Thursday, 30 June 2011

EVERYONE'S A WINNER (EXCEPT IF YOU'RE NOT...)


Photo: Jatropha curcas - the biofuel plant from tonrulkens' photostream on Flickr

Our director Melissa Leach is giving the first Annual Piers Blaikie Lecture on Environmental Politics at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in July. She'll be speaking on ‘Green wins or green grabs? Contested pathways to sustainability in Africa’.

In our environmentally-anxious age, ‘win-win’ solutions that address climate change, resource scarcity, food security and poverty simultaneously are hugely enticing. But what if the ‘green wins’ become ‘green grabs’? What do political-ecological pathways mean for farmers - what vision of life and landscape are suppressed?

This public lecture will reflect on these questions through compelling stories from the forests of West Africa and discuss an alternative politics through which emerging global political ecologies might bring justice, rather than oppression.
5-6.30pm Monday 18 July 2011
Thomas Paine Lecture Theatre, UEA

Event details (PDF flyer)
STEPS Centre events

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Tuesday, 28 June 2011

A NEW LEADER AND A NEW BEGINNING FOR THE UN FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ORGANISATION?

By John Thompson, co-convenor, STEPS Centre food and agriculture domain and joint coordinator, Future Agricultures Consortium

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) chose Brazil’s José Graziano da Silva as its Director General, the first new leader in almost two decades as the world faces near-record food prices that are driving millions into poverty. Graziano da Silva, 61, the former Brazilian Minister of Food Security, will replace Jacques Diouf, who has served as the head of the biggest UN agency for 18 years, in January 2012. Graziano received 92 votes against 88 for Spain’s Miguel Angel Moratinos Cuyaube.


The FAO, which was set up in 1945 by the UN to lead international efforts to reduce hunger and help developing countries improve agriculture, has often failed in its duties. The agency, whose Latin motto ‘Fiat panis’ means ‘Let there be bread,’ needs a major reform to better tackle food insecurity and poverty. The current administration has been in power far too long and has failed to provide the leadership to fulfil this mandate. Relations between the FAO headquarters and field operations have tended to follow ‘an “all things lead to Rome approach” which, according to a 2007 external evaluation, ‘has been high on costs and low on benefits, with an absence of shared goals.’ This has led to disillusionment among its major donors, who have tended to look elsewhere for technical advice and support on food and agriculture issues. Consequently, the FAO’s funding fell 31% between 1994 and 2005, and staffing dropped 25%. Furthermore, the report concluded that its finances were ‘dire’ and ‘rapidly deteriorating’, and concerns by member states about FAO’s priorities and effectiveness were ‘well-founded’. As a result, today the agency suffers from a credibility and relevance problem, as other groups including the G-8/G-20, the World Bank and the UN Secretary General’s own High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis, have filled the leadership vacuum and assumed responsibility for driving efforts to confront global food challenges.

But soon the FAO will have a new DG, one who has a strong track record of addressing food insecurity and appears reform minded. Graziano da Silva was in charge of former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s ‘Zero Hunger’ programme, which started in 2003. The plan reduced hunger in Brazil by half and cut the percentage of Brazilians living in extreme poverty from 12% in 2003 to 4.8% in 2009. FAO awarded Lula the 2011 World Food Prize for Zero Hunger, but it was Graziano da Silva who led the programme. Thus, he has a track record of delivering on big commitments.

The Brazilian Director General-elect said in the statement before the election: ‘The FAO must work more transparently and ‘free staff from time-consuming bureaucratic procedures… Country offices need to enjoy greater autonomy in initiating and implementing projects.’ He went on to argue: ‘I subscribe to the view of FAO’s founders that ending hunger is entirely possible… Ending hunger is not a charity, but an investment in our poorest people and a key to sustainable development.’

Offering an ambitious view of where the FAO should go and what it should do is a good beginning, but if he is to succeed in revitalising that moribund organisation, Graziano da Silva will also need to roll up his sleeves and really get stuck in to driving through long-awaited reforms, including reducing the size of the sclerotic bureaucracy, devolving decision-making at all levels, rebuilding staff morale, and breathing new life into its country programmes and partnerships. He must champion improved governance and coordinated action on hunger and malnutrition internationally, even when it means speaking unpalatable truths to rich countries and agencies that give aid to developing countries to improve their agriculture with one hand, while maintaining restrictive trade tariffs and providing distorting subsidies for their own farmers with the other. Finally, he must build consensus among member states around a vision for a new future for agriculture which puts small-scale producers – who offer the greatest potential for increasing productivity, enhancing growth and reducing poverty and hunger – at the heart of any global food security agenda.
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A MISSED OPPORTUNITY: THE G-20 ACTION PLAN ON FOOD PRICE VOLATILITY AND AGRICULTURE

By John Thompson, co-convenor, STEPS Centre food and agriculture domain and joint coordinator, Future Agricultures Consortium

The Group of Twenty (G-20), comprised of the world’s 19 largest economies, plus the European Union, was created as a response both to the financial crises of the late 1990s and to a growing recognition that key emerging-market countries were not adequately included in the core of global economic discussion and governance. Collectively, the G-20 countries account for 85% of global gross national product, 80% of world trade and 66% of the world population. On 22-23 June 2011, a meeting of the group’s agriculture ministers was held in Paris – the first of its kind – after France made global food security and commodities regulation a centrepiece of its G-20 presidency following the 2007-08 food crisis. At the end of the meeting, the ministers issued a 24-page communiqué called ‘Action Plan on Food Price Volatility and Agriculture’, which addresses some of the symptoms of price volatility on agricultural markets, but fails to confront its root causes.

The ministers sidestepped many of the most contentious issues facing global food and agricultural policy, including biofuel subsidies and export bans, as a serious split hampered efforts to reach a broad consensus. The event highlighted how many large agricultural economies, such as the Argentina, Brazil, France, Russia and the US, remain deeply divided over how to respond to record high food prices around the world and improve governance of the global food system.

The action plan does include three notable initiatives: the International Research Initiative for Wheat Improvement (IRIWI), Global Agricultural Geo-Monitoring Initiative (GAGI) and the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS). IRIWI will coordinate research efforts across major wheat growing countries in both public and private agencies, while GAGI would be launched to aid better crop forecasting. AMIS will seek to develop early warning systems on looming food crises in any part of the world by providing a framework for monitoring country-level data production, demand, price, trade and stocks. A 'Rapid Response Forum' will be created in the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to take note of the alerts provided by the early warning system under AMIS – although the agency, already short of money, will have to run it without new funding, so questions remain about its long-term viability. Moreover, private sector players, such as the large grain traders (e.g. ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Dreyfus), for whom knowledge of stocks and harvests represent a key competitive advantage, are ‘urged’ to participate in AMIS (with promises that it will have ‘a framework to ensure the confidentiality of proprietary and sensitive information’), but no measures are set forth to make certain they work in the public interest. Nonetheless, the good news is that China and India have both agreed to participate in AMIS – a major advance, given that both countries regard food stocks as a strategic issue and have resisted reporting on stocks levels and harvests in the past.

Beyond these valuable, but largely technical efforts, the watered down communiqué contains only vague references to some of the most difficult issues facing agricultural producers in developing countries. While the G-20 nations largely agree on the need to improve agricultural productivity and enhance transparency, they disagree on biofuels, export controls and on the regulation of commodities and financial markets.

The G-20 commissioned international bodies, including the FAO, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank, to research how best to deal with rising food prices. A key report, Price Volatility in Food and Agricultural Markets: Policy Responses, underlined the negative role of biofuels on price volatility and recommended a rethink of policies which incentivise biofuels, adopted by many G20 States members. Not surprisingly, two big ethanol producing nations, the US and Brazil, blocked agreement. American geopolitical interest lies in using its vast agricultural surplus to wean itself off Middle Eastern oil, while Brazil's growth is driven by its agroexports. So the biofuels issue has been kicked into the long grass of ‘more studies needed’.

There is also no deal either on giving up export bans when prices spike. During that last food price crisis, several countries stopped exports of key crops to keep the cost of staples in check at home, but added to anxiety about global supplies and fuelled further price rises by doing so. Emerging economy governments, perhaps not surprisingly, were not keen to give up one of the few tools they have to keep the lid on urban unrest in times of food inflation. However, there is agreement that exports for humanitarian aid will not be caught up in export bans in future, but the details are lacking.

Another glaring omission from the action plan is climate change. The impact of extreme climate events – droughts and floods – has been one of the major drivers of food price volatility in the last few years, but it gets short shrift in the communiqué. In it the G-20 stresses ‘the need to invest more and increase cooperation in research and development for climate change adaptation, especially for smallholder farmers, and mitigation technologies, and to help developing countries to enhance their capacity for addressing climate change in agriculture’ and that it supports the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). But there are no specific commitments or initiatives on either the adaptation or mitigation agenda. Instead there is mention of the need for more sustainable agriculture and more responsible use of water resources. Consequently the challenge of meeting growing demand for food as global environmental change impinges on agricultural productivity is reduced to little more than business as usual statements and diplomatic hand-waving.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there was no clear agreement on the regulation of agricultural financial markets, which was supposed to be the cornerstone of the ministerial meeting. While the action plan reflected many of France's ambitious proposals for its G-20 presidency this year, it falls short of calls by Paris for a tough crackdown on derivatives trading, thanks in part to strong resistance from the UK. France had wanted all G-20 countries to commit themselves to imposing so-called ‘position limits’ – a curb on how much of the market an investor can buy into – but this was removed from the final version of the communiqué. Instead, we are left with insipid statements from the agriculture ministers about how ‘appropriately regulated and transparent agricultural financial markets are indeed key for well-functioning physical markets’, but no concerted action for better regulation of those markets. Further, the ministers ‘strongly encouraged’ their counterparts in the G-20 ministries of finance to take decisions for better regulation of agricultural financial markets, leaving it up to them to adopt concrete measures on the matter.

It would appear that we will have to face another food price crisis before the world’s most influential nations get serious about tackling the really tough issues.
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Tuesday, 21 June 2011

COMPLEXITY SCIENCE & DEVELOPMENT

In a world where systems change and interact unpredictably, there's a growing interest in using complexity science to tackle questions in international development. Our director Melissa Leach spoke last month at a UKCDS workshop on complexity science and international development (Melissa's slides are on our Slideshare). Ben Ramalingam, visiting fellow at IDS, has written some reflections on the day:

The ideas and concepts of complexity science do have considerable potential relevance for development work. Areas highlighted as worthy of further exploration included economic growth, innovation, institutional change, sustainability, implementation and networks.

There were also some common caveats. Complexity sciences should not be seen as a new 'flashy' technical approach to developing the right answer – instead, it should be seen as vital that this agenda is taken forward in a way that acknowledges and respects diversity of perspectives, cultures and opinions, especially across the so-called ‘North-South divide’.

You can read more of Ben's post on the UK Collaborative on Development Studies website.

Ben also blogs at Aid on the Edge of Chaos.

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Monday, 20 June 2011

VIDEO: MELISSA LEACH AT NESS 2011



Melissa Leach, STEPS Centre Director, spoke at NESS 2011 (The 10th Nordic Environmental Social Science Conference) in Stockholm last week.

Her talk (56 minutes), "Pathways to sustainability? Environmental social science and justice in a complex, dynamic age" explains the STEPS Centre's work in the context of the rapidly changing, complex world we live in.

Video of Melissa's and other presentations are on the Stockholm Resilience Centre website:

>> VideoL NESS 2011 Conference
>> Melissa's presentation (Slideshare)

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INEQUALITY AND FOOD: 10 TASKS FOR THE UK GOVERNMENT

by Erik Millstone, STEPS Centre Food and Agriculture co-convenor

There are massive inequalities between industrialised and developing countries, and they have widened over the past 15 years, but there are also considerable inequalities within developing countries. There are consequently divergent interests, at least over the short term, between different groups within developing countries, and between industrialised countries such as the UK on the one hand and developing countries on the other.

Moreover, given the structure and operations of the current global food system, some short-term measures that might be seen as benefiting one of those groups might be unwelcome by others. To tackle global inequalities and promote sustainable development, the structure and operations of the global food system will need to be substantially reformed. The UK government should be taking a lead in advocating and implementing policies that simultaneously tackle inequalities and promote sustainable development.

An example of divergent interests can be provided by considering the impact of ‘favourable’ weather during a growing season or a livestock production cycle. In a ‘good’ season the yields from both arable and livestock farming will be relatively plentiful. For subsistence farmers, this is substantially good news because they have more to eat and more to store, and maybe even a surplus to sell. If however they lack suitable mould- and pest-proof storage facilities then the benefits of that surplus will be short-lived. The benefit of having a marketable surplus may, however, be undermined as ‘good harvests’ often drive down market prices, as a significant ‘overhang’ of perishable foods typically results in a collapse of market prices, sometimes to well below the cost of production. Low food prices are welcomed by the urban poor, but are matters of relative indifference to the urban middle class and substantial indifference to the wealthy. ‘Unfavourable’ weather can drive supplies and prices in ways that may be welcome by commercial farmers who achieved marketable yields, but seriously compromise food security for subsistence farmers and the urban poor.

It is important to recognise that unregulated agricultural markets are notoriously unstable in respect of both supplies and prices; and not just because of the weather. Earlier this decade, before the food price shocks of 2008 and 2010/11, it became for fashionable for some to argue that technological innovations and globalized trade had delivered a stable, secure and sustainable agricultural regime. Recent events indicate that liberalised trade and historical patterns of technological change have not ensured stability, in the long-run they have contributed, and are contributing, to diminishing sustainability. The January 2011 UK Foresight report on the Global Future of Food & Farming recognised, as did UK ministers, that the current regime of policies and practices must change if food security is to be enhanced.

Weather remains, of course, a complicating factor for agricultural policy. Climate change should not be oversimplified as ‘global warming’. Even when long-term warming occurs, increased short-term meteorological volatility should also be anticipated. The probable consequence is increased perturbations of prices and supplies of food in ways that will, in numerous ways, compromise the sustainability of the livelihoods of both subsistence and commercial farmers and many urban consumers.

The various types of market liberalisation that have been implemented since the early 1980s have undermined food security for diverse communities in many different parts of the world, and they have done so through several mechanisms.

Firstly, subsistence farmers in developing countries suffered particularly as a consequence of the ‘Structural Adjustment’ policies of the 1980s and early 1990s, which amongst other things dismantled the agricultural research and extension services from which they had previously benefited. Aid and policy support for those services would be particularly beneficial for subsistence farmers, but the mechanisms through which those systems should operate should utilise extension services not just to disseminate knowledge and technologies but also to gather intelligence from farmers about their needs, priorities and expectations; only under those conditions can the R&D agendas of the scientists and technologists be effectively coupled to the needs, concerns and aspirations of poor farmers. Liberalisation was often justified as an effective means of transforming subsistence farmers into commercial farmers. In practice, that liberalisation frequently drove many of the rural poor out of farming, off the land and deeper into poverty, both rural and urban. While in the long run it may well be in the interests of many subsistence farmers to become increasingly commercial, the timing and rate at which those changes occur should be at their chosen pace, not driven by artificial timetables or unrealistic econometric models.

Agricultural research and development programmes that assume that the rural poor can be helped by technological innovations distributed through market mechanisms fail to reach their intended beneficiaries because they fail to appreciate the constraints imposed by poverty. Subsistence farmers are more commonly looking for ways to diminish risks, not opportunities for potentially profitable but risky investments. Distributing new ‘improved’ seeds through normal commercial channels may well not provide any benefit to poor farmers. Farmers who have not been able to afford any commercial seeds for many years cannot be reached through commercial channels; and many of the rural poor in eg sub-Saharan Africa fall into that category. If they are to benefit from improved seeds, they need to have subsidised access to those seeds, but they also need appropriate tools and knowledge, and the seeds need to have characteristics that the farmers most value. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, farmers typically prioritise resilience to variable weather more than they value maximum yields in optimal conditions, while the research community too often concentrates on optimising and maximising.

Generic policies to accelerate the pace of technological change in eg agriculture often do not benefit those what are in greatest need. Different types of technologies have differential effects on contrasting social groups. For example commercial farmers may be attracted by labour-saving innovations, but landless labourers benefit more from employment-generating technological changes.

A second consequence of the liberalization of agricultural markets has been a reduction in the number and size of public sector buffer stocks. That occurred over the past 10 years in the UK and the EU, as well as the USA, but under pressure from the World Bank and the IMF public sector buffer stock holdings in developing countries have also been markedly reduced in frequency and scale. Urban consumers, especially poor ones, share common interests with rural communities in seeing diminished volatility in food supplies and prices. Food security requires at minimum a sufficient and sustainable supply of food that can be equitably accessed. Sufficiency, equity and sustainability have often only been achieved with public policy measures to create and manage public stocks to buffer supply volatilities. Those stocks should, of course, be managed in careful and accountable ways.

Leaving stocks of foodstuffs to decay or distributing them in corrupt or unaccountable ways brought stockholding into disrepute. The UK policy and research community could make a substantial contribution by helping developing countries to establish and operate legitimate resilient and robust buffer-stock regimes. Several EU Member States have responded to the price volatilities of recent years by re-establishing some of their stocking policies, but not the UK. The current UK government and the European Commission have taken the view that as long as private sector commercial stocks are deemed sufficient by the food industry then food supplies will be secure, but not everyone is convinced that that is anything more than wishful thinking.

A third feature of liberalisation over the past 15 years has been the abolition of rules that prevented ‘naked short-selling’ of food commodities, and the rules that restricted owning and trading in food commodity futures. The ranges of different kinds of ‘investors’ who are now lawfully permitted to gamble on future food price movements has been substantially widened; they are no longer restricted to companies that own or need physical stocks and supplies. Speculative investments by those with no interest in ever holding physical commodities has substantially amplified price fluctuations beyond what could have been anticipated by reference to physical conditions of supply and social conditions of demand.


In the light of those considerations, 10 recommendations emerge:

1. The UK government’s investments (eg by DFID, the BBSRC and the NERC) in R&D for developing country agriculture should be closely and explicitly coupled to the needs and agendas of the intended beneficiaries. As the Gates Foundation’s Agricultural Research Guidelines stipulate, researchers should indicate: “Who are the target beneficiaries of your work and how does your approach specifically serve their documented needs?”

2. The UK government should endeavour to shift the corresponding agendas of the EU, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Bank and the IMF to couple them more closely to the needs, concerns and aspirations of their intended beneficiaries.

3. Investments should be made by the UK and the wider donor community to re-establish and support improved agricultural extension services so that they provide effective reciprocal communications between the research community on the one hand and farmers and landless farm-workers on the other.

4. Investments should be made to help poor rural farmers and landless farm workers gain affordable access to improved means for storing and preserving foods when they are plentiful and cheap.

5. The development and adoption of employment-generating technological changes for developing countries should be no less a priority than labour-saving innovations.

6. Effective steps should be taken within the UK and the EU to re-establish public sector food stocks that can serve to buffer supply and price volatilities.

7. Help and encouragement should be given to developing countries to establish (or re-establish) public sector food stocks that can serve to buffer supply and price volatilities, so as to protect the vulnerable rather than enrich the powerful.

8. To diminish inequalities, chronically poor farmers need subsidised affordable access to diverse ranges of improved technologies appropriate to their needs, concerns and aspirations.

9. A fresh approach to trade policy will be needed. Instead of simply adopting a rhetoric of levelling the playing fields while making sure they remain skewed against poor farmers and poor countries, both the rhetorics and the practices must change, to shift support from eg the CAP that gives most help to those who need it least and least to those that need it most, by inverting that relationship.

10. Rules governing the buying and selling of food stocks and food futures need to be more not less restrictive. Naked short-selling of food stocks or futures should be unlawful. Buying and selling of wholesale food stocks should be restricted to companies that own or use physical stocks. Gambling on the future price of food should be prohibited, except for limited seasonal hedging by companies in the food industry.

Links


>> STEPS research on food & agriculture


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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

THE MANIFESTO: ONE YEAR ON


By Adrian Ely, Manifesto project convenor

Innovation, Sustainability, Development: A New Manifesto is a year old! It's been a busy year. In the time since the launch of the Manifesto, we've been engaging with an increasingly diverse set of academic and policy networks around the world about how science, technology and innovation can work in more socially just and sustainable ways.

One of the challenges we received when launching the New Manifesto at the Royal Society last June was “what does this mean in particular places and contexts - give us examples!” The Manifesto’s recommendations were deliberately broad, but it was clear that its users would benefit from case studies from around the world to clarify and illustrate the Manifesto’s ‘Areas for Action’.

Over the year since the launch, this has been our main area of activity. Elisa Arond has been working with Latin American partners, whilst I have collaborated with colleagues at the African Technology Policy Studies Network (ATPS) and the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS, India) to produce examples. They will be published on the Manifesto website later this year.

Both of these partnerships have also led to events that have enabled us to build on some of last year’s discussions. I spoke alongside Kevin Urama at the 2010 ATPS annual conference in Cairo, where the African Manifesto on Science, Technology and Innovation was formally launched. The African Manifesto, which grew out of the SET-DEV (Science, Ethics and Technological Responsibility in Developing and Emerging Countries) project, has also since been discussed at high-level events involving policy-makers and stakeholders from across Africa and elsewhere, an encouraging sign that its messages will have a concrete, positive policy impact.

A conference in Delhi later this month (28-30 June) will provide a timely opportunity for learning and reflection with our partners in India. Co-hosted by NISTADS, CDS-Trivandrum and the STEPS Centre, the meeting will use both the STEPS Manifesto and the updated ‘Knowledge Swaraj’ manifesto as entry points to broader discussions around innovation, sustainability and development in India. Technical sessions will focus on innovation in the agricultural, health, ICT and energy sectors, and the final morning will be dedicated to discussions around grassroots innovation and traditional knowledge. The same event will see the formal launch of Indialics - the India chapter of Globelics (an international network for research into ‘Learning, Innovation and Competence Building Systems’) and the new journal ‘Innovation and Development’.

The STEPS Centre has linked up with many other networks via the New Manifesto project, each inspired by a common vision that sees science, technology and innovation working more directly for poverty alleviation, social justice and environmental sustainability. The Centre looks forward to taking these partnerships forward through targeted impact and engagement work in its second phase through to 2016.

>> Download or browse the Manifesto
>> International Seminar on Innovation, Sustainability and Development, 28-30 June, New Delhi

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Tuesday, 7 June 2011

RISKY ADVICE AND UNCERTAINTY

Andy Stirling, STEPS Director and Alister Scott, visiting fellow at SPRU, have an article up at Project Syndicate (and on the Al Jazeera website) on recent technological disasters (Fukushima, BP in Mexico) and how they reflect on the way science is used to support public policy.

Why do we seem to be witnessing an increasing number of nasty technological surprises?

Indeed, this year's Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan and last year's BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have taken their place alongside older problems, such as ozone depletion. We believe that the way in which scientific advice is developed and communicated lies at the heart of the question.

Science is increasingly used to support what are essentially public-policy decisions, particularly concerning new and complex technologies like genetically modified (GM) foods, novel chemicals, and contending energy infrastructures.

>> Risky Advice (Project Syndicate)
>> Risky advice and immeasurable uncertainties (Al Jazeera)
>> Nuclear futures? Andy Stirling (tcktcktck, 18 March 2011)
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Friday, 3 June 2011

REVOLUTIONISING DEVELOPMENT: WHOSE FUTURE COUNTS?

By Melissa Leach, STEPS Centre director

I first worked with Robert Chambers as a research assistant when I was little more than an undergraduate myself. In the book ‘Revolutionising Development’, launched last Friday, I write about the specific piece of research we did together, and its legacies.

However, over twenty years as a colleague at the Institute of Development Studies, Robert’s work has influenced mine far more widely than this. In particular, four themes in Robert’s remarkable body of work link to challenges that we are now pursuing in the STEPS Centre: the importance of the 'material'; the politics of access; complexity, dynamics and unpredictability; and the framing of goals.

The first is that the material matters. Robert’s work has always brought the technical and the physical into development, from trees (on which I first worked with him, and write about in the book) to water, seeds and now shit and the microbes it carries, in his current work on community-led total sanitation. Equally, he has always drawn attention to the social in the technical (that is, the social arrangements that enable technologies to work). With some notable exceptions – including the recent renewed attention to agriculture - the technical is often surprisingly unfashionable in mainstream development. But we talk of politics, economy, institutions, flows of money and power and governance without acknowledging material and technical issues at our peril. We miss opportunities, expose ourselves to risks, and nature bites back – as it has arguably in a big way with climate change as a product of patterns of capitalist development.

The second theme is that the material matters – but the politics of access to it matter even more. Climate change has returned questions of material resource use and ‘nature’ to centre stage. But with it comes the obligation to ask - as Robert always did - who gains and loses, who has access to resources, and how (to paraphrase the book I first worked on as his Research Assistant in the 80s) to get water and trees ‘to the hands of the poor’. Paradoxically, just as resource ‘crunches’ and climate change are turning development attention back to questions about nature, new global markets for carbon and food, emerging patterns of commoditisation, investment and speculation by actors old and new, are threatening emerging kinds of land, resource and green grabs. In this brave new world of resource trading, we need to understand and intervene in the politics and political economy of resource access towards greater distributional justice.

A third theme is the need to take complexity, dynamics and unpredictability seriously. Financial, food and epidemics crises as they have played out in different contexts (eg climate change) over the last few years remind us that the world involves complex systems: systems in which economic, ecological, social and technical and political elements interact in ways that are often non-linear and non-equilibrial, involve combinations of shocks and stresses interacting across multiple scales, and include a host of uncertainties and surprises.

Robert recognised this in his work with Gordon Conway on agroecosystems analysis and has since maintained an interest in complex systems thinking. This, of course, now involves a vast array of work in complexity science, evolutionary economics, resilience thinking, sustainability science and so on. Much of this has proceeded outside development and development studies. Robert has been amongst and supportive of the handful of people trying to bring it in, and to recognise that ‘development processes’ are themselves complex systems which interact with other system elements in unpredictable ways, so plans don’t work as intended. Instead, we need different forms of understanding and action: emphasising keywords like flexibility, adaptability, iterative learning, reflexivity – and a big one of Robert’s – humility.

Part of the paradigm shift here is also about challenging power: a mainstream development which often goes on portraying and planning for a world as if it were much more stable and certain, and a matter of controllable risks. Incumbent institutions often face imperatives to control situations, or to appear to do so. These are often backed up by bureaucratic processes – for instance aid bureaucracies and what Robert would term ‘normal professionalism’ are simply not geared to dealing with complexity and uncertainty – and by currently resurgent moves towards audit culture and results-based management. Opening up to embrace dynamics, and empower institutions, infrastructures and forms of practice geared to these, is a growing challenge.

A final theme I term framing the future. We can talk about systems and dynamics, but who defines the system and the goals of change? Sustainability of what, for whom? In the STEPS Centre we are working to link questions of system dynamics firmly to those in a more constructivist and participatory tradition to recognise that there are always a multiplicity of ‘framings’ of systems, goals and values for change – and power relations in which particular perspectives and priorities get to prevail. The politics of knowledge, of framings, justify some pathways, turning them in effect into motorways, while relegating others to bush paths.

Such an analysis traces a direct line from Robert’s work on ‘whose reality counts’. I suggest that we need to move the emphasis now towards ‘whose future counts’. In food, for instance, what kinds of food security, for who, where? What are the visions for peri-urban futures? In energy, what will be the balance between different kinds of low-carbon infrastructures? How do we avoid lock-in, and open up to a plurality of possible imaginaries, goals, values?

Inspired by Robert’s revolutionary work, there is room, I think, for a whole new round of methodolological and political revolution that will foster the democratic political debate and deliberation, and perhaps more collective forms of politics and action, that will build just pathways to sustainable futures. The STEPS Centre and our partners will be working to take forward many aspects of this challenging agenda in the years to come.

>> Buy the book from Earthscan (30% discount)
>> IDS News story on Revolutionising Development

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