From the tragic death of George Floyd in the US, to reports of the collapse of the health system in Yemen, stories of the terrible and deep-seated injustices and inequalities that pervade our world continue to be at the forefront of our minds. As an Institute for development studies, we are committed to a more equal and sustainable world and research, learning and teaching that contributes to transformative change. But in the face of such embedded inequalities and injustices what must we do to make these commitments real?
Changing how we ‘understand’ and ‘do’ development
These injustices and inequalities are by no means new, but they 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 conflict, new technologies and more. 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 back better’ and to rethink development as transformative change.
At IDS, we have identified five key areas in which a collective endeavour within, across and beyond the development sector is urgently needed.
1. Recognise that development means progressive change for everyone, everywhere
The Sustainable Development Goals were established to ensure that no-one is left behind. Yet more needs to be done to make the universality of development a driving force for change. The Covid-19 crisis has underlined this critical need. It has affected high-, middle- and low-income countries, albeit in different ways, and elicited diverse responses with different degrees of success, from which there is much to learn, in multiple directions. In responding to the social and economic impacts of both the disease and control measures, Covid-19 has forced governments across richer as well as poorer countries to consider ‘development’ policies and practices such as humanitarian reconstruction, new forms of social protection, and programmes targeting the most vulnerable. It has shone a light on inequities within and between countries – such as the disproportionate impact on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups, and the potentially catastrophic impact on countries such as Yemen with weak or non-existent health systems. In response, we must call time on the exceptionalism that has permeated ideas about what development is, how and where it happens and who it applies to.
2. Build and connect solidarities for collective action, locally and globally
Responses to global challenges such as 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 vulnerable, community 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 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.
3. Meet the challenges of uncertainty by working adaptively and in ways that are informed by people’s lived realities
Our world is highly uncertain. How we live, work and connect is being disrupted by rising temperatures, new technologies, emerging diseases and displacement caused by conflict and climate change. These are not issues amenable to the planning and control-oriented interventions that have been core to much conventional development. Nor can they be reduced to risks that can be neatly identified, predicted, controlled and overcome. Instead, we face far more complex, messy, ongoing situations involving emergent effects and feedbacks. This requires flexibility, adaptation, iteration and learning-by-doing, and an emphasis on the building of resilient systems. Ways of working must also be shaped by a deep understanding of how different people in different places experience and respond to these disruptions and multiple uncertainties in their everyday lives. Covid-19 has demonstrated the inadequacy of our institutions and systems in responding effectively to uncertainty, and their inability – and unwillingness – to embrace it. This needs to change.
4. Value diverse knowledge and expertise
We need 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 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. It means investing 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.
5. 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 more widely and deeply in attempts to influence change and transformation. And 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. 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 institutional practices.
In the next five years IDS is committed to advancing this collective endeavour. Read more about our commitments and priorities. We would also invite thoughts on what we and others should being doing differently if we are to realise transformational change for a more equitable and sustainable world.