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Case study 21: Master’s programme in Development Practice, James Cook University


A Master’s programme in Development Practice (MDP) initiaited in 2010 and designed to enhance the professional skills of people who intend to make a career in international development assistance with governments, inter-governmental organisations and NGOs. The programme is multi-disciplinary – even interdisciplinary - and students are mostly already professionally active. The students come from a wide range of national and disciplinary backgrounds.


Development practice, inter-disciplinary, mid-career, sustainable development

Describe, briefly, the activity/initiative/practice

Throughout the course students work in teams on assignments on development issues from a diversity of countries. We do not use formal pre-cooked case studies but select them and work on them together using personal experience, publications and online resources. The course culminates in a semester long visit to Eastern Indonesia to live and work in poor communities and study their development problems – we are seeking to engage with these communities for the long-term and help them to explore development options and also set up long-term monitoring of livelihoods and environmental indicators. So successive generations of students would visit the same villages. The following concepts underpin the programme:

Livelihoods and the sustainable livelihoods framework – monitoring and improving them

  • The Millennium Development Goals and delivering on them
  • Landscapes as an organising framework for solving conservaton and development trade-offs
  • Equity.
What is the background/context to the activity/initiative/practice?
The faculty teaching this masters have research interests in human well-being, culture and environmental change in the region where the field work is conducted – the students mostly come from other countries but some are from Indonesia.

What made/makes it “Master’s” level?

What makes it different to an undergraduate subject?: WE INSTIL CORE COMPETENCIES and SKILLS.

The Master’s in Development Practice is a combined academic and field-based degree program designed to educate and train a new generation of development practitioners who will be responsible stewards of the Earth’s resources and will lead by example, fostering attitudes of social equity to all, as they master and use certain specific knowledge areas and skills. Working closely with their colleagues—other skilled practitioners and technical specialists—in both small and large, public and private, community-based and global teams, MDP graduates must display mastery of certain skills (to complement the content areas).  These skills can be grouped in certain “skill areas,” as identified below.  Some of the sub-skills are repeated because they are needed in more than one context.  This list is not intended to be exhaustive—individual MDP programs can modify the sub-skills to fit the local needs and the context of the local program. Project management skills, including, but not limited to:

  • problem identification
  • analysis
  • design
  • log frame analysis
  • mapping techniques, including GIS
  • project implementation
  • monitoring
  • evaluation
Policy intervention strategies, including, but not limited to:
  • Problem identification
  • Analysis
  • Design of response
  • Policy communication, including oral and written briefings

Communication skills, including, but not limited to:

  • Written communication skills, as applied to memos, emails, letters, reports, presentations, case studies
  • Oral communication skills, as applied to meetings (one-on-one and larger), conference participation, oral presentations
Decision-making skills, including, but not limited to:
  • Ability to gather data and opinions
  • Ability to analyze a problem, breaking it down into components
  • Ability to create action plans
Research skills, including, but not limited to:
  • Conducting qualitative research within an ethical framework
  • Conducting quantitative research within an ethical framework
  • Gathering and managing research results (data)
  • Analyzing and presenting research results

Participatory techniques, including, but not limited to:

  • Community needs assessment
  • SWOT analysis
  •  Facilitation of local events (meetings, workshops, etc.)
  •  Local school, government, NGO, Civil society involvement
  •  Community organization and IEC campaigns
Self-reflection and interpersonal skills, including, but not limited to:
  • Analyses of one’s own attitudes, perceptions, and biases
  • Empathy
  • Leadership
  • Team-building
  • Conflict resolution
Risk management, including, but not limited to:
  • Risk mitigation
  • Crisis or disaster management
Cross-cultural and intercultural skills, including, but not limited to:
  • Knowledge of, and respect for, local history, language, culture, traditions, and perspectives
  • The ability to use culturally sensitive written and verbal communication skills to further cross-cultural awareness and understanding
Technological and media skills, such as those needed for production of still photography, videography, multi-media presentations, distance and blended learning, etc.
  • Familiarity with available techniques and technology and their uses in development work
  • Ability to use available media techniques and technology
  • Willingness to experiment with available formats and interest in developing and sharing further skills in the area of technology and media
  Entrepreneurial and innovative business and marketing skills, including, but not limited to:
  • Cost benefit  analysis
  • Enterprise development
  • Social Enterprise organization and management
Human Resource management skills, including, but not limited to:
  • Ability to recruit, train, and lead teams
  • Ability to create job descriptions, conduct hiring interviews and performance appraisals, make staffing decisions and implement them

Others as identified as appropriate for local program (or area of field assignment)

We stress exploring options, creativity in finding solutions, engagement with local people and with practitioners, facilitation skills – we assume a high level of basic education and within the overall development context we encourage students to focus on issues of special interest to them but always through a broad inter-disciplinary lense.

What challenges were encountered/overcome - in terms of mastersness - and what lessons were learned that would be helpful to others?

The University struggles to allow students to take subjects from different faculties – there are problems of pre-requirements and scheduling, students almost never have English as a mother tongue and also don’t know Indonesian, so there are language barriers. The University model encourages large class sizes whereas the pedagogy works best with smaller classes. Some employers prefer graduates with in-depth disciplinary skills and do not find niches for our broader inter-disciplinary graduates.

Where to next - in terms of mastersness – if anywhere?

We depend upon subjects provided by other faculty members who do not necessarily share our pedagogy and tolerance of poor English – we would ideally like to build up a center staffed with people (from different disciplinary backgrounds) who would invest in this programme – making it a sort of MBA for international development professionals.

Masterness for us means moving beyond just knowledge and information – it implies the ability to be creative in finding solutions to real world problems. Much of this can only come from experiential learning – actually doing things in the field in teams. We portray the evolution from regular classroom learning to this creative solutions to problems in the following diagram.



  • The pedagogy has not been written up but much is based upon the research interests of the course founder – Jeff Sayer. A flavour of these interests is given in the following papers.(Sayer and Campbell 2005, Sayer, Campbell et al. 2007, Sayer, Bull et al. 2008, Sayer 2009, Sayer and Cassman 2013, Sayer, Sunderland et al. 2013, Sayer 2013)
  • Sayer, J. and B. Campbell (2005). The science of sustainable development: local livelihoods and the global environment. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.
  • Sayer, J. and K. G. Cassman (2013). "Agricultural innovation to protect the environment." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(21): 8345-8348.
  • Sayer, J., T. Sunderland, J. Ghazoul, J.-L. Pfund, D. Sheil, E. Meijaard, M. Venter, A. K. Boedhihartono, M. Day and C. Garcia (2013). "Ten principles for a landscape approach to reconciling agriculture, conservation, and other competing land uses." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(21): 8349-8356.
    Sayer, J. A. (2009). "Reconciling conservation and development: are landscapes the answer?" Biotropica 41(6): 649-652.
  • Sayer, J. A., G. Bull and C. Elliott (2008). "Mediating forest transitions:'Grand design'or'Muddling through'." Conservation and Society 6(4): 320.
  • Sayer, J. A., B. Campbell, L. Petheram, M. Aldrich, M. Perez, D. Endamana, Z.-L. Dongmo, L. Defo, S. Mariki, N. Doggart and N. Burgess (2007). "Assessing environment and development outcomes in conservation landscapes." Biodiversity and Conservation 16(9): 2677-2694.
  • Sayer, J. e. a. (2013). "Ten principles for a landscape approach to reconciling agriculture, conservation and other competing land uses." PNAS 110(21): 8349-8356.


Prof Jeffrey Sayer,, James Cook University, Australia.