Simon Maxwell

Time to re-invent development studies?

There were moving affirmations and lively conversations the other day, at the IDSInstitute for Development Studies, Sussex celebration of Robert Chambers’ work. An archive of his writing was inaugurated and a book was launched. I did not contribute to the book, unfortunately, but did write my own laudatio to Robert, when he won the developing countries’ prize at Justus Liebig University in Giessen in 1993.

On this occasion, I contributed verbally, in one of four panel sessions, dealing respectively with Robert’s paradigm-shifting  contribution to thinking and action on (a) participation, (b) methodological innovation, (c) agriculture, livelihoods and rural development, and (d) (the session in which I participated)  ‘revolutionising development’. I described Robert as an inspiration, guide, mentor and friend, all of which is true, and identified six themes in his work that will endure as the scope and focus both change of our engagement with global poverty. Andrew Barnett captured the intervention on video, available .

Three of the points I made elicited some comment - perhaps because I made them clumsily, perhaps, though that is a hard prospect to contemplate (!), because they are not right.

The first is that things have been getting better in the developing world, since Robert, to take an arbitrary starting point, moved to Kenya after graduating from Cambridge, in 1958. I tried to make this point by talking not about South Korea or China or Brazil, but about Kenya. Admittedly, this is not the easiest case, given Kenya’s history of inequality and its recent political upheavals, but even in Kenya, incomes have risen over that period, infant and child mortality have fallen sharply, and adult literacy, only 20% in 1960, has reached 87% today.

Of course, across the world, many hundreds of millions of people remain desperately poor, and that remains an affront, and the well-spring of our commitment. But the development project, I argued, has been a qualified success – not, of course, because of what we outsiders have done, but because of people’s own efforts, and the sometime support of their governments. We should stop beating ourselves up, I said, and abandon a crisis narrative of development.

I was surprised at the push-back to this view. I would have thought that acknowledging the (admittedly imperfect, uneven and incomplete) speed of poverty reduction over the past generation was consensual, and well-established, for example through the work of Charles Kenny, whose book ‘Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding’, lays out the evidence. But, no, people queued up to disagree. This is partly because I over-egged the pudding on convergence: loose language, under pressure of having only five minutes. But do people really think there has been little progress? Ravi Kanbur was struck by this disagreement, and said he thought it might reflect the use of different kinds of data.

The disagreement about progress undepinned a second, which was a deliberately provocative suggestion I made that we might be entering the long, extended, summer twilight of development studies, or at least developing country studies. I should probably have said that it was time to re-invent development studies. This is not a new theme in my own work, which has had a thread since the mid-1990s concerned with the blurring boundary between developed and developing countries – and which, of course, drew on insights from Dudley Seers’ work on the European periphery, among others. There was an IDSInstitute for Development Studies, Sussex Bulletin in 1998, on Poverty and Social Exclusion in North and South (edited jointly with Arjan de Haan), various ODI Briefing Papers and meetings series on Lessons Without Borders, and a reflection on the future of development studies and development studies institutions when I left ODIOverseas Development Institute (London) in 2009.

This work is absolutely not saying that there is not more and worse poverty in poor countries than rich ones. However, it does argue that there is important learning across the North-South boundary, that there are connections between, or common causes of, poverty in different countries, and that there is some convergence. It is not irrelevant, for example, that three quarters of the poor now live in middle income countries. If development studies is defined by country per capita income, then the universe is shrinking; if it is defined by the existence of poverty, then the universe straddles the boundaries of country category. I suggested at the IDSInstitute for Development Studies, Sussex event, as I have done many times before, that we need not (or not only) ‘developing country poverty studies’, but just ‘poverty studies’; not just (or not only) ‘developing country research on social exclusion’, but ‘research on social exclusion’. Many development studies researchers have, of course, pursued exactly this route: John Gaventa, helping to pioneer participatory techniques in Scotland, Andrea Cornwall working onhealth with communities in London.

It is not irrelevant to this debate that aid relationships and flows have partly shaped development studies, and that many observers are now questioning the case for aid to middle income countries, even those with many poor people, like India. There was a little spark of interest in debating that question at the meeting, but no time to explore further.

A further point is that well-being in both rich and poor countries is shaped globally as well as locally, possibly more so than even world structuralists have always argued. Putting aside for a moment the arguments about dependency theory, centre-periphery relations and the need for a new world economic order, the ‘new generation’ global issues, such as financial vulnerability, climate change, disease threats and global crime, need a new and more globally-focussed approach in development studies, and much greater collaboration between researchers who focus on the North and those who focus on the South. How can we apply theory, for example, to understand how global deals on climate, trade or finance, can be brokered and sustained? To my mind, social anthropologists, political scientists, game theorists and lots of others could usefully re-balance their work from the local to the global. As the title of a recent lecture suggests, we should ‘think locally, act globally’. We know a lot about the culture and customs of some village communities. How much do we know about the culture and customs of climate or trade negotiating communities? This is where we need to re-invent development studies.

The third point which elicited discussion was the need to offer positive options to policy-makers. A case in point is the current donor preoccupation with demonstrating whether or not aid delivers measurable results. In the UK, this has been manifested in the priorities of the development Minister, Andrew Mitchell, and, for example, in the creation of anIndependent Commission on Aid Impact. It’s not difficult to be sceptical of simple input-output measures, and, indeed, I have been mildly sceptical myself. But I do think we need to be sensitive to the pressures facing political sponsors of aid, not just in the UK, when fiscal stringency is bearing down hard on local services, and when the public enthusiasm for rapidly rising expenditure overseas is at best muted. A favourite saying by Robert Chambers is that the trouble with social scientists is that, unlike, natural scientists, who are trained to do things, they are trained only to criticise. Speaking for myself, and as a social scientist, I fear that may be true! In this case, however, it is not good enough to be sceptical, or even mildly sceptical. If we believe in aid, which most of us do, then do we not have a duty to provide a robust method of demonstrating empirical impact? We can help Andrew Mitchell, and David Cameron, who spoke strongly on theimportance of aid at the G8, not by telling them what can’t be done, but by giving them our best advice on what can.

Robert deserves our thanks for his engagement in these issues over many years, and for giving us the language with which to discuss them. Thanks also to Andrea Cornwall, Ian Scoones and their collaborators at IDS, for laying on the event.

And what do you think? Comments are welcome. You can also vote here on the question ‘Is it time to re-invent development studies’

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