The Government of Poverty

Politics, Government and Livelihoods in Late-Capitalist Agrarian Landscapes

Category: Blog

Essays and commentary

Beyond fact-checking: the media, populism and post-truth politics

Rapporteur’s notes to World Forum for Democracy:  closing session

10 November 2017

The WFD in session. Photo courtesy of Coucil of Europe / Cathérine Monfils

Good morning, Director-General, colleagues and friends.  Thank you for the opportunity to share my impressions and thoughts as rapporteur at this meeting over the last few days.

We all know that the media are essential to the functioning of democracy: ensuring that citizens are well informed and making it possible to hold elected representatives and officials to account.

Over the last few days many voices at this meeting have warned us that all is not well.

One of the clearest signs of trouble we have discussed has been the rising tide of what has been called ‘fake news’.  This is about much more than the spreading of disinformation or lies, even if on an industrial scale by troll-factories or automated ‘bots’.  Rather, on many occasions in the past years it has seemed as if the very coin of truth or journalistic facticity is becoming devalued, so that otherwise powerful media organizations and organised political parties seem unable to gain traction or to push back effectively against untruths & half truths, unable to focus public attention away from distractions to the realities that matter.

Another even more disturbing sign is that of late it seems that we can no longer rely on any common ground of shared assumptions or undisputed facts that would allow us to adjudicate disagreements.  Instead, rival political groupings inhabit parallel universes, “echo chambers” where they see or hear nothing except that which confirms their own views.  And the national public media institutions that are supposed to build social cohesion and provide the frame for these discussions are beleaguered or enlisted on one side.

Not surprisingly therefore, much of the discussion here at the WFD has focused on what is to be done. In the labs that were held yesterday, delegates proposed and discussed a wide range of imaginative and resourceful plans.  We heard about apps and browser extensions that deconstruct the filters that social media impose on us, and that encourage people to ‘read outside their bubble’. We heard about collaborative initiatives such as Africa Check, Crosscheck and EuCheck where media institutions and journalists work together to respond in real time to combat false rumours. We saw presentations by courageous groups of critical and investigative journalists such as the Union of Informed Citizens in Armenia, or The Insider in Russia pushing back to expose the lies of politicians, often at risk of their careers or lives.

These are all creative and important initiatives.  Yet I am concerned that they don’t go far enough. Particularly not when the key issue is to do something about the challenge of authoritarian populism.

We have heard at this conference that the disturbing reality is that there  are more and more places in the world and sectors of society where fact checking simply has no impact,  because many people simply don’t care any more. Yesterday, Matjas Gruden asked an arresting question. How do we make sense of the fact that we are in a world where there are significant numbers of people who really believe – and who want to  believe!that Hilary Clinton was running a Satanic paedophile ring out of a pizza restaurant in Washington? This is merely the most extreme version of a whole genre of myths and conspiracy theories circulating in society that seem immune to counterfactual challenge.  In Europe and the US, those conspiracy theories involve the Illuminati, the Rothshilds, the CIA.  In my own country they are likely to invoke Anton Rupert, George Soros, and ‘white monopoly capital’.  In all cases, they involve powerful and compelling stories that not only purport to explain the world around us, but that also systematically ‘poison the well’ against competing versions of the truth: delegitimising or questioning the trustworthiness of our central media institutions, the veracity of science, the authority of experts, and the legitimacy of universities.

The reason for this is not that people are naïve or poorly educated.  Rather, it appears that these kinds of narratives find adherents because they make some kind of emotional and political sense.

Here, I’d like to remind you of an important aspect of authoritarian populism.  It is about much more than centralising authoritarian power  in the name of ‘the people’.  Rather, populism is a way of making sense of the world.  Populist discourse stitches together a wide range of popular grievances into a coherent story that confers a powerful sense of social belonging; a sense of an ‘us’ that is beleaguered and marginalised.  Once it has been established, that embattled sense of belonging becomes the lens through which everything is viewed. In the first panel discussion yesterday, a truly alarming input was provided by Prof Anna Krasteva of the New Bulgarian University.  She argued that in some parts of the world, we are seeing the rejection of what I like to call modern liberal technopolitics – the politics of the representation and adjudication of competing material interests, usually by party structures and within parliaments. It its place she described the rise of a new kind of symbolic politics, a politics of the body, a politics of aestheticised and valourised belonging; a kind of nihilistic hyper-political anti-politics that abandons discussion of actual policies in favour of  the enactment of authenticity.  This is a phenomenon not addressed by the contestation or checking of facts, because within the rules of this new game, facts are irrelevant.  In fact, by your ceaseless checking of facts, by your outrage at the lies of Zuma or Duterte or Erdogan or Trump you are merely indicating your membership of the liberal elite.

In many of the discussions yesterday, my sense was that many delegates preferred not to engage with this prospect.  Let us leave the extremes to the extremists, they said; let’s try to address and convert those who are closer to the centre.

Now certainly we need to have rational political debate where it still can be had. We need to make our media institutions strong so that they can withstand and challenge this trance of belonging.

But I think we ignore at our peril the disaffected and alienated voices who are rejecting the key connective institutions in our societies. We need to find ways of getting people to care about the truth – and about the views of others –  again.

Here, it is important that we go beyond checking facts to challenging myths.  The simple stories of belonging created by populism need to compete with other, more inclusive ways of thinking about identity and about who ‘we’ are.

We also need to understand that people are not only passive consumers of news.  We need for our media and media platforms to become places where people can have honest conversations, where they can take the risk of trying to hear each other.

But most importantly, we need to ensure that politics is not just an empty charade.  The writer and art critic John Berger once said that our present-day politicians are like people who sit chatting away on the front step of their house , while thieves walk in and out of the front door, carrying large bags of money. It’s important to remember that there are good reasons for the groundswell of popular disaffection. We are living in a time in which the eight richest men on the planet own as much as the bottom three billion.

We need to remember that it is not  the disaffected masses that are out of control.  It is the runaway train of financial capital and powerful corporations who treat the populations of the world, not as citizens, not as political actors, but as nodes in a revenue stream.

The real challenge of politics today is to address the causes of the economic inequality at the root of the wave of populist disaffection. That is the crisis that our news media and our truth telling has to focus on.


Hyper-political Anti-politics? On authoritarian populism and the crisis of neoliberal reason

In many parts of the world, there is a growing crisis in the hegemony of what has commonly been called the ‘neoliberal’ project and its domination of the global order.   Whether we are talking about the unexpected lurches that have characterised British politics since Brexit, the crisis that seems to have descended on US governance with the election of Donald Trump, or the rise to power of populist demagogues like Modi, Duterte, Erdoğan, Orbán or Zuma, a new kind of politics appears to be afoot. As a result, we seem to be living in a world very different from the much more stable, possibly more conservative but certainly more legible world order presided over by the likes of Obama, Clinton and Mbeki. While the details differ from place to place – there’s worlds of difference, for instance, between the modalities of kleptocratic state capture in South Africa and the chaotic politics of Brexit Britain – there are also many uncanny resemblances and resonances, particularly at the level of political style and strategy.

Most fascinating and perplexing is the key role played in these new forms of populism of what is popularly called ‘post-truth’ politics. This in itself is a bit of an unsatisfactory term, often used as a short-hand for a wide range of dissimilar phenomena: the increased dissemination of gross lies and untruths in political discourse; the undermining and hollowing out of institutions of public science; the erosion of the authority of experts, scientists and professionals in political life; and an impatience with the limitations of constitutionalism, good governance and the institutions of statecraft. Much is often made of the connection between these phenomena and the increasing role of the Internet and social media. What are we to make of them? Are they coincidences? Are they merely dramatic manifestations of perennial aspects of politics (‘the big lie’, ‘disinformation’, ‘mob rule’) that are not very novel after all? Or are we witnessing something novel and distinctive, the development of new strategies of rule and contestation systematically different from those that characterised the global political since, say, the fall of the Berlin wall?

… To read more, go to my blog post at openDemocracy!




Selling the poor

The Sassa social grants card

On Wednesday 22 February the Minister of Social Development, Bathabile Dlamini, confirmed in Parliament that the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa), responsible for the disbursement of social grants in South Africa, would not be able to make the March 31 deadline for finding a service provider, and that they were in negotiations to extend the invalid contract currently in place with Cash Paymaster Services CPS.    The South African Treasury  opposes the awarding of any further tender to CPS, but Dlamini reported that the Treasury would consider such a contract if the Constitutional Court, which had declared the original contract invalid acceded. A letter requesting a deviation to enter into a new contract had been sent on 7 February.

The Constitutional Court now faces a fateful decision: one with potentially dire consequences for the South African social welfare system – and for the millions of poor and vulnerable people that depend on it.   At stake are not only the legal questions involved in rolling over an invalid contract worth billions of Rands.   More seriously, the dereliction of duty on the part of Sassa that brought about this crisis is in danger of perpetuating and consolidating state capture of a critical and important part of South Africa’s social policy infrastructure – an arrangement that delivers grant recipients on a silver platter into the hands of unscrupulous financial services companies.

The central facts around the Sassa crisis are well known. Cash Paymaster Services (CPS) – originally an FNB subsidiary based in Kokstad,   Kwazulu Natal, has been distributing social grants in some provinces since 2000.  In 2012 it won a controversial tender to deliver this service nationally and exclusively. This award was challenged in court, and in 2013, in a unanimous judgement, the Constitutional Court found the tender  irregular and ordered that should be set aside. In a subsequent ruling in 2014, the Concourt declared the contract invalid and ordered Sassa either to issue a new tender by or to insource, specifying that this process be concluded in October 2015.  This did not happen.  In November 2015, with no suitable external service provider identified, Sassa submitted milestones and timelines to the Court  for insourcing. But as the new deadline came closer, interested and concerned parties, including the Black Sash, sounded warning bells, claiming that the agency had failed to adhere to any of these  court-mandated milestones. By October 2016, when time came to report to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Social Development, the cat was out of the bag: Sassa had again done almost nothing to implement the Court order.  On Monday 13 February, with the end of the CPS contract only six weeks away, Sassa  announced   that they would file papers with the Constitutional Court proposing that the invalidity of the contract would be suspended for a further year.   But even this eleventh hour action was blocked by the Minister.

The Constitutional Court and the South African Treasury have thus been presented with a fait accompli: if the invalidity of the contract is not further suspended, the lives of millions of South Africa’s poorest and most vulnerable people, many of whom depend on grant income for survival, will be thrown into chaos. Quite aside from the pain and suffering this will cause them, it is likely to bring about political turmoil. Sassa has put a gun to the head of South Africa: condone an illegal contract, or face social and political chaos.

Bigger stakes

But this is not the whole story.  Much more is at stake here than the extension of an invalid contract and the risk of non delivery.  Beyond these urgent issues lies a more fundamental question about Sassa’s complicity in a subtle but fateful form of state capture: one that threatens the long term future of South Africa’s social policy infrastructure.

Here, it is important to understand that CPS is not acting alone. They are a subsidiary company of Net1, a listed global financial services and logistics company. Also part of Net1’s empire are financial services companies like MoneyLine, EasyPay, Manje Mobile Solutions, Smart Life and others. Central to  Net1’s business model is their Universal Electronic Payments System, a proprietary fingerprint-based biometric authentication  and payment infrastructure . This  has been central to the roll-out of the Sassa smart card that enables electronic payment of social grants.  While this has enabled great efficiency gains, and while CPS claims it has also resulted in significant reduction of fraud, this setup has another important consequence: as scholar Keith Breckenridge has pointed out, grant beneficiaries are captured within a private technological and financial network owned and controlled not by SASSA, but by its service provider.

An advertisement for EasyPay everywhere

These relationships were factored into Net1 and CPS’s strategy in rolling out grant payments. Millions of grants beneficiaries, for example, have not only been provided with a SASSA account; their accounts have also been linked to EasyPay Everywhere, a bank account operated by MoneyLine and CPS’s banking partner, Grindrod Bank. All this is part of an explicit two-stage strategy on the part of Net1: a ‘First Wave’ in which it rolls out its technological infrastructure in an area where there is a clear and demonstrated need, and then a ‘Second Wave’ in which they use this infrastructure to market a wide array of products and services to an essentially captive customer base.

This creates two problems. Firstly, this arrangement appears to be in violation of competition law. It looks as if Net1 is making use of CPS’s privileged position as social grant paymaster to give its sister companies ‘first bite’ and privileged access to a potentially vast client base.

This raises an issue that’s often forgotten in sweeping generalizations about the need to include ‘the unbanked.’ Poor people do need access to banking services, but these need to be appropriate. And the reality is that, while electronic services are convenient poor people also need and value cash. Financial policymakers may sneer at tiny amounts kept under mattresses and in jars, but given the realities of rural and township life, those concrete practices may often give poor people much more say over their money than an electronic facility under the control of unknown and unaccountable third parties.

Deborah James and Dinah Rajak have shown how in South Africa the history of “credit apartheid” and paternalistic control over poor people’s finance has created a situation where creditors wield disproportionate power. Unbridled financial inclusion of the poor may amount to adverse incorporation into a financial sector geared towards preying on them.  Here it is important to remember that South Africa’s legal system is greatly slanted in favour of creditors.

Already, the Black Sash has collected evidence of numerous instances of unauthorized and unlawful deductions from SASSA and EasyPay accounts; often with very little recourse. CPS’s close collaboration with Grindrod Bank delivers social grant beneficiaries – many of them aged, infirm, illiterate, and unsophisticated in the ways of the modern world – into the hands of unscrupulous operators who are only to ready to sell them services they do not need, or to secure their unwitting consent to arrangements that are not in their favour.

This is the real threat to South Africa’s future posed by the SASSA deal. The ConCourt’s order tasked SASSA with ensuring that the payment of social grants happened in a manner that protected the rights, interests, and confidential data of grant beneficiaries. This ruling created an important opportunity to ensure that financial inclusion happened in a beneficial, ‘pro-poor’ way. But SASSA appears to have squandered that opportunity. Instead, it has created a situation in which CPS and Net1 hold all the cards.

At present, the Concourt and Treasury have almost no leverage to prevent their service provider from simply walking away on 1 April 2017. Net1 CEO Serge Belamant has made it clear that he is not interested in extending the contract on its present terms.   He is in a position to ask for whatever he wants, including provisions that lock claimants even more tightly into his empire. If he is not stopped, SASSA will have created a situation in which the social grants payment system in effect becomes simply a financial conduit between the South African fiscus and the shareholders of Net1 and its subsidiary companies.

Serge Belamant, CEO of Net1. (Photo: Sunday Times)


An edited version of this article has also been published in The Conversation

Out of step, or leading the way?

Welcome address: Inaugural Conference,  Young African Researchers in Agriculture Network, 6 February 2017, Ocean Breeze Hotel, Strand.

It is my pleasure to welcome all of you today to the inaugural conference of the Young African Researchers in Agriculture network. In particular, I would like to welcome all our guests and colleagues who have traveled great distances from all over the continent to be with us today.

Today these welcomes feel as if they are more than routine. As you are all aware, we find ourselves at a very particular junction in history. In the last few weeks, we have heard about thousands of people – some of them traveling to scientific conferences like this one – who have found themselves turned away at border posts, stopped at airports, and detained at passports control as a result of an executive order signed by a bigoted president.

And they are not alone. In the UK, hundreds of thousands of people find themselves thrown into doubt and confusion about their residence status as a result of Brexit, their residence status suddenly up for grabs because of the opportunism of populist politicians. In Europe, the fortunes of the far right are on the rise. And this morning we have heard that our own Minister Malusi Gigaba has announced that his department intends to crack down on the employers who employ too many immigrants in their businesses. All over the world, millions of people are fleeing war, injustice, poverty and persecution, seeking a place of safety, only to find doors closing in their faces.

I’d also remind you that in recent months we have also been told that we are living in post-truth times. That the processes whereby facts are established in the public mind as facts are under siege. You can manufacture any news you want, and few will notice  — and fewer will care. In fact, science and research in the public interests are themselves under threat. In the UK, Michael Gove has famously asserted that the British people have had enough of experts.   In the US, the incoming administration has removed all mention of climate change from the White House website.

All over the world – from the industrial North to South Africa, from the USA to the Philippines, the forces of nativism, xenophobia, populism and chauvinism are on the rise. The star of evidence-based policymaking seems to be waning.

Yet here we are, at a conference fostering transnational co-operation between scientists and researchers, creating networks meant to be nurturing policy oriented research. So the question comes to mind: are we out of step? Or are we leading the way?

Cameroonian scholar, intellectual and writer Achille Mbembe seems to think that we are out of step. In December this year, he wrote an impassioned and despairing article in the South African Mail & Guardian, announcing that the age of humanism had ended. The great enlightenment project, in which economic development was held to be inseparable from the spread of democracy, human rights, rational bureaucratic management and scientific progress is over. The inner logic of finance capital, Mbembe asserted, is not compatible with liberal democracy. In the future, the scientific knowledge will belong to powerful corporations that own and manipulate desire itself for the benefit of their shareholders. The world will be run for a privileged few; and the rest of its people will be relegated to the fragmented margins.

I do not agree with Mbembe. I think that we in Africa may yet prove him wrong. To explain why, I will refer you to the arguments of another scholar of Africa, Keith Hart, whose long study of the nature and networks of the informal economies of this continent imbues him with a far more optimistic view. A century ago, he noted in a recent essay, Africa was the world’s least populous continent, with only about 7.5% of the world’s population, most of whom were living on the land. Today, our share of global population is double that, and they are rapidly urbanizing. By the year 2050, Africa will be home to one quarter of the world’s population, and great many of them live in cities. The growth markets of the 21st century will be here, on this continent.

The question is who will profit from these markets. As Hart reminds us, much depends on the nature of our agrarian transition. Will Africa’s growing cities provide opportunities for its farmers to sell their wares? Or will they be dumping grounds for subsidised agricultural products from Europe or the Americas? Will they provide employment for those leaving the land and seeking new opportunities? Or will our nascent industries be choked off by cheap  imports?  Will agricultural policy be made by supermarkets, food manufacturers and purveyors of biotech, or will they be determined by accountable officials, informed by sound analysis, aimed at the health and wellbeing of our populations?

The answer depends in part on the pattern of growth, the terms of trade, and the political economy of policy making.  As Hart points out, this means among other things that we should abandon the false dichotomy between protectionism and free trade. We need both.  We need to ensure that the economic exchanges between city and countryside – and between the countries of Africa – redound to our benefit.  We need to pay attention, not only to the productivity of agriculture, but also to the nature of the food system that agriculture is a part of and the social relations within which it is embedded.    And critically, we need to ensure that we create transnational associations and networks for economic and intellectual exchange that transcend the rigid national frameworks we have inherited from colonial rule. In Africa, it may yet be possible to construct broad alliances around a programme of reform and change that can support and invigorate the livelihoods and strategies of the great mass of its people.

This is why I am happy to see you here and inspired by the task you have set yourself.   Most of all, I am proud to be part of this process of creating a transnational network of young scholars dedicated to the production of knowledge for the benefit of all the people of this continent. You are our hope, and your work is the seeds of our future. I hope you make the most of this opportunity. I’d like to enjoin you to debate and to disagree passionately among yourselves, for new knowledge and new unifying visions can only arise out of disagreement.   Welcome to your conference, and good luck!


Our YARA welcome committee at Cape Town International airport

Development Research and the Crisis of Neoliberalism


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.