The September 2011 conference in York, convened by the UK Development Studies Association and the European Association of Development Institutes, is very timely with its theme of Rethinking Development in an Age of Scarcity and Uncertainty.
A month before the conference and global markets have again tumbled, with sovereign debt crises looming across Europe and the US dropping its triple A rating. Bankers’ bonuses have continued alongside riots across the inner cities of the UK alongside continuing unrest in Greece. Are we presiding over the death knell of neo-liberalism as a contributor to the well-being of hard working, decent people across the world? Is economic growth, even the state supported, Keynesian version, still valid as the route to inclusive, sustainable development? And anyway, who is prepared to pay to stimulate that growth with investors rushing for safe havens and politicians too scared to tax their selfish, individualist rich? What will be the political outcomes of this turmoil and the widespread threats to the livelihoods of ordinary people? It took about 14 years from the post World War 1 failed revolution in Germany to the Nazi permanent war economy. We are in dire straits, with mass poverty now not confined to the poorest countries, but spreading across middle income ones too, alongside rising inequality and social exclusion in the hitherto richer, western economies.
Interestingly these events and processes are bringing Development Studies in from the peripheral cold of the social sciences. Thinking globally and internationally is no longer a minority preoccupation, but essential for all of us. The language of accusatory domestic politics has had to adapt to embrace global explanations for local problems. Of course this also functions as an alibi for the widespread incompetence of an ‘out of their depth’ political class, found desperately wanting. Furthermore, when we factor in climate change as a function of rampant capitalist accumulation, the modernisation bets are off—whether via supportive planning or neo-liberal anarchy. The world will choke to death if China or India repeat the materialist, carbon energy gobbling past of the West. Those paths to development are closed off if the world collectively wishes to survive beyond this century.
From development studies, with its intellectual roots across the social sciences, we can learn that the values, voices and alliances required for human resilience will themselves have to travel from the peripheries of discourse to centre-stage. We can learn that institutions as a function of elite interests over the last 200 years of modern capitalism are no longer fit for purpose. We can learn, dialectically, from the ‘Springs’ that the reproduction of inequality through limiting access will eventually produce its own anti-thesis. We can learn from the evidence of social movements and collective action, to date suppressed and marginalised by power wielding elites, that there are non-competitive, cooperative and inclusive models for maintaining livelihoods which avoid the consumerist revolution of rising expectations. We can learn from the survival techniques of slum dwellers in the rising mega-cities. We can learn that the precautionary principle is a necessary insurance against the possibility of limits to technological ingenuity. We can learn that the Christian philosophy of the rightful domination of humans over nature is refuted by more symbiotic cultural traditions of ecological balance. Above all, we can learn about the necessity of empathy over intra-generational space and inter-generational time as the platform for replacing the criminality of the world’s rich with responsibility and decency. The clock is ticking for elite privilege everywhere. Neo-liberal capitalism is a busted flush. But what comes next?
Geof Wood is an Emeritus Professor of International Development at The University of Bath and a Council Member of the Development Studies Association