Development Studies Need Social Engagement!

By Elisabetta Basile and Isa Baud

Redefining Development Studies is necessary for two reasons. First, the complexity and urgency of world development problems require direct assumption of responsibility from the Development Studies community. This implies that scholars and practitioners explicitly engage in exploring problems and solutions in partnership with the communities and policymakers involved. Second, an epistemological and ontological change in Development Studies is required. Emerging development interests and the needs of multiple actors lead to new research approaches, themes and priorities, requiring new forms of knowledge and involving several disciplines in research.

Complexity is a major feature of the Anthropocene It is the outcome of the nexus between diverse and unexpected factors, and of chaotic and unpredictable behaviour where simplification is simply not possible. Capitalist development is not a linear process of change, and the assumption that countries converge towards a single pattern of socio-economic organization worldwide does not hold true. Country-specific institutions rooted in history and cultures influence individual and collective behaviour, shaping development trajectories and accounting for multiple outcomes. Such evidence undermines the idea of modernization and the very concept of development.

Complexity is further increased by the interplay of economic, political, and environmental processes, with a large number of actors and systems involved, each with their own interests and needs. These do not exist in isolation, but enter into conflicting or synergic relationships; the complexity of world development is mirrored in that of development issues.

Poverty, inequality and migration

Poverty is an important example. While considered a major development problem since the 1990s, with poverty-reduction policies being implemented by international agencies and national governments, poverty is taking on new forms that require an innovative approach. While in the 1990s more than 90% of the world’s poor lived in low-income countries, in the first decade of the 21st century more than 70% of the world’s poor are concentrated in a few large countries that have shifted from a low-income to middle-income category. This ‘new geography of global poverty’ challenges mainstream analyses of poverty and poverty reduction policies. It confirms that economic growth does not lead automatically to poverty reduction. It shows that poverty reduction also requires income re-distribution policies and targeted interventions on economic and non-economic forms of inequality, and explicit attention to the multiple dimensions of poverty and discrimination against specific social groups. It supports the need for major reforms of the aid system to improve its effectiveness, in order to address structural issues in recipient countries and in North-South relationships.

Inequality also requires a new analytical approach. The literature widely emphasises that increasing levels of inequality are associated with capitalist development. This trend has been enhanced by the changes in the new Millennium pointed out earlier, and now both economic and non-economic forms of inequality, are a problem with a greater social impact than poverty itself.

Understanding how non-economic modes of inequality work is a basic requirement for effective future policies. This entails knowledge and analysis about the drivers of inequality, i.e. the factors and processes that increase gaps in bargaining power between the poor and the well-off. These include processes of informalization and the deficit of decent work in developing countries and in Least Developed Countries, the increasing concentration of wealth from which a new aristocracy is emerging; the increasing size of the precariat in developing countries; the problem of jobless growth in DCs and emerging countries; the segmentation of working classes along personal and social lines, which accounts for the increasing number of working poor who systematically earn wages below the poverty line. Finally, tax evasion and tax havens support the global concentration of wealth.

Another set of development issues concerns the changing nature of the aid system and the unsatisfactory working of the UN. The limited results of the MDG campaign and the uncertain beginning of the new SDG campaign confirm many inadequacies of the aid system. This situation calls for a reform of the role the UN plays in international relations.

Migration is a major source of development concerns, too. In its contemporary multi-scalar format, migration is a consequence of globalization, income gaps within countries and regions, conflicts and environmental risks. Available analyses are far from complete, while ideological approaches direct attention to relatively small international migration flows and ignore much larger regional migration patterns in the global South resulting from unequal income levels and conflicts. New theories of migration need to understand the multiple processes generating migration, both in the countries of origin and destination of migrants. Defining policy interventions requires better knowledge of the determinants and overall consequences of migration. Moreover, the lack of political will to understand the social transformations brought about by migration will continue to produce ineffective ways of dealing with migration flows, perpetuating the existing crises in both countries of origin and destination.

Ontological and epistemological issues

The scope and seriousness of development issues – and their urgency – require ontological and epistemological re-assessments of Development Studies in three main areas. The first area is the purpose of development research. Broadly, two theoretical approaches to social change exist: problem solving and critical thinking. While problem solving shares a positivist approach to social analysis, critical thinking explores the ‘historic and transformative and development potential of historical phenomena’. They focus on the ‘social and political complex as a whole’ rather than on separate parts, allowing ‘a normative choice’ of a new socio-political order.

Is Development Studies a problem-oriented approach or should critical thinking prevail? Clearly, the aim of development research is to address development problems and propose feasible solutions. Yet, development research also requires the analysis of the origins of such problems and the socio-economic and political changes that can address them. This means that Development Studies have to engage with issues of power relationships and transformation as major issues in re-defining Development Studies.

The second area concerns the interaction among disciplines in Development Studies. Disciplinary boundaries generally are distinct, and disciplines have a specific theorisation and prevailing worldview. However, the complexity of development problems in this historical phase – with new actors, needs and research themes – makes disciplinary interaction and integration necessary.  Trans-disciplinarity is also needed, including knowledge holders from society as co-producers of knowledge. Choosing new combinations of research approaches is a major challenge facing the Development Studies community. Conflicting interests and actors with different expertise and languages are involved. The difficulties and commitment involved in producing a ‘synthesis of knowledge’ in empirical development research should not be underestimated, as its failure risks irrelevant and superficial analyses as outcome. This issue has increasing priority in debates on the future of development research.

The third area is the influence that old and new interests exert on the production of knowledge concerning development processes and research. This is an outcome of the increasing number of influential actors on the development scene in the new Millennium. Such interests generate multiple, often conflicting, perspectives regarding development problems and their analysis. They produce ‘knowledges’ with different levels of recognition, such as the different degree of recognition of knowledge produced in the North and the South. Development research can also reflect the interests of organisations. The Development Studies community is well aware that the influence of such interests on knowledge production is substantial and inevitable. As an instrument of power, knowledge might be manipulated to enhance and support structural asymmetries in economic and political relationships with major impacts on the weakest actors and their interests.

This situation raises a major issue: is the structural asymmetry of power and knowledge in development relations undermining the independence of development research? If so, as the previous discussion seems to suggest, then is ensuring the ‘ownership’ of knowledge for weak interests an adequate strategy? Should scholars and practitioners explicitly take the side of weak interests? What type of social engagement is required?

This article is part of the first chapter of the new EADI book “Building Development Studies for the New Millennium

Register for a webinar with Elisabetta and Isa on 18 February here

Elisabetta Basile is Professor of Development Economics at Sapienza Università di Roma, Member of the EADI Executive Committee and co-editor of the book

Isa Baud is Emeritus Professor at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, University of Amsterdam, former President at EADI and co-editor of the book

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