Rethinking Development Studies

By Kees Biekart, Laura Camfield, Uma Kothari, Henning Melber

Our world is in shambles. And what is widely understood as Development has been a contributing factor. While ‘fixers’ are quick to offer new recipes for Development, re-building or re-constructing societies destroyed, they often offer more of the same. This provokes the question, as to whether life on earth might have been much better off without Development.

Aware of these challenges, some years ago EADI compiled a variety of perspectives mainly from authors affiliated to the Association and published in an edited volume as Building Development Studies for the New Millennium. This book provides (self-)critical reflections from inside the “belly of the beast”: European scholars engaged with the pitfalls of the ideas and practices of what is called Development and Development Studies. In their introduction the editors emphasise that these chapters provide an initial step, which requires a follow up adding perspectives from other parts of the world.

This triggered the initiative resulting in our recently published volume Challenging Global Development: Towards Decoloniality and Justice. As we promise in our Introduction it offers renewed perspectives, focusing on decoloniality and revealing ideas about solidarity while also addressing the epistemological and methodological limitations of Development Studies. The collection brings in new voices, including those of early-career researchers located outside Europe. The choice of contributors acknowledged the insights that decolonising Development Studies can be achieved in earnest only by supporting the emergence of a new generation of scholars able to challenge ‘normalised coloniality’ in its globalised context by destabilising Eurocentric colonial frames. As such, this volume also includes reflections on how we teach development in multiple and varied ways and in different settings and how we engage with the world outside academia.

No longer content with tinkering around the edges, levelling critiques at this or that definition of development, policy directive, or methodological approach, chapters explore what a fundamental reconsideration of Development Studies might look like. Contributions explore how our critiques can disrupt and renew understandings of development and articulate a more progressive politics. Furthermore, authors engage with approaches to, and processes involved in, studying development. This requires a critical analysis of the practices of development researchers, the nature of research partnerships and the selection of themes to study. As such, the volume provides a reconsideration of how knowledge is produced, validated, and disseminated. It highlights ways in which transformative processes of knowledge production can be achieved.

What’s in the book

The fundamental reconsideration of Development Studies starts by trying to understand our complex history. Juan Telleria focuses on the ontological limitations of Development Studies, illustrating his point with an analysis of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Aram Ziai criticises the ways in which the SDGs reiterate the promise of ‘development’ and legitimise the capitalist world order. In keeping with the positive orientation of the volume, he goes on to show the potential of post-development movements using three examples from the Sahel, India and Mexico. Ashish Kothari reinforces this with examples of initiatives founded on principles of social justice, well-being, and cultural diversity, brought together in the Vikalp Sangam framework. Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni takes a macro-historical approach to his analysis of Africa in the global order identifying five periods of structural adjustment from enslavement and physical colonisation to the cold war, Washington Consensus-driven structural adjustment and globalisation. José Castro-Sotomayor and Paola Minoia note the limitations of sustainable development, given the anthropocentric nature of development, and explore how pluriversality, specifically attending to place-based embodied experiences and listening to nonhuman voices and agency, can engage our political imaginations.

Looking at our own practices, Helena Zeweri and Tessa Farmer analyse area studies programmes in the United States, which were created to train future generations of regional experts to support the imperial ambitions of the USA. Even in this unpromising ground, they show how forms of pedagogy and curricula can contribute to a decolonial approach. Lauren Tynan challenges the inherent assumptions of university research ethics processes to challenge the ethics of taking knowledge, publishing it and becoming an expert. She shows us how an ethos of relational accountability that sees data as knowledge and the field as a place of relationships enables a very different approach. Building on that idea, Teresa Armijos et al present an alternative model of doing research that encourages us to feel alongside the ‘other’, as well as from them, breaking down traditional hierarchies of knowledge. 

This theme of reflecting critically continues into the Reflections and Epilogues section, which looks at the limitations of post-development approaches, due to their use of middle-range theory – or reasoning from specific cases – which can replicate the forms they critique and the lack of dialogue between the degrowth movement and post-development scholars.

Alfredo Saad-Filho reveals the opportunities, limitations, and analytical constraints of post-development approaches.  Emma Mawdsley explores whether and how South-South Cooperation reflects, practices or achieves decoloniality. Caitlin Scott looks at the inherently limited nature of decolonisation efforts within development management, and Lata Narayanaswamy highlights the centrality of coloniality to academic conceptualisations of development, arguing that we need to understand how we are part of the problem before we can be part of any proposed solution. We end with the contributions to a Roundtable at the EADI Directors’ Meeting in London in late 2022, with Uma Kothari, Henrice Altink, Alfredo Saad-Filho and Melissa Leach looking at whether development has any value in the time of overlapping or converging crises, or polycrisis, in understanding their structural roots or offering new tools with which to tackle them.


With recent global campaigns and movements responding to growing demands to decolonise knowledge we are arguably positioned at a critical moment, one replete with potential to shape the future of Development Studies. We want to contribute to these attempts to decolonise Development Studies and in so doing introduce ways in which new forms of solidarity that work towards achieving global social justice can be promoted. Recognising the historic injustice of global poverty and inequalities, together these chapters address how these can be combatted through teaching, research and engagement in policy and practice and the sorts of political challenges these might encounter. They examine the contexts in which decoloniality can be developed, analysing these on firm historical, theoretical, epistemological, and empirical ground.

Key ideas such as post-developmentalism, decoloniality and the pluriverse increasingly challenge mainstream development, signalling a renewed awareness of the ‘limits to growth’ as integral to the modernising trajectory and of Western dominance. These ideas are beginning to counter the hitherto almost universally accepted Eurocentric understandings of what ‘development’ means. Thus far, much critical research on development work has emphasised its failings. Either development does not achieve what it sets out to do or is actively complicit in the reproduction of systems of dominance and exploitation. The difficulty with these approaches is that they lead to dead ends: we know what is wrong, but not what might be a better approach towards meaningful change. This volume aims to address this lacuna.

It remains imperative to examine the nature and intention of the knowledge created and applied. It is important to critically explore and question the conditions, forms, substance, and likely impact of knowledge produced. Additionally, it is necessary to be cognisant of the structural asymmetries of power and interests that reproduce societies and institutions. It is important then to be cautious not to think of ‘universal knowledge’ in the singular. Development is not only a transactional process of implementing formal knowledge based on a cognitive act. It is also a value-based affair with emotional, moral, and ethical dimensions. Thus, development needs a human core, based on people, on their perspectives, emotions, and their voices. We need to critically interrogate the cultural and mental foundations of our world views and our framing of knowledge. Perceptions of us and others must be challenged. What we take for granted must be questioned. This includes the willingness and ability to vacate the space to the experiences of those marginalised whose voices have for so long been silenced.

Organisations such as EADI can encourage robust individual scrutiny among scholars to explore and question our socialisation, mindset, values, and practice. In this way, our collective efforts can contribute to change by shifting our own perceptions and activities. As editors, we hope that our modest efforts can be seen as a step in a direction, which despite all setbacks provides forward looking emancipatory perspectives. This requires not only an open exchange but also one, which does not limit access to such debates to those who are materially privileged.  We are therefore grateful that EADI has made the investment in having the entire volume open access. Please help yourself! 

Kees Biekart is Associate Professor of Political Sociology at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University, the Netherlands.

Laura Camfield is Professor of Development Research and Evaluation and Head of the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia (UEA), UK. 

Uma Kothari is Professor of Migration and Postcolonial Studies at the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester, UK. 

Henning Melber is Extraordinary Professor at the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria, and at the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies, University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. 

Image: Simon Lieschke under a creative commons licence on Flickr