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We are the UK association for all those who research, study and teach global development issues

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What is Development Studies

What is development studies and decolonising development.

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We have around 1,000 members, made up of individuals and around 40 institutions

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The DSA Conference is an annual event which brings together the development studies community

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Our conference this year is themed "Social justice and development in a polarising world"

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North-South Research

A series of workshops exploring North-South interdisciplinary research with key messages and reports

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The future of development studies

This blog by DSA Council member and PhD candidate Sheila Ronoh presents highlights from a workshop held on June 25th, preceding the Development Studies Association Conference at SOAS London, which took place from June 26th to 28th. The event offered scholars a unique opportunity to reflect on the history and future of development studies. Key discussions from the vibrant panels included the evolution of development concepts, the challenges of decolonization, and the implications of universal development approaches.

Development: transformational or modest?

Professor Sam Hickey from the University of Manchester set the stage of the discussions by highlighting the contentions in key theoretical concepts that have shaped our understanding of development over the years including modernization theory, structural change theory, and neoliberal capitalism. Professor Arief Yusuf from Padjadjaran University went on to highlight the complexities in defining desirable development, critiquing conventional GDP metrics and advocating for Green GDP which according to him, should be reflected in the global Sustainable Development Goals.

Echoing these themes, Professor Emma Mawdsley from the University of Cambridge discussed the socio-political implications of ultra-processed foods (UPFs), linking economic interests with global health, thus broadening the conversation on development impacts. Adding to the debates, Dr. Nita Mishra from Limerick University emphasized a rights-based approach to reduce inequalities and empower marginalized communities, reinforcing the need for inclusive development metrics. Dr. Eyob Balcha Gebremariam from the London School of Economics similarly stressed the need to decolonize Development Studies, addressing epistemic injustices and the coloniality of knowledge, being, and power. From the discussions, it is evident that there was a strong endorsement for a transformational approach to development, prioritizing inclusivity, sustainability and rights-based frameworks.

The rise of global development?

The rise of global development over the years was also a key feature of the discussions, which, while seen as a positive shift, was criticized for its lack of inclusivity. Throughout his career, Professor David Hulme witnessed a shift in academic scholarship from addressing the challenges facing poor peasants to tackling broader development inequalities, and from local environmental issues to confronting global climate change. According to him, a multifaceted approach to development that transcends traditional binaries was a more compelling idea. Dr. Pritish Behuria from the University of Manchester however challenged the rise of global development, emphasizing the importance of learning from the global south and arguing that development should be emancipatory. Continuing in this line of thought was Dr. Alessandra Mezzadri from SOAS University, who distinguished between universalizing and globalizing processes. She criticized universalizing processes for attempting to establish global principles and norms, such as on equality and social justice, while mistakenly assuming these standards are applicable universally without considering local contexts. She further challenged perceptions of homogenization resulting from the increased interconnectedness of globalizing processes and the role they play in reinforcing power imbalances between the global north and global south. This is evident for example in attempts to homogenize development economics, which results in methodological tensions as Ravi Kanbur of Cornell University observed. He argued that the economics of low-income countries requires clear standards for aid allocation. The debates made it clear that academic scholarship needs to adopt more nuanced approaches that address local specificities and intersectional oppressions. It also suggested that future research should further evolve to challenge dominant development narratives by incorporating diverse voices, particularly from the global south.

Challenging structures and definitions

While pursuing epistemic justice may appear achievable, the discussions also addressed the daunting constraints imposed by material power structures. Dr. Kate Meagher from London School of Economics for example critiqued one-size-fits-all approaches economic policies such as the structural adjustment programs and championed by global institutions like the World Bank. She called for incorporating new theories from the global south to inform Western perspectives, while advocating for institutional innovation.

In an interesting twist to the debates, Dr. Lata Narayanaswamy from Leeds University however questioned the framing of the global south and critiqued historical categorizations in development. She challenged developed imaginaries such as marginalizing portrayals of the global south, emphasizing the need to address both epistemic and material power structures and noting that both the global north and global south face social exclusion and developmental needs. Dr. Devika Dutt from Kings College London criticized the Eurocentric foundations of development economics, which equate development with capitalist and industrial modernity, calling for a dismantling of these assumptions. She argued for centering discussions on power structures of gender, race, class, caste, and imperialism, and moving away from idealized models of developed societies. This may also require strengthening knowledge systems and promoting transnational collaboration to make knowledge production more globally representative, as Professor Karina Batthyany from the University of the Republic (Uruguay) suggested.

Arguably, the discussions generated much interest from the attendees, who raised several questions that provoked further reflections. While the focus was on amplifying marginalized voices, particularly from the global south, cautionary views were expressed against romanticizing indigenous experiences: “Just because it is indigenous, it does not mean it is ideal.” Despite the systemic exclusion of certain groups in academia and policy, scholars were challenged to maintain balanced perspectives in their research.

As I progress in my second year of PhD research, examining youth activism for climate and sustainability in Kenya and Uganda, I am mindful of this caution. My aim is to amplify the diverse perspectives of these youth in academia and the climate policy arena, while addressing the structural inequalities that hinder their pursuit of justice. This forum was indeed helpful as it prompted me to reconsider how to position my research as we advance the field of development studies in the coming years.

Note:  This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Development Studies Association as a whole.