Why I refuse to rethink development – again (and again, and again…)

This summer I attended several academic conferences, and while I was initially extremely enthusiastic to be given the chance to put my work out for discussion, exchange with and learn from colleagues, by early autumn I am fatigued and disenchanted.

Maybe the reason for this is that several of these events where claiming to be “rethinking development”, yet by the end I fail to recognize what was essentially new in the arguments exchanged and the discussions led and what will move us forward.[1]

The root of my discontent is that while everyone continuously debated “development” and attempted to “rethink” it, not once it was clarified what the (minimum) common denominator of the “development” to be rethought would be. Were we talking about intervention, projects, stakeholders, cooperation? Were we rethinking technical modes of intervention? Ways of studying or researching? Or were we questioning the roots of persistent inequalities, the sources of poverty and the causes of injustices (e.g. the legacy of colonialism, global capitalism and our imperial mode of living)?

The problem (or lack) of definition is not new. In fact, many years ago Esteva (1992) already termed development an amoeba-like concept, devoid of any meaning in itself and ready to be filled with content fitting to any context, making it prone to cooptation, and – very obviously – to misunderstanding. How can we move forward, join forces, share and synergize our knowledges if we cannot be sure we are talking of the same subject? We can continue meeting at conferences and workshops. They will be in nice locations with nice food and we will meet with nice colleagues and have nice conversations, but essentially, we are eternally damned to rethink.

What we need to do is to stop for a moment and reconsider. The term (and its practice) is value-laden and shaped by (post-)colonial power relations, Western narratives of progress and their entanglements with (white) idea(l)s of modernity and civilization. Its usage appears to produce more misunderstandings than solutions. At the same time as we acknowledge how diverse realities are, we adhere to a fuzzy dichotomous concept for defining and framing the subjects and objects of research and debate. As Ziai (2016) controversially poses: Why are we not talking about global social policy or global inequalities, (in-)justice and solidarity instead of adhering to a concept we recognize as flawed? By terming precisely what is meant we were much better able to dissect social, political, economic and environmental dimensions of global inequalities and analyse origins of disparities and their continuations.

And we could stop rethinking and start acting.

[1] A rare exception being Maria Eriksson Baaz’ poignant key note speech at the Exceed/DIE Conference in Bonn (18 -19 September 2018) asking “Rethinking, How?”. We much appreciate that she is sharing her presentation slides here .

Julia Schöneberg is usually a very nice person, but sometimes randomly starts ranting about “development”-related things that annoy her. Usually her partner is the one to suffer most. She would be happy to hear other peoples’ thoughts on the issue: julia@convivialthinking.org or on twitter @j_schoeneberg.

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2 Replies to “Why I refuse to rethink development – again (and again, and again…)”

  1. I sympathise with your frustration! Hence I have stopped expecting general development conferences to give me the ‘answer’ since they still ask the same questions, include the same people, and are only interested in their own perspectives, as the development ‘specialists’ and practitioners.

    I think this is because development studies is a field which refuses to do critical thinking about itself and it is a fashion-driven and ‘solutionist’ enterprise more concerned with advocating ‘new’ solutions – so the problem is that ‘we’ (the development studies research community) are less interested in asking what the question is. Instead we ask each other what we think of the latest solution eg microcredit, MDGs, logframes, universal income, human rights based approaches, result based management, SDGs, adaptive programming etc etc etc…..

    Development ethics is the subfield of development studies where our job is to ask what is the purpose of development, how to avoid harmful forms of development and what types of development are less harmful, more beneficial, democratic, and just. The last conference I went to (HDCA) was the first conference where I had good conversations that actually challenged and expanded my thinking and I felt I was thinking seriously. Also, that I was not crazy for wanting to talk about ethics. Therefore I am going to stick to smaller conferences that specialise in development ethics in the future!

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