Looking at UK issues through an international lens

Published on 7 May 2019

Richard Longhurst

Research Associate

It still remains a surprise – well, to me at least – that the divisions in research and practice between UK domestic affairs and international development remain so marked today.  Despite extensive discussions on ‘the role and future of development studies’ it appears that most people remain entrenched in a North to South view of the world.  Our guiding star in development should be to adopt ideas and models of practice from whatever context on the basis of developing a better understanding of what works where and why. But there are few incentives to do that and institutions that will support it.

This approach is especially pertinent now we have entered the era of the Sustainable Development Goals. These are 17 global goals that apply to all, in areas as diverse as climate, water, poverty and food, with targets for achievement by 2030.  The UK government is due to report this year on its progress to date in reaching SDG goals.

IDS students and alumni lead the way on universal ideas in development

So, at this point I want to bang the drum for IDS students and alumni who have pioneered in this area. Back in 1977, a group of IDS students wrote a chapter titled Are Development Studies Relevant to British Problems?, in a book edited by Richard Jolly, Milestones and Turning Points in Development Thinking, where they  questioned why development issues were only applied to poor countries? Accordingly, the syllabus of the MPhil was modified to address Britain as a case for development and the role of North Sea oil in particular.

Since then some IDS students have bravely avoided adopting the traditional North-South flow of ideas and practice in their dissertations.  I reviewed the majority of the titles of MA dissertations from 1996 to 2015, and I found about two dozen (about 2%) have looked at UK issues though a universal lens, mostly in the areas of gender and participation. Students having the advantage of not been constrained by institutional set-ups and funding about what to research.

At the same time, IDS is generating a wide range of work in the universal mode, including an archive Bulletin that brings together selected research on universal development, with examples of practice, and looks ahead to suggest how ideas could be applied generally to make development studies and practice more universal. And more recently, work on an exchange of lessons on health and social care between China and the UK.

How the UK Welfare State could benefit from international experiences

It is with this background that I have been so excited about the work of Hilary Cottam, also an IDS alumna, who came to IDS to give a seminar on why we need a social revolution to achieve the SDGs, and to record a podcast episode about her book Radical Help. Hilary’s book describes her ten-year experiment to design working exemplars of a new welfare state in the UK, moving forward a new vision for the welfare state. These exemplars introduced radical approaches, in five main areas: family life, growing up and adolescence, good work, good heath and ageing well. She highlights the importance of nurturing relationships as the cornerstone to these experiments, and placing decision making and power in the hands of those for whom the welfare state is designed. This is developed using participatory methods, a product of IDS research and teaching over the last 30 years.

Using a well-used phrase, this is classic ‘thinking outside the box’ using new approaches, and all fully costed. Practice ‘inside the box’ was just not working and proved to be very expensive, but there was little impetus to move to new and effective approaches. In a significant phrase, Hilary says that the ‘welfare state will catch us when we fall, but it cannot help us take flight’. Taking flight requires significant new thinking and experimentation.

Learning from international models

Hilary took clear risks in terms of the ideas she was trialling and putting into practice, given the diversity of contexts: she harvested experiences if these had worked, wherever they were implemented. She has drawn on her own background working in the Dominican Republic, Zambia and Peckham in south London. For example, for programmes on adolescents, she borrowed from other examples of intergenerational projects:  Harlem’s Children’s Zone where the philosophy was that the success of young people and the success of the community go hand in hand, from Japanese state-sponsored initiatives that support young people to find their role within their communities, and in Brazil a programme called Saloa do Encontro (meeting places), that designs spaces for adults and children to create, be and learn together.

But in the face of much evidence on what works, there was an inability to act.  Institutions and incentives did not align. To find out more and to understand what worked and what did not, I encourage you to listen to the podcast and to read her book. I hope that Radical Help will encourage more students to take up these ideas for their research in development studies, and to take these lessons forward into their careers.

Listen to the podcast

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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