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chamberssmall2Time to re-invent development studies?

There were moving affirmations and lively conversations the other day, at the IDSInstitute for Development Studies, Sussex celebration of Robert Chambers’ work. An archive of his writing was inaugurated and a book was launched. I did not contribute to the book, unfortunately, but did write my own laudatio to Robert, when he won the developing countries’ prize at Justus Liebig University in Giessen in 1993.

On this occasion, I contributed verbally, in one of four panel sessions, dealing respectively with Robert’s paradigm-shifting  contribution to thinking and action on (a) participation, (b) methodological innovation, (c) agriculture, livelihoods and rural development, and (d) (the session in which I participated)  ‘revolutionising development’. I described Robert as an inspiration, guide, mentor and friend, all of which is true, and identified six themes in his work that will endure as the scope and focus both change of our engagement with global poverty. Andrew Barnett captured the intervention on video, available .

Three of the points I made elicited some comment - perhaps because I made them clumsily, perhaps, though that is a hard prospect to contemplate (!), because they are not right.

The first is that things have been getting better in the developing world, since Robert, to take an arbitrary starting point, moved to Kenya after graduating from Cambridge, in 1958. I tried to make this point by talking not about South Korea or China or Brazil, but about Kenya. Admittedly, this is not the easiest case, given Kenya’s history of inequality and its recent political upheavals, but even in Kenya, incomes have risen over that period, infant and child mortality have fallen sharply, and adult literacy, only 20% in 1960, has reached 87% today.

Of course, across the world, many hundreds of millions of people remain desperately poor, and that remains an affront, and the well-spring of our commitment. But the development project, I argued, has been a qualified success – not, of course, because of what we outsiders have done, but because of people’s own efforts, and the sometime support of their governments. We should stop beating ourselves up, I said, and abandon a crisis narrative of development.

I was surprised at the push-back to this view. I would have thought that acknowledging the (admittedly imperfect, uneven and incomplete) speed of poverty reduction over the past generation was consensual, and well-established, for example through the work of Charles Kenny, whose book ‘Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding’, lays out the evidence. But, no, people queued up to disagree. This is partly because I over-egged the pudding on convergence: loose language, under pressure of having only five minutes. But do people really think there has been little progress? Ravi Kanbur was struck by this disagreement, and said he thought it might reflect the use of different kinds of data.

The disagreement about progress undepinned a second, which was a deliberately provocative suggestion I made that we might be entering the long, extended, summer twilight of development studies, or at least developing country studies. I should probably have said that it was time to re-invent development studies. This is not a new theme in my own work, which has had a thread since the mid-1990s concerned with the blurring boundary between developed and developing countries – and which, of course, drew on insights from Dudley Seers’ work on the European periphery, among others. There was an IDSInstitute for Development Studies, Sussex Bulletin in 1998, on Poverty and Social Exclusion in North and South (edited jointly with Arjan de Haan), various ODI Briefing Papers and meetings series on Lessons Without Borders, and a reflection on the future of development studies and development studies institutions when I left ODIOverseas Development Institute (London) in 2009.

This work is absolutely not saying that there is not more and worse poverty in poor countries than rich ones. However, it does argue that there is important learning across the North-South boundary, that there are connections between, or common causes of, poverty in different countries, and that there is some convergence. It is not irrelevant, for example, that three quarters of the poor now live in middle income countries. If development studies is defined by country per capita income, then the universe is shrinking; if it is defined by the existence of poverty, then the universe straddles the boundaries of country category. I suggested at the IDSInstitute for Development Studies, Sussex event, as I have done many times before, that we need not (or not only) ‘developing country poverty studies’, but just ‘poverty studies’; not just (or not only) ‘developing country research on social exclusion’, but ‘research on social exclusion’. Many development studies researchers have, of course, pursued exactly this route: John Gaventa, helping to pioneer participatory techniques in Scotland, Andrea Cornwall working on health with communities in London.

It is not irrelevant to this debate that aid relationships and flows have partly shaped development studies, and that many observers are now questioning the case for aid to middle income countries, even those with many poor people, like India. There was a little spark of interest in debating that question at the meeting, but no time to explore further.

A further point is that well-being in both rich and poor countries is shaped globally as well as locally, possibly more so than even world structuralists have always argued. Putting aside for a moment the arguments about dependency theory, centre-periphery relations and the need for a new world economic order, the ‘new generation’ global issues, such as financial vulnerability, climate change, disease threats and global crime, need a new and more globally-focussed approach in development studies, and much greater collaboration between researchers who focus on the North and those who focus on the South. How can we apply theory, for example, to understand how global deals on climate, trade or finance, can be brokered and sustained? To my mind, social anthropologists, political scientists, game theorists and lots of others could usefully re-balance their work from the local to the global. As the title of a recent lecture suggests, we should ‘think locally, act globally’. We know a lot about the culture and customs of some village communities. How much do we know about the culture and customs of climate or trade negotiating communities? This is where we need to re-invent development studies.

The third point which elicited discussion was the need to offer positive options to policy-makers. A case in point is the current donor preoccupation with demonstrating whether or not aid delivers measurable results. In the UK, this has been manifested in the priorities of the development Minister, Andrew Mitchell, and, for example, in the creation of an Independent Commission on Aid Impact. It’s not difficult to be sceptical of simple input-output measures, and, indeed, I have been mildly sceptical myself. But I do think we need to be sensitive to the pressures facing political sponsors of aid, not just in the UK, when fiscal stringency is bearing down hard on local services, and when the public enthusiasm for rapidly rising expenditure overseas is at best muted. A favourite saying by Robert Chambers is that the trouble with social scientists is that, unlike, natural scientists, who are trained to do things, they are trained only to criticise. Speaking for myself, and as a social scientist, I fear that may be true! In this case, however, it is not good enough to be sceptical, or even mildly sceptical. If we believe in aid, which most of us do, then do we not have a duty to provide a robust method of demonstrating empirical impact? We can help Andrew Mitchell, and David Cameron, who spoke strongly on the importance of aid at the G8, not by telling them what can’t be done, but by giving them our best advice on what can.

Robert deserves our thanks for his engagement in these issues over many years, and for giving us the language with which to discuss them. Thanks also to Andrea Cornwall, Ian Scoones and their collaborators at IDS, for laying on the event.

And what do you think? Comments are welcome. You can also vote here on the question ‘Is it time to re-invent development studies’


# RE: Time to re-invent development studies?Guest 2011-05-30 16:18
Thanks for this post, Simon

I've never been sure what to think about 'development studies' courses. As a Peruvian, the MSc in social policy and planning in developing countries game me one thing: an overview of the theories and narratives that have shaped (in waves) the policies of 'developed countries' towards 'developing countries'. So at the level of broad donor policy direction this was very useful

But no more. It did not prepare me in any policy area or in any particular country.

That was kind of fine -I'd done economics before and had my area and country of specialisation. But LSE's Development Studies course (which as partly linked to mine) was full of recently graduated (hence no actual work experience) americans and europeans. Few had a discipline-spec ific background.Ther e were lots of european studies and the americans have their majors and minors (a few courses here and there). Development studies was their way into donors and NGOs -and many have now become (how?) health, education, governance, etc. experts (some advisors for donors and IFIs) shaping other people's lives. Based on what?

But more surprising for me is that there are courses in developing countries called 'development studies'. What happened with studying public health, health economics, engineering, law, etc.? And this also leads to people separating 'development' policy from economic, trade, justice, taxing .. policy. I was in Zambia two weeks ago and NGOs there were telling me how there were development think tanks on one hand and economic policy think tanks on the other. Sorry, but isn't development the objective of economic policy?

When asked for advice now, I recommend my fellow Peruvians to enrol in a sector/professi on focused masters (economics, politics, law, etc) or a UK focused course. That they will get much more out of that experience and lean how things are done in the UK. The developing country perspective will be up to them.

So, yes. A twilight. But I wonder if the career should even exist or if it should be targeted at people who will then go on to work in a particular field or country -or if it should accept applications from anyone without a profession. We would be much better off with African studies (or country by country studies) made up of a collective of actual experts on different aspects of African issues.
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# RE: RE: Time to re-invent development studies?Guest 2011-06-28 17:06
Quoting Enrique Mendizabal:
separating 'development' policy from economic, trade, justice, taxing .. policy.

Having an MSc from LSE in Development Studies, I would disagree.

First, you're putting up a straw man as no one is arguing that a one year Masters is going to better prepare someone than becoming an expert in a field. We attended the school to prepare us for entering a field with the context to let us put the experience we would get to good use. I would venture an estimate that 5 years in a field would make you an expert--but the question is would you prefer to hire a companion to go with you into a developing country who has one year of accounting experience or one year of legal experience, or someone who has one year of exposure to the 15 fields (trade, agriculture, land use, industrial policy, education policy etc.) that will all come into play? You can't compare whether it would be better to go into the situation with a companion who has five years of experience with someone with a Masters, as that isn't a reasonable comparison.

Second, the degree was intended to converge the silos of knowledge in one place, not separate them. You might argue that the areas of knowledge gained are too diffuse to be helpful, but the employers of graduates from these programs would disagree. Development is unlike other fields in that individuals may be one of a very small number of educated foreigners arriving to help an area or village. Since you can't always take the 15 people who are all experts in trade, law, economics, etc., you'll have to pick just a couple. Should you take the lawyer, the economist, the trade policy wonk, or someone who isn't an expert but knows where to look and how to evaluate the evidence from these fields? Even if you could bring all of those individuals, they won't easily be able to synthesize all the differing inputs: what has already been tried, where to look for examples and the "why" of a situation will not be effective. In short, you argument works for every other "new" field as well: isn't economics just applied math and philosophy?

Third, you criticized at the end the advisers to IFIs and donors as being ill prepared for that role, but that would only fit into your argument if people graduated and immediately become an adviser, and would only be true until they became an expert. Unless you're arguing that one can never become a trade expert working for the IMF, or never become a macroeconomics expert working for the World Bank, then at some point these people do actually in your mind become an expert who happens to have a Masters in Development Studies. If they haven't changed their opinions, are those opinions still illegitimate in your mind? I would argue that the majority of advisers in these cases are either junior to someone who is an expert, (and are therefore they are not giving direction), or they are senior after learning enough to be the best person available. If you're saying that more Big Law lawyers should come work in development, or more former chairmen of the American Federal Reserve Bank should do so, then yes, we can all agree that more expertise is better than less. But if you want to be helpful, a better suggestion would be identifying concepts which you found lacking in your program. Did you want to know more about crop rotation, more about private financing? If something was missing, suggest it to the school--if it is a good idea they'll want to consider it and students will be interested in activities around it.

I would have liked having additional experts around as it would have made the degree better, true. The discussions would have been more concrete. But saying "more" doesn't imply there weren't enough. There were country directors of NGOs, government economists, political people, bankers, food aid monitors, and all kinds of experts in between. More is better, but that just isn't a helpful instruction as the school doesn't exclude experts to get non-experts in. The 7% acceptance rate to the program represents the best that applied.

I found the degree extremely helpful in understanding the complex interconnecting world of macroeconomics. Taking a step back and seeing the system before getting on your hands and knees with a magnifying glass is helpful, and while you can say taking a step back doesn't let you see the finest details that a magnifying glass does, I would say that is why it is only the first step.
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# Virtually CDSGuest 2011-06-22 17:56

A very interesting post. A group of us from the former Centre for Development Studies at Swansea, presented reflections on the demise of CDS at last December's DSA Conference. These can be found on the Virtually CDS blog - posts from January 2011. I have presumptuously added a link to your piece on that blog. Readers might also be interested in the editorial from last October's Anthropology Today - "W(h)ither Anthropology?".
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# Time to re-invent development studies?Simon Maxwell 2011-06-26 18:44
Thanks, David. Lots of good material on Virtually CDS (, including your contribution from January, Gavin Kitching's paper, and a characteristica lly erudite paper by John Toye on development studies. I hope people will pick up your point about the culture of audit, in the context of what I am calling Results 2.0 (
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