Monday, 1 March 2010

HOW TO BE RADICAL AND ALSO BE PRACTICAL?

The Delhi roundtable for the STEPS project 'Innovation, Sustainability, Development: A New Manifesto' was extremely challenging and also helpful. This blog can’t do justice to the full discussion, so please check out the video, thanks to STEPS Coordinator, Harriet Le Bris, who did a fantastic job filming the event.

We had a near-full room, more than anticipated, including some participants from the earlier Peri-Urban workshop, activists, students and academics with a lifetime of experience in science and technology for development. After Harriet and I gave an introductory presentation to the project, the first effort to organise the discussion into groups was met by intense resistance, as many had read the Manifesto draft and came prepared to share their critiques straightaway. Initially intimidated by the first responses, we resolved to go with the flow (not that we had much choice!) and the session shifted to an open discussion on the Manifesto draft.

A few highlights from the discussion: Several participants pointed out the political imperative of standing up to dominant powers – whether the agenda of certain national governments or ‘global’ institutions whose agendas are guided by certain national agendas. Shifting the broader political-economic frame in which science and technology operate was argued essential in order to change the future role of S&T in more equitable development. Thus these broader factors and institutions need to be acknowledged as key barriers to change. "How do we move towards ensuring that every citizen in the world has those particular essential requirements of humanity; which are the institutions whether we like it or not, which are preventing this?” said Nasir Tyabji, Professor at the Institute of Industrial Development, Delhi. Professor K. Raguram, Associate Professor at the School of Biotechnology, Indraprastha University, Delhi, also emphasised this point “...a lot of things that happen in the technological world, in the innovation world, in Indian politics, in foreign politics, and even in many schemes, including health, agriculture, etc, through these open UN agencies and associated agencies -these are entirely defined by the current framework of globalisation as defined through the engineers of globalisation.”

Social movements were pointed out to be important forces of change – while the process of aligning social movements is a long-term one. Social movements were described by Dinesh Abrol (Deputy Director, National Institute of Science, Technology and Development) as “a force which can bring about change, which can change the heart of the government, the mechanics of the government.” He pointed out that the process doesn’t just involve “institutions and expertise and governance". Other points raised included the need for clarification and qualification of loaded terms like ‘sustainability’, ‘development’ ‘globalization’, and ‘international organization’. “How do we qualify globalisation from a political Manifesto perspective point of view? […]Is it a union of sovereign nations coming into an interconnected world with their own choices being met? Or is it a few countries imposing their agenda on the rest?” said K. Raghuram. Also, a point raised that resonates with much STEPS research was the need to broaden definitions of knowledge, technology and innovation to recognise and document localised, indigenous ‘living’ knowledge systems.

Once I was able to stop worrying and just listen, I realized I agreed with many of the points being made – especially the need to make politics more explicit and to be clearer in the draft and in the process about what position STEPS wants to take ("If you're going to be radical, then be truly radical!" said Nasir Tyabji). Despite a strong general critical tone, there were differing views among participants about some aspects of what the politics and recommendations should look like – such as on the role of civil society alongside state government. Many critiques were useful, but I also would have liked to hear more positive examples and suggestions for recommendations. It was obvious we would’ve benefited from more time to discuss and perhaps a different format.

Some questions that keep coming up for me in this process are: how do you balance recognition of history while also moving forward, beyond old paradigms? How do you recognize regional diversity – in social movements, in institutions, in cultures, in socio-technical-ecological-economic systems – while making policy recommendations at a global scale? How do you create an inclusive process with limited time and resources? How do you encourage plurality and inclusivity while honing a clear message in a declarative statement like a ‘manifesto’? Is it sufficient to ‘encourage multiple manifestos’ while not promising or pretending consensus, or are there other ways to satisfy plurality and process and still clarify one’s own principles as an institution like STEPS?

Lastly, Dr. Prakash, associated with the Knowledge Swaraj: An Indian Manifesto on Science and Technology, made a point that stood out amidst other vital issues in the discussion. “What I would want my friends to consider, whatever manifesto we are talking about, is what best we could do with it – so that should be a convergence point.” Agreed! Beyond the debates and ideas, and even given politics and power – what we do actually matters. So is it possible to be a practical radical?

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