Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Young Lives in Transition: From School to Adulthood?

At the DSA conference in Westminster this month our panel focused on young people, specifically on their aspirations and contrasting experiences of social and economic marginalisation in contexts as diverse as India, Mexico, Nigeria and Thailand. We shared common concerns across divides of methodology and location and realised the importance of expanding the research agenda from ‘Education For All’ to include ‘returns’ to schooling and its effects on individual identities and relationships with others.

It was interesting that the panel echoed the conclusions of the morning plenary that development is essentially a political process; that we need to think big – no more ‘micro development’! – but also take time to embed ourselves in communities and gain an empathetic understanding of their concerns and strategies; and that researchers and practitioners should challenge themselves to be more reflective and reflexive in their actions.

Some big questions emerged in our discussions such as what are the moral meanings of work and education in different communities and how do these shape young people’s identities? What are the psychological impacts of marginalisation and how do young people manage these, whether as a Quranic scholar in Nigeria or ‘Nini’ in Mexico? Maintaining dignity emerged as just as important for young people as adults, possibly even more so given the fragility of their emerging identities.

We were also interested in how historical inequalities such as caste and ethnicity are combining with new ones such as social mobility from education. In this sense schooling can be a ‘contradictory resource’ as it transforms individual lives while perpetuating and justifying social inequalities. Even worse, these hierarchies can then be naturalised under a discourse of ‘merit’ and ‘natural intelligence’ - a point made by Froerer based on her research in rural India.

Finally, in a rapidly globalising world, how do young people know whether it is worth investing in education when they don’t know the type of opportunities they will be preparing for? This question is perhaps as relevant to UK school leavers as young people in developing countries.

There are also interesting issues to address concerning the quality of education – have resources shifted prematurely from promoting educational access to educational quality, bearing in mind the experience of groups such as pastoralists in Ethiopia and ethnic minorities in the Vietnamese highlands? And how do perceptions of quality affect the school choices of children and their households?

Finally, here are a few methodological questions, which engage with Chris Whitty’s provocative statement made in the morning plenary session on the morality of research without action, and more importantly, of action not informed by meticulous research:

·         How do we research complex, multilevel processes, and keep our focus on structures as well as experiences?
·         Where is the political economy analysis in the study of childhood (and why won’t we talk about inequalities among  children as well as adults)?
·         Once the context is understood and the needs identified, what more do development researchers have to offer (a tough question to end with from a representative from DFID)?

We welcome input and comments on any of the issues raised here.

Laura Camfield works on methodology with Young Lives, an international study of childhood poverty, and is based at DEV, University of East Anglia.

With thanks to Caroline Knowles.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Development Ethics - problems and practice

Marion Clarke
We all know that, underlying much of the work that development researchers and practitioners do, there is some kind of moral motivation, some desire to ‘do good’, to aid progress, restore justice, relieve suffering. Behind the language of development, the basic concepts themselves used – ‘development’, implying gradual improvement, of progress towards maturity, and ‘aid’ that is given, altruistically or not, to help or assist that development – there are moral and political philosophies, interested in what is ‘good’ and ‘right’ with an understanding of relations of power that enable or constrain our capacities to ‘do good’.

As a student of Foucault, I would argue that there are three dimensions to our problems and practices - games of truth (or discourse), strategies of power, and subjective ethical relations – that are interconnected. Imagine if, instead of ‘aid’, for example, we used the term ‘redistribution’ and talked about the redistribution of wealth and entitlements. This terminology would have a very different set of ethical and political positions alongside it.

People here are aware that ‘development’ has not solved the problems of persistent inequalities, chronic poverty and environmental damage. They understand that the freedoms and material wealth some of us enjoy in the West (and increasingly in the developing world, evidenced by increasing numbers of mega rich, luxury goods consumers in China, India, Brazil) - and our ‘free’ markets (stacked in our favour) - exist at the expense of the world’s poor and our natural environment. Some also suspect that our ‘aid’ - assisting the developing world to progress towards our standards of development - is ameliorative rather than transformative, probably culturally biased, possibly unsustainable, and often made for reasons of self-interest.

We intervene in crisis situations, where the disenfranchised are amassed – those at the sharp end of unequal relations of power – where there is violence and lawlessness, starvation and hunger, disadvantage and vulnerability. The development industry is funded to step in to strengthen these fragile places where there is great human suffering and also potential danger to our way of life and the environment and markets that support it. Sometimes we feel guilty about that. That, through our colonial past, and in our post-colonial present, unequal relations of power are maintained through a whole range of practices, many of which we collude with and are complicit in. But as we are mainly pragmatist optimists, interested in getting things done and, crucially, getting it funded by the economic powers, we don’t want to get bogged down confronting the real thorny questions.

Arguments for aid investment appeal to both our humanism and rational self-interest. Surely by helping others we help ourselves? Do we even need any kind of moral argument, when we are so reasonable? Through research, much of it descriptive of problems and practical solutions, we can make a difference, however modest. We can help people to understand more about what life is like for human beings in circumstances quite different from our own.

Care for remote others is also part of the imagination, and can be fostered through contact (through observation, interview, documentation). This gives us more of a sense of our interdependence and our responsibility on a global level. Through the documentation, description and analysis, of how ‘the other half’ of the world lives, and the coping strategies that are employed – including the policies, programmes, and grassroots ‘schemes’ and ‘initiatives’ – for their ‘development’, we can improve those strategies, help to spread them and strengthen them, garner support and investment. We can all agree on the social-democratic virtues of cooperation, openness and dialogue, equality of opportunity and principles of participation, rights and responsibilities.

When it comes to evaluating the causes of the root problems involving obscene inequalities and levels of human suffering, and the moral and political positioning this entails, we are more cautious. But it may be that the critical engagement, the self-reflexivity, that was part of the purpose of this conference, is essential to the formation of effective strategies that go beyond presenting the evidence, that influence and help shape a different future. Strategies that involve pragmatic prioritisation: where can we most make a difference? What are our capacities as researchers and how can we best direct them? How do we then fund our activities? Who are our allies and supporters, with money and without, and where are the threats and constraints in the system? Where could we be co-opted, manipulated, silenced, ignored? Strategies that must also involve strong ethical-political positions.

At the Development Studies Association conference on ethics and values I did hear, perhaps rather hopefully, a radical politics trying to assert itself. I heard resistance to the growth paradigm; market-led growth, neo-imperialism, neo-liberalism, individualism, capitalism, consumerism, materialism and greed. There was a complex and fragmented mix of alternative values discussed – as well as the social-democratic principles mentioned there was flirtation with notions of pluralism, cultural relativism, amoralism, social movements, emancipatory politics, socio-cultural evolution. Many different arguments, many different disciplines. Not a great deal of coherence. I also heard a great sense of urgency - the ‘war on terror’, the ‘financial crisis’ and ecological disaster, and the threats to our way of life - are never far from people’s minds. Do we need to develop something stronger in response?

Marion Clarke studied Foucault’s ethics for a Dphil in Social and Political Thought at the University of Sussex and works as a research administrator at the Institute of Development Studies. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Now is the time to rethink development

Geof Wood
There is a growing realisation that industrial capitalist futures for whole world are unsustainable in resource, energy and pollution terms as well as unattainable in political economy terms. Large swathes of today’s poor will continue to be excluded from the rising living standards enjoyed by those who have captured the lion’s share of the globalisation dividend.

This prospect is encouraging the emergence of other indicators of progress and self-esteem: more spiritual, more rooted in ideas about well-being, more millenarian identities, more in harmony with nature. It is also encouraging greater attention to inequality and a highly skewed distribution of benefits, not only as a moral and ethical issue, but as a pragmatic issue of rising political tensions and threats to any prospects of collective action and agreements. Inequality and unfairness underpins wars and fragile states.

The thinking about development since the Second World War has occurred within a dominant paradigm of capitalist modernisation. It is often based upon the assumption that people’s wellbeing is a simple function of improved material standards of living, indicated by increased real incomes.

Of course, embedded in the notion of modernisation was the formation of more open, rights based societies characterised as liberal-democratic pluralist. From the late 1960s, these assumptions were challenged, especially from Latin America, by the argument that formally free, post colonial societies had their path to modernisation thwarted by the continuing economic dominance of advanced industrial and post-industrial societies (known as the ‘dependency’ argument). This set the terms of exchange and thus accumulation in the global political economy.

 The so-called communist bloc of Soviet Union, China and their client states offered the only alternative for poor countries, but at a high ‘clientelist’ price and therefore unattractive. Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the consequent liberation of Central Asian societies as well as Eastern European and other client states in Africa and SE Asia, the world has become a very different place, especially with the rise of the BRICs and the location of significant poverty in rising middle income countries alongside the poor ones.

While many conferences about development have recently been obsessed with more immediate policy evaluation and especially the progress with MDGs, the one day, November 2010 DSA conference in London was deliberately designed to enable academics, policy leaders and practitioners to assess the significance of some big questions. Now is an important time to address issues such as continuing poverty, inequality, exclusion, well-being, religious and millenarian identities, and a proliferation of development cosmologies, so that all parts of global society can do development better in the future.

Without the opportunity for this deeper reflection, we risk blundering forward on narrow assumptions while the world around us breaks up under the deeper pressures upon it. This one day conference was to some extent a prelude for the joint UK and European (DSA and EADI) conference planned for York in September 2011 on ‘Rethinking Development’, with exciting proposals for panels and papers already coming in to the organising committee.

Geof Wood is an Emeritus Professor of International Development at The University of Bath and a Council Member of the Development Studies Association

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Do religious values and beliefs impact on development thinking?

The relationships between religious values and ethics in developing countries and mainstream development theories, policies and practices are complex and often troubled. 
This results from the long history of religious competition in some parts of the world, the close associations between religion and colonialism, the origins of development thinking in the colonial encounter and the continued dominance of development policy and practice by the (essentially Christian) rich north. For mainstream development thinking and practice, religion has been best avoided although some development actors are happy to support and work with religious organisations who are prepared to keep their ‘development’ activities separate from their religious activities, especially proselytising. Religion is often seen as a source of conflict and an obstacle to desirable social change, best relegated to the private sphere, and expected to decline in importance as societies modernise.
However (and not only in developing countries), religion has not declined as expected: it continues to influence people’s attitudes, beliefs and practices, and to play a critical role in politics and society globally, nationally and locally.  Development thinkers and actors would be ill advised to see religion (and faith-based organisations) as a panacea that, if it can only be harnessed, can make a significant contribution to the achievement of development objectives, or alternatively, as an obstacle that reinforces patriarchy and social conservatism. Above all, they can no longer treat it as invisible, understood by all (because everyone is brought up within a religious tradition) or too difficult to understand.
Research on how religious teachings are interpreted by people in developing countries, how they inform their values and ethics and how these are reflected in attitudes, social relationships and practices need not be concerned with the ‘truth claims’ of individual religions. Instead, it is useful to distinguish between beliefs (the cosmological lens through which people make sense of the world in which they live) and values (the moral principles on which people draw to make decisions in their everyday lives). Although religion cannot easily be disentangled from other social and cultural spheres, research presented in the panel  at the DSA conference considering Lived Religion shows that it provides ideas of right social ordering against which people compare both their own lives and the wider communities and societies in which they live.

Religions teachings, rituals and organisations are resources that can help people negotiate their everyday lives, influence their aspirations and provide them with sources of hope and dignity. Research amongst members of various faith traditions in different countries (for example Hindus and Buddhists in India) reveals these characteristics of religion, both for poor people and for those motivated to address destitution and social inequality, although the nature of and authority accorded religious teachings varies, with ‘religious rules’ for living more a feature of Islam than the Indic religions.
Research also shows that there is no single or simple answer to the question of whether and how religion makes a difference in development practice. Some attempts to base development interventions on religious teachings (such as the nationalisation of zakat collection and disbursement in Pakistan) do not appear to have fulfilled their proponents’ expectations. While religious organisations may play a role in service delivery (especially education and health) in some countries, and the services they provide are valued by both governments and users, they do not have a significant role every country, their coverage is never geographically comprehensive and they cannot be a substitute for government.
Strong traditions of religious philanthropy may give rise to large locally financed organisations, but research in Pakistan shows that they concentrate on short term charity and welfare, rather than attempting to foster lasting poverty reduction or sustainable development. International links may encourage them to conceptualise development in a different way (for example Caritas in Pakistan) and provide significant funds. However, the nature and source of the latter is important: research in India and Tanzania shows that funds (grants, remittances) from overseas members of a religious tradition are more likely to enable an organisation to achieve its aims than funds from mainstream bilateral and multilateral donors, which reduce the autonomy of local institutions, forcing them to comply with programmatic and organisational templates decided by others.
Research findings on these hitherto neglected topics provide some pointers for mainstream development thinking and practice, although the implications are not the same for all development actors or all contexts.

- Mainstream development actors must be aware that their own assumptions about religion may blind them to the different nature and organisation of religion in other contexts.

- Although the connections between religious beliefs and values and actions are complex, understanding needs to be improved in order to better assess the potential and pitfalls of ‘bringing religion in’ to attempts to achieve improved wellbeing and social change.

- The motivations, priorities and capacity of faith-based organisations vary: while some play significant philanthropic, service delivery and developmental roles, they often cannot be easily distinguished from non-religious organisations, may be socially exclusive and politically motivated, may concentrate on short term charitable activities rather than lasting solutions to poverty and inequality, and may have little autonomy in terms of finance or development thinking.
For findings from research in India, Pakistan, Tanzania and Nigeria undertaken as part of the Religions and Development Research Programme, see   

Carole Rakodi is the Director of the Religions and Development Research Programme

Friday, November 5, 2010

The case for aid in fiscally constrained times: Ethics or Self-interest?

Andy Sumner
What is the case for ODA and does it differ in fiscally constrained times? And what if 72% of the world's poor live in middle income countries?
That's what we asked in our paper for this year’s DSA conference which starts today.
We argue that the case for Official Development Assistance (ODA) at a global level is based on two things:
-  Ethical/Moral Arguments: compassion, compensation (slavery, colonialism, unfair trade, etc), responses to disasters (acute need);
- Self-interest: Mutuality (inter-dependence); support for MNCs (inputs and markets) and security.

But how does this differ in fiscally constrained times?
One could argue that the ethical case for ODA is largely independent of the fiscal context in the donor country because this case is a long-term one.
However, one could also say the compassion-ethical argument might be stronger, depending on the socio-economic situation in the potential recipient.
What might be important are the relative impacts of the global crisis in recipient and ‘donor’ country.
The self interest case for ODA may even be stronger in fiscally constrained times if it stimulates the global economy more than the same spend at home (but whether this can be accurately assessed is another matter) and the self interest-security might also be stronger. Again, the impacts of the global crisis in ‘recipient’ relative to the ‘donor’ country might shape the argument. If a fragile state was particularly badly impacted by the crisis (lost remittances, falls in exports, etc) the resultant pressure on the country might form the basis of a self interest-security argument in favour of ODA which seeks to prevent further pressure on the country.
What really matters in making the case for ODA is one of where the poor live and what resources their own governments have at their disposal.
Of the world’s US$1.25 poor, 960m or 72% live, not in poor countries but in middle income countries (MICs) and most of them in stable, non-fragile MICs.
Only about a quarter of the world’s poor – about 370mn people or so − live in the remaining 39 low-income countries (LICs), which are largely in sub-Saharan Africa. This is a dramatic change from just two decades ago when 93% of poor people lived in low-income countries.
The poor haven’t moved of course nor are these ‘newly’ poor people. What has largely happened is the countries in which many of the world’s poor live have got richer in average per capita terms – transitioning from low income to middle income country status under World Bank classifications and many poor people have been left behind.
A good question to bloggers is -
- How does this changing nature of global poverty impact the ethical and self-interest case for ODA?
Is it time to think more about aid beyond ODA flows and relationships with MICs and the 'do no harm' agenda (aid as northern policies on climate, migration and remittances, tax havens, favourable trade policies, etc)?
Or is it time to make ODA more political - and fund the progressive forces like CSOs, media, etc?

Andy Sumner is a cross-disciplinary Economist based at IDS

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Wellbeing as a focus in development: prospects and pitfalls?

Sarah C. White
Ever wondered what ‘wellbeing’ really means, and why so many people are talking about it?  If so you are in good company. 

In the last few years talk about wellbeing has spread like a rash in public policy circles, but very few people offer a clear definition, and when they do there’s a whole range of others leaping to dispute it. 

When you think about it, there’s nothing particularly surprising about this.  Dispute and debate are at the heart of all things ethical, and the ‘well’ within wellbeing makes it clear that values are at its centre.

The WeDNetwork panel on wellbeing at the DSA this year doesn’t try to fix a definition of wellbeing, but looks at the different ways people understand it, the political charge these carry, and the prospects and pitfalls of taking wellbeing as a focus in international development. 

Wellbeing and the Big Picture

Like most of the buzzwords we adopt in development, wellbeing became an issue in the north before being exported to the south, although Bhutan leads the world in putting Gross National Happiness at the centre of public policy.  What is distinctive about wellbeing is that it makes you ask questions about the bigger picture beyond the frame of development itself.  And it’s an area where the south may be able to give the north more than a run for its money. 

Approached with an open mind, wellbeing cannot be circumscribed within the conventional boundaries of programme-bound thinking.  Recent research in India and Bangladesh, for example, has shown how local discourses of wellbeing are moral discourses, which draw heavily on a religious worldview as their frame.   This doesn’t just mean that having time for prayer or religious practice is important to people, although this is often the case.  It means rather that ideas of wellbeing invoke a broader, or deeper, sense of a moral order that grounds for each of us and our life together, and even for development, the proper way of things.  

Wellbeing and Values: the Collective and Political

Seeing wellbeing as grounded in an understanding of the order of things identifies individual wellbeing as deriving from the collective, rather than the other way around. This helps guard against a danger of the current revival of interest in values in development.  An example of this can be seen in the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which seems to draw a rather simple link between personal values and behaviour and political outcomes. The personal is seen as the way to the political.  Instead of politicising the personal, as in feminism, however, the efficacy of this lies in personalising the political. 

However positive the motivation, the political outcomes of this may be far from progressive. As some of our panellists argue, there’s a danger that such an approach can translate to more, and more intrusive governance.  Responsibility is shifted from the state to the individual.  Geopolitics is obscured in an overly cognitive rendition of the everyday.

Measuring wellbeing: new avenues of research

For wellbeing to have political legs in international development there needs to be some form of measurement.  New research in Zambia and India is working to achieve this, tracking people’s wellbeing and poverty pathways and seeing how these interact over time. 

We hope that this will show the practical value that a focus on wellbeing adds in development intervention.  But also that it makes space for us to be challenged by the understandings of wellbeing that animate our respondents’ life-worlds.

Sarah White is Director of the Centre for Development Studies at the University of Bath

Dominant thinking on international development: What have the past 24 months told us about 5 issues?

Lawrence Haddad
The financial and climate crises of the past 24 months offer an important stress test of the key assumptions underpinning international development thinking.  The effects of the crises have been large, rapid, and global; they will be lasting and they were unforeseen. 

There is never a bad time to test one’s assumptions, and now, given some political space for change, is a good time to do so.  The fact that the major perturbations began in the cradle of international development (i.e. the rich countries) provides an additional imperative. 

The five assumptions that I reflected on in the paper that i will present at this year’s DSA conference in Westminster are: (a) that growth is good, (b) West is best, (c) the inevitable dominance of economics in policymaking, (d) development cooperation should focus on poor countries rather than poor people, and (e) that the evidence base in development is growing stronger.

Was I thinking about some of these issues pre-crisis?  Yes, "west is best" and that economics is in need of repair were 2 issues that I had been focusing on.  Here the crises generate additional urgency.  For the other 3 issues – growth, development cooperation and the strength of knowledge – the crises forced me to think more about the validity of the assumptions that underlay them.

For growth, I would argue that we should see it as something akin to technology: a force for good under the right governance and a force for bad under the wrong governance.  The good news is that the growth we get is the consequence of choices, which are primarily political in nature.

For the ‘West is best’ perspective, the challenge is not so much to get away from this as an explicit starting point—the numbers of analysts advocating this are diminishing rapidly I think—but to devise ways of throwing off any  implicit shackles of one’s own experience.  How to reimagine outside of one’s own context is difficult and must be done with others from different contexts.

For economics, there need to be checks and balances so that it does not get so divorced from reality that it results in bad things.  Economics is probably no more susceptible to this than any other discipline, but its privileged position means that an increased focus on the governance of economics is vital.  That means incentives that promote a more diverse economics profession and a more diverse set of disciplines recruited for policymaking.

On prioritising development cooperation, it is time to revisit the question of where the balance of focus lies between poorest countries and the poorest people.  People within middle income countries are trapped in poverty.  India has 450 million living in poverty and they are trapped within a narrative of prosperity that deters development cooperation.

Finally on the evidence based assumption, is more always better?  Are we standing on or slipping off the shoulders of giants?  My sense is that where it is easy to generate evidence, we are generating it.  Where it is difficult –credibly tracking crises in real time, globally constructed knowledge, building knowledge that has external as well as internal validity—we are not. I look forward to continued debate about such issues on this blog and at the DSA conference.

Lawrence Haddad is the Director of the Institute of Development Studies and the President of the Development Studies Association

The paper referred to in this blog is written as a part of a project called “Reimagining Development”, funded by IDS and DFID.  A series of case studies at 34 places and spaces.