Reimagining development thinking

July 6, 2021

Development thinking is in a state of flux. Researchers in Sweden discuss its implications and alternatives.

Photo: Unsplash / Joshua Sortino

Recent trends have triggered new debates on development thinking and work. The boundaries between rich and poor countries are questioned and changed, and development is increasingly seen as a global concern. What do these recent shifts mean for our understanding of development as a concept and as a discipline, and what are its consequences?

SweDev invited panellists Professor Maria Eriksson Baaz, Professor Anna-Karin Hurtig and Professor Henning Melber to a roundtable at DevRes 2021. Chaired by Professor Fredrik Söderbaum, the discussion centred around the changes in contemporary development thinking and its implications for the field.

A challenged development concept

Ever since the end of World War II, development studies have been centred around the North-South divide, enforcing an unequal relationship and a dichotomous division between people and countries. This understanding of development has further been reinforced in policy and practice. It is, nevertheless, increasingly challenged. Development is more and more perceived as a universal concern stretching across all countries globally. In research on global health, for example, many broader determinants are linked to forces that are beyond the division between poor and rich countries, Hurtig explained. Eriksson Baaz also presented trends of disappearing distinctions between the North and the South – thereby “undoing development” as we have known it, both in factual terms and in the development rhetoric. Factually, there is a growing convergence between countries today in terms of development indicators such as economic growth, education, and life expectancy. Many development issues, in particular climate change, are also global rather than national. In addition, there are increasing inequalities within countries rather than between. In development rhetoric, new agendas, including Agenda 2030, open up for moving beyond the traditional siloed focus on development separated along the North-South divide.

Inclusion and exclusion of what?

The consequences of re-thinking development appear quite complex. On the one hand, understanding development studies as any development issue anywhere in the world may create an impossibly wide field. Moving beyond the traditional focus of development studies risks, on the other hand, losing research on issues focused on the Global South. At times, there are specific needs to build capacity for research to be undertaken in low-resource settings.

There is still a need to look beyond the siloed focus on development.

On a larger scale, power structures and agenda-setting from richer countries nevertheless have to be consciously reflected upon. In line with such attempts, there is still a need to look beyond the siloed focus on development. While Agenda 2030 has strived to include everyone in the attempts for social, economic, and environmental sustainability, it continues to reproduce a universal and mutually beneficial pathway towards development that overlooks or ignores other approaches, Melber said.

Alternative scenarios in a new context

The panellists did however discuss alternative scenarios in which development researchers could deal with the current changes in development thinking. Eriksson Baaz suggested that instead of perceiving development as anything in the Global South, development as a field of study could perhaps include research on development cooperation and assistance as an industry, including persistent North-South inequalities. This approach would also have the potential to decolonize research by removing the “we” from research and foster alternative ideas and knowledge production on development. In another scenario, all disciplines could instead strive to incorporate issues related to development into their teaching and research. Political science students intrigued by political issues in Africa should be able to explore this within their own discipline without being categorised as “development researchers” – in this way avoiding reproducing artificial notions of the North-South divide. Balancing between inter- and monodisciplinary approaches has been an integral part of development studies for a long time. The challenges now are how to find a new balance, additional meeting places and cross-cutting notions of development in the new global context.

Learning from each other

Solutions may be closer than we think. Scholars in the social sciences could, for example, learn from other disciplines. Global health research and other “research for development” could, for example, be a forerunner in the debate on how development studies can move towards more equal partnerships and deal with power relations.

The roundtable sparked a discussion that will not end here. Continuing the debate, Melber noted that “what else is development about, if not a principled stand for the protection of and respect for all in recognition of fundamental human rights, a fight against all forms of discrimination, for shared dignity and recognition of otherness without othering?”

Reporting by Alice Castensson, Consultant, SweDev