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‘Geographies of Hope’

Author: Anna Wood is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Her research is on poverty, social policy and its politics in Senegal.

During an opening keynote on the first day of a two-day workshop on the Politics of Development Studies held at the University of Manchester in January, Emma Mawdsley (University of Cambridge) offered reflections on recent changes in the field and their implications. Towards the end, she spoke to degrowth movements and the importance of mobilising the hopes and energies of young people around the world. She said she would like to plan a third-year paper on the ‘geographies of hope.’ Rather than shaping her students into ‘ninja warriors at deconstruction’ who are left with very little to go forward with, she talked not of a ‘complacent hope,’ but of one that nurtures and engages with the ‘constructive possibilities’ of what might be. ‘Something’s better than nothing at this point,’ she ended.

Mawdsley’s reflections resonated across the two days. ‘We can’t mobilise of the basis of critique, but only on alternatives’ was one early comment (Tom Goodfellow, University of Sheffield), capturing this longstanding tension within development studies.  One conversation echoed the concern with teaching; an overemphasis on critique within certain programs was leaving students disillusioned, leaving academia to seek more pragmatic careers. We had just heard from Professor Ha-Joon Chang (SOAS) about the vast expansion of development studies in higher education in the UK, which made this conversation all the more pertinent.

Others asked how development studies can rise to the exigences of the current moment, one of ‘interlocking crises,’ as Sara Stevano (SOAS) described it, and one that demands that nature be at the centre of how we think and what we do, as Nikita Sud (University of Oxford) eloquently made a plea for. Lively debate was prompted by Lindsay Whitfield (Copenhagen Business School) who resisted the idea that the whole world was in crisis and that a lot of economic development was, in fact, taking place, drawing our attention to the realities of ‘catch up industrialisation’ in Asia.

In and amongst all this, Kate Meagher (LSE) made a case for there being a perspective that is ‘deeply hopeful,’ one that is committed to the development space being progressive, sustainable, and just. She cited the late Thandika Mkandewire among scholarship, which is rooted in the experience of countries whose very survival depends on seizing control of resources and policy space. During a later discussion, she spoke to the need of development to come up against critiques from scholars on the ground in their respective countries, a point echoed by Ingrid Kvangraven (King’s College London) in the closing plenary who found ‘pockets of hope’ in the shape of south-centred theoretical traditions.

A parallel concern with critique has long occupied the anthropology of development. An edited volume from over a decade ago (Yarrow & Venkatesan 2012) made the case for moving beyond the ‘impasse’ brought about by 1990s post structuralists (e.g. Ferguson 1990; Escobar 1995) by offering ethnographic accounts that resist discursive foreclosure. A more recent – and more interdisciplinary – volume (Fassin & Harcourt 2019), considers the current challenges to critique more broadly (times of crisis, its relevance), calling for its reappraisal, and offering case studies of ‘critique in practice.’ Studies across the two volumes present openings and interventions that resonate with the kind of constructive and contingent possibilities participants at the workshop were pointing to.

In the spirit of interdisciplinarity, I take one example. In the context of the 2017 Turkish referendum, Ayşe Parla (2019) describes how the strength and fervour of a ‘politics of hope’ amongst Erdogan’s opposition in the face of almost impossible odds exposed a dichotomy: either you have hope or you’re apathetic and privileged. Taking the case of an Armenian citizen who asked on social media what hope she could have after voting at a school used as a polling station named after the chief commander who signed off the Armenian Genocide, Parla considers what hope might look like from positions of marginalisation. She develops her argument on the uneven and differential distribution of political hope. She finds inspiration in Peter Redfield’s (2013) idea of ‘residual hope,’ an ethical stance that enables Médecins Sans Frontière (MSF) humanitarians to at once continue their vital work and acknowledge its limits. And she argues for a minimalist and ‘backwards looking’ hope, one that resists a ‘buoyant’ optimism, and instead, reckons with ‘different legacies’ of hope, drawing particularly on Afro pessimism in the way that it provides a ‘diagnostic’ of society that makes room for important resistance work to be done.

Hope might be minimal, tempered or found in seemingly unlikely places. The task, however, as suggested during the workshop and across these case studies, is to pay attention to how it does arise in all its nuance on the ground. During the closing discussion, and in response to a somewhat despondent tone around the room about the state of the field, Meagher called on us all to ask ourselves: ‘How are we doing development?’ She suggested that there was a lot of straw-manning going on, distracting from the real issues. ‘Syllabuses are being changed.’ ‘Work is being done,’ she said. It seems we do have tools, or at least the approaches to find the tools to find out what these ‘geographies of hope’ might be.

Thank you again to Tom Goodfellow and Pritish Behuria for organising the Politics of Development study group workshop.

By Anna Wood.

To find out more about the Politics and Political Economy study group, visit their webpage.

If you’re interested in reading the sources quoted in this blog:

  • Escobar, Arturo. 1995. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Ferguson, James. 1990. The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Harcourt, Bernard & Fassin, Didier (eds). 2019. A Time for Critique. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Parla, Ayşe. 2019. Critique without a politics of hope? In A Time for Critique (eds) Harcourt, Bernard & Fassin, Didier, 52-70. New York: Columbia University Press. Redfield,
  • Peter. 2013. Life in Crisis: The Ethical Journey of Doctors Without Borders. Berkley: University of California Press