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Reviving Critical Modernism in Development Studies

7 September 2016 3 comments

Critical modernism forms a very small, rather dated trickle of ideas within development studies. How could it be updated to serve as a lens for current research?

Critical modernism can be understood as a wide sweep of ideas, particularly encompassing thinkers such as Habermas and Gramsci[1].  But it has only a small explicit footprint within development studies largely triggered by a chapter in Peet & Hartwick’s book Theories of Development, published in 1999[2].  Itself developed from earlier work, this was particularly a response to “post-development” ideas that arose in the 1980s.

Despite subsequent editions of Theories of Development, the core text on critical modernism by Peet & Hartwick remains unchanged, and the specific notion has gained little overt traction in development literature:

– A few works by Giles Mohan and collaborators in the mid-2000s[3].

– A recent paper taking a critical modernist perspective on rights-based development[4].

– Mark Thompson’s paper which included the question of how Development 2.0 would inform the “debate” on critical modernism within development studies[5].

Unfortunately there wasn’t really a debate, but we can revisit the question, to ask if critical modernism is worth rescuing from its development studies obscurity.

As a start, what is critical modernism?

As the name suggests, it is critical; meaning that – drawing from Marxist political economy – it focuses on the structures of power that shape the processes and outcomes of development.  Practically, it seeks to alter distributions of power in order to improve development outcomes.  Methodologically, it listens to subaltern voices: the voices of those who are excluded and marginalised; whose basic needs have yet to be met.  But it differs from structuralist critical theory through two additions.  First, an incorporation of post-structuralism that acknowledges – alongside the power of resources, institutions and structural relations – the power of discourse and ideas: the power of control over systems of knowledge (see diagram below).  Second, an incorporation of analytical lenses other than just class; for example a feminist lens that recognises patriarchal structures of power.

critical-modernism-and-power

As the name also suggests, it is modernist: meaning that it accepts (albeit “critically”) and is optimistic about Enlightenment values.  Teleologically, this means critical modernism accepts the idea of development, with a purpose of progress and alleviation of material want[6].  Methodologically, this means an adherence to scientific method, to evidence-based conclusions, and to theorisation.  But it differs from simple modernism in two ways.  First, because it critiques modernism; not the substance of modernism but its current form as reflected in late-stage capitalism.  Second, because it recognise multiple modernities, as modernism interacts with multiple different localities and their contexts around the world.

From here, I suggest four developments of critical modernism, perhaps increasingly contentious:

a) Ontological development: it is an easy step to aver that critical modernism is commensurate with the research philosophy of critical realism. Hence that epistemological and methodological implications of critical realism apply when researching from a critical modernist perspective.

b) Conceptual development: listening to subaltern voices and incorporating the voluntarism of populist critiques of development means critical modernism recognises the agency of the marginalised – the ability of social movements to effect change, and the ability of the marginalised to use the tools (ideas, technologies, discourse) of the powerful to empower themselves. Hence a denial of structural determinism; instead arguing that structures of power shape but do not determine development outcomes. This requires a re-conceptualisation of power that incorporates both structural power (e.g. power over) and agentic power (e.g. power to); and which identifies power as deriving not from a monolithic structure but from multiple sources, both global and local.  Network theories of power may be especially relevant here; for example incorporating the connective power and agency that comes from membership of multiple and multi-scalar networks[7].  In practice, this means seeking universals and commonalities to link within a wider-scale network those local networks (movements and institutions) seeking to empower those at the margins.

c) Methodological development: “Critical modernism listens to what people have to say … Critical modernism finds worth in all experiences”[8]. If we are to take this seriously then it must include listening not just to the marginalised but also those within institutions of power. Critical researchers sometimes fail on this score; standing outside such an institution and painting a caricature that does not engage with, or listen to, its members.  This listening is itself universally critical: not unquestioningly believing all that is said by either the powerful or the powerless.

d) Critical development: as noted above, a central tenet of critical modernism is a “blame the player not the game” approach – “Critical modernism focuses on a critique of capitalism as the social form taken by the modern world rather than on modernism” – arguing that the problem is not modernism per se but capitalism as a particular form within modernism.

But the same logic must also be applied to capitalism.  Adding the requirements for rationality and evidence base, one can argue three things.  First, that capitalism – as well as being the driver for inequality and environmental unsustainability – has been the driver for many of the material gains experienced in the global South in the past two decades[9].  Second, that capitalism is not a form but forms[10].  And that the problems lie not with the substance of capitalism, but with particular forms that it has taken; notably the lightly-regulated forms of neoliberal capitalism and emergent digital capitalism.  Capitalism is not “a corrupt form of modernism”[11] but a corruptible form of modernism.  Third, that while socialism – even communism – may be highly effective in enabling the transformation from a largely agrarian society into early-stage industrialisation, alternatives to capitalism have largely failed to deliver sustainable later-stage development gains[12].

Here, we teeter to the very edge of what it means to be critical; well beyond what Peet & Hartwick – with their old-school calls for collective ownership of all means of production and all social institutions – would recognise.  The key dividing line lies between those who think capitalism is the problem, and those who think it will be – in some form – part of the solution.

(Likewise politically.  Critical modernism eschews kneejerk direct democracy in favour of reasoned, deliberative democracy.  But belief in evidence would accept this form of participative democracy only where – in practice – it proves more effective than representative democracy at delivering development.)

To summarise a (revised) critical modernist approach to development studies:

– Critical through central attention to the distributions of power that underlie distributions of development outcomes; and seeking to alter those distributions in favour of the less-powerful.

– A network conceptualisation of power that includes both structure and agency; both power over and power to.

– Critical acceptance of values of modernity including reasoning and democracy, development and progress, science and technology.

– An ontology and epistemology of critical realism

– Methodology based on scientific method and evidence that listens to both the powerless and powerful.

– Perhaps, a focus more on alternative forms of capitalism than alternatives to capitalism.

[1] Mumby, D.K. (1997) Modernism, postmodernism, and communication studies: a rereading of an ongoing debate, Communication Theory, 7(1), 1-28

[2] Latest edition: Peet, R. & Hartwick, R. (2015) Theories of Development, 3rd edn, Guilford Press, New York, NY

[3] E.g. Hickey, S. & Mohan, G. (2004) Relocating participation within a radical politics of development: critical modernism and citizenship, in: Participation – From Tyranny to Transformation?, S. Hickey & G. Mohan (eds), Zed Books, London, 59-74

[4] Langford, M. (2015) Rights, development and critical modernity, Development and Change, 46(4), 777-802

[5] Thompson, M. (2008) ICT and development studies: towards development 2.0, Journal of International Development, 20, 821-835

[6] Reflecting the views of many social movements that want not a rejection of development, but progress, material gains, and which often believe strongly in the power of science and technology (Hickey & Mohan (ibid)).

[7] Bennett, W.L. & Segerberg, A. (2012) The logic of connective action, Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 739-768

[8] Peet & Hartwick (ibid:313).

[9] Hulme, D. (2016) Should Rich Nations Help the Poor?, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK

[10] Henderson, J. (1996) Globalisation and forms of capitalism, Competition & Change, 1(4), 403-410

[11] Peet & Hartwick (ibid:314).

[12] O’Neil, P.H. (2015) Essentials of Comparative Politics, WW Norton & Company, New York, NY; Kornai, J. (2000) What the change of system from socialism to capitalism does and does not mean, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 14(1), 27-42

The Politics of Disconnection: Network Geography, Trump, Sanders, Brexit, et al

Disconnection

Due to advances in transport and digital infrastructure, we live in an increasingly-connected world.  The value of global flows rose from US$5tr in 1990 to US$30tr in 2014[1].  In the same period, international travel grew from 435m to 1.1bn per year.

But this global interconnection – and the economic crash that was its direct result – has led to a powerful counter-reaction, with challenger politics emerging from both right and left.  The figureheads in the global North are various and sometimes curious: Trump, Sanders, Farage, Iglesias, Tsipras, Le Pen, Hofer, and more.  While differing in many policies, they share common ground that boils down to the slogan, “Disconnect!”.

Examples of insurgent policies include:

  • Disconnection from human networks through anti-immigration initiatives.
  • Disconnection from governance networks such as leaving the EU or abandoning free trade agreements.
  • Disconnection from production networks through support for localised production, and disincentives to globalised production.
  • Disconnection from – or at least restrictions on – capital networks through tax and other financial controls.
  • Disconnection from geo-political networks through increasing reticence for overseas military intervention.

There are many other policy examples: British disconnection from international development networks; French disconnection from the euro; etc.

Who is this coming from?  Setting aside the catalysis and aspirations of individual leaders, there are differences but also similarities between the demographics of those disconnecting from the right and those disconnecting from the left[2].  Right-wing disconnectors tend to be older, poorer, less-well-educated; left-wing disconnectors the reverse. But they appear to have two things in common: they are more often from the ethnic majority, and they are more often men.

We can understand these people in terms of positional network geography (see earlier discussion).  Rarely excluded from key global networks, instead these are people who perceive themselves – or can be persuaded to perceive themselves – as adversely incorporated, peripheralised in those networks.  They see a network core that benefits at their expense; they see new, mobile members seeking to join their network and potentially displace them.  For those who are white men perhaps there is particularly a gap between the promise or expectation of benefitting from the growth of global networks, and a perceived reality of not doing so.

As the complexity of the networks into which we are connected grows, and as the number of our network connections grows, we become increasingly connected into contexts that are too complex to either understand or control.  Yet we demand that our politicians control these uncontrollable networks.  And this takes place in an environment of growing digital politics in which form matters more than content.

Combine these two and we encourage the confident assertion of simple solutions: on the right, disconnecting from global flows of labour; on the left, disconnecting from global flows of capital; both disconnecting from global governance networks.

This is reminiscent of the disconnections of the 1920s following the shock of the First World War.  Remind me, how did that work out?

[1] MGI (2016) Digital Globalization, McKinsey Global Institute, San Francisco, CA

[2] http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/02/si-we-can-how-left-wing-podemos-party-rattling-spanish-establishment; https://www.quora.com/Whats-the-demographic-profile-of-a-Bernie-Sanders-supporter; https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/03/24/eu-referendum-provincial-england-versus-london-and/; http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/who-are-donald-trumps-supporters-really/471714/

Network Geography and Global Development: Dependency Redux?

6 June 2016 1 comment

The SDGs can be taken as a marker of transition from international development to global development worldviews.  Among other aspects of global development is a universalisation of development: development is everywhere; not just associated with the global South.  What does this mean for the geography of development?

One response would be to retain a physical, spatial approach to geography, but to move on from the old bipolarity of developed vs. developing; North vs. South.  Alongside moving upward to the global, this would move downward to the local; for example to regions, cities, “pockets of poverty” and the like[i].

An alternative would be to move to a network geography of development.  Social networks and transportation links mean networks have always been fundamental to development.  But telecommunication links – particularly digital links during the 21st century – have significantly accelerated the presence and salience and complexity of networks in development.  These exist as physical networks (such as physical infrastructure grids), virtual networks (such as online communities of practice) and most often as hybrid networks (such as supply chains and their parallel digital representations), so a network geography combines the physical and non-physical.  The explosive growth of networks in development demands greater use of network-based conceptualisations, including network geographies[ii].

Three main geographies can be applied to understand these networks.  First, a processual geography that focuses on the flows between nodes in the network (e.g. flows of aid between networks of development NGOs[iii]).  Second, a structural geography that focuses on the shape of the network (e.g. the impact of different network structures on water governance in Costa Rica[iv]).  Third, a relational geography that combines aspects of both flow and shape (e.g. the resource networks drawn on by development champions[v]).

Conceptualisation of these network geographies has come from a number of sources[vi].  Examples include social capital drawing from new institutional economics, global production networks drawing from economic geography, networked governance drawing from political science, embeddedness drawing from new economic sociology, and complex adaptive systems drawing from complexity theory.

However, if the spatial geography of old is to be supplanted, it will be by a new spatial geography; one that replaces position in the physical world with position in the network (physical, virtual, hybrid).  The positional network geography of development has often used the binary of being either inside or outside the network (e.g. Castells’ notion of the excluded “Fourth World”, or conceptions of the digital divide).  More sophisticated versions have added the category of “have lesses” between the “haves” and the “have nots”; those who are within the network but at the periphery.  Given, at least for digital networks, the dwindling numbers who are truly excluded, this is a more appropriate conceptualisation.  The positional geography of development thus becomes a geography of network position: distinguishing those actors at the core of the network from those at the periphery who are marginal and precarious.

While this might be an idea suitable for the 21st century nature of global development, it has earlier origins.  It sounds very similar to dependency theory, with its ideas of core and periphery.  Though long out of favour, this could provide one approach to a positional network geography of development; a revival supported by some in development studies[vii].

Aspects of dependency theory relevant to a wider network geography of development include:

  • Moving beyond the simple binary of core/periphery to world systems theory’s core/semi-periphery/periphery; or even to the idea of a spectrum of network positions.
  • Associating network position with differentiated roles vis-a-vis the production and capture of value, and with differentiated flows and ownership of resources.
  • Recognising the reproduction of network position through power; particularly the power of innovation, knowledge and technology.

A positional network geography of development would need to move away from dependency’s nation-state-centric approach, recognising many other units of analysis; and it would need to recognise the (constrained) potential for mobility of network position.  Work on global production networks has taken some of these ideas and demonstrated their relevance to another unit of analysis, but this needs to be extended to all forms of networks; not just global but regional and local; not just productive but political and social.  Indeed, one would need to recognise that any development actor lies not within a single network but within multiple networks; potentially with somewhat different positions in each.  These would include locally-embedded as well as disembedded networks.

Further developments needed include:

  • Recognition of the relational, institutional and cognitive/symbolic sources of power within the network; and the potential for network-specific conceptions of power[viii].
  • Recognition of the role played by the new technologies that increasingly mediate, enable and constrain the networks of global development; requiring some socio-materiality to be incorporated[ix].
  • Recognition of the increasing potential for quantification of positionality via social network analysis; a tool which can add absent methodological rigour[x].

 

[i] Horner, R. (2016) Unpacking the emergence of global development, unpublished draft

[ii] Bebbington, A. & Kothari, U. (2006) Transnational development networks, Environment and Planning A, 38(5), 849-866

[iii] Bebbington, A. (2004) NGOs and uneven development, Progress in Human Geography, 28(6), 725-745

[iv] Kuzdas, C., Wiek, A., Warner, B., Vignola, R., & Morataya, R. (2015) Integrated and participatory analysis of water governance regimes, World Development, 66, 254-268

[v] Renken, J. & Heeks, R. (2013) Conceptualising ICT4D project champions, paper presented at ICTD2013, Cape Town, 7-10 Dec

[vi] Heeks, R. & Renken, J. (2015) Investigating the potential of social network analysis in development studies, paper presented at DSA 2015 conference, Bath, 7-8 Sep

[vii] E.g. Fischer, A.M. (2015) The end of peripheries? On the enduring relevance of structuralism for understanding contemporary global development, Development and Change, 46(4), 700-732

[viii] E.g. Castells, M. (2011). A network theory of power, International Journal of Communication, 5, 773-787

[ix] E.g. Contractor, N., Monge, P. & Leonardi, P.M. (2011) Multidimensional networks and the dynamics of sociomateriality: bringing technology inside the network, International Journal of Communication, 5, 682-720

[x] Heeks, R. & Renken, J. (2015) Investigating the potential of social network analysis in development studies, paper presented at DSA 2015 conference, Bath, 7-8 Sep

Actor-Network Theory, Technology and Development

What can actor-network theory offer to our understanding of technology and development?

This blog entry summarises the answer from an open access paper in the journal Development Studies Research: “Technological Change in Developing Countries: Opening the Black Box of Process Using Actor–Network Theory”, and it builds on an earlier entry on ANT and development.

Technology rather dropped from the development agenda during the 1980s and 1990s, but has re-emerged strongly in the 21st century; not least due to the spectacular diffusion of ICTs.

Yet, to date, conceptualisation of technological change in developing countries has had three problematic gaps:

  • It has been de-humanised: organisations are recognised as actors but people – as identifiable individuals with agency – rarely appear in the technology and development literature.
  • Technology may be understood as a physical artefact, as a system of elements, as the embodiment of knowledge. But it is not seen as playing any active role: technology is acted-upon but is not itself acting.
  • Research has tended to study factors or social structures affecting processes of technological change. But it does not describe those processes in detail: actual practices of change tend to be black-boxed.

In sum, research to date has typically stood outside the technology processes it seeks to investigate; freezing them in time and concealing their main actors.

As luck would have it, these are just the kind of lacunae that actor-network theory was intended to address.  Yet application of ANT to cases of technological change in developing countries has been rare; and within development studies literature, almost non-existent.  So new ANT-based case studies of technology and development are required to assess what insights actor-network theory can offer.

One such case study – applying Callon’s “moments of translation” to a digital information system in the Sri Lankan public sector – is presented in the Development Studies Research paper (which should be accessed for full details).  It finds that an initial network supporting technological change fell apart in mid-project, and had to be reconstructed around a new technology design and a new vision for future change.

Three challenges emerged in applying ANT:

  • Methodological: admission of subjectivity in framing an ANT-based case, and problems of thinning out detail to fit a journal-length account.
  • Analytical: that ANT can provide a rich description of how things happen, but stutters in seeking to analyse why.
  • Instrumental: the difficulty of extracting practical guidance from ANT other than rather “Machiavellian” prescriptions.

On the other hand, the case analysis shows that ANT can open the black box of technological change processes and offer new insights:

  • Networks: explaining the networks of relations that both support and oppose technological change, and also the detailed process by which they come to be formed, dissolved, etc.
  • Technology: exposing the active role that technology plays in international development – shaping, enabling, co-operating, resisting, etc.
  • Human practices: providing a detailed account of the role played by individuals and groups in technological change; particularly the way in which lead actors modify the perceived interests and even identities of others involved.

ANT therefore shows us not just that human interests, identities and relations change in a technology-and-development project; it also explains in what way they change, how it is that those changes come about, and how they relate to the project’s trajectory.

The case analysis shows that ANT will not help answer questions about the impact of context on technological process, or about the developmental impact (in the traditional sense) of technology. However, it may help to answer questions such as:

  • How do we explain the trajectory of a technology and development project?
  • How does a particular innovation in a developing country diffuse, scale up or sink without trace?
  • What role does technology play in processes of technological change?
  • How does power manifest itself in such processes? How are apparently relatively powerless actors sometimes able to influence the direction of technological change? How are apparently relatively powerful actors sometimes not able to get their way on a technology project?

As the technology used in development becomes more complex, more interconnected, more intertwined into the lives and livelihoods of developing communities, and changing at an ever-faster pace; then ANT will likely become more relevant and more useful as a conceptual frame.

 

How Important Will The Post-2015 Agenda Be For Development Research And Practice?

19 December 2013 1 comment

In an earlier post, I outlined the current state of the post-2015 development agenda (PTDA) process.  Later posts will look at the content of that agenda and its implications for development – particularly development informatics – research.

Before getting to that, though, it is appropriate to ask a couple of foundational assumption-checking questions.

Question number 1: “How important will the PTDA be to international development?”.  If it is just going to end up gathering dust on a shelf, or if it is just  a side-show, then there is little point using it to shape our research priorities.  We will not know the answer to that question until something like 2020 at the earliest but we have two current guides.

The first is how important the post-2015 agenda is currently perceived to be.  One set of evidence is the extent of participation in the consultation process.  There have been nearly 100 national, six regional and eleven thematic consultations, with each of these typically involving many hundreds of organisational participants[1] plus thousands of online contributions[2].  It is hard to benchmark this against other activities but it must represent one of the most substantial exercises in global consultation.  Other evidence comes from polling perceptions: for example, of more than 100 civil society organisations surveyed in 27 developing countries, 87% wanted a post-2015 development framework[3].

A second guide is historical: investigating how important the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have been to international development, given they are by far the closest historical phenomenon to the PTDA.  There is a generalised assumption about the MDGs’ importance: “the MDGs … have an incontestable strength”[4]; “the Millennium Development Goals … have unified, galvanized, and expanded efforts to help the world’s poorest people”[5].  However, in the complex field of influences that exists within international development, attribution is problematic: “the direct development impact of the MDGs is difficult to determine”[6].

Those who have sought to study this come up with differentiated conclusions depending on the area of influence investigated.  For example:

  • Debate/Discourse: “There is widespread agreement that the MDGs have placed broad-based poverty reduction at the center of the development agenda at least in international discussions and policy discourse”[7]; “There is plenty of evidence of the influence of the MDGs on policy discourse, if this is measured by mention of the goals or their presence in donor policy documents, PRSPs and developing country government goals”[8].
  • Aid Flows: “The MDGs have mobilized government and business leaders to donate tens of billions of dollars”[9]; “We argue that the MDGs may have played a role in increasing aid”[10].
  • Policy: “For better or worse, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have constituted the longest standing paradigm that has ever emerged in development thinking. The goals have been an organising framework for international aid over the last ten years. At the core of countless policy documents, plans and announcements”[11]; “policy statements of major bilateral donors align with the MDG priorities only partially and in varying ways … there is a considerable adoption of MDG priority areas, however there is equal or higher adoption of priorities not in the MDGs”[12].
  • Outcomes: “the most powerful impact of the MDGs appears to have been on aid flows, but the impact of that aid on outcomes is difficult to assess and plausibly muted”[13]; “In some areas, such as vaccination or primary education enrolment in sub-Saharan Africa, the links between the MDGs, the mobilisation and focusing of additional aid, and subsequent impacts seem convincingly close. But in others, the links seem less plausible”[14].
  • Practice: “The research shows that in the organisations studied [small number of faith-based NGOs], the extent of influence of the MDGs has been minimal upon development activities in a direct sense, although some indirect influence due to donor funding requirements has been reported”[15].

Drawing on these sources and others[16], a subjective summary assessment of MDG impact can be drawn up as shown in Figure 1.

MDG Development Influence

Figure 1: Relative Impact of MDGs on Differing Aspects of International Development

Question number 2: “How important will the PTDA be to development research agendas and funding?”.  Again, we can look at current evidence about PTDA activity, plus also historical evidence relating to the MDGs.  At the time of writing, many of the major development research institutes – those with a majority focus on international development and lying at the top of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program rankings[17] – have post-2015 initiatives underway.  This seems much less true of US-based institutes, probably reflecting the lower levels of US engagement with the MDGs and the post-2015 agenda[18]:

  • Center for Global Development: has a number of blog posts on post-2015 and some publications on the MDGs which include thoughts on post-2015, but no main topics or initiatives.
  • Kennedy School Center for International Development: has no apparent research programmes or specific activities related to the post-2015 agenda.
  • International Food Policy Research Institute: has its own 2020 agenda but no major post-2015 research activity.

The picture is very different for development research institutes outside the US.  Listing these in descending TTCSP rank order:

Alongside this snapshot of current activity, we can look at historical impact of the MDGs on research agendas and funding.  Data on the output side is not particularly clear.  A review was undertaken of articles in the three top development studies journals – World Development, Development and Change, and Journal of Development Studies – published during 2008-2013.  This suggested that 1-2% of articles had a specific engagement with the MDGs (mentioned in the title or abstract), and 10-15% mentioned the MDGs somewhere in the main text.  In the absence of other benchmarks, not much can be concluded from this data.

A stronger sense of the importance of the MDGs comes from the input side; from analysis of funder research strategies.  For this activity, analysis was undertaken of the research strategies of three key development research funders – Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) – during the period 2002-2012.  This suggested a continuum of MDG influence as summarised in Figure 2:

  • IDRC: research strategy documents have just one or two passing references to the MDGs, and the MDGs do not frame research strategy.  For example: “Although not explicit nor an underpinning of IDRC’s health programming, there is an implicit interest in the health-related Millennium Development Goals”[19].
  • SIDA: the MDGs are one among a number of components that have shaped research strategy.  For example, a core overview[20] lists three foci for research: matters of relevance to low-income countries; research issues arising from international commitments as defined by the MDGs and UN conventions; and cooperative arrangements that identify new research of relevance to developing countries.
  • DFID: “The current effort is … using the Millennium Development Goals as the main framework for determining research strategies and priorities”[21].  “All DFID’s efforts are directed towards achieving the targets set by the world community in the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. They are the basis for choosing research topics”[22].  “The purpose of DFID’s research is to make faster progress in fighting poverty and achieving the MDGs”[23].

MDG Development Research Influence

Figure 2: MDG Influence on Development Research Strategies

Taking together all of the evidence, it seems reasonable to conclude that – whatever its absolute strength and with acknowledgement to local variations – the post-2015 development agenda will be the single most important force shaping the future of development and of development research.  It is certainly of sufficient importance to take very seriously in the planning of future development-related research agendas.  If our own future research is in synch with post-2015, at the least we can use that to boost the credibility and perceived relevance of our research; at the most, we will gain greater funding and a wider audience for our research.  Future posts will explore this further.


[1] e.g. TWWW (2013a) Global Thematic Consultation on Governance and the Post-2015 Development Framework,The World We Want http://www.worldwewant2015.org/governance/finalreport; and TWWW (2013b) Health in the Post-2015 Agenda, The World We Want http://www.worldwewant2015.org/health

[3] Pollard, A., Sumner, A., Polato-Lopes, M. & de Mauroy, A. (2011) 100 Voices, CAFOD, London http://www.cafod.org.uk/Media/Files/Resources/Policy/100-Voices

[4] Prammer, E. & Martinuzzi, A. (2013) The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Post-2015 Debate, Case Study no.13, European Sustainable Development Network, Vienna

[5] McArthur, J. (2013) Own the goals: what the millennium development goals have accomplished, Foreign Affairs, March/April http://www.brookings.edu/research/articles/2013/02/21-millennium-dev-goals-mcarthur

[6] Higgins, K. (2013) Reflecting on the MDGs and Making Sense of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, The North-South Institute, Ottawa, ON

[7] Kenny, C. & Sumner, A. (2011) More Money or More Development: What Have the MDGs Achieved?, Working Paper 278, Center for Global Development, Washington, DC http://international.cgdev.org/files/1425806_file_Kenny_Sumner_MDGs_FINAL.pdf

[8] Lockwood, M. (2012) What have the MDGs achieved?  We don’t really know, From Poverty to Power, 31 Aug http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/?p=11498

[9] McArthur 2013

[10] Kenny & Sumner 2011

[11] Pollard et al. 2011

[12] Kenny & Sumner 2011

[13] Kenny & Sumner 2011

[14] Lockwood 2012

[15] Dore, M. (2011) Keeping Faith with the MDGs, MSc Dissertation, University of Edinburgh

[16] e.g. Gore, C. (2009) The Global Development Cycle, MDGs and the Future of Poverty Reduction, European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes, Bonn http://www.eadi.org/fileadmin/MDG_2015_Publications/Gore_PAPER.pdf; and Manning, R. (2010) The impact and design of the MDGs: some reflections, IDS Bulletin, 41(1), 7-14 http://www.humanitarianforum.org/data/files/impactanddesignofmdg.pdf

[17] McGann, J.G. (2013) 2012 Global Go To Think Tanks Report and Policy Advice, Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA http://gotothinktank.com/dev1/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/2012_Global_Go_To_Think_Tank_Report_-_FINAL-1.28.13.pdf

[18] e.g. Hulme, D. (2009) The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): A Short History of the World’s Biggest Promise, BWPI Working Paper 100, Brooks World Poverty Institute, University of Manchester, UK http://www.bwpi.manchester.ac.uk/resources/Working-Papers/bwpi-wp-10009.pdf

[19] IDRC (2009) Innovating for Development Strategic Framework 2010-2015, IDRC, Ottawa http://www.idrc.ca/EN/AboutUs/WhatWeDo/Documents/12614275681Strategic_framework_2010-2015.pdf

[20] Regeringskansliet (2010) Research for Development, Regeringskansliet, Stockholm http://www.government.se/content/1/c6/14/60/03/eab96d0b.pdf

[21] Surr, M., Barnett, A., Duncan, A., Speight, M., Bradley, D., Rew, A. & Toye, J. (2002) Research for Poverty Reduction: DFID Research Policy Paper, DFID, London http://www.idee.ceu.es/Portals/0/Actividades/Doc_Reduccion_Pobreza.pdf

[22] DFID (2004) DFID Research Funding Framework 2005-2007, DFID, London http://globalgrn.files.wordpress.com/2009/08/dvidresearch-framework-2005.pdf

The Post-2015 Development Agenda

28 November 2013 8 comments

This is the first of a number of related blog entries that will look at the post-2015 development agenda and its implications.  This entry describes the process of setting that agenda.

In theory, the origins of the post-2015 process could be traced back many years to the setting of the Millennium Development Goal deadline.  It was obvious then that there would be a post-MDG world from 2015.  However, it seems more appropriate to date the timeline (see Figure 1 below, and more detailed timeline in Table 1 at the end) from September 2011, with the formation of the UN System Task Team: the body charged with overseeing the post-2015 process.

PTDA Timeline

Figure 1: Post-2015 Process Outline Timeline

The MDGs were an integration in 2001 of two rather separate processes: the OECD Development Assistance Committee’s work on International Development Goals, and the UN’s work to develop the Millennium Declaration[1].  This added to the time and effort required to produce the MDGs, yet the same is happening again with the post-2015 process, as summarised in Figure 2 below (adapted from an original by Claire Hickson[2]).

PTDA Structures

Figure 2: Post-2015 Development Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals Process Map

The timeline shown is therefore a single representation of multiple strands.  The post-2015 development agenda process is relatively well-advanced.  Following the UN System Task Team’s formation, a series of thematic and national consultations on the agenda have already been conducted, with two key reports produced in 2012 (“Realizing the Future We Want for All”) and 2013 (“A Renewed Global Partnership for Development”).  A High-Level Panel was set up by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.  Chaired by the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia and the UK Prime Minister and involving 24 other “eminent persons”, this produced its report mid-way through 2013.  These documents were placed before the UN General Assembly when its 68th session began in September 2013; a session which included special meetings and events on the MDGs and after.

At the time of writing, the sustainable development goals (SDGs) process was not quite so well developed.  Emerging from the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (“Rio+20”) and its General Assembly resolution in July 2012, this led to formation of a UN Open Working Group.  The Group has been supported by a UN System Technical Support Team, which provides a link to the post-2015 activity since it works under the UN System Task Team.  It has also been supported by an “Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing” and a “High-Level Political Forum” that provides political momentum for the process.  The Open Working Group has a series of eight sessions being run during 2013-2014, and structured along thematic lines.  This will report towards the end of 2014.

At that point – during 2015 – an integration of the two processes and political negotiation of the final post-2015 agenda should occur, leading to a new post-MDG framework to run from the start of 2016.  It is worth just asking whether such a framework might not emerge.  Present signs are that this would be extremely unlikely: process, timeline and structures are all in place; and significant political capital – plus other resources – has already been invested.  It would take something huge and unexpected to derail the process.  We can therefore work on the assumption that there will be a post-2015 agenda.

Table 1: The Post-2015 Process Schedule

Sourced largely from Hickson (2013)

Date Activity
Sep 2010 UN MDG Summit
Sep 2011 UN System Task Team established to lead post-2015 process
May 2012-Apr 2013 Post-2015 thematic global consultations
Jun 2012 Rio+20 summit; working group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set up
Jun 2012 UN System Task Team “Realizing the Future We Want for All” report
Jun 2012 National post-2015 consultations begin
Jul 2012 Rio+20 “The Future We Want” resolution to UN General Assembly
Aug 2012 High-Level Panel (HLP) set up by Ban Ki-moon
Sep 2012 HLP convened
Nov 2012 HLP first substantive meeting (London)
Jan 2013 SDG Open Working Group created
Feb 2013 HLP second meeting (Monrovia)
Feb 2013 EU post-2015 communication “A Decent Life for All”
Mar 2013 UN System Task Team “A Renewed Global Partnership for Development” report
Mar 2013 HLP third meeting (Bali)
Mar 2013-Feb 2014 Eight sessions of SDG Open Working Group
May 2013 Draft SDG report
May 2013 HLP “A New Global Partnership” report
Jul 2013 Progress report of SDG Open Working Group to UN General Assembly
Sep/Oct 2013 New UN General Assembly session and MDG Review Summit
Sep 2013 First session of High-Level Political Forum on sustainable development
Sep 2014 SDG Open Working Group to report to UN General Assembly
Jan 2015 MDG deadline
Jan-Dec 2015 Intergovernmental negotiations via UN General Assembly on Post-2015 Agenda
Sep 2015 High-Level Political Forum Meeting
c.Jul-Sep 2015 UN General Assembly Post-2015/MDG Review Summit
Jan 2016 New Post-2015 framework in place

[1] Hulme, D. (2009) The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): A Short History of the World’s Biggest Promise, BWPI Working Paper 100, Brooks World Poverty Institute, University of Manchester, UK http://www.bwpi.manchester.ac.uk/resources/Working-Papers/bwpi-wp-10009.pdf

[2] Hickson, C. (2013) Post-2015 development goals process and timeline, Trio Policy, 11 Jul http://www.triopolicy.com/post-2015-development-goals-process-and-timeline/

Using Actor-Network Theory in ICT4D Research

30 July 2011 14 comments

Actor-network theory (ANT) has been around since the 1980s, and significantly utilised in some disciplines, such as information systems.  But – oddly – it has hardly been applied at all in development studies, including within ICT4D research.  That is recently starting to change but to give some further impetus, we organised an international workshop in June 2011: “Understanding Development Through Actor-Network Theory”.  You can find online a working paper series derived from the workshop.

Actor-network theory began as a means to explain how science works, such as the operation of scientific laboratories and projects.  However, it has subsequently grown to be seen as a full-blown social theory.  In particular, ANT says three things.

First, it says, “Hey, sociologists, you’ve been so obsessed with humans that you’ve been ignoring all the objects in the world.  But those objects – documents, mobile phones, plants, websites, etc – play an important role; just like humans they shape the people and other objects around them. So ANT is going to treat them the same as people, and call them both ‘actors’.”

Second, it says, “Hey, sociologists, because you’ve been so obsessed with humans, you think that society and social contexts or social factors are what explains everything in life.  But you’re wrong.  In fact you’re so wrong you’ve got your basic equation of life the wrong way around.  You think that society explains what goes on in the world.  Nope.  What goes on in the world is what explains society.  So ANT is going to focus on the mechanics of life: the ways in which people and objects interact with each other.”

Third, it says, “Hey, more recent French-type sociologists, you’ve been so obsessed with breaking things apart to understand the bits of grammar and bits of history that made them that your idea of researching a clock would be to smash it to pieces with a hammer.  That is not how to research a clock.  To research a clock you need to understand how all the pieces got put together, following the network of people and objects that interacted in order to make that clock.  So ANT is going to focus on how networks are assembled.”

Much ANT writing is horribly obscure, so full of hideously complex sentences and words that the writers must surely have done this deliberately in the hope of avoiding Oscar Wilde’s dictum, “to be intelligible is to be found out”.  But, done well, ANT can tell a good story and even occasionally give you the sense that you are suddenly seeing the world in a whole new light.  A whole new light that – because it’s about dynamics and innovations and technology and networks – seems especially relevant to ICT4D.

A couple of good entry points – good because they each provide a fairly clear and portable conceptual framework that you can re-use in your own research – are:

–         Callon, M. (1986) Some elements of a sociology of translation: domestication of scallops and the fishermen of St Brieuc Bay, in: Power, Action and Belief, J. Law (ed.), Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 196-233

–         Law, J. & Callon, M. (1992) The life and death of an aircraft: a network analysis of technical change, in: W.E. Bijker & J. Law (eds), Shaping Technology/Building Society, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 21-52

Also not too unreadable is Latour’s Reassembling the Social, though had Latour been shot half-way through the dialogue with a PhD student that is reported in the book, I can’t help feeling a verdict of justifiable homicide would have been returned.

Although, as noted, use of ANT in ICT4D research has been limited there have been enough examples, at least from developing country cases within the information systems field, that we get a sense of the questions ANT is good at answering:

–         How do you explain the trajectory of an ICT4D project?

–         What role does technology play in an ICT4D project?

–         How does power manifest itself in an ICT4D project?  How were apparently powerless actors able to influence the direction of an ICT4D project?  How was it that apparently powerful actors didn’t get their way on an ICT4D project?

–         How does a particular ICT4D innovation (be it a new technology or business model or idea) diffuse or scale-up or sink without trace?

–         How did a particular ICT4D impact or ICT4D policy come about?

If you’ve identified other ICT4D questions that are especially suitable for an ANT lens, then do contribute them.

If you want an example of applying ANT in ICT4D that also includes a reflection on the pros and cons of the theory, and some thoughts on applying it in your research, I can recommend:

–         Stanforth, C. (2007) Using actor-network theory to analyze e-government implementation in developing countries, Information Technology and International Development, 3(3), 35-60

There is also a discussion of the relation between ICT4D and ANT in:

–         Rubinoff, D.D. (2008) Towards an ICT4D geometry of empowerment: using actor-network theory to understand and improve ICT4D, in: Developing Successful ICT Strategies, M.H. Rahman (ed.), Information Science Reference, Hershey, PA, 133-154

And feel free to comment on other ICT4D literature that makes use of ANT.

If you would like to participate in discussions about ANT, you can join our online forum on LinkedIn at: http://www.linkedin.com/groups/ActorNetwork-Theory-in-Development-Studies-3995328

We are also populating a group on Mendeley with reference details, and welcome contributions: http://www.mendeley.com/groups/1255941/actor-network-theory-in-development-studies/

Finally, the first of our working paper series delves into some of these issues in greater detail: “Development Studies Research and Actor-Network Theory

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