A world made new through love and reason: what future for 'development'?

Michael Edwards
25 April 2007

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,

Where knowledge is free,

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls,

Where words come out from the depth of truth,

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection,

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit,

Where the mind is led forward through ever-widening thought and action into that heaven of freedom,

Let my country awake.

Rabindranath Tagore, "Where the Mind is Without Fear"

All those today engaged in research and inquiry in the field of "development studies" are exploring the "country" that Rabindranath Tagore describes in this poem. All know how difficult and demanding that journey can be. This is especially true today, in a world where facts, objectivity, proof, accumulated wisdom, public debate, accountability, the careful calculation of risks and benefits, and other pillars of effective policy-making - the painstaking work of the Enlightenment onwards - are increasingly under pressure.

We dream of a world ruled by love and reason, only to wake up to a reality driven by ideology, prejudice and power, exercised with a calculated and systematic rawness that challenges even the most optimistic of optimists; a reality where decisions are driven by ideology, faith, speculation, greed, graft and revenge, where truths are revealed rather than negotiated. In this form of modern politics, facts are for losers; and knowledge is valued, promoted or discarded on the basis of partisan interest.

But this is partly the fault of development researchers ourselves, since we haven't devoted sufficient energy and imagination to changing this picture - to making knowledge a necessary (if not sufficient) condition for effective personal, private or public action. "Books don't change things", as a Brazilian philosopher once said, "people do, but books change people." How to do better without surrendering to the temptations that come from proximity to influence, money and popularity? That's the mission of "revolutionary social science": a redefinition of the study of development that takes us much further in the direction of engagement in the public realm, without losing the attributes of critical independence and rigour that mark the best of its intellectual achievement.

Three questions: framing, definition, purpose

An essential starting-point is to reach a position on the big questions surrounding development studies today, before discussing the detail of research issues, methods, and strategies. 

For me, the big questions are three:

  • "development" versus social transformation: what's the best conceptual and analytical frame in which to do development work going forward?
  • are we co-creators of knowledge, or do we see the world divided between producers and consumers?
  • is our role to deliver academic products or to utilise knowledge in facilitating the essential public work of democratic deliberation and problem-solving?

The answers to these questions will determine what we do on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis in setting out plans and priorities over the next generation and beyond. 


The first question is about how to frame the problems we face. In particular, is there enough energy left in the north/south paradigm to get us where we want to go? There is widespread dissatisfaction with the traditional framework of development studies, including increasing specialisation. But the real problem here may be less "development" as an objective concept than the foreign aid or intervention paradigm, and the values and attitudes that lie behind it. It is these values and attitudes that invert the discipline from how we might want it to be defined (by its influence over the actions of the strong) to how its subjects actually experience it (its influence over the weak). Nevertheless, development and foreign aid are too strongly linked to be easily separated. It's time to replace this frame with a new vision for development studies - as a constantly-unfolding critical conversation about the ends and means of the "good society" at every level of the world system.

There would be so little to lose in making this jump, and what might be lost (some challenges to our identity and funding streams) would be short term only. No one will have to stop doing research on Africa or poverty, to abandon thoughts of progress, or to subscribe to a particular political worldview. All that would be required is for development professionals to recognise that problems and solutions are not bounded by artificial definitions of geography or economic condition, and to reposition themselves as equal-minded participants in a set of common endeavours.

By doing that, we could instantly open up a much more interesting conversation. HIV infection rates, for example, are as high among certain groups of African-American women in the United States as in sub-Saharan Africa, and for similar reasons. The erosion of local public spheres around the world is linked to decisions made by media barons in Italy, Australia and the US. The increasingly differentiated interests within the faster-growing "developing" countries (China, India, Brazil, and South Africa) make it difficult to see why Chad or Myanmar would be included as comparators but Ukraine, Belarus, Appalachia and the Mississippi delta would not.

A shift away from conventional thinking in these and many other areas would generate a better understanding of causes and solutions, since they are increasingly integrated across borders and disciplines, and revolve around common if differently-experienced patterns of change and the capacity to control it. It would also be more influential with decision-makers who (unless they are ministers of development or friends of Bono or Jeffrey Sachs) don't read the development literature. True, they may read opinion columns, policy-briefs and the occasional potboiler on security threats, terrorism, climate change, immigration reform, energy policy, clashing civilisations, and how to settle conflicts, achieve growth with equity, humanise capitalism, build community, and deepen democracy. But wouldn't it be something if development research, energised by a new vision, started to provide real guidance on these issues?


The second big question moves from framing to practice: are development professionals co-creators of knowledge or practitioners of detached scholarship that divides the world into producers and consumers? Is our aim to strengthen pockets of knowledge connected to decision-making elites, or to disperse knowledge and capacity throughout society in order to underpin democratic processes of influence, problem-solving, mediation and accountability?

My answer is clear: opening up the enterprise of knowledge to a broader range of actors would increase the chances of successful outcomes because of the multiplier effects that flow from a larger number of channels through which knowledge connects to action and decision-making. "Whether you are co-editing a volume", says Harry Boyte, "or organising to keep a waste incinerator out of your neighborhood, cooperative labor means respectfully negotiating your differences and collectively putting your shoulders to the wheel. It means allowing for the fullest possible play of individual ideas, methods, goals and desires for the best of these to be selected without alienating your co-workers." Common sense perhaps, but also threatening to us "professionals", since (as Eric Hoffer wonderfully says in The Ordeal of Change): "nothing is so unsettling to a social order as the presence of a mass of scribes without suitable employment and an acknowledged status."

Michael Edwards is director of the Governance & Civil Society Program at the Ford Foundation, but writes here in a personal capacity. He is the author of Civil Society (Polity Press, 2003) and Future Positive: International Co-operation in the 21st Century (James & James, 2004). For more information visit www.futurepositive.org

This article is adapted from a talk Michael Edwards delivered to the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University of Sussex, at a conference on "Reinventing Development Studies" on 20-22 September 2006; this event was part of the celebrations to mark the IDS's fortieth anniversary.

The full text of the lecture is available by clicking from this page

Also by Michael Edwards in openDemocracy:

"For Alan Beavan"
(25 September 2001)

"Love, reason and the future of civil society" (22 December 2005)

"Democracy in America: paths to renewal"
(21 November 2006)


The third big question concerns the purpose of research institutions in the field of development. Does the knowledge they embody and produce have a social purpose in animating the public sphere, or is it essentially a private activity that produces insights, increasingly on a commercial basis, for others in academia, or for the sponsors of research in government and the marketplace?

Active social learning writ large is the only basis for democratic governance through deliberation and consensus-building, but technocratic approaches to knowledge breed technocratic approaches to politics, and everyone suffers the consequences. This is evident in the way that America's public sphere has been hollowed out, elite control over public policy strengthened, and the country's ability to resolve pressing problems like healthcare and social security weakened, at the very time that social science in the US has moved further away from the public towards more abstruse theoretical concerns.

But the US's experience is not unique. One after another, western democracies are withering and segmenting in ways that prevent any genuine articulation of the public interest, reducing the chances still further of large-scale social, economic and political reform. The cultivation of critical thinking and deliberative skills among the citizenry is fundamental to deep democracy; and knowledge, of all kind, is essential to that task. Many groups have a responsibility here as knowledgeable occupants of the public sphere: investigative journalists, advocacy NGOs, bloggers, public radio stations among them. But academics have a particular role to play in anchoring these other knowledge actors in the bedrock of rigour and intellectual independence.

Three big questions, then, and a pretty good recipe for revolutionary social science when taken together. What would follow, when each of them is answered in the affirmative? If, that is:

  • the frame we use is social transformation not development
  • we are co-creators of knowledge, not producers and consumers
  • engagement in the public sphere is good way to promote a closer relationship between knowledge and social transformation.

The uses of research

I'm not sure there are huge new issues to be researched or discoveries to be made in development studies (technological innovation notwithstanding). But there are certainly better ways of looking at familiar issues, such as governance, institutions, poverty, power, and difference; and more broadly, at how to facilitate an interlinked attack on inadequacies in the polity, inequalities in society, and inefficiencies in the economy, while retaining the environmental integrity of the planet in the process.

In that respect I would argue for more "symphonic poems", to use a musical analogy, and fewer endless variations on a theme - or even worse, proliferations of disassembled parts for particular instruments. I'm not arguing for more "symphonies" in development studies - more universal abstractions in other words, devoid of grounding in empirical detail - but more systematic efforts to make connections, identify patterns of cause and effect across time and space, place individual experiences in their wider context, help people sift through the costs and benefits of policies and actions, and contest accepted orthodoxies on urgent issues like dealing with difference; the changing roles of states, markets and civil society; and how to rebuild new sources of legitimate authority to create and enforce norms and regulations in multipolar, multilayered governance regimes at all levels of the world system.

The last decade contains examples where such "symphonic poems" have worked: changing the terms of the debate over globalisation and neo-liberal economics, or cementing an intellectual commitment to participation and human rights as basic principles of development. This approach offers the most potential for influence because research has to be both sufficiently generalised to be relevant above the micro-level and sufficiently connected to the myths and memories, beliefs and ideologies, emotions and aspirations that drive people to take decisions and make changes. These patterns don't concern only huge global issues, but lower-level, concrete problems that constantly re-occur when institutions face dilemmas of policy and action on a smaller scale.

In terms of how research is carried out and used, there are dilemmas of rigour and relevance that can only be managed more or less effectively rather than definitively resolved (once they are seen as management questions rather than existential anxieties, it's surprising how quickly partial solutions can be found). But they will always be partial, since researchers and practitioners inhabit different daily life-worlds, and they impose different sets of choices, incentives, and timeframes on us, especially as the volume of information and speed of decision-making continue to increase. There are trade-offs between these choices, but also enough remaining common ground and purpose to make researchers valued collaborators, if that's what we want to be.

Over time we might even meet in the middle ground and create a fusion ("pracademics" or "acadavists"?) - but in any case, the important thing is to keep experimenting, trying things out, and edging forward, since that alone would be a huge step forward from the inertia and defensiveness which permeates most of academia today.

The service of rigour

The problem here includes the persistent difficulty of legitimising different forms of knowledge and knowing: "the gardening self, the person half-awake in bed, the woman who broods over old photos, and the madman", as Patricia McIntosh once put it. Do we have the capacities to understand interpersonal as well as structural factors, politics as well as economics, global forces as well as local detail, history as well as the present, and a grasp of what is possible in the circumstances as well as in an ideal world?

It's easy for researchers to be shielded from these questions by a shallow but persuasive cleverness, just as activists sometimes take refuge in the safe but lazy demands of constant, unreflective engagement in the world ("I'm way too busy, or too important, thank you very much, to think, read, or talk.)" Amidst these false polarities it is tempting to use our skills and position as weapons to defeat or screen out the other, but in my experience the compromises involved in forging genuine partnerships - and the desire to hold fast to values of inclusion, democracy, and relevance - need do no significant damage to rigour.

Indeed, in today's political environment rigour and attention to evidence are even more important (so long is they are not used as a weapon that "destroys hope among activists", as Paulo Freire once warned). All the crucial elements of a rigorous approach to understanding the world, i.e,

  • the painstaking parsing out of problems and solutions
  • the interrogation of all the evidence about costs and benefits, winners and losers
  • the ability to identify both the individual pieces of a puzzle and reassemble them into an accurate and coherent picture
  • the skills of presenting and comparing different theories of change
  • the depth of understanding reached by studying the same phenomena over long periods of time
  • and the potential for accountability that results from a deliberate refusal of a pre-determined ideological position

- are central too to revolutionary social science, and none of them necessarily involves a negative trade-off between engagement and objectivity.

It is too often assumed that practitioners have no use for theory, but that's rarely true. Ernie Cortés, a long-time community organiser in the US, insists in his training courses on bringing the best theorists from political science, sociology and economics to talk directly with grassroots-level activists about all the different positions, before encouraging them to turn their gaze towards local problems and solutions. So it's not just the devil that's in the detail, but some possibilities for sainthood too.

The path of co-creation

How knowledge is used is just as important as how it is produced. That is one reason why conventional understandings of knowledge-use tend to be sequential, elitist - and ineffective ("I'll produce the outputs, and then give them to you so you can take some action. Policy will change, and then practice.") This model is completely inadequate as a basis for influence, because it ignores the real drivers of change, which require policy debates to be embedded in political processes and the activation of the polity.

A relevant Canadian study points out that: "knowledge utilization depends on disorderly interactions between researchers and users, rather than on linear sequences beginning with the needs of researchers or the needs of users. The more sustained and intense the interaction between researchers and users, the more likely it is that utilization will occur" (R Landry et al, cited in Daniel Cohn, "Jumping into the political fray: academics and policy-making", Institute for Research on Public Policy, Montreal, 2006). In this frame, the purpose of the intellectual is not just to analyse and recommend policy but to stimulate new conversations and help create a new sense of possibility beyond the given.

A key lesson from successful experiments in co-creation is that success is more likely when the participants agree to accompany each-other over a substantial period of time so that they can develop trust, mutual understanding, and collaborative skills and commitments, and when they make more of their different skills and experiences, not less. Once that happens you can usually sort out any problems that arise along the way, and have enough collective strength and maturity to face up to the deep prejudices and limitations that often block learning at the cutting edge of social change.

It is these capacities - rather than just rebuilding conventional but under-resourced universities or think-tanks - that will be increasingly important in the future. Here, institutions of higher education are crucial in a double sense: they give authority to knowledge, legitimise certain ways of knowing, generate and diffuse conceptual frameworks that structure practices of different kinds, and socialise professionals, and thus are vital sites of transformation; but they are also highly resistant to change in ways that more resources are unlikely to influence. The implication is that there is a need to nurture new institutional forms that grow from different roots; these would be neither conventional research groups nor NGOs, but a mixture of both - "distributed networks and coalitions for knowledge and action" might be a working description.

The networks of this kind that are already in existence include promising partnerships such as LOGO-Link (nurtured at the Institute of Development Studies before relocating to Brazil); the International Budget Project; and Facilitated Learning and Action for Social Change (Flasc). The "symphonic poems" I talked about earlier are the logical output of collaborations like these. Indeed, it was through these kinds of coalitions that conservatives gradually took over the intellectual and political agenda in the United States; and if their deliberate distortion of knowledge for partisan purposes is an example not to be followed, there is much to learn tactically from the conservative experience. The overriding purpose, however, is very different: to create and use knowledge that facilitates a conversation rather then dominates the process and predetermines the outcomes.

Also on ideas of development in openDemocracy:

Felix Dodds, "In the balance: the future of sustainable development"
(26 June 2002)

Jonathon Porritt, "'As if the world matters': reconciling sustainable development and capitalism"
(30 November 2005)

Camilla Toulmin, Tom Burke, Tim Worstall, et al., "Capitalism, the environment, and sustainable development: replies to Jonathon Porritt"
(6 December 2005)

Ehsan Masood, "A German vision: greening globalisation"
(28 March 2007)

Michael Hopkins, "Sustainable development: from word to policy"
(11 April 2007)

John Elkington, "Brundtland and sustainability: history’s balance-sheet"
(12 April 2007)

Stephen Browne, "Whatever happened to 'development'?"
(18 April 2007)

Private and public reason

A valuable way of addressing these questions may be make a distinction between the roles of promoting "private reason" and "public reason".

Private reason covers the traditional roles of academic specialists and their institutions as teachers and trainers of successive generations of active citizens, and as cherished zones of rational thought and independent critique, able to exercise at least a modicum of accountability though the application of rigour to public-policy problems.

Public reason covers the less traditional roles of knowledge institutions as co-creators, active in the public sphere. Its cultivation might include strengthening intermediaries, translators, and bridges that use knowledge that has been produced responsibly to influence policy and practice in directions that ultimately benefit defined causes or groups of people; and increasing the knowledge-making and interpretative capacities of groups, organisations, and movements struggling for change so that they can be more influential actors at higher levels of the political system. It might also involve responsible institutions acquiring a louder public voice, through a more proactive and energetic role in publishing and speaking in the public media - not just in specialist publications for the development set, but in popular magazines and websites like openDemocracy. This direct, public role has to be deployed very carefully lest it morph into speaking on behalf of others, but it can be done well.

A change from within

Development studies will exist so long as the development paradigm survives, despite its shrinking significance geographically and continued marginalisation from the real centres of intellectual and political energy that drive change forward. Moreover, the revival of political support for foreign aid provides a continued security blanket for conventional development institutions, be they NGOs or research-based bodies. In such circumstances, the motivation for change will have to come from within - the product of a conscious, long-term strategy that maps out and manages the costs and risks involved.

This road into the future needs courage; and I take courage from the following remarks by the international-relations professor (and openDemocracy columnist) Fred Halliday, in an interview published in Salmagundi. He is reminiscing about the first Chinese translation of the Communist Manifesto by students in Japan around 1910. Instead of "workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains", their version read: "scholars of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your shame"!

"The shame", Halliday continues, "is not doing the work. The shame is not listening to other people. The shame is not saying what you think. The shame is running after fashions of left or right. The shame is wasting your time in public, theatric pugilism."

In part, the antidote to shame of this kind is to hand: it lies in reasserting and defending the traditional virtues of rigour and independence in knowledge-production. But more is needed. The task ahead is to marry these virtues with new and liberating experiments in co-creation and public work. Development research needs to find its soul in a marriage of reason, love, and something we could call democratic politics. Let the work begin.

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