Researching the politics of development



Profile of a Research Associate – Chris Lyon


Find out more about Research Associate Chris Lyon and how he thinks international development should respond to the pandemic.

15 July 2020
(Chris was speaking in early April 2020)
What are your current circumstances during the coronavirus pandemic? Where are you living and what’s it like working from home?
I think I’m in a pretty fortunate situation compared to many. My partner and I ordinarily live in Rotterdam, but we came back to Manchester to visit family, and then the lockdown started. We are both academics and can be relatively flexible in our working arrangements, so we’re trying to divvy up looking after our baby boy in a fair way around work. I sort of wish I hadn’t been wearing the same jumper for three weeks, but other than that I can’t complain too much.
Please can you tell us about your current role with ESID?
My main intellectual work has been carrying out a critical review of ESID’s overall research findings. Besides this, I edit the working paper series, write briefing papers summarizing various research findings, and help with editorial work on books and papers, and various other ‘behind the scenes’ things.
Can you tell us about your own research interests – what areas do you focus on and in which regions?
I’m interested in the overlap between normative theory – especially political philosophy – and development. More substantively I’m interested in political aspects of development like democratisation, decentralisation, and the politics of social inequalities. I have an interest in Brazil stemming from my PhD fieldwork, and increasingly an interest in Uganda, through ESID work and through my teaching on GDI’s masters research trip module.
How would you describe your research if you were talking to a taxi driver?
You know how people like the minister for international development or from NGOs are always saying ‘we should’ do this or that, or such-and-such is ‘problematic’? I want to help us be clearer on what exactly that means, on what trade-offs might be involved, and how to decide over these. For example, in Rwanda there is arguably currently a trade-in of political freedoms in exchange for stability and economic growth. Is the trade worth it? What should be the attitude of countries, like the UK, who work with the Rwandan government?
Which of your research findings are you most excited about?
Something that I think comes out of my review of ESID work is that the current vogue in development for ‘working with the grain’-type approaches bumps up against problems that are familiar from non-ideal and ‘realist’ political theory (e.g. the balance between idealism and pragmatism, the risk of legitimising the unjustifiable, the question of what you’re ultimately aiming at), and there is an interesting conversation to be had there.
Which papers or publications are you most proud of? Why?
I was tasked with critically reviewing ESID’s overall research output from the perspective of the project’s initial commitment to ‘identifying routes to social justice’ in development. It turns out that’s quite a big job. I will be proud when I finally get those two papers out!
Who do you most admire in international development?
People who drive forward movements that secure longstanding progressive political change in their societies, amidst major challenges of underdevelopment, and often using tactics that probably fall short of what we might think of as ‘ideal’ best practice; they don’t tend to ‘keep their noses clean’. In a research sense, I understand how they do it; in a personal sense, I don’t.
What is one way you would like to see international development respond to the current coronavirus pandemic?
Thinking specifically in an ESID sense, I think it presents an interesting case for the political settlements theory that has been the basis of much ESID research. There might be an initial temptation to see the comparatively effective responses of states like China and Singapore as further evidence of our findings regarding the ability of states with ‘dominant’-type political settlements, and limited competitiveness, to achieve impressive feats rapidly and at scale. However, the state response in far more competitive political environments, such as Taiwan and South Korea, has also been among the most effective. Although admittedly one could argue that both of those developed much of their current state capacity during eras of dominant regimes.
Moreover, as far as I can make out on current information it seems that a big part of the causal story of the outbreak needs to be the early attempts of authorities in China to suppress people sounding the alarm, such as the late Dr Li Wenliang. Arguably, in a more open and competitive political environment, without limits on social media communications and with more intense scrutiny from news media and a political opposition, the truth about the severity of the situation would have become publicly known much sooner, resulting in political pressure and the opportunity for earlier containment, and meaning that countries might not have needed to do so much responding in the first place. Speculative, I know – and there are many other factors, such as intrinsically biological or epidemiological ones – but, at any rate, I don’t think the political settlements analysis, and any lessons we might take from it, are straightforward in this case.
More generally, we know from political history that disruptive moments like this provide rare windows of opportunity for changes to structures and institutions and paradigms – changes of a type that might ordinarily be unfeasibly radical. To be honest, I’ve mainly been thinking about this at the level of the domestic politics of countries, rather than international development. It doesn’t seem outlandish to think that there is at least a chance for various aspects of this crisis to lead to newly egalitarian currents, perhaps somewhat reminiscent of the post-war consensus in the UK, given that it has confronted people with various uncomfortable truths: immigrant fruit-pickers suddenly are revealed as crucial members of the workforce; companies whose products we all consume display callous disregard for their employees (and presume to claim aid from a state to which they avoid paying taxes as far as possible); the latent danger of a de-funded health service becomes undeniable; and the dishonesty of politicians’ attempts to mislead the public into understanding national economies as if they are analogous to piggy banks – ‘there is simply no cash left in the pot to support workers/fund health/etc.’ – is revealed.
At the international development level, I think the response will depend on the still-unclear factor of how the pandemic will affect developing countries. The prospect of outbreaks in the large urban informal settlements across the global South is a fearful one – as our Manchester colleague, Diana Mitlin, has written about. For instance, the first cases have recently appeared in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, while residents of Rio’s favelas have organised to lobby the state government for emergency measures. Depending on how such situations unfold, the focus may (I’m afraid) for a time tilt towards humanitarian concerns rather than developmental ones.
One longer-term issue: I’m curious to see whether the sheer venality of pharmaceutical companies scrambling to sew up intellectual property rights on relevant drugs during a pandemic might provoke such outcry that we see a change in norms at the global level. Could this subsequently trigger a move against TRIPS and towards different regulation on IP and on pricing? That would have a huge knock-on effect on access to drugs and treatments for citizens in developing countries. I’m not enormously optimistic, but if it’s going to happen at any time, it would be in the wake of a major upheaval such as this one.