Researching the politics of development



Profile of a Research Associate – Kate Pruce

27 July 2020

In the latest of our series profiling ESID Research Associates, we talk to Kate Pruce on life in lockdown and why she’s excited about using a social justice lens for her research on social protection.

What are your current circumstances during the coronavirus pandemic? Where are you living and what’s it like working from home?
I live in Stockport and am used to cycling for almost an hour each way to get to the university and back, so working from home is saving me time, but also significantly reducing my daily exercise! My PhD training has definitely helped with discipline for working from home. I’m trying to maintain the good habits I developed for productivity when I was writing up, although it can sometimes be difficult to maintain concentration and focus during these uncertain times.
Please can you tell us about your current role with ESID?
I am currently a postdoc Research Associate, which involves a range of tasks, including editorial assistance, conducting literature reviews and writing policy briefs. At the moment, I am working mainly on phase 2 of ESID’s comparative project on the political economy of social protection in Africa, supporting project lead, Tom Lavers, to produce both academic and policy outputs from this project. Previously I also worked for ESID as a project and communications officer, which gave me experience of communicating ESID’s research findings to a variety of audiences and assisting with uptake and impact activities. During my PhD I led the research for the Zambia case study for phase 1 of ESID’s social protection project, which focused on the adoption of social protection policies.
Can you tell us about your own research interests – what areas do you focus on and in which regions?
My research focuses on the political economy of social protection in low- and middle-income countries. I have examined the adoption of social protection policies in a context where policy ideas promoted by development agencies such as DFID and the World Bank interact with domestic politics. I have also begun to investigate the politics of implementation, with a focus on ideas and understandings of deservingness, and I am keen to do more research in this area. So far my fieldwork has centred on Zambia, which was my PhD case study. However, my engagement with ESID’s comparative project is giving me the opportunity to learn about the experiences of social protection across a range of country contexts in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
How would you describe your research if you were talking to a taxi driver?
I have described my research to taxi drivers many times in Zambia, and have found them to be among the most informed and politically engaged people I interacted with during my fieldwork. Nonetheless, many had not heard of the social cash transfer programme I was studying, which shows that while social protection is widely discussed within the donor community and some sections of government, there is often limited awareness of this development phenomenon in the wider population. In Zambia, I would talk about the poverty reduction aims, as this is a key area of concern for many, and the ways in which social protection is political because it involves decisions about who contributes to and benefits from particular schemes. In the UK, I would also make a comparison with the UK’s welfare system and explain that social protection aims to ensure basic social security provisions for citizens.
Which of your research findings are you most excited about?
The ways in which the design of Zambia’s cash transfer programme was altered in response to complaints from communities was unexpected in a context where demand for services is low and the poorest citizens have limited political voice, particularly in rural areas. My research found that the clash of ideas leading to these complaints was based on contested notions of social justice, centred on understandings of deservingness. According to respondents in the communities selected for my study, deservingness is determined by incapacitation. This aligns with Ronald Dworkin’s (2002) distinction between choice and circumstance, which emphasises individual responsibility within theories of justice. I am excited about the potential of using a social justice lens to analyse the ideas underpinning social protection approaches and how they are received, and am planning to do more research on this in the future.
Which papers or publications are you most proud of? Why?
My chapter on the politics of promoting social cash transfers in Zambia, published in an Oxford University Press edited volume in November 2019. The book is entitled The Politics of Social Protection in Eastern and Southern Africa and is open access. This chapter was part of a collaborative project, involving ESID, UNU-WIDER and the University of Cape Town. I was able to get input on early versions of the chapter at various conferences and workshops in the UK, South Africa and Mexico, as well as during the peer review process. Also, it was published within days of submitting the final version of my thesis with completed corrections, so it was a proud moment in many ways!
Who do you most admire in international development?
This is a difficult question, as there are so many academics I have worked with and whose work I have read that I admire immensely. I’m going to say Professor Merilee Grindle from the Harvard Kennedy School – both for her extensive contributions to our understanding of politics and policy reform, which have been invaluable for my research, and for her approach to the work of others. I have been lucky enough to interact with her at several workshops and conferences, and have been impressed by the way she always draws attention to the contributions and strengths of an argument, as well as providing illuminating and incisive critiques to challenge and improve the work.
What is one way you would like to see international development respond to the current coronavirus pandemic?
Initially, I would like to see existing and new research being used to understand the political, economic and social implications of the pandemic, and to identify potential solutions to challenges faced in specific country contexts. Global Development Institute researchers have already begun doing this, with some examples on the GDI blog. In the longer term, the global nature of this pandemic emphasises the new geographies of development, as all countries are facing health crises, effects of climate change and growing inequalities. I hope we take this as an opportunity to build on the shift that has already begun from international development to global development (for example Horner and Hulme, 2018), which questions the North-South binary framing, while recognising that citizens in the Global South remain hardest hit by many of these global challenges.