Politics in development: reflections from DSA 2016

By Ellie Chowns, Research Associate in the Department of Geography.

The annual conference of the Development Studies Association is always a stimulating event.  Held this year in Oxford’s grand Examination Schools, panellists and participants discussed politics and inequality under rows of portraits of old white men in fancy robes.  Things may have changed a bit, but still nowhere near enough…

There was a good range of panels to choose from (though fortunately not so many that the audience were stretched too thin, as sometimes happens at these things.  I once presented a conference paper on a panel of 6, to an audience of 1!)  Personally I particularly enjoyed the sessions on ‘the politics of public sector transformations’ (especially Alice Evans’ energetic presentation on reducing maternal mortality in Zambia through benchmarking results), and ‘the politics of natural resource governance and livelihoods’ (especially Mikkel Funder on the role of ‘street level  bureaucrats’ in climate change adaptation, also in Zambia).  Several Sheffield colleagues were also presenting on other panels.

There were two fascinating (and contrasting) ‘big hitter’ talks too – one from an anthropologist, and one from an economist.  Tania Li’s lecture ‘After development: surplus population and the politics of entitlement’ was a call to arms, inspired by dismay at the current state of the world, and arguing for a radical shift in response. Drawing on her work with James Ferguson, Li asked: how can the ‘surplus population’ – i.e. those surplus to capitalism, for whom there is no work available – sustain themselves?  She argued that we need to focus on the politics of distribution and develop a new narrative of entitlements.

James Robinson’s lecture on ‘Paths of Statebuilding’ was something of a contrast – especially when he started projecting equations.  I suspect he was teasing us; certainly the audience didn’t quite know what to make of it!  Robinson’s core argument, illustrated in typical style with historical examples (Athens, early modern England), was that we cannot think about state formation separately from the role of society.  In some cases the state grows too strong and crushes the society (what he calls the ‘James Scott equilibrium’) and in others the state remains ineffective and society basically has to run itself.  But in certain circumstances state capacity and societal capacity can be mutually reinforcing; growth in capacity of one prompts development in the capacity of the other.

Both lectures left me with more questions than answers – such as: if work is separated from income, what opportunities (and challenges) open up with regard to its social and psychological value?  And how can a state/society shift out of a suboptimal equilibrium?  Still, overall the conference provided plenty of food for thought.  Next year’s conference will be in Bradford, and in the meantime you can take a look at the DSA website and sign up to receive the regular Bulletin.



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