Positioning Academia | Development must change in the face of injustice and inequality

Inequality is growing in most countries and deep-seated injustices continue to pervade our world—from the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on minority ethnic groups and the tragic death of George Floyd in the US, to reports of the collapse of the health system in Yemen. In the face of such embedded inequalities and injustices, what must we, as engaged academics, do to make our commitment to a more equitable and sustainable world real?

Through this series we are celebrating the legacy of Linda Johnson, former Executive Secretary of the ISS who retired in December last year. Having served the ISS in various capacities, Linda was also one of the founding editors of Bliss. She spearheaded many institutional partnerships, promoted collaboration, and organised numerous events, always unified in the theme of bringing people in conversation with each other across divides. This blog series about academics in the big world of politics, policy, and practice recognises and appreciates Linda’s contribution to the vitality of the ISS.

Changing how we ‘understand’ and ‘do’ development

As shown by contributors to the World Social Science Report on Challenging Inequalities, which the IDS led in 2016, multiple forms of inequality intersect to drive marginalisation and discrimination. In 2020, injustices and inequalities have been exposed and exacerbated in different ways through the disruptions and shocks that are shaping our era—from COVID-19, climate change and financial crises to conflicts, new technologies and closing political spaces.

These disruptions, which share many underlying causes, are both threatening collective futures and sharpening the vulnerabilities felt by particular people and groups. Long-dominant development models, such as those promoting economic growth, market liberalisation, globalisation, carbon-intensive industries and command-and-control planning regimes, are now under unprecedented challenge. But while these disruptions pose threats and challenges, they also offer opportunities to do things differently:  to ‘build forward differently’ and to rethink development as transformative change.

At IDS, we have identified three key areas in which a collective endeavour within, across and beyond the development sector is urgently needed. Each provides a valuable opportunity to develop our thinking with global partners, including colleagues at ISS, on how we can best collaborate to co-generate and mobilise evidence in ways that ultimately make a difference to people’s lives, and especially tackle the most extreme forms of inequity and injustice. We wish to:

1. Build and connect solidarities for collective action, locally and globally.

Responses to interlinked global challenges such as inequality, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate that knowledge, action, and leadership can emerge at local levels, as well as, or often in the absence of, action at state, national, and global levels. Neighbourhood quarantines, initiatives to provide food to the most vulnerablecommunity gardens, and local actions to eradicate plastic waste are just a few amongst myriad recent examples across the world.

More concerted efforts need to be undertaken to connect such local initiatives with national and global collective action, whether through building national and transnational alliances between social movements, encouraging government recognition and support, strengthening international financial, economic, health and environmental governance, or sharing science and data. For example, the World Health Organization’s repeated calls for global solidarity in relation to COVID-19 have been heeded by many, but international collaboration is still limited. Global partnership is an essential part of the equation in tackling global challenges—whether that’s finding treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, tackling climate and environmental vulnerabilities, or understanding and addressing institutional and systemic racism—and pressure needs to be applied to governments worldwide not to retreat behind borders.

ISS and IDS share a commitment to a universalist approach to development; we recognise that the time is right to look within Europe, to apply our frameworks, tools, and praxis of international development to new development trends in the Global North, including climate change, the global rise in populism, inequalities of many kinds, and health crises. A working group within IDS is developing partnerships and thinking around this through our European Engagement Approach.

2. Value diverse knowledge and expertise.

IDS and ISS are both committed to ensuring the representation of social sciences in responses to global shocks, and we advocate the need for expertise from across disciplines, countries, sectors and communities, and better ways of facilitating the collaborative generation and sharing of this knowledge and learning. Again, the COVID-19 response, and its interconnections with inequalities, is salutary. The mantra of ‘led by the science’ misleadingly presents science as a singular, uncontested, unbiased thing operating outside of politics and social norms. The range of disciplines drawn on in most national responses has been narrow, dominated by epidemiology and biomedicine.

Bringing wider forms of expertise to bear means, for example, challenging assumptions underpinning scientific modelling; drawing on social sciences to understand how the virus is spreading, between whom, and who is vulnerable and why; and complementing formal science with the knowledge and learning of local populations —as occurred so effectively in countries such as Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia during the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak.

But taking inequalities and injustices seriously means we also need to go further. We need to invest in equitable and sustainable research partnerships that value and strengthen the knowledge and expertise produced by institutions, universities, and communities in low- and middle-income countries, and to support moves to ‘decolonise’ development knowledge and practice, and foster cognitive justice.

3. Understand, address and challenge power imbalances.

Most important in changing the way we think about and do development is to understand, address, and challenge deep-seated power imbalances. Power relations underlie the causes of and vulnerabilities linked to health, climate, and economic disruptions. They lie at the heart of inequalities and injustices. Whether progressive economic, social, and environmental change takes place ultimately depends on political choice and mobilisation, involving citizens, states, and other actors in processes that will often be highly charged. Development can no longer be imagined as a technical matter, but must be treated as thoroughly political.

We must also move beyond limited applications of ‘thinking and working politically’ in aid programmes, to embedding understandings of politics and power, including the politics of knowledge, more widely and deeply in attempts to influence change and transformation. In doing so, we must look within our own organisations and institutions at how we create and prop up, consciously or sub-consciously, entrenched power relations, injustices, and inequalities.

And as academics and scholar-activists, we also need to reflect on and be humble about our own assumptions and positions. Whether through the ways in which we approach partnership, in relation to where and who we choose to engage with, in how we frame and teach development, or in how far we reflect equality and diversity across all that we do, it is time to match our commitments to a more equitable and sustainable external world with commitments to justice in our personal and institutional practices.

As academics and knowledge professionals committed to a more equal and sustainable world, staff at the Institute of Development Studies and the International Institute for Social Studies share the goal of collaborating across sciences, sectors, and communities to do research, learning and teaching that brings progressive change. Our institutes have a long history of collaboration, including through the Journal of Peasant Studies, the Land Deals Politics Initiative, the Wellbeing, Ecology, Gender and Community Innovation Training Network (WEGO-ITN), Robert Chambers’s and Richard Jolly’s Honorary Fellowships at ISS, and more. We look forward to collaborating with ISS and others in this vision of development. Read more about our commitments and priorities, and join us in solidarity around a search for social and cognitive justice in meeting challenges that affect us all.

About the author:

Melissa Leach is Director of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS).

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