It’s perhaps fitting that I’m publishing the first article of this blog today, at the very end of Obama’s presidency and  on the eve of  Trump’s inauguration.

It’s a sobering time in general. This is not only because of the dire and unpleasant direct implications of Trump’s rule  — and of those (from Pence to Putin) whose agendas he will facilitate. It is also because  tomorrow’s change of guard in the White House is symbolic of a deep and troubling change in the nature of global politics more broadly.  The world seems to be entering a new period of dangerous instability, and  many of the defining aspects of the economic, political and intellectual order in which we have been working for the last thirty years or so are rapidly changing. The Brexit referendum,  the rise of right wing populism in Japan, Germany and the Philippines,  the crisis in the EU, increasing geopolitical instability — and, back home, the solidifying reality of state capture and the collapse of the ANC’s project of national development — all these indicate that the undisputed authority of the world order that has been in place since 1989 is fraying.  Already, a fascinating and wide ranging political and intellectual debate is underway, trying to describe what is happening and to guess what lies ahead.   What the new stability will look like when it emerges (if it emerges at all!) is far from clear; and there is already a deluge of comment trying to foretell the outlines of what is coming.

But what are the implications of current events for the prospects of  development research in general — and our work here in ‘the global south’ specifically?     The debates about the meaning of ‘Trumpism’ and the future of the EU are important. We in South Africa have much to learn from them. But in addition to understanding these developments in their own terms, we need to engage with them in a situated way. We need to think about what they will mean, not only for the postindustrial democracies of the North, but also for people in other parts of the world.

And specifically, for the purposes of this blog,  those of us involved in  academic research about development and policy need to confront what these changes might mean for how we work and what we can do.  The changes that are happening will not leave us untouched. So perhaps it is fitting to devote some space right at the outset of this blog to thinking aloud, not only about its actual subject matter  (namely, the nature and politics of poverty and pro-poor policy in the context of the post-agrarian South), but also about the conditions of possibility that make such policies (and research about them) possible in the first place.

Neoliberal developmentalism

A good place to begin is with the global organisation of research and development work, and the nature of the North-South political relationships within which this work is embedded. For the first few decades  of the second half of the twentieth century, these relationships were shaped very much by the context of decolonisation, anti-colonial struggles and the geopolitics of the Cold War.   These struggles and the calculus of competition between the USA, Europe and the Soviet Union shaped decisions about which regimes were supported and which were destabilized, how North-South resource flows were directed, and the nature of social policies. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, all this changed.  Cold War geopolitics made way for a new international order. Geopolitical considerations still played a role (not only between the USA and the collapsing USSR, but also in relation to the Middle East and the construction of a new political frontier around ‘islamic fundamentalism’).   But at the same time an important feature of this international order was the the emergence a widely shared, transnational  field of work, research and practice centred around notions of international development, poverty alleviation, public health and environmental sustainability. One set of concerns in this project centred around agendas for international biophysical and biopolitical government (e.g. the management of HIV/AIDS or climate change), but a crucial role was also played by the Millenium Declaration and the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals. These installed poverty and poverty alleviation at the centre  of  international development discourse (something that had been unthinkable during the Cold War era).

In this situation, an important  role was played by what for want of a better term I will call neoliberal developmentalism. (I use this term advisedly, partly because I have considerable reservations about the current fashion of using the word ‘neoliberal’ as a kind of all-purpose term of ideological condemnation, or as a kind of catch-all modern-day synonym for capitalism itself.  But that’s a matter for another blog post.)  For now, I will limit myself to observing that ‘neoliberal developmentalism’  does not describe a coherent or consistent ideological framework or project; neither was it ever embodied in a widely shared consensus (whether ‘Washington’ or ‘post-Washington’). Rather, it is best to think of it as an ideological field in which a number of different political institutions, economic actors and ideological traditions contended for supremacy. In particular, it was shaped by two dominant traditions, both with long histories in the Cold War period: on the one hand, a free-market commitment to economic growth and globalisation (embodied most clearly, perhaps, in the work of the World Bank and the IMF), and on the other a commitment to the internationalisation of human rights and democracy (pursued, for instance, by the various organs of the UN).

The relationship between these traditions were complex and tangled.  On the one hand, they  were politically distinct and often antagonistic.  On the other hand, their differences were often papered over and fudged for the sake of convenicne, so that development projects and discourses drew opportunistically from a hodge-podge of quite distinct and sometimes irreconcilable ideas (here, the MDGs are a wonderful example).   In addition, it is worth remembering  that in spite of their overt differences these contending traditions also had some important histories and assumptions in common.  Both had deep roots in the traditions of Northern and European liberal thought. Both drew on deeply shared commitments to individual freedom, modernity and progress.  More subtly, both were frequently characterised by a deeply held and unreflective Eurocentrism, and a blindness to the continued salience of racialised relations of power inherited from the colonial era.

In practice, this meant that  post- Cold War development politics and practice was complex and contested.   Much depended on the particular way in which these traditions and concepts were deployed in specific contexts. The discourse of human rights, for instance, could be used to ‘normalise’ or launder capitalist exploitation, fixing attention on egregious  exceptions (slavery, child labour) while directing it away from normal, run-of-the-mill exploitation (precarious work).   But differently articulated, it could be used to support popular agency, highlight inequality,  challenge unequal social relations, and support continued anti-colonial or postcolonial struggles. The international development project was thus both ‘site and stake’ of struggle.

This contention and ambiguity had  consequences both for the nature of development interventions and policies themselves and for the kinds of research that could be done to study, inform and guide them. On the one hand this underlying ideological framework meant that there were often unspoken but still clearly identifiable limits on what could be done, proposed, researched and investigated. There was not much scope, for instance, for critical work highlighting inequality or the adverse consequences  of wholesale inclusion in global capitalist markets, for instance.  Neither was there much space (or appetite) to turn the spotlight on the continuities between modern-day development work and the racial and cultural relations of power instituted by colonialism and neocolonialism.

On the other hand, the heterogeneity of these  ideological traditions and the complexity of the political agendas involved meant that there was significant scope for contestation. In the English-speaking academic world at least, there were significant resources available for serious academic research work addressing development agendas of various kinds; and an enterprising generation of social scientists schooled in critical theory, anthropology and political economy were able to use these resources to continue to do creative and critical work interrogating and problematising the brave new globalised order that sought to enlist their energies, drawing attention to the complex consequences of capitalist growth and neocolonial agendas.It’s also worth noting that with time the centre of gravity of this international project — and the limits of what was sayable and thinkable within it —  changed. By the second decade of the new century, for instance, the scope for research on social inequality, on cash transfers, on ‘inclusive’ growth etc etc was much greater than had been possible to imagine in the heyday of free market triumphalism.

The work of my colleagues and I at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies has been a good case in point.  As development researchers, we have been very much part of this tradition of politically and policy oriented  scholarship, using the institutional base of academia, the scholarly traditions of critical social theory and the resource claims of policy research to create a platform for critical engagement with the politics of capitalist growth and international development. In this way, if truth be told, neoliberal developmentalism has served us well even as we have problematised and critiqued it.

What now?

It is abundantly clear now that the international order that came into being at the end of the Cold War is once again becoming unstable. What will happen next, and how these events will play out, is not easy to predict. But it is important to try to develop a sense of some of the possible implications. At the very least, it may be useful to get a sense of what is at stake, and to try to get a sense both of the threats and the opportunities.   In particular, for those of us working in Southern development research institutes, it seems to me that we need to keep an eye on three particularly important areas.

Funding and Institutional Survival

Firstly, and most concretely, the reconfiguration of the international order is clearly likely to have significant consequences for the political economy of development and research funding. In some ways this is the most immediate and the most serious issue from the point of view of our institutional survival. The EU is fragmenting; the national politics of the US, the UK and mainland Europe is being overtaken by resurgent nativism, anti-immigration sentiment, neofascism and racism; multilateral trade and investment arrangements are giving way to bilateralism and protectionism; and at the national level, policy commitments to social inclusion are at risk of giving way to patronage and crony capitalism.

In this context, resources for a pro-poor development agenda are likely to become increasingly scarce, and funding for academic development research even more so. The commitments and priorities of many of the international agencies on which we rely for our access to research funding are likely to be radically redefined.   This is a terrain which is largely outside our sphere of influence, but very much inside our sphere of concern. The consequences for the  institutional survival of Southern development research agencies are likely to be negative, and it will certainly force us to change our tactics. If we are to survive, we need to make sure we keep a close eye on the changing nature and political economy of international resource flows, and have a clear understanding of the implications for resourcing research.

The politics of evidence and authority

A second, less immediately obvious but equally important set of issues relates to the central role of ‘post-truth’ politics, particularly on the ideological right.   This is a complex phenomenon, and I am not sure we yet fully understand the causes or implications of this development. But it is clear that we are witnessing an increasing crisis of legitimacy on the part of the institutions that legitimise official discourse, scientific judgement, expert authority and journalistic facticity. One of the most remarkable aspects of the politics of (for example) Brexit and Trumpism have been not only the extent to which their political campaigns were based on barefaced lies and untruths; it is also the failure of discourses of ‘fact checking’ and calls for evidence to gain any meaningful traction.

This poses huge challenges for the large-scale meta-project that tried to legitimise and guide social science research by emphasising  the importance of ‘evidence-based policy making’ and ‘evidence about what works’.   It is clearly still important to insist on the relevance of factual veracity and accurate analysis. But the naïve positivism of the discourses of ‘evidence based policymaking’ and ‘data driven journalism’ is clearly no help when one tries to engage with the challenges of ‘post-truth’ politics. If we want to make claims for the relevance and the use of our own research, we have to engage with and understand this new terrain.

What development is

Thirdly, and in a way, most hopefully, it is also necessary to start revisiting and questioning the ideological frameworks that have guided our research, and the assumptions about the means and the direction of desirable social change that have informed our work. Until now, much of what is thinkable or sayable in the field of development policy has been defined by the underlying assumptions of late capitalist globalisation. Much of the research we do at PLAAS, for instance is engaged with contesting or broadening the terms of policy debates on the scope and nature of ‘inclusive’ or ‘pro-poor growth.’ The assumption has been that capitalist growth is the only game in town, and gradualist inclusion within its benefits the only way in which the poor can prosper. Our ‘theory of change’ has been based on the notion that action needs to focus on either protecting or ameliorating the worst negative impacts of capitalist growth or increasing and leveraging opportunities for beneficial inclusion.

Right now this approach seems to be overtaken by events. The resurgence in populist politics may not threaten the future of capitalist growth as such (indeed, I think that global capital will adjust easily to the new politics of populism). But certainly it seems that few besides the policy makers believe or find much inspiration in the promises of gradual inclusion. It seems to me that ‘development research’ that remains captured within that that cautious and consensual framework risks becoming irrelevant and marginal.  Some hard thinking is necessary, not just about the technical means and ways of development, but also about its ends. Are there alternatives to the politics of amelioration and gradualist inclusion?  Are there forms of development discourse that do not replicate or perpetuate the cultural assumptions and the racialised power relations of colonialism and neocolonialism?   What do they look like?  What can we learn about the possibilities and the limits of the new forms of popular struggle that are taking shape here and abroad?

These are interesting times indeed. Academic development research is likely to be entering a contested and beleaguered period.  It is important to understand that its survival and future depends on more than securing development dollars.  It also requires and openness to engaging with the politics of the time in an adventurous way, and finding forms of practice and directions of enquiry that lead beyond the limitations of neoliberal developmentalism.