Questioning development: What lies ahead?

By Christiane Kliemann | EADI/ISS Blog Series

Development Studies requires “an epistemological and ontological change” write Elisabetta Basile and Isa Baud in the introduction to the recent EADI volume “Building Development Studies for a New Millennium”. The planned sequel of the book will take this analysis one step further and explore viable ways to build on both the critique of development as such, as well as the growing demand to decolonize knowledge production. The plenary session on “Questioning Development – Towards Solidarity, Decoloniality, Conviviality” at the recent #Solidarity2021 conference hosted a discussion by four contributors to the book which is currently in preparation for publication in 2023. The discussion is summarized here.

“We have been much better at critique than at changing things.” said Uma Kothari, chair of the session and one of the editors of the forthcoming  book with the working title “Questioning Development Studies: Towards Decolonial, Convivial and Solidaristic Approaches”. This is why she has asked the panellists to discuss their own practices towards challenging the classical “development” paradigm, and possible ways forward.

Integrating indigenous understandings of relationality

Yvonne Te Ruki-Rangi-O-Tangaroa Underhill-Sem, Associate Professor in Pacific Studies, Te Wānanga o Waipapa, University of Auckland, New Zealand, started the discussion with an interesting example from New Zealand, or Aotearoa, as she calls it by its Maori name, where the Maori concept of Manaakitanga has even influenced the way in which research is done in the whole country. Manaakitanga, as Underhill-Sem explained, is all around caring for the ‘Mana’ of people we relate to – ‘Mana’ itself being understood as anything we relate to, be it other people, land, or whatever is meaningful to us. “We’ve been working very closely between New Zealand Maori and Pacific scholars to begin to infuse and embed this concept in one of the major research policy platforms in Aotearoa that control the funding of research and the definition of what is excellent research”, she explained.

As a very tangible example for encouraging research based on a much broader understanding of knowledge, she referred to the Toksave Research Portal which has drawn its name from one of the languages of Papua New Guinea and started as a “process inviting a whole range of different knowledge-makers around the region and the Pacific to submit their work”, be it a poem, a thesis, or an NGO report:

“Anything that adds to the breadth of knowledge that we consider to constitute research, and that comments on the condition of people in parts of the country or region”. Another example is a new research fund dedicated to feminist researchers spread all over the Pacific region. As for the term development, Underhill-Sem said: “We use it and we recognize that it’s got these colonial connotations, but we are able to infuse it with these other concepts, which is the beginning of trying to decolonize the development space and the ways in which we understand research more fully “

Lauren Tynan, trawlwulwuy woman from tebrakunna country in northeast Tasmania, who is currently doing her PhD on aboriginal burning practices at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, also views the issue of decolonising knowledge and knowledge production through a lens of relationality. She aspires to hold herself accountable to all relations she has; her recent paper “Thesis as kin: living relationality with research” explored how she relates to her research.

At times, this understanding can be quite challenging to the concept of research she had been initially taught, which she finds “quite a colonising way of researching”. For example, it doesn’t take into account her responsibilities as a mother of small children, which prevent her from traveling back and forth for her research: “Part of that relationality is to see that I shouldn’t feel that as a limitation but as part my responsibilities and obligations to my family and my wider family which is also my research relationship”. She adds: “When I am thinking of decolonization, I am also thinking of relationship to land, with the return of indigenous lands as the ultimate goal of decolonization, which is also a restauration of relationships”.

What she is also very concerned about is the issue of intellectual property rights towards indigenous cultures and knowledges: “I could go to my elders, collect stories and data and put my name to it – speak at international conferences and become an “expert”, she explained.

Migration as constitutive dimension of human existence

Samid Suliman, Lecturer on Migration and Security in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science at Griffith University, Australia, brought in another important, but much-overlooked perspective. As he focuses much of his work on the relationship between migration and development, he started from the point that “mobility has been and continues to be colonised through development”, with the “entrenchment and hegemony of the nation state as the primary organising framework of human existence”. Although we are now living in a ‘hyper-mobile world’, he pointed out that the “state-centred way of understanding human mobility continues to be reproduced”, and migrants are looked at with fear and trepidation. One of his research questions therefore is: “How can we better understand migration and mobility as a constitutive dimension of human existence, rather than just an outcome of human activity?”

As one step forward, Suliman suggested to “think critically about the way in which we normalise certain assumptions and certain normative dispositions about the movement of human beings and resist the impulse to settle everyone in their place”. This would require finding new mechanisms, institutions and possibilities for convivial relations and forms of justice that go “beyond the national as the frame of reference for decision making and action on the governance of the moving of people”.

As a concrete example from his own research, he mentioned climate change-induced migration in the Pacific in the context of different scales of political relationality and possible institutions beyond or outside of the nation state. Another example centres around exploring the relationships between human and non-human mobilities, which resonates well with indigenous concepts of relationality that always include the more-than-human world.

Hospitality as basic principle for societies beyond development

For Aram Ziai, Heisenberg-Professor of the German Research Foundation (DFG) for Development Policy and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Kassel, Germany, it all starts with questioning the term ‘development’. He considers a simple redefinition of the term insufficient, as this could produce misunderstandings and a “beyond-criticism gambit”. If the term development continues to bear different meanings, from democratic industrial capitalisms to any type of positive social change, he said, “we are in fact obstructing the critique of development organisations by saying, ‘if something bad happened out of a development project, it was not really development’”.

He also made clear that ‘development’ cannot be seen independent of its historical context: “Development came into being as a new programme to legitimise a capitalist world order in the Global South at a time when the colonial ideology was losing credibility and a new framing of North-South relations was needed to maintain access to the raw materials of the South and the corresponding division of labour. So, development thinking was a new frame, but it was still linked to colonialism, to the idea of transforming geo-cultural differences into historical stages, so that the self is the norm, and the other is the deviant, deficient, other”.

Pointing towards the replacement of 10 million people each year because of development projects, Ziai sees a strong need to reject the universal scale of the development concept and to embrace post-development thinking instead: to “look for numerous ways of living good lives, exploring the potential of non-western models of the economy beyond the ideas of the homo economicus as the rational, utility-maximising individual”. As examples for such thinking gaining ground also in the Global North, he referred to the degrowth-movement and the anti-coal protesters in Germany who have used the slogan “we are nature defending itself” which implies a shift away from the hegemonic Western idea that we are apart from nature.

With reference to the thousands of drowned people in the Mediterranean see and the “EU’s illegal pushbacks to defend its privileges”, Ziai agreed with Suliman in considering Migration an important starting point for decolonising the relations between North and South. Citing Gustavo Esteva, he closed with suggesting “hospitality” as a basic principle for society beyond development.

How to move on? Less data, more stories!

All panellists agreed that big changes don’t occur overnight and that it takes everyone’s efforts in their specific places and fields to contribute to a systemic change that might still take years or even decades to gain full ground. In Suliman’s words, “We need to do all we can within our various roles and positions to push back on the research monoculture imposed from above”.

As one important step in this direction, Underhill-Sem called on the older and more advanced scholars to be much more audacious in their engagement with policy: “Are we seeing that audacity with obligation? Are we seeing active engagement in these key structural places, in terms of reviewing the way in which we do and fund research, the way in which we build ethics around research? Are we reaching in those spaces and doing the work there, or are we leaving these spaces for others to populate them?” According to Ziai, we are already moving in the right direction by “talking more and more about these issues and less and less about economic growth, productivity and other things that are increasingly questioned”.

Suliman thinks that it all boils down to the question of making ourselves known to each other in ways that don’t colonise, and in creating space for multiple meanings and exchanges between us: “I think we need to keep moving towards other ways of seeing and listening and knowing, so in short: less data, more stories.” And, Tynan observes, these stories are already there: “Wherever we are in the world there are peoples who have story and belonging to the land, it’s about knowing these stories and their full implications on ourselves as individuals and communities”.

Watch the recording of the session

Christiane Kliemann does communications at EADI. Besides, she writes on social-ecological transformation, degrowth and postgrowth

Image: BLOB (Physarum polycephalum) under a creative commons licence on flickr

This article is part of a series launched by EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) on topics discussed at the 2021 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. A slightly shorter version will also be published on the ISS Blog