need to work at the roots of global justice issues here at home. Yet at the University of Washington I saw that students packing the orientation sessions for one week “voluntourism” trips, many of them to build houses in Mexico in the very same villages whose men and women have been forced to migrate north after neoliberal restructuring. Structural violence, neoliberalism, and critical development studies were not concepts most students would ever be introduced to – and yet they were to become the next generation of development workers. 

I could not help but think about my own experience as an unqualified American student building a road in Bolivia, with no consciousness of how the poverty I aimed to solve through technical engineering had itself been politically engineered by international financial institutions. I thus began to have the conversations that led me to initiate and co-found the CDF with two friends from Engineers Without Borders. 

At its peak, the organization made front page news within our university and garnered attention from the local development community with a panel of critical faculty, professionals, and activists that attracted over 250 students to listen, learn, and debate how to best engage with the global South. (See the video of the panel below.) For almost two years, the CDF hosted panels like these, discussions, lectures, social events, and even a taught a seminar, where students, faculty, and staff had a space to share experiences, reflections, and scholarship that challenged the mainstream understanding of development and encouraged more ethical ways to work in solidarity with people marginalized by global processes of dispossession, both at home and abroad. In our short time, we were able to, ever so slightly, shift the public conversation about development on our campus by breaking down taboos of questioning development, crossing disciplinary divides, and drawing on the real lived experiences of students. 

Read more about the CDF on its webpage (no longer updated), in my op-ed, or my own presentation about our work and story here