Re-thinking Development Research

Categories: Category “News from EADI Category “EADI Major News Category “Postcolonial Perspectives Category “Working Groups

29 Aug 2018

Despite a broad consensus that global problems require global solutions, academia and research remain dominated by Western scholars and epistemologies. Western knowledge and its forms of production are considered as universally applicable and relevant while Southern knowledge(s) continue to be marginalized and/or silenced.

To address and contest these asymmetric relations and to identify pathways towards just ways of doing and researching development, EADI in collaboration with the EADI Working Group on "Post-/Decolonial Perspectives on Development" hosted a panel on "Rethinking development research: objects and subjects in development studies" at the 2018 Development Research Conference in Gothenburg, Sweden.

The aim of the panel was to critically interrogate what is needed for our discipline(s) to contribute to truly transformative processes in knowledge production, dissemination, policy and practice.

You can watch the full panel here.

Juan Telleria (University of the Basque Country) opened the panel by analysing how culture is understood in Development Studies. He highlighted two perspectives: the first assuming that there is something universal in development based on universal rules and fulfilling universal needs, while the second perspective takes into account the local, the specific contexts. Telleria put forward that development itself constitutes a culture: a Western logic that universally seeks to frame human issues and progress. To illustrate his argument, Telleria drew on the UNDP Human Development Index and pointed out that its logic draws on Western evolutionist thinking of scholars such as Spencer and Parsons underpinning a kind of “moral duty of the West to guide others to their “modern” stage”. Telleria maintained that epistemological foundations of Western development thinking can therefore clearly be traced back to these evolutionist understandings of human development. Reflexivity of these underpinning may provide useful toeholds for decolonising development knowledge production.

Kristina Simion (Australian National University) in her intervention reflected on a postcolonial attitude in analysing development intermediaries and rule of law assistance, which is traditionally framed as a technical rather than discursive field of intervention. She found that local actors serving as intermediaries are mostly drawn upon by donor agencies as translators or to facilitate contact and less so for their specific expert knowledges. At the same time a lot of foreign practitioners show little reflexivity and follow predetermined ideas of how structures of development are working. In highlighting the role of intermediaries and how to navigate spaces Simion discussed multiple identities of intermediaries and knowledge brokers.

Subsequently, Esther Kronsbein (University of Kassel) presented the complementing case in focussing on the spaces in-between objects and subjects of development research and emphasised, like both previous presenters, the need for self-reflexivity. Kronsbein shared her reflections on difficult researcher and interviewer positions in conducting development research, especially from the position of a Western researcher in a Southern context. She asserted that “obligatory preconditions for any kind of postcolonial research are intensive and concomitant self-reflexions, as well as a critical positioning in terms of power relations.” Although she expressed doubt whether power asymmetries in research practice can fully be overcome, a non-engagement would be the worst option.

In close connection to Kronsbein’s analysis of power asymmetries, Hamdi Issa (Imperial College London) discussed openings through reverse innovation to combat asymmetric ignorance. She described the concept of reverse innovation as a process whereby a high-income country learns from low-middle income countries and adapts these knowledges to their context. Issa stressed that as in the “decolonising knowledge debate, the reverse innovation agenda emphasises good ideas are good ideas irrespective of their source.” The aim is essentially to shift knowledge hierarchies and processes of knowledge production from restrictive monolithic and universalist understandings of knowledge to a multiplicity of legitimate knowledges. She illustrated her argument by drawing on healthcare innovations and the disruption of knowledge hierarchies through reverse innovation approaches.

The conclusion of the session by Henning Melber (EADI/Nordic Africa Institute) highlighted the red thread of all presentations and pinpointed their commonalities. Melber called for a critical interrogation of our own premises and identities as development researchers and practitioners. He stated that multiple identities are not confined as something we primarily have to recognise in others but most importantly in ourselves as a point of departure for self-critical reflections. Nevertheless, while these processes of self-reflection are fundamental, “they should not paralyse us in the sense that nothing happens except we reflect about ourselves.” However, while attempting to give others voice through us, we should be aware that at the end it will remain our voice. For that reason we need to identify the asymmetric ignorances of our engagements, as argued by Hamdi Issa, and then work to reduce these. A useful starting point is the concept of cognitive justice. Melber stressed that we must accept the limits of all knowledge systems and recognize that there is no knowledge system which is superior to other knowledge systems. Ending on a hopeful note, Melber concluded that “at the end, the co-presence of diverse knowledges can actually be encouraging, as despite all limitations we may be able to contribute in hybrid ways which makes all of us, as development researchers and practitioners, negotiators, intermediaries and brokers of knowledges.”

News Archive