Farewell from our “Chair” Sam Hickey!
We caught up with outgoing president Sam Hickey at the DSA2023 conference and asked for his reflections on his three-year term.
“I’ve really enjoyed myself being DSA president, despite my misgivings about the title. I do think we should have something less pompous, maybe a title for someone who is just a Chair of a Council and who plays a role within a much broader association where most of the work gets done elsewhere. But that aside, it has been a real privilege.
If you look at the state of the world today and the role of academia in relation to it, the notion of having an interdisciplinary space to approach critical global challenges from a range of perspectives in the pursuit of social justice is exactly where academia needs to be. So I think the relevance of development studies, and therefore hopefully of the developments of the association, has never been stronger.
I think the DSA itself has gone through a difficult period while I’ve been President, under COVID, and so this conference has been brilliant getting back face to face. But I have still been really impressed with the strides we’ve been able to make. When I took over from Sarah White as President I had just a few ambitions or areas to work on with colleagues on Council and they were really around three main areas.
One was to raise the profile of the association; the second was to create a stronger sense of community within it, to make sure it was a vibrant, flourishing place; and the third was to take on new agendas around inclusion, equity, diversity, around issues of raising and decolonising development.
I think some of these were in train well before I took over as President; we had moves within the membership to take these issues more seriously already, and on Council. We have made some further progress in those areas.
We’ve been much more active around policy debates. I don’t think we’ve ever had any sort of advocacy work from the DSA in the past, but it’s been one of those periods in which it would have been wrong for the DSA to remain on the sidelines when you have the government transforming its approach to aid, getting rid of what was one of the world leading bilateral aid agencies, in terms of its depth of expertise, contextual knowledge, level of spend, targets focused on poverty, and reducing tied aid.
While there are huge problems with the big development projects, I think there are reasons to think that at least a chunk of what DFID was doing was well met, well intended and sometimes had the intended impacts as well. I thought it was right that we should join the debate on that, not just to purely protect development research funding (though that was something that was important particularly for the partnerships that colleagues have built with research organizations in the global South), but also to engage with other issues around the logic of having aid under a security defence and under a British self-interest heading.
We engaged in a number of other public issues such as the Black Lives Matter campaign and the Race review. We’ve also contributed work on COVID and what a post COVID landscape for development could have been. So I think we’ve tried to be a bit more relevant in public places than we used to; we had a number of letters published in the press, and so on.
We never used to do webinars and that was obviously the thing to do during COVID, so I don’t think we can claim originality, but it was a really important thing that gave us a space in which to operate in between conferences.
DSA took advantage of things moving online and took the conferences online, which helped with external profile as well as internal community. The level of Global South inclusion we were able to achieve, as well as the environmental costs savings, carbon offsets etc., was incredible. DSA has risen to new levels as a result.
We’ve had a record number of people coming to the conference in person this year, which has been really pleasing, despite the option to attend online. I think it shows that we do have a really vibrant community. We haven’t seen the figures yet for Global South inclusion at this conference, but it looks pretty high from being here and looking at who’s logging in online.
The other thing the DSA have tried to do over time is to launch a development studies journal of the DSA. We failed on that because when we spoke to many publishing houses and other people running journals starting from scratch, we learned that now is an incredibly difficult time to launch a journal. The DSA’s finances are fairly robust, but it would require a significant investment in a very uncertain climate for a move to Open Access.
One thing I’m really pleased about is that right at the end of my term in office we have achieved a deal with the Journal of Development Studies where we will have a special conference issue. We have a place on their board and we’ll have a chance to engage with the UK’s leading development studies journal in a way that offers a chance for us to influence debates. We haven’t had this for nearly a decade. It’s a chance to nurture publication opportunities for our global South members and early career researchers and that’s really important. It straddles again that boundary of something that gives a wider platform and it tries to build up, internally, a strong sense of community.
Supporting the development studies community
In terms of community, the conference is a huge part of it. The study groups were hit hard by COVID, so Naila Kabeer and myself have been involved in trying to get them up and running again. The response has been great and some got there before us and were already putting on great initiatives once COVID allowed us to meet together again. That’s really positive.
I think the challenge that we haven’t resolved at all is to better support early career researchers. The DSA had a fund worth about £6-7000 a year that was purely demand-led. It was available for ideas from the early career research body and we really struggled to get applications. I think there’s a collective action problem as early career researchers are not as well networked as mid career, late career and we insisted on these being collective rather than individual activities, and they struggled. We need to find another way in which we can support early career researchers that doesn’t just mimic and overlap with what’s going on within institutions.
Reaching out to global South members has been really strong and we’ve become much more inclusive and vibrant and not just for our conference. We’ve got a global South study group and two representative positions on Council. That’s a much better position than we used to be in, compared also with other northern based development studies associations. I think the remaining challenge to consider is whether we are sucking up energy and agency from the global South into our structures, rather than ring fencing all the opportunities in the north. Should we be doing more to support their associations and networks in the global South? That remains a question I think.
Inclusion and diversity
That point tilts into the third area of work: the inclusion, equity and diversity questions. I think we have become much more diverse and inclusive as an association. We still need to go much further, it’s not ideal that my demographic is President! So I’m glad that that’s coming to a close and we’re going to move forward with a more diverse leadership.
Development studies beyond the DSA has never been audited for its gender and race profile and what that looks like across positions within academia. We’ve dedicated some funding to a race audit and we’re hoping that heads of centres, our institutional members (who really are so critical to keeping the DSA alive) are on board with that and will support us in getting a much clearer picture of whether or not development studies is an inclusive, diverse and welcoming place that gives equal opportunities and parity of esteem to people from whatever background they come from. That audit is underway and the results should be out next year.
What I’ve learned from the three-year term is that the DSA is an incredibly valuable place. It needs a lot of nurturing from Council members and other active members within it.
It benefits hugely from a decision that was made by the last President to have communications capacity because that enables us to do all three things that I’ve identified. It gives us a wider platform, it creates a sense of community by keeping people in touch with each other and it sends a signal about what we are about in terms of inclusion and diversity in the way in which we cast our communications, who we give a voice to, what issues we give voice to. I think having that capacity in place has been really critical.
There’s clearly huge interest in development studies from the student base; the numbers are going up for undergraduate as well as postgraduate courses at most of the key institutions in the UK.
We’ve lost a few institutional members due to the financial implications of COVID, etc. but we’re in a great position to go forward. There are really strong critical debates within the DSA about big issues around decolonising, race and development. I think we’re taking them head on and we’ve included them within this conference. We’ve got structures and mechanisms to respond to this. So hopefully it’s a discussion we can keep having as the DSA continues.