06 December 2013

IDS and the future: Thanks and thoughts from an incoming Director

Guest blog by Melissa Leach

This is the first of many blogs that I’m sure I’ll be writing over the next five years as the Institute’s new Director. Lawrence has set a really high bar here with ‘Development Horizons’ – always insightful and reflective. Mine won’t start properly until I take over leadership in the late Spring. But it does seem the moment now for a few remarks.

The first is a very big and heartfelt thank you – to the many colleagues and others who encouraged and supported me in the appointment process, and to all those who have sent such warm messages of congratulations since yesterday’s announcement. The many messages pouring in from around the world express real excitement at the opportunities ahead for IDS. They also warn of the challenges of managing and positioning a complex Institute in a rapidly changing world; challenges that Lawrence has been managing so effectively in so many ways over the last decade. I'm not naive about these – indeed am absolutely up for embracing them. But it is great to be reassured that so much of the Institute’s fantastic network of partners and friends, as well as those I've built personally over the years and through my roles in the ESRC STEPS Centre and Future Earth, are with me in spirit. As one well-wisher put it, ‘so much to do together’. Indeed.

In my pitch to the appointing panel, I talked about four windows through which we might seek to re-vision the Institute’s agenda and positioning in internationally turbulent times. These don’t swing the view radically away from IDS’s core values; vision of a future world with no poverty, widespread social justice and economic growth focused on improving human wellbeing; or many of the important strategic directions and achievements under Lawrence’s leadership. But they do, I think, open up some ways to create a step-change in the Institute’s relevance and impact in a more global world. Each has implications for what we work on, and how we work; cutting across research, teaching and learning, knowledge services, and partnerships.

I call the first ‘engaged excellence’. If development means change towards a less poor, more just and – I would add – sustainable world, while accounting for people’s diverse aspirations and settings, development studies involves understanding and challenging the processes and pathways - political, economic, social, technical - that move us away from this kind of a world, and seeking and supporting those that move us towards it. Ideas in this ‘window’ include ways to ensure that the research-based knowledge we offer is always rigorous, methodologically sound, robust, reliable, while re-focusing such ‘excellence’ on solutions-oriented knowledge engaged with those change agents positioned to act. This will involve
combining academic credibility with impact-orientation; instrumental contributions with engaged critique of goals, values, power; independence with co-design and co-production; challenging orthodoxies with identifying alternatives. These are hard things to do, but IDS at its best already does them well. I’d like to work with colleagues and partners, from those close to home in the University of Sussex to those across the world, to build and take forward a vision of ‘engaged excellence’ as the fertile future of development studies.

The second window is ‘global justice’. This recognises the huge shifts that have made an ‘old style’ development, focused just on aid agendas to address poverty in the ‘global south’, so outdated. We’re now in an emerging global landscape of new geopolitics associated with the rise of the BRICS and trans-national movements; shifting patterns of globalised movement of resources, ideas, technologies and people; changing patterns and geographies of poverty and inequality; threats to our planetary life support systems; interconnected stresses and shocks involving finance, climate, food and energy; changing patterns of commodification and ‘grab’, and new textures to issues of conflict, identity and rights.

Such processes, connecting global, national and local in new ways, will profoundly affect what future food, future cities, future governance, future citizenship, future health, future energy and more will look like. Winners and losers won’t follow familiar north-south or class-based patterns, and as people, technologies and nature respond, many uncertainties and surprises are in store. In turn, I think our development studies must more fully embrace the global: addressing big-picture patterns as well as grounded realities; richer countries and powerful players as well as poorer, and tracking flows and feedbacks of power, money, people, resources, ideas in multiple directions. And we must address justice more centrally: not just absolute poverty, but the changing dynamics of inequality, and processes working for and against justice, both in the distribution of resources, rights and capabilities, and in voice and power to affect decisions in a complex and dynamic world.

To deliver effectively on this global agenda, I think we will need a more globally-defined and positioned IDS: for reach, credibility, and critical mass and voice. I’d like to work with colleagues and partners to develop this, in a collaborative and co-equal way that builds global consortia and alliances around key themes and ideas, taking forward many possible opportunities for joint research, fundraising, fellowships, convening, teaching and learning, and more.

Transformational Alliances
This would all complement a third window that I've called transformational alliances. Transformational, because it is clear that business-as-usual won’t be enough to deliver the needed step-change towards wellbeing and justice on a constrained planet. There’ll be a need to destabilise some dominant pathways and support imaginative alternatives. Alliances, because building these offers vital opportunities to bring about transformative change. The current IDS strategy already emphasises new alliances outside the ‘development industry’; co constructing knowledge, and innovative influencing. But with an ever- greater array of new actors becoming relevant to development, novel partnerships and hybrids emerging that challenge boundaries between public and private, state and NGO, and more than ever, resource flows conventionally associated with ‘aid’ being dwarfed by others, it may be time to become more ambitious and coherent: in theorising transformation and change – and the roles of different kinds of alliance in it, and seeking more strategically to identify and multiply, scale up and out alliances for the kinds of transformation we would like to see. Again, there are implications for our research, teaching and knowledge services work, as we seek variously to identify, join, inform or otherwise engage with alliances for real change.

Digital development studies
All this can be facilitated by a revolution afoot in what I've called digital development studies - a third crucial window of opportunity for IDS. Going far beyond current ‘ICT4D’ agendas, we are seeing just the beginning of the digital revolution that has already produced huge innovations in poverty-reducing service delivery and access; channels for voice and demands for justice; ‘real time’ networked research and learning, research opportunities using ‘big data’, and of course in research communications, as digital and social media multiply and amplify channels and voice. IDS and its partners are well positioned to advance this curve and its relevance to development, building on much existing innovation across the Institute and its networks. But perhaps we should seek to ramp-up the ambition, taking advantage of the numerous opportunities to enhance the ways we work, but also contributing to emerging research agendas.

Tracking the processes in emerging digital economies and societies, exploring who is gaining and losing, being included and excluded, and shaping critical debate around the dangers and limits, as well as opportunities, of big and open data would seem to me to offer some really important future directions for our work. Yet there’s obviously a vital balance to be struck. Face-to-face, human-to-human contact is irreplaceable for generating shared understanding, motivation and passion – which development and development studies need in spades. Places – with their smells, sites and feelings – can’t be substituted by computer screens. Above all, we mustn't let a sanitised, virtual world distract our attention from the grit, blood, sweat and tears that are so often the reality of grinding, grounded poverty for so many.

At this point, these are no more than windows. But I hope they will serve to open up the inclusive, collaborative debate that I’ll be working with others to lead once I actually become Director, towards building IDS’s new strategy post-2015 and as our 50th birthday approaches. For now, I’ll be working with Lawrence to make sure that the transition process is as smooth and productive as possible, leaving everyone confident and excited as we move together into a new era. So please keep that support and spirit flowing – we’ll be needing it to build on the Institute’s great past and build together a future development studies fit for current internationally turbulent times.

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