Overcoming Developmentalism

By Henning Melber

It might be a platitude but is a reminder for all we say and do: solidarity in its true meaning cannot be confined to words only. Unless these are also reflected in what we do and how we do it, solidarity remains a rather meaningless tokenism or lip service. Declarations are not enough.

As an umbrella body, EADI embraces like-minded individuals and institutions. This does not mean we all think alike. Differences are part of the best of families. But as scholars and practitioners we must (self-)critically explore and question the conditions, forms, substance, and likely impact of the knowledge produced. As already stated elsewhere, the starting point should not be the result of knowledge production, but the process of producing knowledge. Our hierarchical world is characterized by structural asymmetries as an integral part of the reproduction of societies and institutions. These are structures of power and interest, but also of contestation. Which ‘Knowledge for Development’ do we want to be part of and what are our visions?

Introducing the EADI volume Building Development Studies for the New Millennium, Elisabetta Basile and Isa Baud point out that we need an epistemological and ontological change and that “evidence undermines the idea of modernization and the very concept of development”. As they suggest: “Development Studies have to engage with issues of power relationships and transformation as major issues in re-defining Development Studies.” This requires thinking ahead of the curve. It includes – as we did at the Directors’ Meeting in Cordoba in October 2019 – to start looking beyond the SDGs and Agenda 2030.

We need to engage with visions and conceptual debates outside of the Procrustean bed of development with its underlying assumptions of a single perspective confined to the status quo, thereby overlooking, ignoring or excluding other approaches. As pointed out by Juan Telleria in a chapter of The Politics of Social Inclusion: Bridging Knowledge and Policies Towards Social Change:“ rather than a global agreement that fully benefits all, the UN development agenda is a discursive formula that projects a concrete, partial proposal as universal, neutral and beneficial for everyone”. Limiting our perspectives to agendas set and views provided by global governance agencies accepts and perpetuates a power of definition, which is rooted in a specific context of institutions and ideas (or rather ideologies). These need to be self-critically reflected if we want to achieve the necessary transformation of social reproduction towards justice, equality and a world which does not kill for the sake of living.

Vikalp Sangam (A confluence of alternatives) or Conviviality are only two among numerous examples joining Buen Vivir and other alternative forms of deliberations (and practices) how best to respond to and overcome the mono-causal linearity which has dominated the hegemonic discourse of “developmentalism” since the era of the enlightenment. A notion which translated into both the profit maximisation motives of the capitalist mode(s) of production as well as the “catching up development” in the modernization paradigms.

Rather, following Conviviality, new ideas must be shared and discussed by many, with conversations in different languages but all versatile in listening, (com)passion and empathy. As Marianne Gronemeyer explains, we need “research that speaks a personal language full of experience; practice that does not compete, but cooperates and shares; and technology that helps to make the best out of the power and the imagination that everyone has (Ivan Illich).”

Embracing new discourses

This requires looking beyond the confinements of the world views dominating and resembling the Anthropocene to create truly sustainable alternatives in an era of post-development leaving behind the growth obsession. Discourses under headings such as Wellbeing, Inclusive Development and Degrowth have emerged as necessary reflections how to possibly cope e better with the challenges. Challenges, which have been reinforced and become dramatically more visible with the Covid-19 pandemic and its devastating exposure of the limitations to cope with assaults on the social and economic pillars on which most societies are built. Maybe the best we can see in Covid-19 is the display of the vulnerability of systems praised as the best global form of social organisation, which – as we could know before – benefits a minority of people at the expense of the livelihood and survival of most that exists on our earth. A “new normal” should be seen as an opportunity not to return to mistakes and mindsets of the past, but to re-think and design a world which offers dignity and survival to all forms of life on earth.

The EADI Mission Statement was adopted in Belgrade in November 2003. As the prime professional association for Development Studies in Europe, EADI declares to promote quality in research and education; exchange of relevant information; strengthening of relevant knowledge networks; and influencing both national and European decision-makers. Much of this (maybe and unfortunately so with the exception of the last one) has been to some extent achieved and has justified the efforts of those who have contributed to EADI during the 45 years since 1975. But given the challenges and tasks outlined above, it might be the time to add a more principled, value-based dimension to these relevant fields. After all, we need to take a stand by taking a knee. No-one can breathe as long as not all can breathe.

This blog post is a slightly modified part of the acceptance speech after Henning Melber was re-appointed as EADI President at the General Assembly on 30 June 2020.

Henning Melber is Senior Adviser and Director Emeritus of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and Senior Research Associate with the Nordic Africa Institute, both in Uppsala. He was Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Kassel University (1982-1992), Director of the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit in Windhoek (1992-2000), Research Director of the Nordic Africa Institute (2000-2006) and headed the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation until 2012. He is an Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria and at the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies of the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein and a Senior Research Fellow with the Institute for Commonwealth Studies/University of London. He holds a PhD in Political Sciences and a Habilitation in Development Studies. In 2017 he was elected President of the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI).

Image: Alex Proimos under a creative commons licence on flickr