Good intentions are all very well, but now there are MAs in turning them into reality

The subject is one of the fastest-growing postgraduate degrees in Britain. The University of East Anglia's School of Development Studies, the University of Sussex's Institute for Development Studies and the London School of Economics' Development Studies Institute are leaders in it, and attract students from around the world.

And just as Sir Bob has proved you don't have to be a politician to influence policy, the range of development-studies programmes on offer shows you don't have to be an economist to make a difference in the developing world.

For example, this year, for the first time, the University of East Anglia is offering a one-year MA in cultural studies and development. Headed by John Mack, the professor of world arts and the head of the Africa programmes for the British Museum, the MA is concerned with putting the right cultural attitudes in place for sustainability to take root.

"If sustainability is to work, cultural institutions in Africa need to engender a sense of dignity and pride in their own cultural background," says Mack. "Too many economic projects begin with good intentions but they don't last: the Land Rover ends up covered in dust with a tree growing out of it. It seems to me that if communities develop their own sense of what is important, that will make the difference."

To this end, the MA looks at the role that cultural institutions and museums need to play in the developing world. "How do you present oral traditions?" Mack asks. How do you present the importance of archaeological sites? How do you increase the local value of world heritage sites?"

When an archaeologist discovered an Inca site in a poor Ecuadorian village, in order to stop the villagers digging up the artefacts and selling them, he ended up having to irrigate the valley so the villagers would become rich by another means and would leave the archaeological site alone. Culture and development are interlinked and all language used about sustainability is essentially cultural, explains Mack.

To be accepted, prospective students need a good first degree in history, art history or anthropology. The course involves a secondment to a UK or international institution.

Another MA breaking the mould is in development studies and theatre, which is in its fifth year at the University of East Anglia. Applicants need to come from an academic background with some theatrical experience. However, because it is a practical programme, a good 2:1 first degree is not imperative.

"Theatre can help bring about a radical change in attitude as to how people perceive the world around them and their ability to do something about it," says the course co-ordinator, Professor Ralph Yarrow.

One of the big buzz-phrases in the field of development is "participatory rural appraisal".

It emphasises the importance of local knowledge and local attitudes when creating plans for improving the fortunes of a developing community. However, the fact that NGOs and the local community often do not talk the same language - both literally and conceptually - means that the communities can end up feeling distanced from decision-making about their own future.

Yarrow gives the example of an NGO proposing the building of a new road. To the NGO it may not seem like an emotionally charged issue, but within the community it might stir up tensions. By using role-play or by getting the audience to direct a play, saying what they think should happen next, the NGO can get people talking about their emotions and facing up to difficult issues around HIV/Aids and domestic violence.

"Theatre is a way of getting people to have a voice and to articulate ideas where they wouldn't previously say anything. It gets people's confidence up, gives them a sense of their own value, and so gets them involved in the democratic process," says Yarrow's fellow course co-ordinator, Dr John Cameron.

Already Oxfam, Greenpeace, Save the Children and Unicef have used theatre in their work, and this participatory approach is now booming. The days of the West dictating economic solutions for Africa and other developing nations are over. Experience has shown that a top-down approach to development does not work. Good intentions need to involve the people for whom they're intended, which is why governments and NGOs around the world now want to know how they can draw on the knowledge and experience of poor communities to use aid money to best effect.

In response, the University of Sussex's Institute for Development Studies has set up a 15-month part-practical MA in participation, development and social change. The course is aimed at development workers with three to five years' experience who want to share and critically reflect on their experience and to experiment with innovative methods of participation. Students spend 10 weeks in intensive study before returning to their countries for nine months of fieldwork, concluding with a further 10 weeks where they write up their findings.

Recent students included a policy adviser on gender and youth in the president's cabinet of Surinam, five government ministers from Ethiopia and Sheila Kiscaden, a US state senator from Minnesota.

Professor John Gaventa, one of the course founders, says: "We are looking at the ways of linking people from the grass-roots to the political and global agenda to make sure that the debt-relief and increased aid actually reach the poor people that they are intended to reach. This approach takes skills, knowledge and the kind of training that development studies previously didn't deal with."

Redressing the balance between a top-down and bottom-up approach to development studies is also the focus of another new masters programme set to start this September in the LSE's Institute of Social Psychology. The MSc in health, community and development is a one-year masters for people with a first degree in social sciences. With a strong angle on health issues, the core of the course is to analyse the social psychology of collective action, looking at how development workers can best empower grass-roots communities to work collectively to fight social inequalities and to demand living conditions more conducive to their health and well-being.

"Although the bottom-up approach has been accepted at the level of rhetoric, the participation of ordinary people doesn't happen as much as it should," says Catherine Campbell, professor of social psychology at the LSE.

"Development is ultimately about motivating people to develop their own abilities and capacities to work towards improving their living conditions. Social psychology offers the potential for increasing our understanding of the way in which social inequalities get a grip on people's psyche in ways that prevent them from getting ahead."