Post-pandemic transformations: new directions for development studies?

Published on 26 February 2021

Hayley MacGregor

Research Fellow

Ian Scoones

Professorial Fellow

Does the pandemic reveal new directions for development studies? This was the focus of discussion at a recent IDS seminar.

A new paper in World Development on ‘post-pandemic transformations’ by a group of us at IDS was the starting point. Although the pandemic is far from over, some important themes and challenges are emerging. You can watch the presentation and excellent discussion that followed here:


The pandemic has revealed many of the fractures and contradictions of conventional development. Heightened inequalities, failures to address environmental sustainability, rising authoritarianism and closing spaces for civic engagement, along with the limits of expert science advice and assumptions that the market will solve everything are all very apparent, and discussed in the paper.

But what next? And what are the implications for development studies? If development is about inclusive, progressive transformation, as STEPS Centre colleagues discussed in another recent paper, we have to think hard about how structural, systemic and enabling transformations can be combined.

This means connecting analyses of political economy and incumbent power (structural transformations), with thinking about how governments and bureaucracies can offer effective frameworks for policy (systemic transformations) to engaging with often unruly processes of change from below, where prefigured emancipatory alternatives may emerge (enabling transformations).

The experiences of Covid-19, as well as other past disease outbreaks, also prompts us to rethink disease preparedness, incertitude and the politics of knowledge.

As the discussion highlighted, the challenge for development studies is to join up these perspectives, combining disciplinary lenses and exploring the many tensions and trade-offs always evident in struggles for radical, progressive change.

Some highlights from the discussion included:

The role of the state

The important role of the state in the pandemic, not only in implementing public health measures, but also crucially guiding long-term research and development, generating innovation through supporting patient financing for vaccine development, for example.

Despite the obsession with assumed private sector efficiency and a culture of contracting-out state services, Covid-19  highlights clearly the importance of an accountable state. But the quid quo pro of state-led support, financed by tax-payers, is of course that the benefits are shared equitably and not captured by private corporations, connected to politicians through corrupt deals. The largely publicly (and philanthropically) funded vaccines for example should belong to the people, providing dividends to citizens globally.

All this of course suggests a major renegotiation of the state-market contract, and the structural political economy relations this implies. As we discussed, debates about states or markets, going back a long way at IDS, are put into fresh perspective by the pandemic.

Local government

In responding to the uncertainties of the pandemic, the unsung work of local government authorities – field-level bureaucrats in local government, health and care services – has been shown to be essential. Systemic change through locally-developed, practical initiatives are vital, and in a pandemic as in any crisis, understanding the situation on the ground is crucial  in both preparedness and response.

The hollowing out of local governments through years of cuts has reduced capacity in many countries, hampering the ability to roll out test-and-trace systems or develop local response plans. Again, the theme of decentralisation and the delivery of services at the local level through effective, accountable systems has long been a theme  in development studies; and once again its importance, for a time rather obscured, has been highlighted.

Citizen-led initiatives

Across the world, many amazing citizen-led initiatives have responded to the intersecting COVID crises:  mutual aid supplying food, care, medicines and more. In contexts where the social relations that support collective action had all but disappeared in the thrust towards marketised individualism, the ‘tools for conviviality’ have been returning.

As in past epidemics, diverse actions led by trusted forms of informal public authority have become evident, both to fill gaps in state capacity and in resistance to insensitive restrictions. But, as we discussed at the seminar, enabling, citizen-led transformation faces limits amidst authoritarian crack-downs and violence – including against religious and other minorities.

The closing ‘civic space’ seen in many parts of the world has been accelerated by lockdowns and heavy-handed, militarised enforcement, as states crush dissent or punish desperate efforts to maintain livelihoods. Yet, even in such settings, new spaces for change can still open up, with new alliances created – for example between citizens and health professionals – and new forms of emancipatory action are prefigured, even in highly constrained circumstances. The pandemic has thus revealed anew the very real tensions between authoritarian control and inclusive and emancipatory action at the heart of long-running reflections in development studies on how public authority and diverse forms of citizenship are constructed.

Informal economies

The role of informal economies has become a major focus during the pandemic – in food provisioning, in care and in wider economic support. Many of those worst affected by the ‘inequality virus’ live in poverty and marginalisation, with precarious livelihoods. Informal economic networks have proved essential for such groups across the world. In lockdown settings, for example, agricultural production by smallholders has fed into shorter value chains, with markets and exchange focused locally.

New economic arrangements relying less on commodified networks of globalised capital have emerged. Informality is often dismissed in economic analyses as inefficient and backward, yet as work dating back many decades at IDS and beyond has shown, informal economies are often important sites for innovation and inclusive economic change, spreading the gains of economic activity widely. But there are of course limits, as we discussed.

The ideal is not some sort of autarkic localism, but a new deal for integration into markets, which values the local, but does not ignore the benefits of wider, even global, economic connections. What the pandemic has shown is that economic relations between people and capital can be transformed rapidly, and before the return to ‘normal’, the lessons learned through negotiating new relationships must be learned.

Work and labour

The pandemic has revealed starkly the importance of particular types of work and labour in contemporary capitalism. We now know who are the ‘essential workers’; we know who is at the front-line and gets ill or dies disproportionately. We know too that many  such workers have low salaries, have precarious working conditions and are very often women, ethnic minorities and others generally marginalised by the mainstream capitalist economy.

In the pandemic we have revalued the role of care – in all its dimensions – and the deep contradictions with capitalism, suggesting in turn a move from a narrow  focus on profit-making to ‘life-making’, revaluing what we mean by economic activity, from the household to the nation state. As emphasised in feminist economics with its focus on care and social reproduction – another long-standing theme at  IDS – this means nothing short of a rethinking of capitalism for development.

Plural health markets

Plural health markets and mixed health financing arrangements are a feature of many health systems, as long-standing work at IDS has examined. Informal health providers and community health workers, long unrecognised and undervalued, have in some situations been the only option for homecare and advice for COVID-19. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the gap between global goals of Universal Health Coverage and realities. Health inequalities in access to care and socio-economic gradients in health status have been starkly revealed in mortality figures. Inequities in vaccine access within and between countries will widen existing fault-lines, surfacing critical ethical and other tensions, including who is trusted to provide advice and services.

All these themes – and many others we didn’t have time to discuss at the seminar – are long-running debates in development studies, now resurfaced and given new urgency by the pandemic. For over 50 years, IDS researchers and partners have been studying the role of states and markets, decentralisation and local government, citizen action in contexts of oppression, informality,  care economies and feminist perspectives on work, and much more. For rethinking pandemic preparedness and response, it will be crucial to shift a narrow technical gaze to adopt this wider set of perspectives, to see epidemics as much more than health crises.

More broadly, all are central development questions, crucial to thinking about post-pandemic transformations globally. Moreover, these are not just concerns of so-called developing countries, but are as important in Britain as in Bangladesh. Perhaps, as we concluded in the seminar discussion, the legacy of the pandemic that has affected everyone across the world is that development studies is now firmly a universal endeavour, affecting everyone, everywhere, with important opportunities for comparative reflection and learning, north and south.


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