Researching the politics of development
What have academics to offer to the challenge of equity, justice and inclusion?
13 May 2014.
By Diana Mitlin.
After three-and-a-half days of sitting in central Cape Town, what have I learnt about a core underpinning assumption of ESID, i.e. that academics can contribute to inclusive development?
It is relatively easy to understand what academics have to offer to “effective states”. Strategies to achieve economic growth, ways of improving bureaucratic performance, reviews of the benefits and burdens of regulation, new ways of collecting information about consumer experiences, analyses of ineffective programmes… All of these are themes on which academic research studies may offer insights and advice that governments are likely to welcome.
But policy and programming objectives related to inclusive development are a different ballgame. Inclusive development is going to require large-scale redistribution, especially in countries in which significant proportions of the population remain in acute poverty. Inclusive development requires a shift from interventions to address the needs of a selective (and generally small) part of the population to more universal considerations and larger-scale programming. Inclusive development also requires engaging with the very groups that tend to be excluded, and excluded in numbers, at least some of whom will be seen as the “un-deserving poor”.
Moreover, as is evident from programmes such as the housing subsidy scheme in South Africa, when implemented, such large-scale schemes offer substantive opportunities for largesse (by virtue of their size). This is a resource to strengthen clientelist relations and then exclude, as they create their own “trades” with associated allocation specificities. Clientelism works through partiality – some in and some out. Hence scale may create its own momentum against reform – suggesting that even effectiveness studies may offer little here.
Inclusion requires political pressure
It is fairly self-evident to academics that work on inclusion requires an alignment with other groups pressing for change. While departments responsible for hungry children, people with disabilities and the elderly may be grateful for advice about how to ensure that these specific parts of the population benefit from already allocated resources, more widespread programmes that reach 30 or 40 percent of the population require political pressure to secure the required resources and associated reforms. This has been seen to be true, even if it is for selective goods and services such as drinking water (rather than more integrated, comprehensive, and therefore costly, development programmes).
Our discussions touched on these issues, with recognition among some participants that they had not sufficiently considered such challenges. Among those researchers already conscious of the immensity of their task, there were reflective considerations. Some talked about the importance of receiving support from international colleagues (both North and South) in engaging their governments about such issues. International guests help to place research findings among politicians who are committed to social justice issues, but just too busy to keep up to speed with research. Internationally renowned specialists may be able to bring contentious issues into the open.
However, careful alignment with local determined strategies is required if such interventions are to open a discourse in which issues of equity and justice can be explored positively. Past experiences show that there is a real danger that ill-informed interventions are counterproductive, through provoking a defensive response from government. Some spoke about the need to attract public attention through collaboration with well-placed journalists and media superstars. Politicians who are too busy to read policy briefs suddenly find the time where there is a critical opinion piece in a leading newspaper or radio interview. But, once more, careful and informed drafting is required to catalyse an engagement and exploration, rather than a withdrawal due to honest but politically naïve criticism.
Other researchers spoke about the need for more structured collaboration between social movements and academics. Such relations cannot easily be built up in the time of a DFID-funded research centre (six years) but, in this case, the Centre has supported long-standing relationships to reflect on the ways in which inclusive development might be achieved in particular countries and sectors. In this way the research programme has benefited from existing relations between social movements and interested politicians and officials to generate knowledge about effective interventions that address the needs and interests of movement members.
Research can generate knowledge for action
Academic involvement makes three contributions. First, it is sharpening and deepening the learning process, adding to the skill sets of local professionals and bringing new insights into the ways in which government policies are realised through programmes and associated practices. Second, academic involvement attracts interest from a broader group of academics, public intellectuals, media specialists, government officials and civil society agencies at the national level. Third, through such relations and associated collaboration, academics contribute to the building of a critical mass committed to more inclusionary development policies.
ESID communications specialists are seeking to add value to these strategies of political engagement by facilitating the sharing of experiences and communication skills. Briefing papers, working papers, journal articles, even Twitter, contribute to influence through reaching out to new, previously uninformed individuals and agencies. Once engaged, more detailed documentation provides opportunities to deepen relationships through shared reflections on the research findings and what should now be done.
At the centre of these knowledge processes is a reflective practice about what works. This involves some core challenges which the ESID researchers are considering. What are the critical relationships that need to be established and strengthened for research to contribute to the achievement of social justice? And how can the production and use of different kinds of knowledge best be aligned to realise social justice? These questions are, of course, fundamental to processes of transformative social change, not just to ESID. Do we believe in a “knowledge to change process” that draws on the brilliance of individuals who are able to persuade reluctant and sceptical politicians and officials to invest in redistribution and enact investment programmes that offer new options and more inclusive practices to low-income groups? Or do we believe that such gains will only be secured by associations of the subaltern, to the point where they are such a threat that they win concessions (redistribution and reform) from an elite who recognise that such organisations have redefined the political options that are open to them? And if the the latter is the case, what is the relevance of academics in contexts in which low-income and otherwise disadvantaged groups are unorganised and unable to exert such political pressure? It is to support “islands of excellence”, which may illustrate an alternative but are, by definition, exclusive and which risk reinforcing a sense among others that development is “not for them”.
Commitment to inclusion: Top-down or bottom-up?
With such an understanding, it appears that academics have most to contribute in circumstances in which an expanding political commitment has been secured from political elites who are willing to reform their own exclusionary practices and invest in processes of greater equity. Once governments make such a commitment, is this the point when academic knowledge comes into its own, identifying more effective and/or equitable practices to achieve new political goals?
But even here the role of academics has to be considered. In at least one of the knowledge to change processes supported by ESID – research into the JNNURM programme in India with the Indian Alliance of Shack Dwellers International – this is not believed to be the case. Alliance partners, NSDF and Mahila Milan (two grassroots organisations), believe that the solutions have to emerge from the organised urban poor if they are to be both lasting and relevant. However, the Indian Alliance are participating in the research because they believe that working with academics will strengthen their understanding of the ways in which government action can be made more effective, and add credibility to the findings. They recognise the convening power of academics, who have the social status to engage with senior government staff and offer a platform to organised communities.
Such questions lie at the heart of ESID’s ambition to make a substantive contribution to social justice.
Follow Diana on Twitter: @DianaMitlin.