Development in crisis: some reflections

By Christiane Kliemann

The accelerating frequency, interconnectedness and mutually reinforcing nature of contemporary crises call for holistic responses and a focus on synergies and potential discrepancies between various fields of action. What has Development Studies to offer here? Will it be able to prove that is truly inter- and transdisciplinary and contribute to the understanding of policy and governance challenges in the Global South in the face of multiple crises? Will it identify the possible levers for policy action and their potential impact for the most marginalised, also in the long term?

A recent panel jointly organised by EADI and the Development Studies Association of the UK at the 10th Anniversary Conference of the Department of International Development at King’s College London shed the light on these questions from the perspectives of disaster risk research, peace and conflict research and the multiple development challenges faced by a single country on the example of South Africa

Impacts of disasters are rooted in pre-existing conditions

Roger Few, Professor of International Development at the University of East Anglia, emphasised that disaster risk is not only a certain hazard, but a result of social structures, decisions, actions and capacities. He sees it as crucial to understand what such risk – and the way it is managed – means for people’s lives, livelihoods and wellbeing. This entails thinking beyond direct casualties, and also to consider the effects of certain disruptions on society at large, including secondary and indirect impacts as well as long-term implications for societal recovery. According to Few, analysing how narrative constructions of hazard events and impacts shape recovery interventions by different actors is just as important as recognising the social reproduction of vulnerability through ineffective governance of risk and recovery.

And: “We shouldn’t think of disasters as discrete events”, Few warned “There are disaster scenarios which are not episodic, but a prolonged crisis, such as the successive failure of the rains in Africa. What has been a hazard has become a norm. Disasters happen when a hazard overwhelms the capacity of society to adapt. There might never be a full recovery because the next cycle comes. We saw clearly after the pandemic: crises inevitably interact with other crises and pressures in societies, which makes interventions really difficult”

In such setting, it is particularly important to question “we are all in the same boat” narratives, given that the ability to avoid, to cope with and to recover from disaster impacts is highly socially differentiated: disasters, and even more so consecutive disasters, not only tend to exacerbate social inequities depending on the amount of savings or assets people have, but can also draw completely new groups into poverty: “During the Covid-19 pandemic all things disaster researchers have been observing over decades happened here in Britain, and although some Asian countries did much better in handling the pandemic, Britain refused to learn from them”

Learning from others, according to Few’s research, is one key aspect of preparing for and coping with crises, but what’s most important is shifting the narrative: “In some situations, disasters have engendered major changes in doing thinks better, but they have also been leading to landgrabs and pre-existing interests coming to the fore, for example evicting informal settlement dwellers from the grounds that are prone to flooding”. To ensure that “building back” goes in the direction of “building back better”, the focus must move away from short-term interventions with the only objective of saving lives, which is of course important, but sometimes undermines broad-based recovery and even recreates situations of risk, given that interest-based politics, power struggles and prejudices do not recede in times of crisis. Good disaster risk management should therefore prepare for intersecting risks and unfolding effects of a crisis, focus on the most vulnerable and retain critical awareness of how emergency and recovery actions are shaped by vested interests.

Speculating about impacts of the Ukraine war

Although perceived mainly as a “European” crisis, the war in Ukraine is yet another disaster with massive impact on the Global South – affecting development cooperation, geopolitical constellations and basic commodity prices. Having observed these effects slowly unfold, Christof Hartmann, Professor of Political Science, International Relations and African Politics at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany, cautiously attempted to analyse the war’s development effects, its implications for policy spaces for the Global South and potential impact on notions of Development within the North. Undoubtedly, the war has a massive impact on European countries which weakens the EU, and, in Hartmann’s words, let it to a “kind of potential critical juncture”. Taking a closer look at price increases for central commodities such as food, fertilizer and fuel in the South, Hartmann highlighted that these increases as well as rising debts had already taken place before the war as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and recently even started to fall in some places due to market responses. At the same time, however, he referred to severe increases in hunger during the last month as well as continuing food price increases in certain countries in the Middle East and North Africa who are highly dependent on imports from the Ukraine and Russia. From this rather ambivalent overall situation he concluded that the Ukraine war is rather the most recent crisis affecting development in the Global South than the main cause.

From the wider political perspective, Hartmann questioned the seemingly uncontested call for a stronger role of geopolitics in Europe and North-South relations, together with a growing simplistic bipolarity, as apparent from the heavy public interest in assessing voting behaviours in the UN General Assembly. Widely ignoring further aspects important for academic analysis, “China and Russia are being considered the same, and simple dichotomies between democracies and autocracies prevail”. This perceived necessity to position themselves towards claims from the Global North causes much pressure on Southern countries and greatly affects their bargaining power. Others, as Hartmann has noted, see this war as a purely European affair which will dramatically weaken European economies and might reinforce the trend towards a new multipolar order with a diminished European role. In this situation, Hartmann explained, Southern organisations, however, might still find it difficult to exercise collective agency as they are either split ‘ideologically’ or find it prudent to keep a ‘neutral’ stance.

The most speculative part of Hartmann’s analysis, as he pointed out, is about the war’s potential to change European understandings of development concepts. There seems to be a shift in priority toward security – and particularly military security – with many ongoing debates pointing towards a much narrower understanding of development. So far, climate policy has not fallen prey for this, having been framed as a security issue before the Ukraine war. What he has generally observed is that “Europe is much inward-looking in its public debates and doesn’t listen much to other global voices”. However, in Germany for example, he doesn’t see any clear signals yet towards major changes of development policies, despite the major cuts in scholarships: “The bigger fear is that we see a redirection of budgets for peace and security for merely military purposes. On a positive note, there doesn’t’ seem to be a link between a political position of a country and development cooperation as the EU maintains a strong interest to cooperate with Southern countries.”

South Africa: strong climate vulnerability amidst other long-standing development challenges

As Pamela Mondliwa, special adviser on economic policy to the South African Ministry of Finance, stressed, South Africa, like many other African Countries, is particularly affected by climate change. Not only because of the high vulnerability of its agriculture and food systems and the floods that revealed the inadequacy of disaster management funding and destroyed economic infrastructure, but also because its economy is still very carbon intensive. South Africa, as she explained, is ranked 12th in the world by greenhouse gas emissions, but only 34th in terms of GDP. Not least because of initiatives such as the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, the competitiveness of the country’s exports is under threat.

So, as Mondliwa continued, South Africa simultaneously needs to decarbonise its economy, adapt to a massively changing climate and tackle its long-standing development challenges such as high levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality, which at least shouldn’t be worsened by measures to decarbonise the economy and adapt agricultural production. Given that coal mining for example takes place in a region almost without any other economic activities, as she explained, it is extremely difficult to create alternative jobs the region, which puts additional pressure on increasing the social security net: “This is all costs a lot of money that we don’t have, as it would triple the current debt. According to estimates by the World Bank, South Africa’s economic transition would cost 500 billion South African Dollars, whereas the country’s whole GDP in 2021 amounted to 419 billion. Already now, debt-service cost is the highest individual budget spending item”.

Despite all these challenges, Mondliwa sees potential perspectives for a green industrialisation by setting up production capacities for renewable energy-based green hydrogen and synthetic fuels which could put the country in a competitive position in key industries. This, however, would require something “South Africa hasn’t shown much talent in so far: designing and coordinating good and transformative industrial policies and regulations that make the transition more inclusive”. She nevertheless expressed cautious optimism towards the viability of this strategy in the current situation: “For the first time there is a potential alignment of interests between major groups, established business, previously excluded entrepreneurs, trade unions, government and society towards this goal. This would require, however, a change from the current regulatory towards a more developmental approach”

Roger Few is Professor of International Development at the University of East Anglia (UK) and works primarily on social dimensions of vulnerability and response to environmental risks. His research connects many different forms of hazards (hydro-meteorological, geophysical, biological) and their linkages with other drivers such as climate change, environmental health, forced displacement and political marginalisation. He has undertaken projects in more than 20 countries, mainly with communities in lower-income settings.

Christof Hartmann is a Professor of Political Science, International Relations and African Politics at the University of Duisburg-Essen (Germany) and director of the Institute for Development and Peace (INEF) at the same university. His research focuses mainly on processes of institutional change in Sub-Saharan Africa, regional cooperation and non-military intervention practices, as well as the role of external actors in driving political change on the African continent. His most recent book is: China’s New Role in African Politics: From Non-Interference towards Stabilization, Routledge 2020 (with Nele Noesselt).

Pamela Mondliwa is special adviser on economic policy to the minister of finance, in Pretoria, South Africa. She is also associate researcher at the Centre for Competition, Regulation and Economic Development at the University of Johannesburg, and last year she released the co-edited open access book Structural Transformation in South Africa with Oxford University Press.

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

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