Wednesday, 26 October 2011


By Julia Day, STEPS Centre Communications Manager

"The Prime Minister should promise to attend next year's Rio + 20 Earth Summit to show leadership on sustainability and strengthen global political will to tackle the environmental crisis," say MPs on the Uk parliament's Commons Environmental Audit Committee in a report published today.

The report warns that the planet's environmental problems are now much more urgent than at the first Rio Summit in 1992. Safe limits on the amount of waste, pollution and biodiversity loss that natural systems can tolerate continue to be breached – undermining our ability to use natural resources to support further growth.

Speaking on the publication of the report, Joan Walley MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said: "The Rio+20 Earth Summit is a vital chance for world leaders to take action to avert a global environmental crisis. But the financial situation means minds will be focused elsewhere and there is a danger that business-as-usual may end up carrying the day.

The Prime Minister should lead by example. He could make a big difference by demonstrating his commitment to Rio + 20 and letting other world leaders know that he will personally be attending. Lasting prosperity can only be built on a healthy planet."

The STEPS Centre works on many of the issues being discussed in Rio next summer and we are embarking on a series of activites and engagements in the run up to the event.
While it looks like David Cameron will not attend, we hope  a strong consensus emerges from Rio+20 that provides a global framework supporting different forms of innovation to address sustainable development challenges at local, national and global levels.
Crucially, we would like to see the interlinked global challenges of poverty reduction, social justice and environmental sustainability take centre-stage in discussions, rather than economic imperatives alone.
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Friday, 21 October 2011


By Julia Day, STEPS Centre Communications Manager

How can innovation contribute to social justice and sustainable development goals? Two of the STEPS Centre's members will be debating this issue in Argentina next month at the 9th Globelics International Conference in Buenos Aires.

Adrian Ely and Adrian Smith will be speaking on the panel of the “Innovation for Social Inclusion and Sustainable Development” session at The Global Network for the Economics of Learning, Innovation, and Competence Building Systems (Globelics) conference.

The STEPS Centre's work on Innovation, Sustainability, Development: A New Manifesto will inform our input to the session, as will Adrian Smith's work around grassroots innovation, social technologies and sustainable development. Patners from Africa, India and China will also be on the panel, giving insight from thier regions and experiences.

The panel has been organised by our partners Mariano Fressoli and Hernán Thomas, del Instituto de Estudios Sociales (UNQ) and the Centro de Economía de la Innovación y el Desarrollo (UNSAM). Watch this space for more news and views about the event.
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Thursday, 20 October 2011



The 2nd Science Forum of the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) took place in Beijing this week, and the discussions represented a challenging occasion for a member of the STEPS Centre, or at any rate for this member of STEPS. (Photo: still from STEPS film on maize pathways in Kenya) 

One challenge is to remain awake during the meeting, at least on the first day, not just because of the effect of jet lag, but also because of the unintentional efforts of so many speakers to diminish the global deficit in clichés. The most commonly articulated cliché was the Malthusian assumption that the size of the human population is exploding and will explode so quickly that rapid increases in food production are and will be urgently required. That assumption serves to portray agricultural science and technology (not to mention the scientists and the technologists themselves) as of pivotal importance.

I am not suggesting that the scale and direction of population change are not going to be important variables, but I am suggesting rather that the main challenge to the food and agricultural system, namely chronic under-nutrition, is a function of the prevalence of poverty, rather than a consequence of a presumed scarcity of food or supposed excess number of mouths. Since there is already more than enough food in the world to feed the current population, and more, it is evident that hunger is a consequence of poverty not of scarcity. Moreover people can be a resource as well as a drain on resources; it depends on how societies are organised and how they function.

Fortunately several contributors to the debates insisted on pointing that out. Credit goes for example to Mark Holderness of GFAR, Hans Herren of the Millennium Institute and Bernard Hubert of Agropolis, all of whom insisted on highlighting those key facts, although too many of the other presentations continued to be predicated on Malthusian assumptions.

Another problematic cliché concerned the assumption, expressed by the Chairman of the opening plenary session, that discussions should focus only on science to the complete exclusion of politics, as if debates about priorities for research and resource allocation issues were entirely technical and apolitical. The choice however is not between taking a political position or an apolitical one, but between being explicit about normative framings and interests on the one hand or leaving issues of power, interests and control implicit. In practice, a vocal minority of those attending the forum declined to conform to the chairman’s injunction, and instead emphasised the values they espoused and presumed, for example by arguing that what matters is not aggregate levels of foods production or consumption, but their (mal-)distribution. While the majority chose to talk about aggregates and averages a vocal, and hopefully influential, minority emphasised distributional issues.

One of the discursive tactics that is being adopted by those who choose to keep political issues implicit has been the repeated use of the idiom that I propose to refer to as the ‘referentially opaque “we”’. For example, agricultural researchers and economists repeatedly used expressions such as ‘we can do X’, or ‘we should do X’, or spoke about how ‘we’ could or should manage some problem, where they implicitly represented themselves as if they represented humanity as a whole, or as if they could speak on behalf of poor smallholder farmers in developing countries. That way of talking fails to acknowledge the importance of empowering the poor in developing countries to make and implement their own decisions, rather than just doing what the cosmopolitan technocratic ‘experts’ think they ought to do. For example some influential speakers said things such as ‘we must transform smallholder farmers into agribusinesses’ not ‘as and when, and to the extent that, smallholder farmers wish to become agribusinesses the research and policy community should be clear how they can and should assist those farmers in taking greater control of their lives and choosing their own pathways’.

In a talk about zoonotic diseases arising from the intensification of livestock production, a speaker referred to how ‘we’ should manage such challenges. That form of discourse failed to acknowledge that in practice those challenges must be met by a wide range of different stakeholder groups, but primarily by farmers and farm workers themselves, not by the research community. Of course, other groups such as animal health workers, veterinary authorities and those trading in meat, milk and dairy products have relevant interests and responsibilities too, but theirs may not coincide with those of the farmers or farm workers, let alone the veterinary researchers. Fortunately other participants recognised the need to explore and comprehend the perspectives of a wide range of stakeholders, and to explore the extent to which those diverse perspectives may be congruent or incongruent. The forthcoming STEPS project on zoonotic diseases should fit directly into a knowledge gap that was identified and highlighted by several participants. The forthcoming STEPS project on Commodities: Chains, Networks and Pathways will also find a ready audience amongst some for the more enlightened participants at this meeting.

In his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn argued that, in the natural sciences, new paradigms displace and replace the old ones not because their assumptions, analysis and arguments are superior to those of the old ones, but because young scholars adopt and accept the new paradigm, while those committed to the old paradigm simply die out, leaving the field to the young. That model seemed briefly plausible on this occasion until I realised that not all of those articulating the old paradigm are elderly, and not all of us articulating a new paradigm are particularly young. I guess I disagree with Kuhn, groups such as the STEPS Centre and colleagues elsewhere do have a more powerful and plausible paradigm, and the shortcomings of the reductionist and technocratic paradigm mean that its proponents are simply unable to account for or adequately respond to the realities and complexities of poverty and hunger in developing countries.
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Tuesday, 18 October 2011


Jim Watson, Professor of Energy Policy at SPRU and director of the Sussex Energy Group as well as co-convenor of the STEPS Centre's new Energy domain, has been asked to join a panel of politicians, business people and academics for this year’s Daily Telegraph Age of Energy initiative. The theme is the Green Economy.

This year’s debate was launched with a one page special feature in the Telegraph on 13th August. The feature included 200 word pieces by Jim and the other panellists on the theme, and a main article by government minister Oliver Letwin.

Read the initial articles on the Telegraph website
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By ADRIAN ELY, STEPS Centre researcher

I was lucky enough to participate in a fascinating discussion on global governance and regulation, organised as part of the Bellagio Initiative last week. The Initiative involves a series of global consultations hoping to deliver a new framework for philanthropy and international development in pursuit of human wellbeing in the 21st century.

Gathering an impressive group of experts and practitioners from near and far, the event focussed on questions around the challenge of ‘providing common goods in a global system’ and was just one of a number of global dialogues being held throughout the world in 2011:

>Inclusive Economics: addressing social, economic and political exclusion– Virtual
>Rapid urbanisation & living in growing cities – New Delhi
>Cross market INGOs – International Fundraising Congress, Amsterdam
>Coping with global shocks – Bangkok
>Emerging (Philanthropic) Markets – Budapest
>Information and Communication Technologies: Promises and pitfalls – Virtual
>Environmental sustainability, climate change and economic growth – São Paulo
>BRICS Countries – New Delhi
>Increased Mobility: Forced and Voluntary – Nairobi
>Freedom and rights: – Cairo
>Recipient countries – Accra

Our discussions in London covered the ongoing challenge of bridging from local to national to international levels of governance, and raised many of the same issues that my colleagues and I encountered in the STEPS Centre's ‘Rethinking Regulation’ project and the resultant Regulating Technology book published earlier this year.

The need for transparency and accountability of different development actors featured strongly in the discussion, and the role of philanthropic organisations (both in providing a working model of how such principles could be operationalised, and in advocating their adoption in other institutions) was stressed.

The potential bridging role played by these organisations, which have the opportunity not only to network with their grantees but also often enjoy access to powerful decision-makers, was also highlighted.

A summit conference at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Centre will consider the messages from the various global dialogues in formulating a new framework for philanthropy and international development in the 21st century.
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Monday, 17 October 2011


By Julia Day, STEPS Centre Communications Manager

Across the world, especially in the global South, there has been a dramatic rise in ‘land grabs’ - cross-border, transnational corporation-driven and, in some cases foreign government-driven, large-scale land deals.

In-depth and systematic enquiry in to this issue has become a matter of urgency, and to that end, the Land Deal Politics Initiative (LDPI) sponsored a successful a small grant competition last year. Now applications are invited for the second year of small grants.

Grants of up to US$3,000 per study are available to successful applicants who wish to undertake original field research, carry out follow up fieldwork on an ongoing related initiative, or write up a paper based on research that is being/has been undertaken. LDPI is particularly keen on themes around resistance and alternatives but is open to broader topics.

In 2010 LDPI were able to fund 40 small grants. Many of the papers were among the 120 presented at the LDPI-organized International Conference on Global Land Grabbing held at the Institute of Development Studies in April this year.

Some of the small grant-funded papers contributed to policy initiatives including the UN Committee on Food Security (CFS) related studies and deliberations.

Additionally, many of the papers were selected as contributions to three forthcoming journal special issues on land grabs:

>Green Grabs: a new way of appropriating nature?’ guest edited by James Fairhead, Melissa Leach and Ian Scoones, Journal of Peasant Studies (JPS), due March 2012

>The politics of global land grabbing’ guest edited by Ruth Hall, Ben White and Wendy Wolford, Journal of Peasant Studies (JPS), due May 2012

>Governing land grabs’, guest edited by Jun Borras, Ruth Hall, Ian Scoones, Ben White and Wendy Wolford, Development and Change, due July 2012

The LDPI Small Grants Competition Part 2: 2011-12 is now open. Short proposals (500 words maximum) for the research/paper must be submitted by email to by
15 December 2011, together with a short CV (maximum one page, including the name of one referee) and small grants will be awarded in January 2012.

For a full explanation of what is required of applicants, please see this PDF document.

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Thursday, 13 October 2011


by Nathan Oxley, Impact, Communications & Engagement officer, STEPS Centre

I've posted about framings before - how people's choices are affected by the way an issue is explained to them. Here's a little comic I made to illustrate the idea (click the image to enlarge).


>> Related: Virus or beast: how one word changes everything
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