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Reimagining the politics of development

The fifth post in the blog series: What’s Wrong with Development Studies.

Indrajit Roy, University of York

  • What is wrong with development studies?
  • Short answer- the problem of Eurocentrism.
  • What can we do about it?
  • Short answer- Critically and creatively appropriate Global Development. 

What is wrong with development studies?

Over the last two days, we’ve examined the many limitations of development studies. I’d like to submit that these limitations stem from one fundamental problem.

The problem of Eurocentrism, the notion that Europe, North America, the Global North and their whiteness structure the world. This problem is demonstrated through what has been called the White Saviour Complex which, as speakers have correctly noted, neglects colonial legacies.  It is also demonstrated through what we might call a White Guilt Complex, which ignores the legacies of actors before and beyond colonialism. I cannot stress this enough: both the White Saviour Complex and the White Guilt Complex collude to consecrate Eurocentrism as a central trope in Development Studies and its academic successor International Development.

Eurocentrism leads us to ignore colonialism. And many speakers have presented us with excellent accounts of this tendency, so I am not going over this in the short time I have.

Eurocentrism also leads us to ignore the agency of countries- states as well as societies- in overcoming the legacies of colonialism. We fail to see, for example, the ways in which China has overcome the century of humiliation to emerge as a provider of global public goods. Good cases include transnational infrastructures such as the Belt and Road Initiative that criss-crosses not only Asia and Africa but reaches deep into the heart of Europe all the way to the Dutch port of Rotterdam. Chinese investments in Europe upend the conventional narrative in development studies that assumes the Global North to be the source of knowledge and investment and the Global South to be passive recipients. But a Eurocentric worldview prevents us from appreciating the import of China’s rise (and we don’t need to celebrate it to recognise that a profound transition is under way).

Eurocentrism also leads us to universalise Europe’s problems as global problems. Neoliberalism has led to the restructuring of the state in Europe causing massive shocks to the European population. The devastation wrought by Reganism and Thatcherism are there for everyone to see. The 1980s and 1990s were dreadful decades for the west. But can we universalise this dread? Across the global South, we see a different set of developments. In India, members of communities historically stigmatised as “low castes” began to gain power for the first time in centuries. Brazil saw the adoption of one of the most progressive constitutions of the world. South Africans successfully dismantled the Apartheid regime. Over the next few decades, the state in these countries and in China instituted some of the world’s most ambitious welfare programs. These they did not because of neoliberal globalisation but in response to the political demands of poor people in their own countries. Affirmative actions for historically oppressed people in India, Brazil and South Africa well have coincided with the economic liberalisation of these countries but were not caused by it. I worry that Eurocentric perspectives which offer sweeping narratives of a triumphant neoliberalism flattening everything in its wake lead us to ignore the significant interventions of states and societies in ensuring social welfare across the global South. 

Finally, Eurocentrism leads us to assume that the Global South is fundamentally different from the Global North. A consequence of this assumed difference is that the South has nothing to teach the North. Kissinger is reported to have once said, “Nothing significant ever comes from the South”, and he drew an arc from Tokyo to Washington via Moscow, Berlin and London to argue that nothing ever worthwhile could be learnt from the South. I don’t think anyone in this room would agree with such nonsense. The Southernisation of the world is a reality we cannot ignore. To consider the global effects of climate change is no longer as alarmist as it might have a decade or two ago. Artificial intelligence challenges our lives, livelihoods, and identities in significant ways across the world. And, finally, meeting as we are in the shadow of the pandemic, need I say more about the unexpected ways in which bats, pangolins and viruses have affected human life in both the South and the North. How are societies navigating such changes? How are they imagining their futures in the wake of such new challenges alongside old ones such as economic inequality, social discrimination and political populism? I appreciate the idea that development studies ought to focus on formerly colonised countries. But I am wary of framing an entire discipline as one whose reason for existence is to observe, study, research “people of colour”, that quaint term used to describe the global majority. Eurocentrism segregates the Global South as a “a place to experiment” for the Global North, erecting a hierarchical binary between the two.

Linked to the problem of Eurocentrism is the second problem: the production of knowledge about development. Development studies has conventionally concerned itself with societies “out there”. To be sure, not everyone who studies developing countries is a scholar of development studies. But every scholar of development studies focuses their studies on developing countries in the Global South. The colonial origins of development studies was discussed yesterday and a bit today. Gurminder Bhambra has taught us about the ways in which colonial modes of knowledge production distinguished between disciplines. Disciplines such as anthropology, development and area studies dealt with the colonies whereas disciplines such as economics, politics and sociology were concerned with the metropolises. These disciplinary distinctions and their colonial inflections have sadly continued, inhibiting meaningful connections between knowledges.

The modes of producing knowledge about development lead us to the third problem: the tendency to privilege rational humanism. This tendency is based on three assumptions: (i) that human beings across personalities, social characteristics, space and time behave rationally; (ii) that rationality implies a singular pursuit of maximising profit.; and (iii) that the rational human’s conquest over nature is complete. Such assumptions sustain artificial distinctions between the cognitive and the affective, and neglects our ability to feel, remember and hope. As a result, we ignore such themes as respect, belonging and imagination.

Reimagining the politics of development/ studies

So- What might we do about these problems? How, in other words, might we reimagine development?

I suggest the solution lies in critically and creatively thinking about the politics of global development.

Politics, as Adrian Leftwich would have it, is as much about the “rules of the game” as well as the “games within the rules”.

We must recognise the changing balance of world power, leading to an unprecedented transformation of the global order.

We must consider the agency of states and societies to overcome the legacies of colonialism as well as undermine the depredations of neoliberal capitalism.

We must respect the feelings of people as they navigate shared and disparate challenges.

A global framing of development helps us to appreciate the global ramifications of these local, national, and regional navigations. We might borrow from the emerging field of “global studies”, which- as a multicentric field- views global concerns from diverse perspectives across the world rather than the powerful capitals of the richest countries. Such a multicentric perspective does not replace Eurocentrism with Sinocentrism, Indocentrism, Afrocentrism and others. Rather, it is attentive to domestic and regional hierarchies and is careful not to replace global hierarchies with local ones.

The politics of global development studies needs to embrace connected knowledges that interrogate disciplinary silos within academia. These disciplinary silos are an enduring legacy of colonialism. Connected knowledges through interdisciplinarity across university departments and sectors beyond academia could contribute to dismantling the hierarchical binary between Global North and Global South. One tangible way to do this could be to “reverse the gaze” by encouraging collaborative research by scholars across the North-South divide to study both Northern and Southern contexts.

Embracing connected knowledges would mean that we research and teach topics that we’ve not conventionally included within the rubric of development studies. For example, while many of us research the so-called rising powers and other emerging markets in the Global South, we could do more to reflect on their roles and investments in Europe and elsewhere in the Global North. Likewise, several of us study the ways in which communities navigate informal and precarious employment in call centres and special economic zones in the Global South: a connected knowledges approach would entail examining the implications of the very same processes on working class communities in the Global North, some of whom live quite close to where we are sitting now. Finally, while colleagues in development studies have enriched our understandings of ethno-racial and religious discrimination in the Global South, there’s no reason for us or our students from shying away from examining similar processes in the Global North.

The politics of global development needs to connect scholars of development studies to their immediate surroundings- from “out there” to “in here”. This cannot be emphasised in the context not only of industrial action in the universities but the social, economic, and political lives of the communities that we inhabit.

It needs to value the lived experience of people “from” societies that have struggled with development. By value, I mean not only learning from them but actively partner with, co-produce scholarship, and recruit as colleagues 😊

Above all, the politics of global development studies needs to be a project of hope. Hope arises out of attentiveness to the realities of this world, its injustices and inequalities, and from a conviction that something can be done about it.  Living in hope therefore accepts the reality of grief, loss and uncertainty in the present moment. It recognises that the past is gone, and the assumptions that once shaped our world no longer hold.

Based on this realistic, wordly, analysis, hope also demands that we carefully and sensitively craft novel alliances that could open up new possibilities. Being attentive to the difficulties of the present moment, hope appreciates the possibility that something unanticipated could arise from its debris.  Hope therefore is a political position that refuses to accept that defeat is inevitable. It avoids “fixating on collapse” and calls instead for a granular appreciation of the ways in which people navigate and negotiate crises.

As Murrawah Johnson, climate justice activist of the Wangan and Jagalingiou country in Australia put it recently: “We’ve seen the end of the world… and we’ve decided not to accept it”.

Read more:

This is the final blog from the conference. You can download the full set of conference responses.

Previous blogs in the series: