The global lab: political and technological experiments in the Global South

By Adam Moe Fejerskov

From pandemics to climate change to ever-growing humanitarian needs, humanity is making limited progress in tackling the structural causes of contemporary global crises. The result is a future of growing unknowns. Here, politics become increasingly experimental, as we struggle with unprecedented challenges and changes, leaving the fate of both planet and people to unproven technologies and uncertain policies. In a new book, The Global Lab, I explore the question of a future of experimental politics that too often becomes one of both inequality and exclusion for vulnerable groups across the world.

With the initial covid-19 lockdown put in effect after only a four-hour notice, India saw a mass exodus out of all major cities where more than 100 million rural migrants live and work. As restrictions were enforced, they had nowhere to stay and nothing to earn, sending millions on strenuous journeys on foot towards their home villages. The textile and diamond city of Surat saw protests, riots, and massive frustration with its more than 7 million daily wageworkers left in a precarious state as many factories closed, most because of government directives, but many also because northern multinationals had cancelled their orders. Most of the workers had food rations for one or two days and little outlook of improving their situation but were not allowed by authorities to go anywhere. Laying bare the harsh realities of modern mobility and its politics, some were forced to go, and some were forced to stay, both groups facing an arduous future as they did so.

Despite scientific and political attempts to construct narratives of certainty, the response to the Covid-19 crisis formed the greatest social, political, and economic experiment witnessed in our lifetime. The crises vividly put on display how emergencies and states of exceptionalism justify and incite practices of experimentation. Whilst the planetary nature of Covid-19 stresses the connectedness of globalized human life, the stark reality of the crisis and its response is also a retreat to national isolationism, xenophobia, and exacerbated inequalities. Despite the uncertainty of addressing the pandemic and its unexpected mutations and patterns, there are really no surprises in its strikingly unequal effects: every society produces its own vulnerabilities, as societies always have throughout history.

It is difficult to escape the feeling that the failure of politicians, governments, and their citizens—all of us—to address current global crises is catapulting us into a new age of experimentation equally shaped by uncertainty and inequality.

Experimental futures

The current interfacing of crises is pushing us into a future of experimental politics, the response to the global pandemic alone forming the largest experiment of our time. Similar experimental responses are made to other contemporary global crises.

In attempts to address climate change, a large proportion of the CO2 emission reductions necessary to achieve the Paris Agreement’s objectives depends upon geoengineering or negative emissions technologies that do not yet exist. In essence, forms of technological climate engineering – from burying carbon dioxide in the ground to establishing shades in space between the Earth and the Sun –  aim at manipulating a complex system we in fact now surprisingly little about: the global climate. We have little knowledge of what these technologies should look like and whether they can be implemented at scale, yet they form the backbone of the global political response to the climate crisis.

That same deep uncertainty is at play in contemporary humanitarianism that sees organizations experiment with new radical technologies such as blockchain to address human suffering, the ramifications of which we only begin to understand as they are implemented. Humanitarian actors have turned to new and in some instances unproven and untested approaches and technologies, partly because of an increasing efficiency pressure, and partly because of a growing fashion for the sector to ‘innovate itself’ through datafication and digitization.

As a consequence, almost all humanitarian organizations now have innovation and technology departments to experiment with new technologies and innovative approaches to humanitarian work. In Jordan for example, hundreds of thousands of refugees are registered with their biometric traits (e.g. iris scans). In local supermarkets, they can then select the goods they want to purchase and check out using a scan of their irises. A digital system locates them in the database and funds are withdrawn from their account, registered on a private blockchain. No credit cards, no food vouchers, no banks.

Not just in the humanitarian business, but also within development cooperation broadly we see experimental practices arise. Private foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation experiment with new technologies and radical change as they test innovative toilets or condoms or attempt to alter social norms in poor communities. They largely base their actions on what they see as objective models of change emerging from experimentation, attempting to reduce the messy real world to mere formulae and numbers. Pharmaceutical companies have long ago moved their experiments with new drugs to ‘emerging markets’ that provide abundant human subjects ready to partake in clinical trials to overcome diseases for which they often cannot afford treatment.  Participation in medical trials being their only way to receive medical care, they unwillingly  contribute to the stabilizing of experimental-practices-as-everyday-care. And so-called randomista development economists rely on  randomized controlled trials and similar methodologies brought in from the natural sciences to experiment with solutions for social problems, driven by the desires of reducing complex realities to a set of logical causal chains.

Today, the realm of the experimental does not belong exclusively to the scientist, but increasingly also to political life – but with what implications?

Experimentation as political practice

Recently, World Bank economists ran a randomized controlled trial in Nairobi’s low-income settlements to find the most effective measure for forcing tenants to pay for water. The experiment saw widespread criticism for the way it risked cutting off vital access to water for thousands of vulnerable people. Despite this, it could end up producing knowledge that legitimizes such actions not only in Kenya but across the developing world. Such experiments not only clearly stress the intersectionality of science and politics, but also the relation of these two to inequality. When the experiments conducted are characterized by high degrees of exclusion in terms of who can influence them, the politics that they produce is the same: characterized by inequality and exclusion in their forming and implementation.

The use of experimental here then is not in the meaning of a closed and controlled laboratory trial, as we know it from the natural sciences, but of a set of values about knowledge, change, and progress in social and political life. And of a political practice of navigating in situations of pronounced uncertainty and ignorance as we see it with the current interfacing of crises. Because of the tangible social and political effects of such experimentation, we must approach it from a broader perspective than that pertaining to a single scientific method. Experimentation is a structuring way to perceive the world’s being and our understanding of it, thereby not only shaping and producing science, but social, economic, and political life. Although experimentation relates to and imagines the future, it is also fundamentally about structuring the present— about who should inform policies or who should benefit from policy shaped by different inequalities, hierarchies, and privileges.

Experimentation as inequality and exclusion

The problem with experimental politics then, as we see it unfold these years, is that it too easily becomes a politics of inequality and exclusion, with imaginary walls erected between those who can inform and shape politics and those who cannot. Instead of assuming experimentation to be self-evidently productive, we must be mindful of its disempowering effects. Central institutions that shape experimentation – in science, technology, or as charities – structure society in ways that determine who can speak, who can enjoy access, or who has agency to incite change and to exert influence.

Rather than inspiring emancipation, experimentation as we see it practiced upholds unequal relations of power and resources. The current experimental movement suffers not least from a conscious or implicit silencing of voices, both when it comes to science and to politics. Therefore, working towards a more participatory science and a practice of experimentation is urgently needed: one that recognizes its inherent inequality of engagement and works productively from that and with that. A form of participatory science and politics that leaves room for substantive public contestation and, from a coproduction perspective, sees reflexivity as something that is both relational and distributed.

We clearly understand today that the laboratory – the most classic of experimental realms – is not a closed space where knowledge can be isolated from society. In the same way, politics must not be seen as isolated – it shapes our society, for better or for worse, and should be treated as a both inclusive and open space for all to enter and reconfigure. Not least as we step into a future of experimental politics, sending us down definite paths of ignorance and inequality.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the EADI Debating Development Blog or the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes.

Adam Moe Fejerskov is senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies. He studies the terrains and ramifications of contemporary global inequalities, including how they are manifested in a diverse cast of issues, from emerging technology, science and knowledges to humanitarianism and aspirations of global development. Adam has published books in English and Danish on intersecting issues of new technology, inequalities, power, and ideas.

Image: World Bank Photo Collection und a Creative Commons Licence on Flickr