Discussing global income inequality in classrooms full of rich kids leads to pencil cases at dawn. Nigella Vigoroso-Heck tells a tale of development economics.

In 2018 Oxfam horrified us all with their finding that 1% of the world’s population had more than 50% of the world’s wealth. Global income inequality had clearly spun out of control.  Buried further down in their research report, but much less publicised, was the inconvenient fact that anyone with assets of more than £250,000 was in that 1%.

Here are some facts about the city in which I teach: 

    • average house prices in the local area are close to £500,000;
    • tuition fees at my school cost close to £20,000 (with boarding, it’s more like £30,000); and
    • a pint of beer across the road costs over a fiver. 

“Teachers must tread through case-studies like minefields, hoping their example for state corruption isn’t the birthplace of someone’s mum.”

By any measure you choose, the students I teach are rich.  They are in the top 1%.  And teaching Development Economics (Dev Econ) to the 1% is an interesting game.

In my experience, Dev Econ – for better or worse – is the one area on the course guaranteed to generate opinionated debate and genuine passion.  Some students, of course, are always slightly miffed when we’re not looking at a global superpower or a multi-billion pound company but most of them are keenly aware that it represents one of the most important economic issues of our time. 

The first few Dev Econ lessons consider the measures of Economic Development.  Cue lots of Hans Rosling videos and discussions about Sustainable Development Goals.  Then, we consider the causes of underdevelopment.  Cue case-studies and more videos (this is my favourite).  And finally, we look at the “solutions”.  This is where things really do get very interesting and students’ true colours will quickly emerge.

The nature of UK schools these days is that there are different ethnicities represented in every classroom.  Teachers must tread through case-studies like minefields, hoping their example for state corruption isn’t the birthplace of someone’s mum.  I’ve had classes too in which some students, who had been brought up in very intolerant cultures, bulldozed right through the minefield: “the problem in that country is that they’re all lazy and stupid”. That remark earnt Mr Intolerant a long chat with the Principal.

“They’ve even thrown pencil cases at each other when debating the idea of debt relief for Haiti.”

It can be an emotional topic as well.  I’ve had students cry at data on Sierra Leone and they’ve even thrown pencil cases at each other when debating the idea of debt relief for Haiti. From a teacher’s perspective, there’s a tough balancing act to keep up: how much do you want to make this about human suffering and how much do we want to stick to economic concepts?  I tend to go for the latter but, back in April this year, I had the following conversation with one of my brightest students.

Me: “So, what is the biggest problem with unemployment?”

Student: “That you’re producing inside the production possibility frontier.”

When your student says the biggest problem with unemployment is that the economy is producing inside the production possibility frontier, you know you’ve gone way too far down the route of separating economics from real-life.  It was a watershed moment for me.  It ended up being the beginning of an existential crisis for her.

“The best thing about 
Dev Econ for me though is that I get to hammer the neoliberals in Washington for a month.”

Increasingly, I have become much more aware of the behaviour of my (numerous) Chinese students during Dev Econ too.  It’s impossible to have a sensible conversation about emerging economies in 2019 without looking at the role of China in the global economy.  According to the FT, for example, 10,000 Chinese companies currently operate in Africa and 12% of all African industrial output is handled by Chinese firms1.  I am left to wonder: what do my Chinese students make of that?  Do they see it as exploitation or as a legitimate means of growing the domestic economy?

Last year I had a group of Chinese teachers observe my lesson on foreign aid.  At the end of it, one observer came up to me and told me how original and creative my lesson was  … because I had actually considered the economic benefits of foreign aid from the perspective of the developing country.  Apparently, the equivalent Chinese econ spec only really focusses on the impact on China.

The best thing about Dev Econ for me though is that I get to hammer the neoliberals in Washington for a month.  “Look at these guys”, I say, “claiming that they’ll solve the world’s development economic problems with their one-size-fits-all approach”.  There are almost no success stories I can use about the World Bank (but an abundance of catastrophic failures) and it’s an ideal opportunity to debunk some economic myths like the “trickle-down effect”.

Overall, Dev Econ ends up being quite a polarising topic in the A level course.  Students either love it or hate it. Likewise, some teachers leave it ‘til last and barely get past the definitions, others might spend a term on it and build in development video competitions to their scheme of work.  In that sense, it is quite unlike any other topic on the specification.

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