Friday, October 29, 2010

China - one eye on development?

I have just returned from Beijing, where we were discussing, primarily, issues of Climate Change. The irony is obvious of course and I struggled with the decision to go. But go I did - and for three separate reasons:

Firstly, this could be the start of an intercontinental initiative - UK/European, USA and Chinese - around the issue of Climate Change. The West needs to make more efforts to link with China – as no discussion around any development issues can be effective without China’s involvement. Many say that The Dragon has woken up - it hasn't - it is in the process of waking up. In fact, it's only really opened one eye. When it goes for its full morning stretch in a few years' time, we need to have established a much better understanding and rapport, forged links and developed working relationships that will work for poorer people. But more about that in another forthcoming post.....

Secondly, our Chinese hosts are physical scientists and had invited us over, as social scientists, to discuss ways of combining their physical work with insight into social dynamics that can either mitigate or adapt to climate change in the run up to 2015 and beyond. Such an opportunity for an organisation such as the DSA that works to break down silos, was too good an opportunity to miss.

Thirdly, meeting people face to face – especially across cultures - is still the best way to communicate initially, build networks and forge long term , trustful relationships so important when making decisions that can affect so many lives.

On this third point – the DSA firmly believes in the power of convening people in person and it is with this in mind that I am delighted to announce the Call for Panel Concepts for this year’s Annual Conference, where we will be reflecting on Values, Ethics and Morality. We look forward to receiving your panel concepts and varied interpretations of the Call. Visit for more details.

By Frances Hill, Executive Director, DSA

Serendipity alone is not an option - we need Consilience

Decisions taken that affect anyone's lives - let alone those taken that affect those who have very little input into those decisions - should be well informed. How to get this to happen? All too often it is left to serendipity.

In Beijing recently a group of us met - social scientists, physical scientists, Europeans, Americans and Chinese - and I discovered a new word which seemed to sum up what we in development studies should all be working towards - Consilience (Oxford English Dictionary: "agreement between the approaches to a topic of different academic subjects, especially science and the humanities").

Wikipedia explains it: "Modern views understand that each branch of knowledge studies a subset of reality that depends on factors studied in other branches. Atomic physics underlies the workings of chemistry, which studies emergent properties that in turn are the basis of biology. Psychology can no longer be separated from the study of properties emergent from the interaction of neurons and synapses. Sociology, economics, and anthropology are each, in turn, studies of properties emergent from the interaction of countless individual humans"

My heart skipped a beat! "At last", I thought, a concept with a scientific recognition that underpins what the DSA tries to do. Whilst appreciating the need for individual disciplinary study - for these to be truly useful - what we need is Consilience.But back to my first word - Serendipity - a lovely, happy sounding word, but possibly not as helpful as its positivity belies. Agreed, that it is not possible to marshall everything, but we do need to be more systematic in getting our research into use, to better inform those who are in positions to effect and manage change. There are many broad scoped initiatives underway - DFID's Research4development, IDS' Mobilising Knowledge for Development are just two that spring immediately to mind.

There are however many others, working on more specific topics that need to get out into the larger development universe, burst out beyond their own solar system and engage with the other 'aliens' out there. The DSA works to unite these solar systems - so do join our universe of diversity!

The DSA is expanding our membership to research institutes based in developing countries, and we welcome anyone working on development issues. The wider our membership, the broader our church and the greater our consilience, the less will be left to serendipity.

We cannot, and should not, let the decisions that govern the lives of poor people be left to chance.

To find out more about the DSA, visit

By Frances Hill, Executive Director, DSA