European NGOs still dance to the tune of their interlocutors – but this might be changing

When we think of the European Union (EU), we tend to see a unified body that speaks with one voice. While this perception also holds true for European NGOs, a recent study has shown that in the last decade, a multitude of different, mostly reformist theoretical framings have been informing how these NGOs view and talk about development. This article explores what this reformism means for such NGOs, showing that a more radical development agenda that moves away from an economic growth model and Europe’s colonial legacy might be emerging, even if discussions are still mostly taking place internally.

Created to support ‘development’ and ‘social justice’ in the Global South, (International) Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) working on development-related issues have specific understandings of and discourses on global issues that inform their advocacy and lobbying activities at multiple decision-making levels. Such discourses, which are rooted in specific development theories, may ultimately come to inform policies. This motivates a critical analysis of the discourses used and the theories they’re based on.

As part of my ongoing PhD research, I am analysing CONCORD’s overall development narrative in a bid to understand which theory or theories of development it uses. CONCORD is the European NGO Confederation for Relief and Development representing some 2,600 NGOs at the EU level. I compare its narrative with those of pan-African organisations active in Europe. This comparison can be useful in revealing commonalities and differences related to how issues are problematised (ex: Are global inequalities an accident of fate? Are they historical?), what solutions are proposed (ex: more growth, more international trade, resource redistribution), or how the role of different actors is perceived (ex: the EU, NGOs themselves) particularly with regards to ‘development’ in Africa.

My overall aim is to understand what theories of development inform discussions at EU level among civil society organisations such as those I studied, so as to see how critical the messages reaching the EU through these organisations are. To do this, I’ve interviewed staff of some member NGOs, observed internal meetings, and analysed a set of official documents that display the organisations’ positions.

At EU level, it has been argued that NGOs have to be ‘critical, but not too critical[i] if they want to maintain their relations with EU institutions making policies or providing them with funding. To understand how European development NGOs manage to navigate the state-civil society relationship, I distinguished development theories as either conventional (maintaining the neoliberal status quo), reformist (proposing changes to some elements of the economic, political and social system), or radical (criticising the whole system and tentatively proposing a paradigm change). If Smismans’ statement held true for the development sector as well, then European development NGOs would rather align their narrative to the second category. The case of CONCORD advocacy towards EU institutions seems to confirm this general assumption.

My research describes changes in the dominant development narrative over time, especially the one used by CONCORD in the last decade. What I witnessed is how a clump of rather reformist theories and approaches are applied, as well as concepts and frameworks relating to these (e.g. a human development, human rights or sustainable development frameworks). But several frameworks can be applied at the same time to inform narratives, which is what’s happening within CONCORD. The sporadic presence of very conventional references (such as those referring to pro-poor growth around 2010)[ii] and quite radical ones (those mentioning post-growth since 2019)[iii] add relevant nuances to this overall picture.

So why is there a move toward reformist approaches and theories? This move, which is first of all theoretical, also serves a strategic purpose: it consists of positioning the confederation within international developmental governance, accepting its overall grammar (donor countries, institutions and agencies, implementing actors, recipient countries and communities, assessment practices and language), while operating to give that grammar more social and environmental-friendly meanings, thus keeping the focus on the ultimate targets of development (local populations and their needs). This implies advocacy strategies and solution proposals bridging local populations’ needs (as perceived by the confederation) with institutions’ policies and attitudes (as assessed by the confederation). It also implies constantly striking a balance between what is considered necessary and what is considered attainable (i.e. acceptable by donors and targeted policy-makers).

The search for internal consensus, coupled with the imperative of representativeness of such a vast group of NGOs, also contributes to its overall reformist positioning. Representativeness is a fundamental credibility asset vis-à-vis political institutions, but it can have the trade-off of leading to a consensus a minima, mainly based on those issues that the sector historically deems fundamental. Lobbying for an increase in EU and members states’ Official Development Assistance (ODA) is a case in point: development aid[iv] is considered a key priority by a majority of members; the work on ‘financing and funding for development’ is, consequently, a longstanding pillar of the confederation.

But it’s becoming clear that internal discussions within the confederation are changing in light of the evolving external environment and new challenges. This is visible, for instance, in a recent focus on an economy beyond growth[v], but also in more internal discussions about colonialism[vi], neo-colonialism and EU-Africa relations[vii]. Although these do not signal a definite shift in how development is understood and practiced, they show that a move toward a more radical development narrative strongly focused on redressing past injustices may be looming


[i] S. Smismans, “European civil society and citizenship: Complementary or exclusionary concepts?”, Policy and Society, vol. and So  vol. and Soci

[ii] CONCORD, “EU responsibilities for a just and sustainable world CONCORD Narrative on Development” (

[iii] Cox, T. “Economic growth will not cure inequalities”, 25 June 2019, (

[iv] CONCORD, “EU ODA up, but far from levels promised and needed amid international crises – CONCORD press release: OECD DAC 2020 preliminary statistics”, 13 April 2021 (

[v] CONCORD, Talking Development Ep. 1 “Beyond Growth: An Economic Model that works for Everyone”, 09 May 2019 (

[vi] Poissonnier, L. tweet on CONCORD General Assembly 2020, 17 November 2020 (

[vii] CONCORD, Talking Development Ep. 8 “How civil society can keep up with the speed of change”, January 2021, mins 7:00 to 12:30, accessed 10 January 2021 (

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Valentina Brogna is a PhD researcher at the Research Centre in Political Science (CReSPo), Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles (Belgium), funded through a FRESH Grant (F.R.S. – FNRS). Her research compares development narratives by International Development NGOs and Pan-African Diaspora Organisations in Europe, mostly advocating at EU level. Such narratives refer to different development theories, in a spectrum from Sustainable Development to African Renaissance. Prior to her PhD, she gained professional experience in feminist and development civil society organisations at EU and Italian level.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

Environmental destruction and resistance: a closer look at the violent reoccupation of the DRC’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park

The decision of the indigenous Batwa to reoccupy parts of eastern DRC’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park by force shocked many outside observers. They were further shocked when the Batwa started to ally with rebel groups, traders, and illegal timber cutters in order to exploit part of the ancestral forest they had been forced to leave decades prior. In a recently-published article in the Journal of Peasant Studies, Fergus Simpson and Sara Geenen show why the Batwa’s decision to return to the park should in fact come as anything but a surprise.

Picture taken by the first author

During the 1970s, the Congolese government forcibly displaced the Batwa people, a hunter-gatherer minority group, from eastern DRC’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park[1] (Barume 2000). In the decades following their displacement, the Batwa would secretly re-enter the park to collect firewood and food and to practice customary rituals. But after a 2018 attempt to buy them land outside the park failed, several hundred Batwa violently reoccupied parts of the park’s highland sector. Park authorities were quickly overwhelmed; a series of clashes has since claimed the lives of at least eleven Batwa, two eco-guards, and a government soldier.

Once back in the land of their ancestors, the Batwa formed alliances with armed groups, traders, and Bantu peasants to exploit the park’s natural resources both for personal consumption and for commercial purposes. Interviews conducted with local conservation NGOs has shown that this has led to the loss of hundreds of hectares of forest. In addition, through the abovementioned alliances certain Batwa chiefs have been able to assert strong territorial control over parts of the park and have become wealthy as a result.

The Batwa’s decision to forcibly reoccupy the park should not come as a surprise. Rather, it can be explained by three factors: 1) the failure to secure compensation and access rights to their ancestral lands through formal and legal channels, 2) an increase in threats to the Batwa’s dignity, identity, and livelihoods over recent years, and 3) the emergence of opportunities to forge alliances with more powerful actors in a way that consolidated the group’s power and allowed it to exploit natural resources contained within the forest for commercial purposes.

Slow violence and everyday resistance

The Batwa had been the custodians of Kahuzi-Biega’s forests from time immemorial. Yet in 1970, the Congolese government introduced a decree which would invalidate the Batwa’s customary land rights, transforming their ancestral forests into a place of strict preservation, scientific research, and tourism. During the 1970s, the Congolese conservation agency (at that time the Institut Zaïrois pour la Conservation de la Nature) worked alongside the national army to evacuate people from the area without prior warning; they would simply show up and say ‘this is no longer your home’.

The Batwa fled to live in squatter camps among other communities at the park boundaries and were forced to eke out a meagre existence by stealing from their non-Batwa neighbours. Although there were occasional opportunities to do piecemeal labour on the farms of wealthy landowners, discrimination based on ethnicity hindered the Batwa’s ability to find work. Their living conditions were poor, with substandard medical care, education and inadequate housing, as well as nutritional deficiencies, poor hygiene and a high mortality rate resulting from the lack of a proper diet and the absence of water and sanitation facilities.

The Batwa were not just deprived of their means of subsistence; they were also cut off from their identity as forest dwellers and their spirituality that is linked to nature. When they were separated from the forest, they became separated from themselves. This erosion of their identity and means of livelihood through dispossession can be seen as a process of ‘slow’ violence, which Robert Nixon (2011:2) describes as ‘a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is not viewed as violence at all’.

Unsurprisingly, the act of dispossession and subsequent slow violence did not go uncontested. Due to the presence of armed eco-guards and severe punishments for breaking park regulations, the Batwa mostly opted against risky forms of overt resistance in the decades spent outside the forest. Instead, they engaged in what James Scott (1989) calls covert ‘everyday’ resistance. Often under the cover of nightfall, they would illegally enter the park to collect food and firewood and to practice customary rituals that not only helped them survive, but also to make continued claims of their ancestral rights to the park.

All that changed in October 2018 when the Batwa decided to return to the park en masse, unleashing violent clashes and a wave of environmental destruction in the process. Based on six months of ethnographic fieldwork from August 2019 to February 2020, we tried to understand what led the Batwa to reoccupy their ancestral land.

Peaceful strategies had failed to deliver change

In the decade before the Batwa returned, Minority Rights Group worked with the local NGO Environnement Ressources Naturelles et Développement to create a lawsuit against the Congolese government. A case was brought to Bukavu’s Tribunal de Grande Instance in 2008, after which it was transferred to the Court of Appeal in 2013. It proposed that the Batwa had been expelled from the park illegally and should receive land, financial compensation, and continued access rights to the forest. The case was dismissed on the grounds that it concerned a problem of constitutionality and should therefore be resolved at the national level.

Two more cases were brought to DRC’s Supreme Court in Kinshasa in 2013 and to the African Union in 2015; both remain pending. From 2014, Forest Peoples Programme also facilitated a dialogue process between the Batwa and park authorities to agree upon appropriate compensation and identify sites inside the park for the Batwa to continue cultural and subsistence activities. But negotiations broke down after ICCN repeatedly failed to deliver on its promises.

As a result of these failures, the Batwa came to distrust the NGOs that support them, pushing them a step closer toward violent reoccupation. The level of scepticism is exemplified in the statement of one Batwa chief:

An NGO invited me in several different meetings, but this NGO lies that they are going to plead for our rights and bring projects. They swallow the money and then claim in their reports that they are pleading on behalf of the Batwa!

An increased threat

In August 2017, in a prelude to the mass reoccupation, a Batwa man and his son went into the park to collect medicinal herbs and were shot by park guards on patrol, leaving the father wounded and his son dead. This provocation led to almost instantaneous uprising. The Batwa took the boy’s body to park headquarters in protest. As the hours passed, tensions increased. Some Batwa even started waving sticks and machetes, threatening to reoccupy the park.

In the months after the killing, a representative of the Batwa in Bukavu told me how an international donor attempted to buy land for the Batwa to settle on outside the park. But the director of a local NGO who received the money on behalf of the Batwa then proceeded to buy a house and a car with the cash. It was at this point that the Batwa decided to violently retake the land of their ancestors by force, feeling that they could trust no-one and had to rely on themselves to take back what they saw was rightfully theirs.

Alliances with more powerful actors

Both before and after the national election in December 2018, the Batwa took advantage of opportunities to form strategic alliances with more powerful actors to consolidate their control over parts of the park and extract its resources. First, they allied with non-state armed groups operating in the park’s highland sector. This provided them with access to weapons and soldiers to assert control over their reoccupied territory. The Mai-Mai Cisayura is reported to have helped a group of Batwa attack a patrol post in Lemera, killing one guard in the process. On the side of these armed groups, they claimed to be ‘helping the Batwa claim their rights’ as a way to legitimate their presence in the park and extract minerals.

Second, the Batwa collaborated with businessmen and politicians from the provincial capital Bukavu who typically control the region’s trade networks. Over several months, trucks filled with bags of charcoal and planks of wood could be seen leaving the villages on the edge of the park for urban centres in Bukavu and Kavumu. These alliances enabled the Batwa to sell the resources that they were extracting from the park and led to significant deforestation, which continues up to this day.

Third, the Batwa deepened their commercial relationships with Bantu peasants to access expertise, financial capital, and technology to exploit resources. One group of Batwa even started working with Bantus who own a chainsaw to cut wood inside the park. This ensured that they had enough power to maintain the occupation and that they could more effectively exploit and sell natural resources extracted from within the park.

Fighting against slow violence

The above observations all reveal that the reoccupation of the park by the Batwa followed decades of slow violence, manifest in the gradual erosion of their group identity and sense of dignity. It also reveals that the event should not be considered surprising, as numerous related events led up to it. The sudden transition of the forest from a protected to an exploited zone raises further questions about whether the exclusion of indigenous groups from protected areas can have the perverse effect of severing their relationship with the land they once conserved, which in the case of Kahuzi-Biega National Park led to both large-scale deforestation and violent clashes.

Based on our research, we argue that a better understanding of the factors which push communities from covert resistance toward overtly violent forms of contestation against conservation could help prevent the social unrest and environmental destruction we have seen in Kahuzi-Biega over recent years from being repeated elsewhere. Such knowledge could also be used to inform a contemporary conservation movement that is more environmentally sustainable and socially just for future generations of indigenous people.

[1] The park, which extends over 600,000 hectares, is home to the endangered eastern lowland gorilla and 13 other species of primate. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site mainly because of the diverse mammal and bird species it houses.


Barume, Albert Kwokwo. 2000. Heading Towards Extinction?: Indigenous Rights in Africa : The Case of the Twa of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. IWGIA.

Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press.

Scott, James C. 1989. ‘Everyday Forms of Resistance’. The Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies 4 (1): 33.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Fergus Simpson is a Joint-PhD student at the University of Antwerp’s Institute of Development Policy (IOB) and the ISS funded by FWO.  He is also a member of the Centre d’Expertise en Gestion Minière (CEGEMI) at the Université Catholique de Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  His research focuses on the intricacies between environmental conservation, armed mobilisation and conflicts surrounding natural resources in eastern DRC’s South Kivu Province.

Sara Geenen is assistant professor in International Development, Globalization and Poverty at the Institute of Development Policy (IOB), University of Antwerp, Belgium. She is co-director of the Centre d’Expertise en Gestion Minière (CEGEMI) at the Université Catholique de Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Her current research interests lie in the global and local development dimensions of extractivist projects, addressing questions about more socially responsible and inclusive forms of globalization.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

17th Development Dialogue| Communicating research differently: how a comic strip is bringing the everyday struggles of Somaliland’s Uffo to life

Researchers and non-researchers alike can learn much about and draw inspiration from the everyday struggles of ordinary people in difficult contexts. Yet such stories that we hear when working with communities engaged in the pursuit of social justice or emancipation often go untold or are overlooked. A comic strip about acts of civil resistance in Somaliland shows just how powerful such visual imagery can be in communicating lived experiences of struggles, writes Ebba Tellander.

Illustration: Pat Masioni, PositiveNegatives

In the early 1980s, the people of Hargeisa, Somaliland suffered greatly. The negligence of the Siad Barre regime and the 1977/78 war with Ethiopia meant that the city’s residents did not have adequate access to basic services such as electricity, sanitation, and health care. At the same time, political oppression dominated life in northwest Somalia. Despite the possible consequences of blatantly opposing the government, a group of young professionals, including teachers, engineers, and doctors, set out to change the state of things by volunteering to help the people of Somaliland. They started in 1981 by cleaning and refurbishing the Hargeisa Group Hospital – at their own expense and in their own time. They saw it both as a form of humanitarian assistance responding to the acute suffering of patients due to the lack of a properly functioning hospital, and as a way of resisting the oppressive policies of the regime. Through their humanitarian action they were illuminating the negligence of the government in the health sector, mobilising people in the community to take care of themselves when the government wouldn’t, and showing them that they could act independently from the government.

To create more awareness about the oppressive polices, two of the professionals also wrote a newsletter called ‘Uffo’, which means ‘the sweet-smelling wind before the rain’. The meaning seemed to have foreshadowed what happened next. When the professionals were arrested a few months later and faced the risk of execution, this became the spark that ignited and inspired others, especially secondary school students and women, to oppose the regime openly on the streets. Today, the protests that took place are remembered as the Dhagax Tuur, which means ‘stone throwing’, and are regarded as the beginning of the resistance movement that continued for years afterward and eventually led to downfall of the authoritarian regime.

Despite the Uffo story’s historical importance, it is not widely known; instead, narratives of crisis, conflict, and violence dominate reports on the situation in the Horn of Africa, where Somaliland lies. These narratives are perpetuated by journalists, NGO personnel, and researchers alike. Reports on the Somali region in particular are typically focused on themes such as piracy, terrorism, war, and state failure. One consequence of such a limited focus is that ordinary people are portrayed either as perpetrators or as passive victims. This gives a flawed picture that downplays essential parts of the human experience, including those that provide a glimmer of hope, such as the courage and creativity of those who struggle, as well as their care for others. For my doctoral research I therefore chose to focus on the case of Uffo to highlight the tales and self-awareness of those people who act collectively to counter violence and oppression. I found a story that should not go unheard. And so I sought a way to make sure that it would be heard.

To communicate this story to new and larger audiences, I have been part of a production team of producers, storytellers, artists, and researchers who over the past years have created a comic in five parts. The comic is available in both English and Somali (read it here). I am part of a larger research team at Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) that is committed to exploring the power of visual storytelling in research through a collaboration with the organisation PositiveNegatives that produces educational comics to raise awareness about social and humanitarian issues across the globe.

Comics and animations are particularly suitable for communicating lived experiences and sensitive themes, including topics such as love, torture, and mental health. It is easier for a larger group of people to recognise themselves in animated characters when compared to other visual formats such as photographs and films. In addition, comics can easily be translated into many different languages and spread on social media. Thus, they can reach people who normally do not read academic texts or policy reports.

How did we create this comic strip?

These comics were created in a collaborative manner that allowed the professionals and other research participants to tell their stories. The production team met the Uffo professionals in Hargeisa to discuss the comic before it was developed into a first draft. They were then given the opportunity to provide feedback during several crucial steps in the production process. The Uffo professionals have been very enthusiastic about the project throughout the process.

The artwork was created by established Congolese artist Pat Masioni who was personally inspired by the story. His 1980s comic style was a perfect fit with the Uffo story. To stay true to the story, Pat Masioni used historical photographs and pictures that I had taken during my fieldwork to create the artwork.

The process of creating a comic based on research and in such a collaborative manner is time-consuming, but the whole team stayed committed to the importance of communicating this story in a nuanced way that resonated with the stories of the professionals.[1]

What’s the comic about?

The comic strip powerfully illustrates the role of agency in challenging circumstances. Those who read all five chapters will know how Uffo invented astonishing ways to survive and stay sane during their harsh prison sentences (note: Tolstoy’s fans will be pleasantly surprised). There are many such smaller parts of the story that capture the professionals’ care for each other as well as their capacity to create light in the dark, which is a common thread throughout the whole series. These stories can be transformative in themselves, as they have the power to inspire and show us what is possible in otherwise bleak situations.

When the comics were launched, Dr Tani from the Uffo group was interviewed by BBC Africa. Several of the Uffo professionals were later granted political asylum in countries such as the UK, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, and the US. I therefore wish for the comic to be read by people living in those countries, as it will give us a better understanding of the lives of fellow citizens with refugee backgrounds.

I also wish for the comics to be read by youth in Somaliland and by diaspora. While I was conducting the research in Somaliland, I got involved in the process of creating a 13-episode TV program about Uffo in Hargeisa in 2018 together with Star TV. I followed journalists to universities and other public spaces where they were asking people on the street whether they had heard of Uffo. Very few had. One contributing reason is the country’s cautious approach to bringing up painful memories from the past, which could contribute to division. However, the story of Uffo is not only a painful one, but also carries messages of hope and strength, which I noticed inspired the young women and men I worked with in Hargeisa, most of whom had not heard the Uffo story before.[2]

All in all, this exercise has shown that engaged researchers not only can contribute to social change through the findings and insights generated by their research, but also through the ripple effects of the research process itself and from the stories that are being illuminated. It’s up to researchers to find out how to do this and to actively seek to create waves through their research.

[1] The production of the comic was informed by rigorous research, including in-depth interviews with the Uffo professionals and people who participated in the protests, many of them women. As part of the research process, the interview data has been triangulated with archival data such as human rights reports, political poetry and the trial protocol from 1982.

[2] Thanks go to Nasra Daahir Raage, Shukri Sagal Ali, Yasmin Gedi, Abdifatah Omar, Wahiba Ismail, Mohamud Ismail, Nasra Sagal, Hadiya Sayid Ali and Hassan Sayid Ali Daoud for their excellent research assistance.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question

About the author:

Ebba Tellander is a doctoral researcher at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo and International Institute of Social Studies within the TRANSFORM project. She researches people’s motivations and actions when initiating collective action and civil resistance in repressive settings, focusing on the case of Uffo. For her research, she also took part in the production of a 13-episode TV series about the Uffo.


Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

17th Development Dialogue | A call to end the ‘social distancing’ of the sciences – in the COVID-19 era and beyond

The chasm that separates the different scientific disciplines remains deep as ever despite the evident need to address pressing global problems through transdisciplinary collaboration. C. Sathyamala and Peter A.G. van Bergeijk in this article show how close and intensive cooperation across the artificial borders between the sciences can be made possible and argue for a methodology acknowledging that only a combination of qualitative and quantitative research can create the type of knowledge that’s required to move forward together.

Hans-Peter Gauster (unsplash)

We start with a proposition: that both social and natural sciences are good at boxing, but not as good at wrestling. They ‘box’ by telling themselves stories about where they and researchers in the respective fields ‘fit’ into the scaffolding erected around the supposedly chiasmic divide of natural and social sciences. We all seem to know what side of this divide we want to be on, and a lot of time is invested in delineation, often drawing distinctions without differences. For too long, specialisation and deeper knowledge, both applied and theoretical, have been seen as the royal road to academic success.

But there are limits to what any science can do on its own. We’ve seen this during the current pandemic. As in any context, COVID-19-related health problems cannot be tackled from a purely medical angle; the exploitative social and economic structures that make people sick must also be challenged. Indeed, the validity of medical solutions to a large extent depends on social and economic conditions of time and place. The pandemic does not provide a new insight – it simply makes it clearer.

The COVID-19 pandemic taught us that by boxing in the disciplines and keeping them apart, we fail in a monumental way to ‘wrestle’ with multi-faceted problems, like global pandemics. We avoid the intellectual battle inherent in engaging with what the other side thinks. To deal with COVID-19 or to understand what is happening, we need less boxing and more wrestling! A mono-disciplinary perspective, however sophisticated, cannot help us design and evaluate policy interventions, or grasp the wider meaning and significance of COVID-19 in specific contexts. A lot of time is now being invested in delineation with other strands and lines of thought based on high principles of epistemology and ontology. Our point is that that energy would be better spend on truly working together.

A physician and an economist…

We write from different sides of a supposedly chiasmic divide, a divide we each try to bridge and straddle in our own ways. C. Sathyamala is a public health physician with a Master’s degree in Epidemiology who opted to do her PhD in development studies at the ISS. In the process, she developed a strong interest in class and state power and in the history of the biopolitics of food and hunger. As a medical doctor concerned with action for social justice, the Bhopal gas leak disaster proved a crucial turning point in her life as corporate interests in collusion with the state effaced people’s lives. The COVID-19 pandemic created similar tendency, displacing the migrant working class across India and subjecting them to what Giorgio Agamben has called ‘bare life’.

As an agnostic Dutch economist, Peter van Bergeijk is the first academic in a family of South Holland-based bakers, carpenters, and farmers. As a policy maker at the OECD, he was frustrated by the impossibility to engage major developing countries in discussions on environment and health. This motivated his move to the ISS, where he is equally happy to employ a neo-Marxist or a ‘empiricist’ framework as a toolkit, depending on what analytical toolbox is most suitable for the problem at hand.

…together critically examining the COVID-19 pandemic

Each of us has written on COVID-19 – on the urgency of communicating our concerns – in the form of  books or a range of Working Papers. Writing from different social and professional positions, we now also write…together. A common interest around COVID-19 has bridged our science-social science divide.

Primarily, we agree that if at all a silver lining is to be found in the COVID-19 situation, it is that we can learn a great deal, especially with mixed disciplinary backgrounds, with science, social sciences, and the arts (we have also worked together artistically: you will find Sathya’s poetry and Peter’s lithography alongside at the exhibition Broken Links).

And we both agree that we will only truly understand pandemics and their consequences, and what to do about protecting human societies from their fallout once social scientists and natural scientists stop practicing social and intellectual distancing by boxing themselves into their own disciplines.

This is more urgent than often recognised: the next pandemic is a certainty, only its timing is uncertain.

The WHO hopes to forge solidarity and encourage the sharing of knowledge across disciplinary and global divides. The purpose is to generate greater consensus around COVID-19.

But while lip service is paid to medical opinion, it is powerful political and economic elites that continue to call the shots.  State interventions provide selective care in the matter of making live and letting die, and even in making die in the Foucauldian biopolitical sense. Academics find themselves struggling to keep up in real time with the pace of the pandemic, with its spread, recurrence, changing pattern, and often its gross mismanagement.

Huge as the problem is, we are pleased to have started our own dialogue, right here at the ISS, and based on our own published and ongoing research on the subject. How COVID-19 affects us now, and what kinds of ‘pandemic futures’ we face, are questions all of us can contribute to answering once we learn to wrestle across our disciplinary divides.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

C. Sathyamala is a public health physician and epidemiologist with a PhD in Development Studies. She is currently a postdoc academic researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies, Den Haag, Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her areas of interest include food security and politics of food, political economy of health, medical ethics, reproductive rights, and environmental justice. She has been active in both the health and women’s movement in India for some decades. She has authored and co-authored books and published in journals, peer-reviewed and otherwise, and in newspapers on wide-ranging topics. 

Peter van Bergeijk is professor of international economics and macroeconomics at the ISS.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

Development Dialogue 2018 | Social acceptance of oil activities in the Ecuadorian Amazon: a long way to go by Alberto Diantini

Oil companies are coming to realise that they need a ‘Social Licence to Operate’—the acceptance of locals—to reduce social risk associated with their activities. But how do they achieve this community acceptance, especially in areas of the Amazon forest inhabited by indigenous peoples?

Extractive companies are usually unpopular and mistrusted. For them, it is increasingly evident that a legal, formal licence of operation from governments is not enough. To avoid costly protests, they need a Social Licence to Operate (SLO), generally defined as the acceptance of local communities of their activities. It is a kind of social, unwritten contract that ensures an enterprise’s social risk is reduced as long as priorities and expectations of the local communities are satisfied: the higher the SLO, the lower the risk (Prno & Slocombe, 2012).

Although the SLO concept was developed in Western contexts, it has been increasingly adopted in developing regions as well. In Latin America, for example, in the case of projects affecting indigenous peoples, the main common issues are power imbalances, conflicting worldviews, and informed consent, but these SLO key elements are largely overlooked (Ehrnström-Fuentes & Kröger, 2017).

As a contribution to filling this gap, my research aims to critically analyse the usability of the SLO concept as indicator of community acceptability in Latin America. In particular, I am focusing on the oil context of Block 10, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, managed by the Italian company Eni-Agip. The area is inhabited by indigenous groups, which are mostly Kichwa. Eni-Agip’s good reputation at the national level, its community investments (medical assistance and education programmes), and the apparent low level of conflicts in the block could suggest that the company has obtained an SLO from the locals. But is this the case?

To answer this question, I went to Ecuador and got in touch with researchers from the local university, the Estatal Amazónica of Puyo. Together, we planned a household survey in the villages of the affected area, examining people’s perceptions of positive and negative effects related to Eni-Agip’s operations. We also investigated whether locals perceive that the ‘Free, Prior, Informed Consent’ (FPIC) principle has been applied in this context. FPIC establishes that indigenous communities have the right to participate in the decision-making process pertaining to the activities that affect their territories. Before beginning oil operations, communities should have a full understanding of project’s risks and benefits and freely give informed consent (Hanna & Vanclay, 2013).

In order to facilitate interactions with the community members who don’t speak Spanish at all, a group of Kichwa students attending the university was included in our research team. This enabled me to be more easily accepted inside the communities: since I am Italian, people initially saw me as a potential spy of the Italian government or of the enterprise.

A total number of 346 questionnaires were completed and all villages of the influence area were surveyed. Preliminary results show that most respondents think the presence of the company is compromising the environment and irreversibly changing their culture. On the other hand, people rely on the social programmes previously offered by the oil company which Eni-Agip now claims are the duty of the State.

In effect, the most recent national oil contract stipulates that the government shall now provide these social services, but the State has been unable to meet this responsibility, in part due to the remoteness of these communities.

Almost 87% of the population doesn’t know what FPIC is. In addition, some of the interviewees reported cases in which they have been forced to accept the decisions of the company, with attempts of coercion.

It is noteworthy that during the survey, many people told us they fear that if they criticise Eni-Agip in any way, the company would cut social programs altogether.

In conclusion, despite the low level of conflicts and the good reputation of the company, interviewees reported the same impacts found in many other oil contexts of Ecuador and Latin America, such as cultural changes, dependence on the company, and lack of respect of FPIC procedures. Overall, the evidence of Eni-Agip’s high control of community consent, the absence of the State, and the vulnerability of indigenous communities are elements that seem to limit the genuine achievement of balanced power relationships, the core elements of a social licence. Therefore, caution is necessary prior to claim that a company has achieved an SLO in such a complex and conflicted territory. Much has to be done by the State to meet its responsibilities and by the company for a full respect of indigenous populations’ rights.

Ehrnström-Fuentes, M., & Kröger, M. (2017). In the shadows of social licence to operate: untold investment grievances in latin America. Journal of Cleaner Production, 141, 346–358.
Hanna, P., & Vanclay, F. (2013). Human rights, Indigenous peoples and the concept of Free, Prior and Informed Consent. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 31(2), 146–157.
Prno, J., & Slocombe, D. (2012). Exploring the origins of “social license to operate” in the mining sector: Perspectives from governance and sustainability theories. Resources Policy, 37(3), 346–357.

This blog article is part of a series related to the Development Dialogue 2018 Conference that was recently held at the ISS. Other articles forming part of the series can be read here,  here , here, here here, and here.

About the author:


Alberto Diantini is a PhD researcher in Geographical Studies at the University of Padua, Italy, supervised by prof. Massimo De Marchi, coordinator of the “Territories of ecological and cultural diversity” research group. The main objective of Diantini’s research is investigating the usability of the concept of Social Licence to Operate in the oil contexts of the Ecuadorian Amazon.


Development Dialogue 2018 | Who decides who gets social protection? by Maria Klara Kuss

Social protection interventions have recently been scaled up in sub-Saharan Africa. While international aid donors have invested much money, time and effort into the policy design phase, the real politics start to unfold during its implementation phase. This is when people experience who will receive benefits and who is excluded. What can the case of Zambia tell us about the political debates  on who ‘deserves’ social protection and who does not?


In sub-Saharan Africa, the social protection agenda has been largely driven by international aid donors who have invested many resources into influencing the design and scale-up of these interventions. It is therefore not surprising that much evidence exists on the positive impacts of social protection interventions on a range of indicators (e.g. on poverty, health, and education). Moreover, recent research into the politics of social protection has shed light on the political drivers of the expansion of social protection in sub-Saharan Africa. Thus, much attention has been given to the policy design rather than the implementation phase.

This can however be particular misleading in in the area of social protection. This is because the deep politics – and thus the negotiations for social justice – unfold after its implementation. This is when it becomes more visible for the public who will and who will not receive those benefits (see Grindle & Thomas, 1991). This can be illustrated by the findings from my PhD research that analyses the politics of implementing social cash transfers (SCTs) in Zambia.


In Zambia, around 54% of the population lives in poverty, and almost 41% in extreme poverty (CSO, 2015). Similar to other African countries, most of the country’s poor (77%) live in rural areas (CSO, 2015). To reduce poverty and eradicate the intergenerational transmission of poverty (see MCDMCH, 2012), international aid donors have supported the Government of Zambia in initiating different SCT schemes. Since 2003, in total four small-scale SCT schemes were piloted – each targeting different groups of poor people (e.g. children, female-headed households, old people, and people with disabilities or chronic diseases). These schemes were strongly driven by Zambia’s aid donors while the Government of Zambia has long remained reluctant in taking the schemes beyond its pilot phase.

Finally in 2014, the Government of Zambia took the vital decision to introduce a single nation-wide SCT scheme. The commitment to implement a single SCT scheme meant that the Zambian Government took a vital decision about whom they considered most deserving of receiving support in form of SCTs. The proposed targeting approach of the new scheme included a range of household compositions such as households with old people, people with disabilities, as well as households with young women caring for children. Given the variety of households included, the new SCT scheme was named ‘the Inclusive Scheme’.


The targeting approach together with the formal policy objective of the ‘Inclusive Scheme’ signalled a potentially transformative change of Zambia’s welfare regime with its underpinning values of social justice. This was because it included young women and their children who previously did not receive any benefits. My research findings however indicate that the Inclusive Scheme did not result in a transformation, but rather in the continuation of Zambia’s political settlement with its values of social justice.

Only shortly after the implementation of the scheme in local communities, strong local opposition emerged because as it became clearer who would and would not benefit from the Inclusive Scheme. A series of debates about the deservingness of young women and their children followed. But instead of transforming the perceptions of powerholders about their deservingness, the powerful local resistance resulted in a drastic change of the targeting approach of the Inclusive Scheme. This fundamentally changed the values of social justice that underpinned the scheme.


In order to understand the deep politics of social protection, it is therefore crucial to pay attention to the implementation phase. This is not a phase where decisions are carried out in a bureaucratic manner, but where political reactions are likely to occur since the implications of the policy design become apparent. People will understand who will be included and who will be excluded from receiving social protection benefits. If these policy ideas are competing with people’s perceptions of social justice, local opposition is likely to emerge. This can pose a threat to the sustainability of the initial policy design with its underpinning values of social justice and thus compromise the investments made during the design phase.


This blog article builds on the findings of PhD research by Maria Klara Kuss which analyses the negotiations of Zambia’s welfare regime and is based at the United Nations University MERIT’s Graduate School of Governance at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. For more information see: Kuss, M. K. (forthcoming). After the scale-up: the political drivers of sustaining social protection in Zambia. GIZ policy brief. Eschborn: GIZ.

CSO (2015). 2015 Living Conditions Monitoring Survey Report. Lusaka: Central Statistical Office.
Grindle, M., & Thomas, J. (1991). Public choices and policy change. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
MCDMCH (2012). Harmonised Manual of Operations. Social Cash Transfer Scheme. Lusaka: Ministry of Community Development, Mother and Child Health.

This blog article is part of a series related to the Development Dialogue 2018 Conference that was recently held at the ISS. Other articles forming part of the series can be read here,  here , here, here and here.

About the author:

PhotoMKussMaria Klara Kuss is a PhD fellow in Public Policy and Policy Analysis at the United Nations University MERIT’s Graduate School of Governance – supervised by Allister J McGregor (Sheffield), Mark Bevir (UC Berkeley), and Franziska Gassmann (Maastricht). She is also affiliated to the African Studies Centre at Leiden University (ASCL). Her PhD research is interdisciplinary in nature and draws on anthropological and sociological approaches to public policy analysis. It analyses the de facto negotiations of Zambia’s welfare regime with a focus on the transformative impacts of social cash transfers.

Development Dialogue 2018 | Pan-African diasporas in the Brussels bubble: new actors, new business? by Valentina Brogna

Pan-African diasporic networks are emerging in Europe as new lobbying actors within EU-Africa relations under the prism of development cooperation. Who are they, and can they influence EU development policy? This article shows that pan-African diasporic networks as new actors within (or without) EU-Africa relations try to propose different narratives on the African continent, advancing the cause of African-led development.

EU-Africa relations are tightly linked to development cooperation. Civil society tries to influence development policies, gathering around International Non-Governmental Development Organisations (INGDOs). Recently, pan-African diasporic networks have been created with apparently similar purposes, gaining visibility in the same EU political instances, but also African (AU, ACP Group) and international ones.

Many questions relate to the rising of pan-African diasporic networks in Europe, including on development theory (which paradigm(s)?), EU lobbying (which advocacy strategies? why lobbying the EU?), social movement studies (do pan-African diasporic networks and INGDOs ignore, clash, co-opt one another?), and African and diaspora studies (how do pan-African diasporic networks evaluate their representativeness as the sixth African Region?). With these questions in mind, I enucleate the ‘diaspora’ concept and sketch features of some pan-African Diasporic Networks active at European level.


I consider African ‘diaspora(s)’ inasmuch as networks and organisations that take ownership of this term, a “category of mobilization” (Kleist 2008, cited in Sinatti and Horst 2015), with the aim to unify what seems disperse, thus strengthening their agency vis-à-vis political institutions. Definitions of ‘diaspora’ in scientific literature stress ideas of dispersion (of people in distant places, normally abroad), relation-keeping (with the hailing country) (Van Hier, Pieke, Vertovec 2004, cited in Norglo et al. 2016), transnationality (Clifford 1994, cited in Norglo et al. 2016, Sökefeld 2006) and imagined community (Sökefeld 2006, Anderson 1983).

Institutional legitimation to African diasporas’ engagement in different fora is given by the AU definition: “Peoples of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality and who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union” (AU 2005, point VIII, 18). By finding themselves in between social places, African diasporas could have a comparative advantage vis-à-vis traditionally conceived INGDOs (Brinkerhoff 2011). African diaspora representatives at EU level are today advancing the cause of African diasporas’ formal recognition in development cooperation (Bora, pers. comm.; Global Diaspora Week 2018).

Pan-African diasporic networks regroup people from different African countries. They operate at national and international level with purposes of inclusion and anti-racism in the societies of residence and betterment of living conditions in the countries of origin. Which visions of development do pan-African diasporic networks concretely strategise to put in practice? When lobbying at EU level, they tend to officially espouse the Sustainable Development framework (UN 2015), probably as the contrary would imply working outside political institutions tout-court, renouncing to any attempt of influence (Ebony, pers. comm.).

Many of these networks are Brussels-based. The EU capital also gathers the AU Permanent Mission to the EU, the ACP Group Secretariat: multi-institutional strategies can thus be considered here. Among these networks, created since 2011, we find the African Diaspora Youth Network in Europe (ADYNE – 2011), the Africa-Europe Diaspora Development Platform (ADEPT – 2013), the A.C.P. Young Professionals Network (ACP YPN – 2014), the African Diaspora Youth Forum in Europe (ADYFE – 2014), the African Diaspora Network in Europe (ADNE – 2015), and the Afro-European Diaspora Platform (AED – 2015). The European Year on Development might have had a triggering effect.

ADNE operates through lobbying events with EU institutions. They have individual and organisational membership, a diverse expertise (both thematically and geographically), an enabling social capital (ex: professional connections to the EP, the ACP Secretariat, DG DEVCO). ADEPT, created within the Joint Africa-Europe Strategy, has organisational membership and aims to become the umbrella organisation of African diasporas. ACP YPN, now a member of ADEPT, works to influence EU, AU and the ACP Group with regards to youth empowerment in the implementation of the Cotonou agreement, currently being renegotiated; its membership is individual only, but its members are highly proactive. Competition among these organisations is probable; lack of unity is often deplored and calls for better cooperation are made, without (for the moment) leading to concrete results (Global Diaspora Week 2018).

Other pan-African diasporic networks define themselves as clearly pan-Africanist (Boukari-Yabara 2014) and follow the African Renaissance ideal (Diop  1948; do-Nascimento 2008), detached from the mainstream development paradigm and classic EU-Africa relations: the International Movement for the Renaissance of a Unified Africa (MIRAU), the Pan-African League Umoja (LP-U), and its Belgian branch Renaissance Africaine. They operate for the development of African countries by Africans themselves (including African diasporas), persuaded that EU-Africa relations are not a priority in the quest for a genuine ‘rebirth’ of the continent.

To conclude, pan-African diasporic networks as new actors within (or without) EU-Africa relations try to propose different narratives on the African continent, debunking some development cooperation myths, advancing the cause of African-led development, in cooperation with external actors like the EU or autonomously.

ACP YPN, n. d., accessed 25/07/2017
ADEPT, n. d., accessed 25/07/2017
AED, n. d. accessed 18/08/2018
ADNE. n.d. Accessed 05/05/2018
ADYFE, n. d., accessed 15/08/2018
African Union. 2005. ‘Report of the Meeting of Experts on the Definition of the African Diaspora’, 11 – 12 April 2005, Addis Ababa. Accessed 04/05/2018
Anderson, B. 1983. Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, London: Verso.
Boukari-Yabara, A. 2014. Africa Unite. Une histoire du Panafricanisme, Paris : La Découverte
Brinkerhoff, J. M. 2011. ‘David and Goliath: Diaspora organizations as partners in the development industry’ In Public Administration and Development 31: 37-49 10.1002/pad.587
Diop, Ch. A. 1948. “Quand pourra-t-on parler d’une renaissance africaine?” In Le musée vivant, N. spécial 36-37, 57-65. Paris : ADAM
do-Nascimento, A. J. (ed.) 2008. La renaissance africaine comme alternative au développement. Les termes du choix politique en Afrique. Paris: L’Harmattan
L.P.-U n. d., accessed 12/12/2017
MIRAU n.d., accessed 10/02/2018
Norglo, B. E. K., Goris, M., Lie, R., and Ong’ayo, A. O. 2016. ‘The African Diaspora’s Public Participation in Policy-Making Concerning Africa’. In Diaspora Studies 9(2): 83–99
Renaissance Africaine asbl, n. d., accessed 13/08/2018
Sinatti, G. and Cindy Horst. 2015. ‘Migrants as agents of development: Diaspora engagement discourse and practice in Europe’ In Ethnicities 15(1): 134-152
Sökefeld, M. 2006. ‘Mobilizing in Transnational Space: A Social Movement Approach to the Formation of Diaspora’ In Global Networks 6 (3): 265–84
UN A/RES/70/1 Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development accessed 05/03/2017
Bora, ACP Young Professionals Network, Advocacy and Parliamentary Relations Officer, 18 October 2017
Ebony, ACP Young Professionals Network, Policy advisor, 30 January 2018
Observed meetings:
22/05/2017, Conference The impact of Communications on EU’s Policies on Africa, organised by Africa Communications Week; EU DG DEVCO, Brussels
23/05/2017, Conference Changing African Narratives through Diaspora Initiatives, organised by Africa Communications Week; AU Permanent Mission to the EU, Brussels
27/09/2017, Conference Africa at a Crossroads: Youth Political Mobilisation, Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly, organised by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and SOLIDAR as part of the S&D Group Africa Week 2017; FEPS, Brussels
21/03/2018, Cercle Kilimandjaro de l’Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles (USL-B), Conference L’impératif panafricain: penser la repolitisation, with the participation by Dr. A. Boukari-Yabara, LP-U Secretary General ; USL-B, Brussels
05/10/2018, Global Diaspora Week 2018 Opening Ceremony Digital Diaspora. Boosting the Digital Agenda and Innovation for Development, organised by ADNE; European Parliament, Brussels

This blog article is part of a series related to the Development Dialogue 2018 Conference that was recently held at the ISS. Other articles forming part of the series can be read here,  here , here, and here.

Valentina photo

About the author:

Valentina Brogna is a PhD researcher under FSR grant at the Research Centre in Political Science (CReSPo), Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles. Her research focuses on the participation of pan-African diasporic networks and INGDOs within EU-Africa relations, mainly in the Post-Cotonou negotiations.

Development Dialogue 2018 | Morocco’s ‘ninjas’: The hidden figures of agricultural growth by Lisa Bossenbroek and Margreet Zwarteveen

In Morocco’s Saïss region an agricultural boom is unfolding, premised on a process of labour hierarchisation shaped along gender lines. Female wageworkers find themselves at the lowest strata and take little pride in their work and are stigmatised. In such a context, how are rural women able to engage in agricultural wage work without losing their dignity and without being stigmatised? What can we learn from their daily working experiences?


While driving through Morocco’s agricultural plain of the Saïss in the early morning, the roads are crowded with vans and pickups that are packed with workers, the majority of whom are women. The way in which these women are dressed has earned them the nickname of ‘ninjas’: they have wrapped thick scarves around their faces, barely showing their eyes (see Picture 1). This outfit is symptomatic of their paradoxical situation: although they are indispensable for realizing Morocco’s ambitious agricultural modernization plans, their contributions tend to go or are made invisible, also by themselves. Female labourers may say that their dress is meant to protect themselves from the sun—“because we do not want to become black”—as well as from dust and pesticides. Yet, in addition to these practical considerations, many also admitted that their scarves conveniently serve the purpose of hiding their faces, allowing them to remain invisible and “anonymous”.


Their experiences are embedded in a new hierarchical labour order that is currently emerging (Bossenbroek 2016). Whereas most male labourers whom we interviewed take some pride in their work as they often get the better-paid jobs and could use it to model and perform a particular modern rural masculine identity, women find themselves at the lowest strata of this hierarchy. This newly emerging gendered labour hierarchy is grounded in, reproduces, but also slightly alters prevailing normative notions of femininity and masculinity in the study area. These prevailing norms divide various activities between the genders, while also narrowly circumscribing what is appropriate behaviour for men and women. Men are expected to be or become the breadwinner of the household, responsible for maintaining their families. A father, or husband, who falls short of financially supporting his wife or family is not well perceived in the society. In this regard, a woman working for wages automatically raises questions about her husband’s (if she has one) ability to provide. During various interviews, women stated for example that “a husband who accepts to let his wife work outside, is not a real man and can expect trouble, or as a young unmarried female wageworker once said when asking about her future husband: “It does not matter what kind of work he does. It is more important that he actually has a job.

Prevailing feminine socio-cultural gendered norms further circumscribe the various activities and identities of female wageworkers. This makes it difficult for rural women who engage in wage work to combine their remunerative activities with the identity of being a virtuous rural woman. Although women often engage in farm work, they take little pride in their activities as rural female identities rather rest on domestic tasks. They are in charge of the good functioning of their household and for raising the children. Their mobility is restricted and closely watched and controlled (see also Belarbi 1995). In addition, the activities rural women engage in as well as their mobility are deeply entangled with notions of honour and shame. These notions guide interactions in certain social contexts, specifically in public interactions between non-intimates (Abou-Lughod 1985, p. 247).

Such normative gender identities and norms are importantly (re-)produced and reinforced by gossip and rumours that circulate. There are for instance many negative stories about women working for wages in the agricultural sector. Male farmers and foremen may refer to female wageworkers as single young women with illicit behaviour, or as women “who make the farmer lose his mind”.

Hence, in order to continue with their wage work activities without losing their image of a respectable woman, female wageworkers develop different tactics. They for instance actively hide the fact that they work and perform as a good housewife in charge of her household, or present their work as a logical extension of their role as mother, as one female mother worker stated: “I have to work in order to keep my children out of the misery and provide them with a better future”. In the meantime, they fulfil the role of female breadwinner and trespass on the public domain, considered masculine, on a daily basis. In doing so, they negate on a daily basis hegemonic definitions of womanhood and come to explore new concepts of self, female status, and human worth (see Ong 1991).

Abou-Lughod, L. (1985) ‘Honor and sentiment of loss in Bedouin society’, American Ethnologist 12 (2): 245 – 261.
Belarbi, A. (Eds.) (1995) Femmes rurales. Casablanca: Editions Le Fennec.
Bossenbroek, L. 2016. ‘Behind the veil of agricultural modernization: Gendered dynamics of rural change in the Saïss, Morocco’. PhD Dissertation Wageningen University.
Ong, A. (1991) ‘The gender and labor politics of postmodernity’, Annual Review of Anthropology 20 : 279 – 309.

This blog article is part of a series related to the Development Dialogue 2018 Conference that was recently held at the ISS. Other articles forming part of the series can be read here,  here and here


About the authors:

LisaLisa Bossenbroek obtained her PhD in 2016 with the rural sociology group at the University of Wageningen (the Netherlands). As part of her research she studied the role of young people in agrarian dynamics and the interactions of processes of agrarian change and gender relations. Currently, she works as a post-doc at the Faculty of Governance, Economics and Social Sciences (EGE–RABAT), Morocco.

zwarteveen-margreet-Margreet Zwarteveen is Professor of Water Governance Education with the Integrated Water Systems and Governance Department at IHE Delft Institute for Water, and with the Governance and Inclusive Development group, University of Amsterdam. She is concerned both with looking at actual water distribution practices and with analysing the different ways in which water distributions can be regulated (through technologies, markets and institutions), justified (decision-making procedures) and understood (expertise and knowledge).



Development Dialogue 2018 | Social cash transfers: the risk of Malawi’s donor dependence by Roeland Hemsteede

Social cash transfers are becoming more popular, especially in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. But what happens when the government does not support these programmes? Roeland Hemsteede shows that in Malawi, the dependence on donor funding and lack of government buy-in pose a risk to hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on these transfers.

Direct cash transfers to the poor and vulnerable are rapidly gaining popularity around the world, reaching 750 million to 1 billion people, including many in sub-Saharan Africa. They typically aim to improve the welfare of beneficiaries as well as to increase their investment in human capital (Arnold, Conway, & Greenslade, 2011).

Malawi’s Social Cash Transfer Programme (SCTP) targets the ultra-poor and labour constrained and reaches 10% of the population. Currently, it reaches 276,063 beneficiary households with a total of 1,159,691 members. While national leadership is seen as essential to development processes, the SCTP bears all signs of being donor-driven, with limited buy-in from Malawi’s political elites. This jeopardises the long-term future of the SCTP. This blog explores some of the causes and consequences of this limited buy-in.


The funding landscape for the SCTP is highly fragmented (Hemsteede, 2017). Donors fund the transfers in 27 out of Malawi’s 28 districts, while the Government of Malawi (GoM) funds the remaining district. This GoM funding is the result of one donor requiring 10% counterpart funding, yet its provision has been irregular. Several other development partners provide technical assistance to the two GoM ministries that are involved.


The development community sees the SCTP as the ‘golden boy’ of social protection in Malawi. It is generally well run and the impact evaluations are positive (Handa, Mvula, Angeles, Tsoka, & Barrington, 2016). The GoM realises that donors like the programme, which contributes to its reluctance to finance it; after all, many programmes that donors are less interested in also need funding. Meanwhile, the donors are happy to retain strong (financial) control over the cash transfer, not least because of the ‘cash gate’ scandal.

‘Cash gate’, a large corruption scandal uncovered in 2013, strongly damaged donors’ confidence in Malawi’s public finance management. As a result, many donors felt that providing direct budget support was no longer acceptable, but project support was still an option. The SCTP was such a project, as much of its finances are managed by an independent consultancy firm that is hired by one of the donors. Moreover, the idea that the money directly went to beneficiaries appealed to donors. As a result, funding for the SCTP increased, but the system operates almost completely in parallel to the government’s own systems.


Politicians in Malawi, who ultimately control budget allocations, are less enthusiastic. In my interviews with them, they frequently voiced the opinion that money should rather go to the ‘productive poor’ and that cash transfers were not a good solution—an opinion also held by others (Hamer & Seekings, 2017; Kalebe-Nyamongo & Marquette, 2014).

Members of Parliament also often criticised the SCTP’s implementation, arguing that as representatives of the people, they should have a role in the targeting of beneficiaries, and that it bypassed government’s systems, making it hard for them to maintain oversight. All this contributes to a situation whereby some politicians feel that they don’t own the SCTP and that it is a ‘donors’ thing’.


My data point to at least three major reasons why national ownership of the SCTP should be important.

  • It is essential to ensure the sustainability of the cash transfers.
  • Leadership is essential for domestic and international resource mobilisation.
  • As part of Sustainable Development Goal 17, the Paris Declaration, and the Accra Agenda for Action, governments should lead their development priorities.

In the case of the SCTP, however, the development community drives the programme by controlling the funding and technical knowledge. The two involved ministries: the Ministry of Gender, Children Disability and Social Welfare, and parts of the Ministry of Finance, Economic Planning and Development, appear strongly committed to the programme, but their hands are tied by the lack of resources.


The SCTP resulted from a strong push by development partners, who funded its creation and expansion. They strongly influenced its design and the decision to create parallel structures for managing the SCTP. Malawi’s political establishment meanwhile feels little ownership over the programme. Without this sense of ownership, they are unlikely to ensure the sustainability of the SCTP. This poses a risk to the hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on the SCTP if donors reduce their funding in the future.

Arnold, C., Conway, T., & Greenslade, M. (2011). DFID Cash Transfers Evidence Paper. Policy Division Papers.
Hamer, S., & Seekings, J. (2017). Social protection, electoral competition, and political branding in Malawi (No. WIDER Working Paper 99/2017).
Handa, S., Mvula, P., Angeles, G., Tsoka, M., & Barrington, C. (2016). Malawi Social Cash Transfer Programme Endline Impact Evaluation Report. Chapel Hill.
Kalebe-Nyamongo, C., & Marquette, H. (2014). Elite Attitudes Towards Cash Transfers and the Poor in Malawi. Research Paper 30. Retrieved from

This blog article is part of a series related to the Development Dialogue 2018 Conference that was recently held at the ISS. Other articles forming part of the series can be read here and here.

About the author:

Profile RoelandRoeland Hemsteede is a PhD student at the University of Dundee in Scotland, United Kingdom. In his research he explores how power relations at the national and international level affect the design and implementation of cash transfer programmes in Malawi and Lesotho. Previous blogs on this subject have been published on and can be found at Roeland obtained his Master degree (by Research) in African Studies from Leiden University in 2013 and took several extra-curricular courses focussing on the political economy of development at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague in 2012/13.


Development Dialogue 2018 | Do children entering preschool early develop more quickly? by Saikat Ghosh and Subhasish Dey

Despite fierce debate among scholars regarding the age at which children are ready to enter preschool, the issue remains contentious. This article based on an empirical footing argues that earlier preschool entry is better for children living in developing countries like India, as it can help to ‘level the playing field.’


There is considerable debate regarding the age at which children are ready to enter preschool. However, scholars seem not to have been able to reach any conclusion regarding the link between children’s development and schooling age. There are two principal views on this issue that shape the age-of-entry debate both at the policy and practice level: First, entry with maturity, and, second, entry followed by maturity.

The first view is a maturational point of view that expects the child to be mature and ready for school. Reaching only a specific age does not ensure that a child is ready for school, nor does it guarantee a specific level of development. The conventional wisdom is that older children are more likely to have the necessary skills and maturity to succeed in school and therefore learn more in each grade (Cmic & Lamberty 1994; Krauerz 2005; Graue & DiPema 2000). Therefore, advocates of maturational view propose a delay in entrance to kindergarten for a child who is not ready, and such delay gives the child an extra year to become developmentally ready. This trend was described by the phrase “graying of kindergarten” (Bracey 1989), which is recently known as “redshirting” (Katz, 2000).

On the other hand, people holding the alternative view believe that the only determining factor for entry into kindergarten should be chronological age. This entry criterion is exogenous and less susceptible to cultural or social biases (Brent et al. 1996; Kagan, 1990; Stipek 2002). Besides, development is uneven and multidimensional, and thus, a threshold cannot be identified, as children’s level of development varies across different dimensions and children are not likely to achieve the level considered important for school success in all domains at the same time (Stipek 2002: 4).

Yet, very little is known in the context of developing countries, and whether the variation in the age of entry in preschool has any impact on children’s later development is still an open question. The authors took the initiative[1] to explore the same debate in the Indian context. As children from developing countries like India face several challenges from the very beginning, therefore, it is utterly significant to examine whether early entry in preschool provides them with an edge.


The answer in this context is yes, it matters, and it is evident form the study that the age of entry into preschool is utterly significant for children’s later development. Empirical evidence indicates that early entry into preschool may help children to acquire better cognitive and socio-emotional skills. The study has also found significant variation in children’s development depending on their socioeconomic background viz. parents’ level of education, their ethnic origin, etc. Considering the socioeconomic and cultural background of Indian society (as reflected within the household and parents characteristics), the results suggest that early entry into preschool has significant effects both on social and cognitive development of the child at least after a one-year completion of primary education. Therefore, the study advocates in favour of early preschool entry which has been referred by the authors as ‘Green-Shirting’.

Considering children from developing countries, where various forms of inequalities are already present, several differences may exist between children of lower socio-economic status and those of higher socio-economic status even before they enter preschool. Therefore, it is particularly necessary to provide children with a strong foundation from the very beginning so that these early disadvantages can be tackled.

Early childhood education and care provisions can be important intervention for children’s development. For example, the publicly provided preschool education in India, known as the ‘Anganwadi Centre’, which is the predominant type of preschool in India, represents an important and an effective initiative in ensuring both the social and cognitive development of children in the later stage of their life. Early entry into preschool and therefore, longer preschool experiences, can help to ‘level the field.’

[1] The study on which this article is based was carried out by the authors in India and is based on a primary data of 1,369 households. Ten different parameters were used to measure children’s development, which was further disentangled into cognitive and social development.

Bracey, G. (1989). Age and achievement. Phi Delta Kappan, 70(9): 732.
Brent, D., D. May & D. Kundert (1996) ‘The incidence of delayed school entry: A twelve-year review’, Early Education Development 7(2):121-135.
Cmic, K. & G. Larnberty (1994) ‘Reconsidering school readiness’, Early Education and Development 5(2): 91- 105.
Graue, E. & J. DiPerna (2000). Redshirting and early retention: Who gets the gift of time and what are its outcomes?. American Educational Research Journal, 37(2): 509-534.
Kagan, S. L. (1990). Readiness past, present and future: Shaping the agenda. Young Children 48(1): 48-53.
Katz, L. (2000). Academic redshirting and young children. ERIC. Washington, DC, Office of Education Research and Improvement.
Krauerz, K. (2005). Straddling early learning and early elementary school. Journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children 64(3): 50-58.
Stipek, D. (2002). At what age should children enter kindergarten? A question for policy makers and parents. SRCD Social Policy Report 16(2): 3-16.

This blog article is part of a series related to the Development Dialogue 2018 Conference that was recently held at the ISS.

About the authors:ghosh

Dr. Saikat Ghosh has recently received his doctorate from the University of Bamberg, Germany. His research interest centres on poverty, education, inequality, and social policy analysis with particular focus on developing countries. Formerly, he has worked for the Bamberg Graduate School of Social Sciences (BAGSS), Germany, and UNU-WIDER, Helsinki. He also served the Government of West Bengal, India for six years between 2007 to 2013.

deyDr. Subhasish Dey is an Associate Lecturer at the Economics Department of University of York, UK. He is an applied microecometrician working in the field of development and political economy. He completed his PhD in Economics from University of Manchester in 2016. His research interests include social protection programme, impact evaluation of social policies, electoral politics, affirmative action and routine immunisation. He served government of West Bengal for five years between 2003 and 2008 in education and Panchyat and rural development departments.

Development Dialogue 2018 | Blue Economy: A New Frontier of an African Renaissance? by Johan Spamer

The African Union recently proclaimed that the ‘Blue Economy’, as the ocean economy is increasingly known, could become the ‘New Frontier of an African Renaissance’. The Blue Economy promises sustainable development through its focus on socio-economic inclusion and the protection of the maritime environment, but is it really all it promises to be? With the first global conference on the sustainable development of the blue economy taking place in two weeks, this article takes a closer look at what the Blue Economy is about.  

It was as late as 2012 that the Blue Economy was officially recognised at the Third International Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro (Rio+20). In the absence of a universal definition, Verma (2018) argues that the Blue Economy can be regarded as the integration of ocean economy with the principles of social inclusion, environmental sustainability, and innovative, dynamic business models (p.103). As such, the Blue Economy offers a new and alternative sustainability approach that goes beyond simply harmonising activities in an ecologically friendly manner. It’s a notion that grew out of the Green Economy (Claudio, 2013), but with different policies and frameworks, offering its own characteristics and domain for countries whose futures are based on maritime resources. Africa is calling the Blue Economy narrative the frontline of the continent’s rebirth, but what is this new notion, and how is it different from other blue-infused (e.g. Europe’s blue growth) drives?


The paths followed by leading African countries (e.g. Seychelles, Mauritius, Kenya and South Africa) in establishing Blue Economy frameworks are important, and so is the manner in which these countries go about it by establishing dedicated departments for implementation. The Blue Economy per definition offers an opportunity to prevent the vulnerable, often also marginalised populations, from missing out on socio-economic opportunities in the maritime sector. Furthermore, these beneficiaries can now obtain a fair share of the public good, claim their voices on an equal footing, and can attain a secured sense of dignity through unlocking wealth opportunities.

At least, this is the picture painted by African legislators. However, we are still lacking sufficient empirical data and scientific research to substantiate these foreseen outcomes. Critique against or endorsements of the African Blue Economy are both reference to ad hoc cases and by making broad conclusions in the absence of rigourous in-depth case analyses. Furthermore, the scope of the Blue Economy within the African context includes lakes, rivers, dams, and underground water. It goes beyond the traditional coastal and ocean-based economies with landlocked countries also included in the regional strategies (UNECA, 2016). This makes generalisation and case comparisons with non-African Blue Economy countries complex.

Central to this approach, and within the context of people-orientated sustainability (Attri and Bohler-Muller, 2018), is the principle of social justice through fairness (equity) and inclusivity. The aforesaid echoes strongly with the SDGs’ sentiment (see SDG 14) to ensure long-term sustainability by:

  • Enhancing and leveraging newly received benefits from the ocean environments to the benefit of all (inclusivity) through activities such as bioprospecting, allocated fishing quotas or rights, oil and mineral extraction agreements;
  • Fostering national equality (parity which includes gender equity), allowing for inclusive growth associated with decent employment for all; and
  • Having strong international governance structures and measurements in place to specifically guide the developing country regimes for nearby seabed development. This relates to the management of their rights and interests to be properly sanctioned in the expansion of their national waters beyond the current state dominion.

Keen et al. (2018) provide a useful overview of the Blue Economy. As expected, the three main sustainable components (economic, social alias community and ecosystem) underpin the core Blue Economy aspects. These components are complemented by enabling institutional arrangements as well as technological capacity, reflecting the linkages within such a multi-scalar model. The three predominant concepts that are important to oversee this sustainable development framework are: a) agency, b) power, and c) politics.

As such, we can contextualise and link these concepts within the domain of development studies in the following manner (although not limited to): the need for agency through institutional platforms (e.g. multi-stakeholder initiatives), power relations (e.g. gender), influencing the political economy (e.g. the role of the developmental state), political ecology (e.g. ecosystem resilience), and the role of technology (e.g. innovation).

Notable is the acknowledgement of the importance of diversity (cultural values) and gender equity. The Indian Ocean Rim Association’s (IORA) Declaration on Gender Equality and Women’s Economic Empowerment, adopted at the 16th Council of Ministers Meeting in 2016 (Bali, Indonesia), affirmed the overall commitment towards the promotion of women’s rights (Verma, 2018). The success of the Blue Economy as an exemplar for promoting inclusiveness and equity depends on how different vulnerable groups such as marginalised women, skill-deficient persons, and poor communities are incorporated. At a theoretical level, the Blue Economy is portrayed as an evolutionary concept over the long term. The benefits are foreseen to mainly depend on the theories still to be developed by the scholarly activity in this research domain (Attri, 2018).


The Blue Economy as a sustainable development framework explains how social justice and equality can be addressed on different levels, especially for the most vulnerable. Partnerships, capacity building, infrastructure development and country-level frameworks are very important in the process of opening up new markets and allowing for greater access in a sustainable way. Barbesgaard (2018) challenges this view, labelling ‘blue growth’ as ocean grabbing. This view is supported by Brent et al. (2018), who highlight contradictions within the blue economy’s ethos and question the promise of an inclusive three-fold win on a socio-economic-ecological level.  Still, this is what Africa seems to be calling for (at least the African Union), and the Blue Economy is seen as the vessel to cross to new (socially just) opportunities by keeping a balance between factors; more growth but with less unsustainable practices.

Kenya will be hosting the first global Sustainable Blue Economy Conference from 26-28 November 2018 in Nairobi.  All are invited, with special arrangements to welcome the marginalised and often excluded parties (e.g. poor communities and small-scale fishers). However, the question remains: will all have equal voices and approve the agenda? See for more details.

Attri, V.N. (2018). The Blue Economy and the Theory of Paradigm Shifts. In Attri, V.N. and Bohler-Muller, N. (Eds). (2018). The Blue Economy Handbook of the Indian Ocean Region. (pp. 15 – 37).  Africa Institute of South Africa.
Attri, V.N. and Bohler-Muller, N. (2018). The Beginning of the Journey. In Attri, V.N. and Bohler-Muller, N. (Eds.). (2018). The Blue Economy Handbook of the Indian Ocean Region. (pp. 1 – 12). Africa Institute of South Africa.
African Union (2012). 2050 Africa’s integrated maritime strategy, version 1.0. African Union.
Barbesgaard, M. (2018). Blue growth: saviour or ocean grabbing? The Journal of Peasant Studies, 45 (1) 130 – 149.
Brent, Z.W., Barbesgaard, M. and Pedersen, C. (2018). The Blue Fix: Unmasking the politics behind the promise of blue growth. Transnational Institute.
Claudio, C. (2013). From Green to Blue Economy. Philippines Daily Enquirer 23 June 2013. Available at: [Accessed 23 Augustus 2018].
Keen, M.R., Schwarz A-M and Wini-Simeon. Towards defining the Blue Economy: Practical lessons from Pacific Ocean governance. Marine policy, 88 (2018), 333-341.
UNCTAD. (2014). The Oceans Economy: Opportunities and Challenges for Small Island Developing States. United Nations Publications.
Verma, N. (2018). Integrating a Gender Perspective into the Blue Economy. In Attri, V.N. and Bohler-Muller, N. (Eds.). (2018). The Blue Economy Handbook of the Indian Ocean Region. (pp. 98 – 124). Africa Institute of South Africa.
UNECA. (2016). Africa’s Blue Economy: A Policy Handbook. Economic Commission for Africa.

This blog article is part of a series related to the Development Dialogue 2018 Conference that was recently held at the ISS.

JS Photo #1

About the author:

Johan Spamer is a researcher at ISS in the domain of multi-stakeholders initiatives (MSIs), inclusive development and innovation, specifically within the Blue Economy.

ISS hosts 16th Development Dialogue for early-stage researchers

The Development Dialogue, an annual event organized by and for PhD researchers, this year welcomes over 80 participants. The conference theme is “Social Justice amidst the Convergence of Crises: Repoliticitzing Inequalities”. Does this sound intriguing, and do you want to know more? Perhaps you’re interested in attending some of the panels? This article provides a short summary of the conference.

The Development Dialogue (DD), an annual event for and by PhD students from across the globe, is taking place on 1 and 2 November 2018 at the ISS. It will bring together two renowned scholars and over 80 participants to share scholarly works and reflect on ideas and views around the topic “Social Justice amidst the Convergence of Crises: Repoliticizing Inequalities”.

The 16th Development Dialogue will offer PhD students and other early-stage scholars working within the broad field of Development Studies the platform and space to revisit and bring back politics into the inequality debate in particular and development discourse in general as a way of advancing the course of global social justice.

What’s in a name?

This year’s focus finds resonance in the global call to tackle inequalities, which has intensified in some parts of the world, and hence, has undermined the attainment of a dignified and just society. In view of this, this year’s DD is focusing on the repoliticization of inequalities as a pertinent and overlapping issue in the development studies debate and in struggles for social justice.

The main motivation behind this year’s topic “Social Justice amidst the Convergence of Crises: Re-Politicizing Inequalities” lies in the fact that although advances have been made in addressing various inequalities, the world is experiencing backlashes both at the national and global levels, on partial account of the emergence and/or convergence of multiple crises on the economic, environmental, humanitarian, and political fronts among others.

Moreover, responses to inequalities have largely been technocratic and simplistic, as they have repeatedly skirted around structural and institutional factors, which are at the core of these challenges. Therefore, the call to repoliticize inequalities challenges the overuse of the inequality rhetoric and demands a deeper inquiry and interrogation of the existing power relations, and the structures and institutions of (re)distribution that have engendered and sustained the disparities and divisions between and amongst societies.

It is an invitation to engage in the crucial debate on how to secure a world where the vulnerable and disadvantaged are able to obtain a fair share of the public good, claim their voice, and attain a secured sense of dignity.

What’s happening at the DD16?

Responses to the call for papers have been overwhelmingly as a good number of abstracts from PhD students and young scholars were received. We are expecting to host around 80 participants from at least 25 different countries. The scientific works to be presented will be put in fourteen different parallel panel sessions.

You can view the conference programme here

In addition to the parallel panel sessions, this year’s DD will host two renowned scholars as guest speakers: Prof. Barabara Harris-White of the University of Oxford, and Prof. Dzodzi Tsikata of the Institute of African Studies of the University of Ghana and CODESRIA, who will both present keynote addresses during which they will share very exciting views on the topic in two different plenary sessions.

Professor Barbara Harriss–White is Professor Emeritus of Development Studies and Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College of the University of Oxford. Her research interests include the political economy of India and poverty and social welfare, particularly on the issues of destitution, disability, malnutrition, and gender-biased development in South Asia. She has a long-term interest in agrarian transformation in Southern India and has tracked the economy of a market town there since 1972. She held academic posts at the University of Oxford since 1987 until her retirement in 2011. She has been an adviser to the UK’S Department of International Development (DFID) and to seven UN organisations, as well as a trustee of the International Food Policy Research Institute and of Norway’s Institute for Environment and Development.

Professor Dzodzi Tsikata Dzodzi Tsikata is Research Professor and Director of the Institute of African Studies, (IAS) at the University of Ghana, Legon–Accra. Prior to assuming her current role, she was Professor at the Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research (ISSER), also at the University of Ghana. Since 2015, she has served as the President of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), after she was elected to that role at the 14th general assembly meeting which took place between 8-12 June 2015. Her academic interests include gender and development issues, as well as gender equity policies and practices.

The session of Prof. White will take place on 1 November at 09:00 in Aula B, and the session of Prof. Tsikata on 2 November at 11:00 in Aula B.

Together with the parallel panel sessions, the two plenary sessions therefore offer the intellectual platform and space where scholars can share their work with peers in a very friendly and relaxed environment. Indeed, participants can be assured that they will walk away after the DD not just with great feedback and an enhanced network of personal friends, but also with a sense of community with people coming from all over the world, and with whom they can continue to share and benefit from new ideas on development research.


The DD16 Organizing Committee would like to acknowledge the financial support received from the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), the European Association of Development Research and Training Institution (EADI), the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Erasmus Trustfonds. A special word of appreciation further goes to all individuals and institutional structures, particularly to the PhD community; ISS faculty members and administrative staff for the great sense of involvement, participation and support lent to the DD16 Organising Committee throughout the entire process of organizing the conference.

Authored by the DD16 Organizing Committee: Ana Lucía Badillo Salgado, Ben Yiyugsah, Emma Lynn Dadap-Cantal, Mausumi Chetia and Natacha Bruna.