Tag Archives politics

The politics of ethnicity: are political elites in Bolivia using indigenous discourses to win elections?

In Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America, indigenous peoples have sought greater inclusion and more rights and freedoms for many decades. While it appears that they have been somewhat successful in doing so, in reality, their lives have not changed much. Political promises to act on their behalf have not been honoured and they remain excluded and marginalized. The link between poverty and being indigenous persists. In this article, Alvaro Deuer Cenzano, ISS 2018-2019 Alumni, shows why it’s important to study the role of elites in perpetuating these social injustices, arguing that the instrumental use of ethnic discourses to win elections may be strongly contributing.


In the past few decades, more attention has been paid to the plight of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples, which form a significant part of its total population.[1] This emerged following several global developments, including the United Nations’ approval in 1989 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples under the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (no. 169). And so, after years of discussing the rights of indigenous people, in 1995, the Bolivian Congress approved a Constitutional reform that redefined its state as a “pluricultural and multi-ethnic republic”. At that time, the country’s Constitution was considered progressive in that it recognized the importance of the indigenous population, and other countries in Latin America such as Ecuador followed suit.

While this Constitution meant the official recognition of Bolivia’s multi-ethnic and pluricultural society and the expansion of indigenous people rights, it did not make provision for territorial self-government, however. In other words, government policies in the 1990s failed to enact the territorial autonomy that was desired.

This observation prompted me to ask why proposed policies and the realities of indigenous peoples remain misaligned. As a Bolivian, I have witnessed promises being made by political elites while campaigning,[2] their coming to power by claiming to represent the indigenous population, and their failure to act on their promises once they assumed office. Yet they retain power despite not delivering on their promises.

The need to understand how and why this is happening prompted me to register for a PhD study at the Graduate School of International Development at Nagoya University. Last month, I managed to successfully present my research proposal titled ‘The instrumentalization of indigenous discourse as a political strategy to win elections’. Through my PhD research, I want to explain how the discourses that political elites use in representing indigenous populations help maintain their power. The study will focus on Bolivia, but its theoretical framework can be applied to other Latin-American countries where significant segments of the population self-identify as indigenous (e.g. Guatemala, Chile, Colombia, and Peru), as well as to European countries that have undergone ethnic wars linked to nationalist sentiments driven by the discourses of political elites.

Several people tried to convince me to choose a different topic, one linked to my work experience, for example in the fields of territorial planning, health governance, or even decentralized governance. In this article, I will explain why I decided to stick to this topic and what I’m planning to do.


Discourses, discrepancies, and disillusionment

For most of the 197 years since its independence from Spain, Bolivia has been governed mainly by political parties comprising representatives drawn from white or mestizo (mixed) ethnic groups. In this period, the rights of indigenous people were neither recognized, nor assured.[3]

Things seemed to improve when the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS – Movement for Socialism) came to power in 2005 with the support of social movements and the votes of indigenous people.[4] Among its first measures was to convene a Constitutional Assembly that dealt with the indigenous demand for autonomy, self-determination, and self-government. And thus, in 2009, the new Constitution granted indigenous people territorial self-government rights. They were also assigned a number of other political, economic, linguistic, and democratic rights.[5]

Moreover, to keep the support of social movements, it combined indigenous and peasant identity categories, giving rise to the Autonomias Indigena Originario Campesinas (AIOC – Native Indigenous Peasant Autonomies), the second layer of Bolivian local governments. This would allow indigenous communities to become autonomous governments given the fulfillment of requisites overseen by the Bolivian Electoral Court and the Vice Ministry of Autonomies.

However, despite the government’s acknowledgment of indigenous people’s desire to rule their own territories, at present, only six indigenous territories have become AIOCs. Given that indigenous self-government constitutes the core of indigenous movements’ demands made to the Constitutional Assembly, a faster implementation of it would have been envisioned, which goes hand in hand with MAS power consolidation. This has raised questions about MAS’s commitment to indigenous struggles and principles despite its strong claims to represent the country’s indigenous population.


Conceptually linking ethnic and populist discourses

I therefore seek to analyze how marginalized groups’ demands for self-government, specifically the demands of indigenous peoples, are used by political elites to consolidate their hegemony and as a strategy to obtain electoral success. I believe that this results in societal polarization based on a process of ethnic identification (‘us’ vs. ‘the others’). While indigenous discourses allow so-called ethnic parties to succeed in the electoral arena, it likely also leads to the appearance (or deepening) of populist leadership traits, which represents a hazard to the consolidation of democracy. All in all, I hope to identify the mechanisms that enable ethnic parties to swing toward the populist side of an ethno-populist pendulum and its effect on the consolidation of democratic institutions.

[1] In 2021, Bolivia ranked second in Latin America when it comes to the percentage of people who claimed to be indigenous, with 41% of the total population self-identifying as such (Statista, 2022). The two biggest indigenous groups, the Quechuas and Aymaras, together represent just under 82% of the country’s indigenous population, comprising together 34% – or around one-third – of Bolivia’s total population.

[2] In the last years, Bolivia’s corruption perception index has worsened despite every candidate’s promise to fight corruption (Fides, 2022).

[3] Indigenous groups started to develop their own current of thought in Bolivia in the early 1970s when they realized that mainstream politics of the time used them and that Marxist parties were factually rendering them invisible. Thus, in the late 1980s, the first indigenous political parties were formed and started to participate in national elections, obtaining minor victories (Madrid, 2012)

[4] MAS was created in 1995 as a political instrument of different indigenous and peasants’ organizations, the latter with a strong union tradition, to access spaces of political power, initially at the local level and later, given its electoral success, on a national scale. (Valdivia, 2016, pág. 24).

[5] See Articles 30 – 32 of the current Constitution (Plurinational Legislative Assembly of Bolivia, 2009).

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

About the author:

Alvaro Deuer Cenzano is a Business Administrator and Political Scientist with 10 + years of professional experience in public policy implementation in local development, territorial and institutional planning, and comparative research in decentralization, public finance, education, and ethnic politics.  Currently, pursuing a Ph.D. in Development Studies at Nagoya University and looking for opportunities to expand his networks and join Think Tanks or NGO industries in the development and public policy-related areas.

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Amid the US-Sino rivalry: how high is the risk of a deglobalisation trajectory for China?

The ongoing military conflict between Ukraine and Russia has allegedly changed the course of history and revived the era of ‘Great Power Rivalry’. Under this backdrop of re-energised geopolitical competition, the hostile rhetoric and posture have only further aggravated between the U.S. and China, especially regarding the ‘Taiwan issue’. Re-assertion of the international order dominated by the west, and counteraction of it (led by Russia and China), have led to a more fractured world both politically and economically. In the meantime, as most of the world has stepped out of the horror of Covid-19 pandemic, China’s continuing resolute containment measures and minimum border entry have astonished audiences in the west and beyond. These Covid-related restrictions coupled with China’s position in the rivalry with the U.S., have posed the question of whether China is gradually taking a deglobalisation course? Because China is so deeply ingrained in many aspects of globalization, including the global trade network, the answer to this question will not only have a significant bearing on China’s economic development and state-building, but it will also have significant worldwide implications. In this blog, we endeavor to answer this question by taking stock of modern China’s history of globalisation as well as the discourse around it and taking into account the consequences of the present Ukraine-Russia conflict.

Photo credit: KYIV POST

A historical sketch of globalisation in modern China:

Globality has been an essential part of the discourse of modernity in the non-European world, when western history has become world history and those being perceived as oriental or raw have been compelled into this form of world history. The choice of globalisation has never been a given for modern China, and the early encounters with the Europeans has been stamped and memorised as ‘sovereign door being knocked open by the cannons’ and ‘Century of Humiliation’. Since the ‘humiliation’ was primarily caused by techno-scientific backwardness of the old, un-modernised China, the discourse of modernity had mainly been formulated as techno-scientific and economic progress, with even cultural inferiority mostly enunciated as a hindrance to scientific advancement. While globalisation was forced upon China and its past was derogated for absence of any elements of modernity, China paradoxically had been looking outward for its ideal model of modernity and formation of nation-state, especially from nations that bore some similarity with China in the past— ranging from Sun Yat-Sen’s acclaim of Japanese victory in Russo-Japanese war as ‘our own victory’, and communists’ marvel at Soviet Union’s rapid industrialisation during Stalin’s rule, to China’s learning and replication from newly industrialised east Asian countries in post-Mao period. The most notable walking-back of globalisation in modern China was the Soviet-Sino split from 1960 when China severed economic ties and technological exchange with Soviet Union and consequently most of the socialist camp that China once belonged to, with reasons ranging from Soviet Union’s unfulfilled promise of technology transfer to personal enmity between top leaders. Nevertheless, even under the integument of revolutionary discourse of modernity in late Mao-era, huge underlying efforts had been made by the technocrats led by then premier Zhou Enlai to pursue (and had achieved to some extent) techno-scientific progress and capital accumulation in the industrial sector (Yao, 2019). At last, unprecedented economic and technological progress has been most-effectively achieved in modern China since the 1980s, which features deepening globalisation, with China also taking lead on initiatives in issues like global infrastructure development and climate change to gain a bigger footprint in global governance. Nevertheless, recent signs are emerging that the Chinese state is tending to downplay the importance of globalisation to economic achievement (the advocacy of ‘dual circulation’ economic development pattern, in which global economic cycle plays a supplementary role relative to domestic economic cycle) and is willing to compromise the economic benefits of globalisation for political and public-health ends (divergent Covid-19 policy).


China’s choices in the ‘Great Power Rivalry’:

Utilitarians put emphasis on material and economic gains and ignore the role of values in driving human and social behaviors, however, the materialistic and individualistic approach of utilitarianism may fail to explain certain strategic decisions based on calculations beyond economic rationalisation. Recent events have shown that, when factoring non-material values into social behaviours, the underprivileged could take on a trade-off between nationalistic values and economic benefits in severely unequal and polarised society, which has been manifested in the form of populism that climaxed in the trade war that former U.S. President Donald Trump (Murshed, 2020) waged against several countries, and in the form of outright war that Russia wages presently against its western neighbor. The mechanism behind such a non-utilitarian rationalisation is that the feeling of deprivation and grievance arising from unequal distribution of economic output is compensated by the sense of fairness arising from the collective glorification or collective insecurity during conflicts (whether armed or unarmed) fought for nationalist rhetoric. Thus, on one hand, a repetition of Russian experience as deglobalisation by outright military conflict in Taiwan strait could happen in China, as two countries bear similarities in both the dynamics of ‘Great Power Rivalry’ with the U.S. and domestic factors pertaining to authoritarian rule and severe socio-economic inequality. On the other hand, the Russian economy has exhibited a certain level of resilience under western sanctions mainly because of Europe’s energy reliance on it, and this dynamic has shown that economic dependence is an advantage to be leveraged even when globalisation is compromised for other political ends.


In all, China has been going through considerable reconfigurations in a broad range, including assertion in global economic and political sphere, revival of Confucian values, and strengthening of patriarchal authoritarianism within party-state, since mid 2010s, when China’s share in world economic output approximately reached historical level, which was generally above 20% before mid-19th century (Broadberry et al., 2018). Currently, by displaying strategic behaviors across different issue areas, China is seeking space to further gain techno-scientific and economic prowess, while at the same time, preserving the party-state’s political and economic interests at home and abroad. Russia’s war against Ukraine could also prompt a profound re-calibration of China’s globalisation policy as the possibility of a west-east division resembling the cold war era rises. If any lessons can be drawn from the Soviet-Sino split in the Mao-era and the recent deglobalisation courses that populist governments (Brexit, Trump’s tariff war) and authoritarian regime (Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) have taken, we believe that the level of patriarchal authoritarianism within party-state and socio-economic inequality (not always independent of one another) are the two most significant home elements in any potential reversal of globalisation course for China. Inopportunely, the trends for these two domestic factors are on the side of disruption rather than cooperation within the current international order dominated by the west. However, in the manner that the conditions of deglobalisation have been partly brought about by the rise of China’s relative economic and technological strength in the world, globality will persist in any measured deglobalisation, which should be dynamic and imbalanced among multi-fronts if it would occur.

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

About the authors:


Li Yanbai is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). His research interests lie in China’s resources trade with developing countries and the causes and consequences of socio-economic inequality in China and beyond.






Hao Zhang is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). Before joining ISS, she was a master’s student majoring in international affairs at School of Global Policy and Strategy at University of California, San Diego. Her current research focuses on policy advocacy of Chinese NGOs in global climate governance. Her research interests lie in global climate politics and diplomacy, and NGO development in China.

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Integrated approach to research: Towards transformation of social (gender) injustices: A case of understanding gender-land injustice

This article is a contribution to the transformative methodologies blog series. It argues that employing an integrated approach to research, by equally highlighting status order (such as gender relations, by utilising a gender lens), challenges the focus only on class or political-economic dimensions of research concerns. Hence, an integrated approach to research brings forth the integration of economic (distribution), cultural (recognition), and political (representation) dimensions in knowledge production, thereby challenging the conventional methodological approaches, and elucidating the neglect and invisibility of an equally important research dimension, such as gender relations. 

What is integrated approach and what makes it transformative?

The theory on integrated approach is taken from Fraser’s theory of integrative approach to justice. In this article, the integrated approach is taken and discussed as a methodological approach in knowledge production. This means, taking cognisant consideration of the economic (mal)distribution, cultural (mis)recognition, and political (mis)representation (Fraser, 1999, 2005) in research. As such, these three spheres are considered as equal loci of power structures. Thus, an integrated approach not only challenges power hierarchies, and dominant perspectives and approaches in research, but also explores the transformative potential of undertaking research.

According to Fraser (2005:73), overcoming injustice means eliminating the institutionalised barriers (economic, cultural, and political) that hinder “parity participation” in societal interaction, between and among social classes and status order. Injustice emanates from economic maldistribution, cultural misrecognition (especially women’s subordination to men), and political misrepresentation. Thus, an integrated approach to justice becomes useful in developing a more comprehensive understanding of social injustice, by bringing both gender and class concerns simultaneously to the forefront of research and analysis. In the following sections, I use the case of land injustice to illustrate the utility and challenges of employing an integrated approach towards developing a nuanced understanding of the various intersecting forces that shape and sustain land injustice.

Understanding an integrated approach to research: the case of gender and land injustice

The economic sphere of justice centres on the redistribution of resources, where class structure is the main barrier. When people are deprived of required economic resources to participate fully in societal life, there is a distributive injustice (Fraser, 1999/2005). This subscribes to the Marxian understanding that class is an economic relation between the capitalist and proletariat, and thus focuses on structures of exploitation and domination (Wright, E.O. 2009:60). Examining the agrarian structure, for instance, Borras, (1997/2007) found the link between landlessness and peasants’ socio-economic status in relation to land reform. Borras elucidated, among other factors, that landlessness has a direct correlation with peasants’ poverty and injustice, and landowners’ domination and violence (Ibid). Similarly, feminist scholars have found that women’s landlessness is brought about by both — a lack of land redistribution, and a lack of recognition of women’s equal land rights (see for example, Deere and Leon, 2001, Jacobs, 2013, Deere, 2017 , and Bejeno 2021a and 2021b).

The cultural sphere, which centres on the recognition of status order, posits that status relations (in this case the gender relations) is the main barrier. When people, particularly women, are deprived of required recognition to fully participate in societal life, there is recognition injustice (Fraser, 1999/2005). This gender injustice is produced and reproduced through patriarchy or male supremacy, and is described as “the institutional all-encompassing power that men, as a group, have over women, [along with] the systematic devaluation of all the roles and traits which the society has assigned to women.” (Popkin, A., 1979).  Therefore, under patriarchy, men obtain economic, cultural, and political dominance, on one hand, and maintain women’s subordination and oppression on the other. This divide between hegemonic power of men, and the subordination of women, shapes the societal everyday practices, norms, and public policies, that in turn produce and reproduce gender-based injustice, such as land injustice (Bejeno 2021a).

Now, in the political sphere, which centres on the representation of peoples (in this case of women’s voices and participation), the political structure is the main barrier. When people (such as poor women and men) are deprived of participation, such as in framing policies, there is a representation injustice (Fraser, 2005). The political misrepresentation of women, for instance, in policy formulation and implementation (be it in state or peoples’ organization), may jeopardise women’s advancement and equality, such as in land (Bejeno, 2021a). Thus, by employing an integrated approach to research, the simultaneous scrutiny of the economic, cultural, and political sphere, as discussed above, can result in a more holistic and nuanced understanding of the intersecting injustices at play, thereby pointing to more transformative solutions for societal change.

Barriers in using integrated approach to research in understanding land injustice

In land reform and peasants’ studies, various dimensions of land justice are oftentimes ignored, which render gender (in)justice invisible. Gender justice here means that women are also recognised, for instance, to own land independently, or as co-owners in the event of all agrarian land redistribution (Bejeno, 2021a). Many studies are oftentimes not cognisant of gender inequality and fail to consider the contemporary status relations in the society. Therefore, the land reform discourse remains generally centred on class question, which in turn, continuously neglects gender-based injustice in land reform. Moreover, such a discourse is also bolstered by discriminatory laws and policies, women’s ignorance to their land rights, male dominance in decision-making bodies, directed distribution of land to household heads, (primarily men), and the strong opposition of men, on one hand, and non-assertion of women, on the other regarding their land rights (Agarwal, 1994a; Deere and Leon 2001; Levien, 2017; Morgan, 2017; Leonard, et.al 2015 Bejeno, 2021b:7-8).

This discourse is also rooted in the undervaluation or devaluation of women’s labor and contribution to production, and the equation of reproductive work to ‘unemployment’ (Bejeno, 2021a). Women’s access to, and control over land, is oftentimes determined by the patriarchal households (Walker, 2003:143). And in many cases, women may not necessarily inherit from their husbands in case of widowhood, such as in Sub-Saharan Africa (Doss et.al, 2014) and Asia (Agarwal 1994a and 1994b). A household, therefore, can be a site of women’s oppression (Jacobs, 2002:33, see also Agarwal 1994a) and women’s exclusion from land ownership (Ibid; Bejeno, 2021a; Kieran et.al, 2015; Leonard et.al, 2015, Alano, 2015). In effect, by giving primacy to the economic or productive aspects in research, any other  form of intervention becomes problematic, which, therefore, cyclically places women in less valued, invisible, and marginalised socio-economic and political status, and thus neglects the interconnected root causes of societal inequality and injustice.

Using a gender justice approach, therefore, can illuminate the gender-based power relations and dynamics. Thus, an integrated and transformative approach to land injustice would entail not only ensuring access to and control over land resources for women and other marginalised groups, but also engendering fundamental changes in perceptions of and about women as citizens and human beings (Cornwall, 2016). Transformative approach, therefore, requires an overhaul of social structures and power asymmetries to build a just society, where people, regardless of gender and other status order, have equitable resources, standing, and voice (Fraser 2005).

Paving the way forward for transformative social change

In conclusion, a transformative methodology in research considers both the class hierarchy or economic maldistribution, status relations (such as gender relations) or cultural recognition, and political structure or misrepresentation, to  understand and address societal problems in a more nuanced and comprehensive manner.  The case of land injustice discussed in this article illustrates, for instance, how gender relations, as a form of status order, is often neglected in  more traditional research approaches, and how an integrated approach can offer a more nuanced analysis by taking into account gender relations as a critical dimension of inquiry in agrarian concern. Such an approach, therefore, may result addressing the gendered control of assets, decision-making power within the household and communities, and women’s participation, among others, thereby leading to a more transformative change in the long term.

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

About the author:

Cynthia Embido Bejeno is a PhD and a Guest Researcher of Civic Innovation group at ISS

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

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

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

Changing how we ‘understand’ and ‘do’ development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Value diverse knowledge and expertise.

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

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

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

3. Understand, address and challenge power imbalances.

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

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

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

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

About the author:

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

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COVID-19 and Conflict | How pandemic regulations are being used to target the political opposition in Zimbabwe

Introduction to ‘Covid-19 and Conflict’ Blog Series: When Disasters, Conflict and Covid-19 Collide

Responding to the international Covid-19 pandemic is particularly complex in settings of (post) conflict and/or conflict settings underpinned by authoritarian political regimes. In such scenarios, the national responses to the pandemic may be weakened, the infrastructure to respond adequately may be lacking, and power games may easily ensue where response to the pandemic get instrumentalised to serve political interests. To get a better grasp of the interaction and dynamics of top-down and bottom-up Covid-19 responses in such settings, research was conducted in seven different contexts over the summer of 2020, and the findings will be showcased on Bliss through several blog articles. 

The research underlying the blogs was facilitated by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and made possible by a NWO grant (number 453-14-013). It is linked to the research project ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict’ (Discord) hosted at the ISS. More comprehensive findings of the case studies will be shared in different formats, including working papers or articles, on the VICI research webpage: www.iss.nl/whendisastermeetsconflict

Covid-19 and Conflict | How pandemic regulations are being used to target the political opposition in Zimbabwe

By James Kunhiak Muorwel, Lara Vincent and Lize Swartz

Relatively few Covid-19 infections and deaths have been registered in Zimbabwe, yet the Southern African country has been hit hard by the pandemic. Our recent research on Covid-19 responses in Zimbabwe shows that in the face of a strict lockdown and ongoing economic repercussions, one of the biggest worries for Zimbabwean citizens ironically is falling prey to the instrumental and strategic use of laws meant to protect them from the virus, which are apparently being used to continue decades-long political repression.

prison covid corona

While Zimbabwe has registered relatively few Covid-19 cases since the virus first appeared here on 20 March this year, the country’s political and socio-economic situation has ensured that the pandemic’s impact has been severe despite low infection and death rates. A country in Sub-Saharan Africa notorious for years of misrule and economic mismanagement under Robert Mugabe following independence from Britain in 1980, Zimbabwe’s challenges have been severe. Now, hopes of progress in the country’s ongoing bid to free itself from the chains of dictatorship that have bound it for decades and the consequent economic effects that continue to haunt the country following the transition to a new government have been dashed by the onset of the pandemic in March. Critical voices have been forcefully silenced by the current regime, which has used the pandemic as a pretext for renewed political repression.

Research on Covid-19 responses in Zimbabwe carried out between June and August this year by James Kunhiak Muorwel and Lara Vincent sought to provide a compact overview of grounded experiences of life in Zimbabwe during the lockdown. For the research, the greatest challenges for civil society, in particular given Zimbabwe’s fragile political context, were investigated by conducting online interviews with some key informants and studying reports, news articles, and other sources. A few key findings are detailed below.

Like most other countries, following the first registered case of Covid-19 in March this year, Zimbabwe introduced stringent measures to slow the spread of the virus. Measures were rolled out in two phases: first, in April, the country was placed under a total lockdown lasting for 21 days. All economic activity ceased as people were confined to their houses, forced to eke out a living and survive on the bare minimum. Then, the economy was partially reopened and the movement of people eased in a bid to prevent the economy from suffering further and to counter hunger and increased poverty.

But especially in the first lockdown phase, many Zimbabweans were forced to break lockdown regulations—with severe consequences. A majority of Zimbabweans rely on the informal sector for their living. In 2020, the World Bank estimated that extreme poverty in the country is on the rise – “from 29 percent in 2018 to 34 percent in 2019”. It could even get worse when you add to the mix the impact of the pandemic and lockdown on the country.

The impact has already been significant, compounded by health and sanitation problems, poor economic performance, high unemployment rates, droughts, food insecurity, corruption, and the general political climate in the country. Closing businesses and restricting free movement of the majority of the population who rely on informal jobs for survival as part of the lockdown might have been economic suicide for the country. As lockdown measures took effect and most businesses remained closed, many families went hungry, without money to stock enough food. Basic staple food items such as mealie meal (maize meal) became scarce. Cases of gender-based violence have spiked during this period partly because families are confined to one living environment for longer periods than before the lockdown. It may have also exacerbated anxiety and mental health problems.

Many Zimbabweans thus felt they had no choice but to disobey the regulations, our research shows. Their actions attracted a disproportionate response from the government. In July 2020, the BBC reported that 105,000 people said to have breached restrictions were arrested. These numbers quoted are between March (when the lockdown came into effect) and July, but more people might be behind bars. Parliamentarians representing the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a renowned journalist, as well as a prominent novelist were arrested in July for organizing an ‘illegal’ gathering to protest against the lockdown measures, exposing corruption, and demand for the resignation of President Emerson Mnangagwa. The government has called those arrested “dark forces,” and the protesters a “few bad apples”.

Our interviews[1] with research participants, as well as a study of NGO reports and continuous allegations by human rights groups, have revealed widespread arrests and money extortion by the state’s security apparatuses during the lockdown. As Peter[2], one of the research participants, bluntly stated, “for me, the lockdown was a convenient political state of emergency, not necessarily a public health statement.” He also expressed his frustration that citizens who were being arrested for breaking lockdown regulations were being placed in crowded cells where social distancing was not possible.

The phenomenon of arresting opposition figures is not new. For over four decades, the political regime headed by former president Robert Mugabe was characterized by violent suppression of political dissent. The opposition was targeted under the pretext of bogus laws that made their actions appear illegal. His successor, current President Manangagwa, has also been accused by human rights groups and the opposition party of using old tactics to exploit the current situation. Yet the transition to a new political regime following Mugabe’s toppling brought hope to many Zimbabweans. It now seems overshadowed by the threat of violent repression—the spectre seems to have not disappeared, after all.

Staying at home is not an option for most Zimbabweans, especially when they do not have savings or social protection measures to help them bear the economic burden of the pandemic lockdown. As they continue moving around, they continue putting themselves at risk of arrest and torture by the police, first, and of infection with Covid-19, second. What will the consequences be?

Zimbabwe is not the first country to treat a pandemic or a disasters triggered by natural hazards as a national security issue, but it is the consequences of the government’s actions at this particular time that are worrying. We anticipate that harassment and illegal arrests of political opponents and vendors by police in the name of lockdown violations will leave the society polarised more than ever before thereby setting the stage for more street confrontations between the security apparatuses and the demonstrators. It is troubling that there is a brutal crackdown on the violation of lockdown regulations without taking into account the circumstances, and we see that street vendors, commuters and the like are treated as political opponents. It is imperative to continue sharing grounded experiences of political repression in Zimbabwe and to speak out against it so that it does not undo all the progress that has been achieved in the last few years in reversing the devastating impacts of Zimbabwe’s rule under Mugabe’s dictatorial regime.

[1] A research project on Covid-19 in Zimbabwe that was conducted by Lara Vincent and James Kunhiak Muorwel between June and August 2020 was part of the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam’s “When Disaster Meets Conflict” project that looks at ‘informing better linkages between top-down, external measures and local, socially and culturally appropriate initiatives’. NWO project number 453/14/013

[2] Name has been changed to protect interviewee’s identity.

About the authors:

James Kunhiak Muorwel holds an MA degree in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam and BA in Business Administration from Makerere University. His recent research was on the Covid-19 situation in Zimbabwe. He also has many years of work experience with international development organisations, including the UN. Follow him on Twitter @JKunhiak

Lara Vincent holds an MA degree in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. While at ISS she majored in Agrarian, Food and Environmental Studies, with a specialisation in Environment and Sustainable Development.

Lize SwartzLize Swartz is the editor of ISS Blog Bliss and a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She researches the biopolitics of water scarcity in South Africa.

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Sri Lankan President Sirisena’s political war on drugs by Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena’s answer to drug-related crimes is bringing back the death penalty. According to recent reports, international drug smugglers are increasingly turning to Sri Lanka as a transit hub in Asia, while drug-related arrests are on the rise. The question is whether the war on drugs is winnable and whether the death penalty will help. Framing the anti-narcotics efforts as a war has been a selling point for the public who are getting weary of everyday drug abusers and dealers.

On 26 June 2019, Sirisena signed death warrants for four prisoners serving sentences for drug-related crimes. His signature brought an end to a 43-year moratorium on the death penalty which begun following a final capital punishment case in 1976.

Sirisena’s return to the death penalty has provoked mixed responses. Some point out that Sirisena cannot present evidence to show that the death penalty can save future generations from the scourge of narcotics and drug trafficking. His attempt to link an undisclosed drug mafia with the April 2019 Easter bombings did not prove convincing for most observers. The claim was flatly contradicted by a Special Presidential Committee appointed to probe the Easter attacks and statements issued by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. As Sirisena’s arch rival in politics, Wickremesinghe points the finger at home-grown jihadists. Linking drugs with terrorism is a familiar fable in the history of war in Sri Lanka.

Fearing that he might lose the support of his own government, President Sirisena has announced that he will declare a day of ‘national mourning’ if the government does not agree to his reinstatement of capital punishment or seeks to abolish it. For many in Sri Lankan politics, whatever the scale of the drug problem at hand, bringing back capital punishment for drug offences sounds like an over-reaction.

Legal experts point to pitfalls in the road ahead. Reinstating the death penalty requires approval both from an extremely divided national legislature and the Supreme Court. Their legal–moral appeal seems to have had some effect on Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhala–Buddhist population. But the President’s efforts to convince the public by citing blessings he received from a number of Buddhist clergymen have mostly fallen on deaf ears.

Sirisena’s move to bring back the death penalty is not out of character. Almost immediately after being sworn into office in 2015, Sirisena started a morality-inspired war against narcotics. He launched an anti-drug elite task force and increased police powers to deal with drug offenders. An island-wide anti-drug awareness campaign led to the establishment of thousands of committees in schools and villages to combat drugs. Yet in December 2018, Sri Lanka voted in favour of a final moratorium on the death penalty at the United Nations General Assembly. This vote was retracted just six months later. The background to this turn is developing dynamics in Colombo’s political settlement and the huge political stakes involved in the gamble to bring back capital punishment.

Sirisena has tied the war to his personal as well as political agenda. Like his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, who won the ‘war against terrorism’, Sirisena wants to go down in history for having saved Sri Lanka in the war on drugs. One can attribute President Sirisena’s toughness and bravado of his resolve to an inspirational meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in January 2019. This ‘toughness’ is an effort to politically re-brand himself as stronger and more powerful than Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, a competitor in the December presidential elections.

As a former defence secretary, Rajapaksa has already earned a reputation for being ‘tough on crime’. Contrary to Rajapaksa’s hard-man political image, Sirisena is often depicted as softly spoken and temple-worshipping — an ordinary man of the village. Although Sirisena has yet to officially declare his intention to contest the presidency, his decision to bring back the death penalty could be a sign that he is preparing such an announcement. Reinforcing a reputation for ‘toughness’ is vital for Sirisena given his rapidly declining public approval ratings following the disastrous Easter bombings.

The question is whether the war on drugs is winnable and whether the death penalty will help. Framing the anti-narcotics efforts as a war has been a selling point for the public who are getting weary of everyday drug abusers and dealers. Considerable political momentum was created by the ending of almost 25 years of civil war, and people are accustomed to the warfare frame of reference.

As intended, the reintroduction of the death penalty received the expected reaction from local and international civil society organisations, the United Nations and Western governments — the so-called ‘coalition of enemies’ of the majority Sinhala–Buddhist constituency. Ultimately Sirisena’s political fate will depend on this constituency, which so far seems supportive of his gambit.

Although there are no clear signs that Sirisena will be re-elected, he is making small gains by drawing political attention to himself, while distracting the electoral mass away from compelling issues of national security and economic development. Sirisena’s choice of battleground has been executed with almost military precision, reminding us of Clauzewitz’s claim that ‘war is politics by other means’.

This article was originally published by the East Asia Forum.

About the author: 


Dr. Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits is an Assistant Professor in Conflict and Peace Studies at ISS/Erasmus University Rotterdam. She holds a PhD in Development Studies from  the ISS and an MA in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding from Eastern Mennonite University, Virginia, USA. Her current research agenda covers a wide variety of themes including, security sector reform, challenges of post-conflict transition and diaspora politics.