Bridging EU- & Postdevelopment Studies: Four Avenues

By Sarah Delputte and Jan Orbie   | EADI/ISS Blog Series

In February 2019, we pushed ourselves out of our comfort zones to participate in a panel on “Re-thinking, Re-defining, Re-positioning: “Development” and the Question of “Alternatives”, convened by Julia Schöneberg at the Development Days Conference in Helsinki, in a first attempt to look at EU development policy from a postdevelopment perspective. As scholars studying the EU’s Development Policy we usually try to take a critical approach towards EU Development. However, and perhaps embarrassingly, postdevelopment debates were new to us.

Back home from this very interesting experience, discussions in our research center’s reading group on postdevelopment continued for some months until we found it was time to invite Julia Schöneberg to our university for a full-day workshop on bridging EU- & Postdevelopment. For this occasion, we structured our insights into four potential avenues for bridging EU- & Postdevelopment Studies, departing from our own EU Development perspective: 

1. Munition

EU development scholars know the EU’s development policies very well. We are aware of the EU’s development history and evolutions, its complex institutional setting, its ideational and internal divisions and debates, various programmes, different budgetary instruments, trends in aid flows etc. In sum: we know EU development inside-out. Moreover, we have already problematized various aspects of it already, e.g. securitization, marketization, incoherencies, coordination fetish, bodybuilder image, from different empirical and theoretical perspectives. We also have access to experts and scholars working on EU development policy. Our expertise can enrich the perspectives of postdevelopment scholars for whom EU development policy could be considered a ‘goldmine’. Hence the idea of providing postdevelopment scholars with ‘extra munition’ for their critiques. It can strengthen and substantiate postdevelopment critiques. 

2. Infusion

Postdevelopment ideas have been floating around since at least the mid-1990s. However, they seem not to have reached the EU development studies community. Via EADI and other networks, postdevelopment thinking can get ‘infused’ within the EU development studies community. We can at least provoke a debate on whether development policy should be necessary. In doing so, we can make clear that radical arguments against development policy are not necessarily ‘reactionary populist’ but can also be skeptical and geared to ‘radical democracy’. We can clarify that the real challenge – underlying many more superficial challenges that are often noted in EU development studies – lays in the problematic conception of development (aid) itself. This opens up a new research agenda that should interest scholars currently working on EU development/aid, because it provides a novel way to analyze changes and challenges to EU development policy and to link this with current debates such as the rise of populism. It also allows to do more comparative and detailed research on different visions in development policy within Europe (PlEUriverse).

3. Another Europe is possible

Bridging EU development and post-development can help us to think about (normative) alternatives to EU development, both generally and concretely. In general, it can foster thinking about different imaginaries of ‘another Europe’ and about which role(s) the EU could/should play towards the so-called ‘developing countries’. This would be in line with a 2016 call by Ian Manners, Richard Whitman and others to allow for more dissident voices in theorising Europe.

There have been longstanding debates on the EU’s role in the world, not only from mainstream and policy- oriented corners (e.g. civilian power Europe) but also from critical Scholars (e.g. Galtung in 1973) which can (and should) be updated taking a postdevelopment context into account. Although there is a broad recognition within scholarship and policy circles that the EU is a ‘post-modern’ construct, this has not coincided with pleas for a ‘postdevelopment’ policy. More concretely, the interaction between EU and postdevelopment studies could involve a translation of ‘alternatives to development’ in the EU’s institutional context and policy making.

While postdevelopment has given much thought to such alternatives, Aram Ziai’s statement of 2004 still seems to hold true: “Admittedly, little thought is given to how development institutions could contribute to the flourishing of these alternatives, but to expect that from postdevelopment would certainly go too far.” In line with Julia Schöneberg’s plea for practical postdevelopment, the focus on the EU can thus contribute to making more concrete how policies and approaches should be changed. The EU provides a relevant and practical setting within which concrete alternatives to development aid can be considered. Because of the EU’s nature as a multi-level, fragmented and compartmentalized thing, policymaking in the EU arguably contains many access points for critical debates –– including discussions on general postdevelopment roles and on practical alternatives. The EU also provides a relevant platform to discuss solutions for injustices in the global governance framework such as the World Bank and the WTO.

4. PlEUriverse

Taking postdevelopment thinking seriously, we should also acknowledge the diversity of views on ‘development’ within Europe. Whereas the underlying Eurocentric, modernist and colonial paradigm may be the same, there are various ways in which member states and civil society actors have conceived development (policy). For instance, the ‘Nordics’ or ‘like-minded’ have always played an interesting role in development debates. The rejection of monolithical thinking on ‘EU development’ should allow for more detailed and complexity-sensitive research that delves into the different cultural, historical and political economy backgrounds of different EU views on development.

Beyond the diversity in view on ‘development policy’ narrowly speaking, this also connects to wider critiques of development within the EU which have gained more traction since the Euro-crisis and austerity policies, such as commons and degrowth. Whereas the postdevelopment literature has pointed to this ‘bridge’, many studies seem to generalise the ‘western’ and ‘European’ thinking to such an extent that 2nd order differences remain unnoticed. Paying more attention to the ‘PlEUriverse’ is not only academically interesting but also normatively important, as it will point to spaces and agents where change may be possible.

With sharing these reflections on bridging EU- and postdevelopment we also hope to inspire and encourage EU Development, Postdevelopment and all other interested scholars to join the seed panel on “Views on the EU as a development actor in conversation with postdevelopment” that the EADI Working Groups on “The European Union as a Development Actor” and “Post- and Decolonial Perspectives on Development” are organizing at the EADI General Conference in The Hague (29 June-2 July 2020).

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) in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It will also be published on the ISS Blog.

Sarah Delputte is post-doctoral researcher and lecturer and the Centre for EU Studies at Ghent University and co-convenor of the EADI working group on the EU as a development actor.

Jan Orbie is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for EU Studies at Ghent University.

Image: “the bridge to Trongsa Dzong” by andreakw is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0