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Written By

Tianna Killoran


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

4 March 2022

A drive to make a difference

JCU Senior Lecturer Dr Kearrin Sims supports development in communities at both the local and global level through his research. While he might be speaking to the US Bureau of Intelligence and Research one day or working with a Far North regional council the next, Kearrin advocates for lifelong learning, reflexivity, and coalition building in global development.

Although Kearrin works across a range of issues, he is particularly passionate about social justice. One such research project involves the study of the enforced disappearance of Lao community worker Sombath Somphone. In 2012, Sombath was stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane in Laos, where he was forced into another vehicle and hasn’t been seen since.

Kearrin is trying to shine a light on Sombath’s disappearance, along with similar occurrences, and is investigating how development organisations — such as non-government organisations (NGOs) — can effectively and safely work with sensitive political issues throughout the world. “I want to understand how development organisations can operate effectively within politically constrained contexts,” Kearrin says. “Working under authoritarian governments can be difficult and dangerous, like in Sombath’s case, but my current research is trying to find a practical way to push for progressive change despite these difficult circumstances.”

Kearrin’s work has both a theoretical and applied focus, and he says that it’s important for him to do research that both seeks to add new thinking and that informs policy and practice. “There’s real value in doing research that asks conceptual questions and that critiques development,” Kearrin says. “But much of my research, such as my work around enforced disappearances, also has an applied focus where I can contribute to the way other people engage in contentious politics and can become more aware of the risks of certain actions.”

JCU Lecturer Dr Kearrin Sims.
Two children driving down a street in Laos surrounded by palm trees with buildings in the background.
Left: JCU Senior Lecturer in Development Studies, Dr Kearrin Sims. Supplied by: Kearrin Sims.

Around the globe with global development

Kearrin’s research in the field of development studies draws on expertise from many different academic disciplines. “Development studies is very interdisciplinary. It’s a space where people from different disciplinary backgrounds — such as sociology, economics, health, geography and many others — come together to talk about shared themes and interests,” he says.

Development studies has also taken Kearrin to all corners of the globe and grown his understanding of different communities and societies. “My first independent research looked at the legacy of war and the resulting unexploded ordnance [bomb] contamination in Laos. I was looking at what effect this has on peoples' livelihoods and what can be done about it,” he says. “My PhD research then followed on by looking at Chinese-funded development projects throughout Laos and how new infrastructure projects and new built environments were reshaping the lives of local people.”

Kearrin says one of the most exciting parts of working in the field of global development is that he's always doing something different. Sometimes he might be working with local government, other times doing field work with NGOs in Laos, or even giving presentations to the US Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

“I do a lot of field work in mainland South East Asia and in Laos. My research is often very much at the local level but then also scales up to the larger global issues, such as with the COVID-19 pandemic or other large-scale development projects,” Kearrin says. “Development research often requires you to undertake analysis across different social scales, and to bring this analysis together to try and address both local and global needs.”

Always learning, always growing

Kearrin says that development studies is perfect for anyone who wants to bring positive change into the world. Whether you study a Master of Global Development, or combine multiple areas of expertise with a Master of Public Health – Master of Global Development, you’ll be able to contribute to creating a brighter future for others.

“There’s probably two things that are most important if you’re thinking about doing global development studies,” Kearrin says.

A commitment to change

“Firstly, it’s important that you have a commitment to positive social change,” he says. “If you want to pursue a career or profession that has meaning, then the global development courses at JCU are programs that take change seriously and don’t shy away from taking action.”

Making real and meaningful change in the world is at the core of development studies. “We should all be thinking about how we can do meaningful work,” Kearrin says. “But we also all need to be reflective about how efforts to bring about good change can also cause harm. Good change requires a lot of listening, working collaboratively, and care in addressing power imbalances.”

Lifelong learning

“Secondly, you have to be prepared to always keep learning,” Kearrin says. Always challenging yourself and learning about new and different people, societies, or environments is the key to success when working in global development.

“If you’re in international development work, you might be moving between different countries and contexts,” Kearrin says. “So, at many times in your career, you’ll be able to take your wealth of knowledge with you to new places and contexts, but you’ll also be learning entirely new things about new people and places.  We need to recognize the limits of our own knowledge and the expertise and strengths of local stakeholders, including our intended beneficiaries.”

A commitment to lifelong learning allows you to grow your existing professional expertise — whether in health, planning, education or many other disciplines — and apply it to new and complex global issues. “Global development is about having a real enthusiasm for lifelong learning,” Kearrin says.

“Health is a critically important sector for global development, and JCU has a lot of researchers who are making a real difference in health and development, whether it’s focusing on women’s health in Papua New Guinea, or researching disease control in the Tropics, which combine expertise across health and development.”

JCU Senior Lecturer Dr Kearrin Sims

Want to become a change-maker like Kearrin? You can find out more about Kearrin’s research or discover the Master of Public Health – Master of Global Development.

Discover JCU Global Development

Combine your passion and skills to make meaningful contributions to the development of communities all over the globe.

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Featured researcher

Dr Kearrin Sims

Senior Lecturer

Dr Kearrin Sims is a critical development scholar. His approach to academia is centred on finding creative and collaborative mechanisms for bringing together teaching, research and community engagement activities. To date, much of Kearrin’s research and community outreach has been focused within Southeast Asia. In particular, he has had a strong interest in transnational connectivity programs and the geopolitics of development in Laos.

By approaching the field of development as a highly politicised arena of resource struggles and competing value-systems that are entered from different positions of power, Kearrin has sought to uncover how processes of social and economic power redistribution might lead to greater representation and accountability for the poor.