Owen Willis


Email: owillis@dal.ca
Mailing Address: 
Department of International Development Studies
Marion McCain Building
6135 University Ave.
Dalhousie University
PO Box 15000
Halifax, NS, Canada
B3H 4R2
Research Topics:
  • Sport and development
  • Religion and development



  • MA (International Development Studies), Dalhousie University, 1999.
  • MSc (Sociology of Sport), University of Leicester, 2000.
  • PhD (Theology and Development), University of KwaZulu-Natal, 2005.

Teaching Interests

INTD2106 Africa: An Introduction.

Research Interests

My academic interests include the areas of sport and development as well as religion and development. These two themes may not seem particularly interrelated, but I suggest both are congruent in terms of the universal search for meaning. Had Marx lived in our generation, he might have substituted “sport” for “religion” in his famous quote: “Religion is the opium of the people.” Sport has always been a fascination of mine, and the opportunity to analyze it from an academic perspective has been especially invigorating. I am interested in how sport may be of use in the development process, though I caution against investing sport with unrealistic and universalistic properties.

The quest for meaning has traditionally been close to the heart of religion. Although matters of faith and religion are central to the lives of millions of people in the global South, and many faith based organizations are actively involved in development, few northern academics in the field of international development make explicit reference to religion’s role in development. I argue that the secular north has often ignored the religious underpinnings of life in the developing world, and have thus failed to fully appreciate an important way that people in the South make sense of their world.

I have more recently become particularly interested in the “happiness literature”, which has experienced such exponential growth. I am seeking to incorporate a focus on subjective well being into my research interests, for clearly development has long been identified with economic growth, whether under modernization strategies or neo-liberal prescriptions, and a more holistic approach to development is, in my opinion, to be welcomed. Whether this has gone far enough, in providing a critique of western “overdevelopment”, I am not so certain, and recent work in the field of happiness studies has inspired me to attempt to integrate this line of research into development thinking and practice, while seeking innovative answers to the old chestnut: “What is development?”

In addition to these thematic interests, my geographical focus is East Africa, an area of the world with which I am intimately familiar. Born and brought up in Kenya, I was involved for almost two decades in community development in Africa, traveling widely and spending time in some of the most remote parts of the continent. For the last five years, I have led the IDS Department’s Study Abroad programme to East Africa, where I feel privileged to have been afforded a unique insight into some important grassroots community development initiatives in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda.