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Why is IDS a special institution?

ids timeline

The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. I have been working here for a shocking 40% of this time, and in the week of a major anniversary conference, I thought I should jot a few thoughts down on why IDS has been and remains special.

In 1966, the Institute was founded with Dudley Seers as the first director. It was designated a ‘special institution’ by the UK government, with a particular mandate for research and training. In the period following the end of colonialism, Britain had a special role and needed a special institution. The project of ‘development’ in the ‘Third World’ back then was not supposed to last 50 years. But today with a different focus and new challenges the need for critical, engaged research and training is needed perhaps even more than ever.

Critical traditions

But what for me is special, and why have I remained committed to IDS for now more than 20 years? There have been many tributes, reflections and summary histories offered, but none for me capture the importance of IDS’ radical, critical traditions: the ability to challenge orthodoxies, to speak truth to power, and to translate this into action. Being neither a purely academic institution, nor a NGO or think tank, but a hybrid, not fettered by the constraints and limitations of either, is very important. It can be uncomfortable; but that’s the point.

When I first came to IDS in 1995, there was always a classic set-piece debate between Michael Lipton and Robert Chambers at the beginning of each academic year. They represented two different views on development, held productively in tension. Of course they agreed more than the performance suggested, but it was a useful highlight of how a common normative commitment to progressive change could be looked at through very different lenses: between top-down and bottom-up, between macro-structural and micro-people focused analyses, between economics and wider social sciences, and so on. Using diverse approaches, encapsulated in the 1993 classic, States and Markets, IDS research over many years has challenged what became the dominant neoliberal paradigm, encapsulated in its most extreme ideological form by the ‘Washington Consensus’.

In the last 20 years, these debates have continued in different forms. There have been many excellent contributions that have taken the stance represented more by the Lipton side of the debate – from looking at industrial clusters and value chains to the economic role of the rising powers – as well as many that have emphasised more the Chambers-type perspectives – including the on-going work on participation, citizenship and popular politics.

But actually the most challenging contributions have been when such perspectives have been in dialogue. This is only possible in a cross-disciplinary institution, where the drag of narrow disciplinary specialisms – and the horrific metric-dominated assessment approaches that go with this today – do not limit interaction and creativity. Let me highlight a few of these areas (of many), where I think IDS work (and crucially that of its global network of partners) has been especially exciting.


One area that I have been fairly centrally involved in, and I think is quintessentially IDS, is work on livelihoods. Indeed with both Chambers and Lipton involved, this was from the beginning a syncretic endeavour. When I produced the 1998 IDS Working Paper on the sustainable livelihoods framework, both reviewed it. And indeed the framework – with its long back history involving many people from Jeremy Swift to Susanna Moorhead to Richard Longhurst, among others – was the result of just these conversations: an approach explicitly aimed at involving economists, yet not forgetting the social, political and institutional. More recently I have reflected on the limitations, particularly as applied in development practice, and argued for a more structural, political economy perspective as central to livelihoods approaches.

States and citizens

This tension between wider structural, political-economic analysis and more locality-focused, participatory understandings was perhaps best illustrated during the 2000s when IDS hosted two of the early DFID Development Research Centres – one on the state and one on citizenship, led by two formidable political scientists – Mick Moore and John Gaventa. With IDS by then exclusively reliant on external, tied support from different donors, inevitably projects had to respond to the contours of the funding environment, and this slightly odd division reflected that in DFID at the time. But hosted within one institution it allowed for a productive, if at times tetchy, debate. Does citizen action construct states, or do states construct citizens? And what do states and citizens constitute anyway? Both centres provided an important challenge, once again, to the neoliberal versions being touted elsewhere.

Gender and empowerment

Work on gender empowerment has been a central feature of work at IDS and Sussex since the 1970s, and the classic contributions of Kate Young and Annie Whitehead. Naila Kabeer, Anne Marie Goetz, Andrea Cornwall and many others followed the tradition, offering challenging scholarship rooted in real struggles. But here too the important tension between structural change versus collective organisation from below played out again. In feminist analyses of course the personal is always political – and vice versa. However in discussions of ‘empowerment’ we see different strands, ranging from those focusing on economic empowerment and formal rights, versus those emphasising individual agency, the politics of the body and sexuality. Debating these dimensions has been a massively important contribution.

The politics of knowledge

Whether taking a more structural view or one more focused on individual or collective agency, knowledge framings matter. The politics of knowledge has been especially emphasised in IDS work on the environment, which really took off in a big way from the early 1990s. As Robert Chambers memorably asked: whose reality counts? The now classic 1996 book, The Lie of the Land, edited by Melissa Leach and Robin Mearns, asked why it was that so often environmental management and policy in Africa – from the colonial era to the present – does not respond to realities on the ground, and systematically ignores local knowledges. The answer of course is politics – and how experts, embedded in institutions, understand the world.

Environment and sustainability

This theme of the politics of the policy process has been a central theme of IDS work on environment and resources over 20 years. Building on strong connections with IDS’ sister institution at Sussex, the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), also celebrating 50 years this year, we jointly launched the STEPS Centre in 2006, with ESRC funds, and with Melissa Leach and Andy Stirling I have had the privilege of jointly directing the Centre since then. Here a highly productive synergy between the concerns of development studies and science and technology studies has unfolded over the past decade. With knowledge, politics, and power central, we too have struggled with understanding ‘pathways to sustainability’ that at once capture the relational agency of diverse actors and the wider conditioning effects of political economy. Once again a cross-disciplinary engagement has been absolutely essential –and immensely exciting, intellectually and practically.

Making a difference

None of these research efforts, often lasting long periods, with multiple funders, and diverse research teams at Sussex and beyond, is aimed solely at producing outputs from esteemed academic journals (although there have been plenty of these). All IDS researchers are committed to change: generating ideas to make a difference. In the world of often pointless impact case studies and metrics this may sound glib; but political engagement matters not just to analysis, but also to practice.

The first two images of the official but rather selective IDS 50th anniversary timeline are one of Stanmer House, a very English country house in the South Downs, near the campus of the University of Sussex where IDS was first based, and a Warhol-esque picture of Chairman Mao. It is these sort of contrasts, tensions and yes contradictions that keeps IDS on its toes, and makes it, despite the funding pressures, an exciting place to work – and really does make IDS a special institution.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland



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How the Sustainable Development Goals can open up political space for transformative development

When the Sustainable Development Goals were agreed last September, there was much expectation about how they could help get sustainability back on the development agenda, and push the international community to develop new approaches to development. A declaration, covering both north and south, sought to identify a new era for development that was universal, indivisible and radical. As the slogan went, ‘no-one was to be left behind’. The old aid focused, post-colonial MDGs were a thing of the past we hoped, and a new political space was to be opened up.

Yet since then the excitement has somewhat waned. There have been other things on the agenda. A migrant crisis in Europe, continued terror attacks around the world and economic slump that has precipitated an economic crisis in commodity-dependent countries from Brazil to Zambia. Various SDG events now barely get a mention in the press. Meanwhile many seem to be spending a lot of time on the multiple goals and targets, and still bickering about what is in and out.

As I argued back in September, the potential for the SDGs is less the bureaucratic process of ticking boxes against targets, but more the political opportunity to open up a discussion about the directions for development, and how sustainability and development can be realised together. Last week the Independent Expert Group on Least Developed Countries, the STEPS Centre and IIED convened a high-level dialogue in London to discuss progress on implementation of the SDGs, and to reinject some of the earlier excitement, urgency and political debate that motivated people to sign up in the first place.

Transformations to sustainability and development is mostly about politics, as we explored in a  recent STEPS book on the politics of ‘green transformations’. It means having searching debates about visions and directions, confronting incumbent power head on, and creating a transformative politics, rooted in alliances between players – across states, businesses, civil society and more. Transformations to sustainability will not emerge from goals and targets, but fundamental political change, combined with new thinking and wide mobilisation.

The Least Developed Countries are some of the poorest in the world. They have been subject to decades of underdevelopment, both in the colonial and development eras. Many are highly dependent on external support, and inequalities and deep poverty undermine opportunities for sustainable development. But the SDGs can also offer hope. They offer a key moment for recasting the debate, providing what the event’s keynote speaker, Dipak Gyawali, calls a ‘toad’s eye view‘ – one rooted in local conditions, contexts and coalitions. The political space that has opened up with the SDGs for a new debate on sustainable development, must start with casting off the standard routines of development. It must avoid at all costs getting stuck in a techno-managerialist trap, one caught up in the audit culture of targets and goals, that so constrained the post Rio and MDG attempts at creating sustainable development.

Instead, building from the ground up means generating new futures that are not stuck in the past. In part because of the history of underdevelopment in LDCs, such countries can imagine new directions for development that are not so constrained by existing infrastructures and embedded patterns of consumption and development, as exist in the global north and the new ‘rising powers’. Instead, low carbon energy systems can be generated, for example, using the best of modern technology such as in decentralised solar systems. Without carbon intensive infrastructures and political powerful industrial interests, LDCs can leapfrog, creating new development paths for a low carbon energy transition. The same can be the case for agriculture, water resources, housing and other forms of infrastructure. This can be good for jobs, livelihoods and the environment.

Through the SDGs, development can be reimagined fundamentally, and LDCs can lead the way. But LDCs must not use ‘developed’ or ‘rising power’ countries as the model – this is failed, unsustainable development that must be rethought fundamentally. Innovations for sustainable development must start afresh, and aid and development support completely rethought. A few years ago, the STEPS New Manifesto on innovation, sustainability and development offered some ideas on ways forward for opening up the SDGs to more radical, transformatory pathways for sustainable development. We must start now with an engaged political debate that discusses each of the 3Ds. We need to discuss the Directions for development, the Distribution of benefits within and between countries, and the Diversity of choice in development options, technologies and infrastructures.

Our London meeting began to map out some of these ideas, with contributions from countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Nepal and Senegal.  A clear message once again was that the SDGs need to become more political.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland. Other versions appeared on the Huffington Post and the STEPS Centre blog


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Tackling climate change: the contested politics of forest carbon projects in Africa

Tackling climate change is one of the most pressing challenges of our age. And this year is a crucial moment with the Conference of the Parties meeting in Paris in December 2015 hopefully to forge a new climate agreement. Forests, carbon and their management are high on the agenda, and a new book has just come out from the STEPS Centre, edited by Melissa Leach and myself. It’s called Carbon Conflicts and Forest Landscapes in Africa (take a peek at some of the content, check out the reviews and chapter listing, and use code DC361 and get 20% off buying it!).

The book dissects the issues, and offers a bunch of case studies from across Africa, including a great chapter on Zimbabwe by Vupenyu Dzingirai and Lindiwe Mangwanya from the Centre for Applied Social Sciences at UZ. This focuses on the Kariba REDD project in Hurungwe, one of a number of districts involved, with the whole project covering to date a massive 1.4 million hectares of land along the Zambezi valley.

Deforestation and land degradation globally contribute significantly to carbon emissions, and addressing these has become a major policy priority. Carbon offset approaches, mediated by carbon markets and facilitated by international accords and global climate finance, have become especially popular. In such schemes carbon emissions in one part of the world (usually the industrialised north) are offset by initiatives that reduce emissions in another part of the world where there are plentiful forests, and opportunities for new carbon sequestration (such as Africa). Such projects can, it is argued, additionally focus on poverty reduction and biodiversity protection, creating a ‘win-win’ scenario, rather than a feared ‘green grabbing’.

This is the theory; but what of the practice? The book is about what happens on the ground when carbon forestry projects – existing in various guises, often under the umbrella of the Reduced Emissions for Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) programme – arrive. In this new field of environment and development practice, there are many new players, a whole panoply of models, processes and procedures for verification and monitoring, and a hot politics of authority and control. Understanding what works, and what doesn’t is crucial, and the various chapters offer some salutary lessons on the current fad for market-based offset approaches to carbon mitigation.

The detailed case studies come from seven countries, from west, east and southern Africa, including Ghana, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The chapters ask what actually happens when carbon forestry projects unfold in particular places: who wins, and who loses out, and what are the consequences – for carbon sequestration and offsetting, as well as poverty reduction? As all the cases show, carbon projects do not arrive on a blank slate. All sites have long histories of intervention, including a whole array of forestry, environmental protection and development projects. These have shaped and reshaped livelihoods and landscapes, and generated experiences and memories that influence local responses to new interventions.

The chapters cover a huge range of African ecologies, different carbon forestry project types and an array of national political-economic contexts. In all chapters, the authors ask: what difference does carbon make? What political and ecological dynamics are unleashed by these new commodified, marketized approaches, and how are local forest users experiencing and responding to them? Carbon forestry projects – as previous interventions in forest use, ownership and management – have not been the panacea some had expected. Multiple conflicts have emerged between land owners, forest users and project developers. Achieving a neat, market-based solution to climate mitigation through forest carbon projects not straightforward.

In the Zimbabwe case, for example, the project developer, Carbon Green Africa, has allied in Hurungwe with local Korekore  farmers and the Rural District Council, offering a range of benefits, including carbon dividends and ‘alternative livelihood’ projects  in exchange for protecting forests, and planting trees. As the notional ‘traditional’ and ‘administrative’ owners of the land, they should have the authority. But they are pitched against powerful forces with other ideas about resource use and economic priorities. These including politically-connected tobacco farmers who migrated to the area through the 1980s and 90s; indeed at the invitation of the same local Korekore leaders now backing carbon. Today, they are making considerable sums of money, and destroying substantial areas of forest when curing. With the land reform in 2000 there was a further wave of in-migration from those displaced from the nearby Karoi farmers, notably farmworkers of diverse origins. They were encouraged to settle on the frontiers, often inside game and safari areas as a buffer to wildlife for the long-standing residents. They too have cleared land and reduced forest cover, and survive through a mix of farming, hunting and gathering, as well as labouring on the tobacco farms. The new social, cultural and economic landscape, evolving through waves of migration, is one where a simple REDD project is immensely difficult to implement, as divisions based on ethnicity, class, gender, economic priority and more divide ‘the community’ that is notionally involved in the project. The assumption that climate mitigation through carbon offsetting in Africa’s forests is going to be easy is thoroughly challenged by the Zimbabwe case – as all the others in the book.

Across the book, we argue that a new politics of access and control over forests and their carbon is emerging, making the noble aims of climate mitigation through carbon forestry very challenging indeed. There’s a need to address conflicts head on, and to develop a more politically sophisticated approach to carbon governance in complex landscapes than has been seen to date. For all those engaged in the debates in the lead up to Paris and beyond, the book points to ways forward that take account of the complex, layered politics of Africa’s forest landscapes. As Jesse Ribot from the University of Illinois says: “Carbon forestry is privatizing, commodifying and financializing the world’s forests, recasting relations between state and market forest landscapes. This book illuminates the fraught political economy of this transformative moment”.

 This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland



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Changes in beef market regulations open opportunities in southern Africa

Last month at the OIE (World Animal Health Organisation) Assembly in Paris, changes to international regulatory standards around Foot and Mouth Disease were adopted. This has long been argued for, and will make a big difference to livestock producers across southern Africa.

The updated OIE Terrestrial Animal Health Code makes it possible for African countries with wild species like buffalo that naturally harbour foot and mouth disease (FMD) viruses to be able to trade beef without necessarily requiring the physical separation of wildlife and livestock through the extensive veterinary cordon fencing that has characterized animal disease management in southern Africa since the colonial era.

Steve Osofsky,  Wildlife Conservation Society  AHEAD Coordinator,  commented “we’ve reached a critical turning point in regards to resolving the more than half century-old conflict between international beef trade policy based on foot and mouth disease control fencing in the southern African context and the migratory needs of free-ranging wildlife in the region and beyond”.

In Zimbabwe, with large populations of FMD-carrying buffalo, this has long been a major challenge. In the past, a massive amount of funding was spent on trying to keep buffalos and livestock separate and thousands of kilometers of fencing erected, in order to gain access to international markets. The European Union invested considerable sums in creating a zoned arrangement, with ‘disease free’, ‘buffer’ and ‘infected’ areas to allow exports to European markets under special agreements that existed under the Lome agreement. This was a lucrative trade for those beef farmers able to comply. However, it also excluded many beef producers in large parts of the country. In addition, it diverted huge amounts of aid funds, as well as government resources, in the inevitably vain attempt to create FMD disease freedom.

In southern Africa, where the FMD virus is endemic, this was an unscientific and expensive policy. But pressure from European nations and others in the OIE prevented any change in international regulatory policy until now, despite excellent arguments from African researchers, including from Zimbabwe, that safe trade alternatives exist. In many ways it was a scandal – a huge waste of time and public money, distorting markets and creating benefits for the few not the many in the name of ‘development’ and ‘aid’.

Now quarantine-based value chain approaches to beef production (also known as commodity-based trade) can become a routine option.  AHEAD Guidelines show how this policy change offers the unprecedented possibility of access to new beef markets for southern African livestock producers. As Osofsky says, it also “unlocks the potential for restoring migratory movements of wildlife and thus enhancing prospects for long-term wildlife populatioon viability within individual countries as well as in transboundary landscapes like the KAZA Transfrontier Conservation Area”.

As argued in earlier research convened by the ESRC STEPS Centre and supported by the Wellcome Trust, commodity-based trade for beef will help open up markets within Africa, as well as Asia, and  make these markets available for a wider range of producers. A journal article and associated commentaries mapped out the options. Complying with safe trade regulations requires upgrading value chain infrastructure and support, but it means that a small-scale livestock producer in the new resettlements or communal areas can now access high value markets, boosting ecoomic opportunity and improving livelihoods. Land reform has restructured markets as well as land, and the’ real markets‘ for beef allow multiple opportunities (see also our recent ‘making markets’ film on beef).  This policy change will therefore make a massive difference to people and economies across the region.

The old era of fencing and absurd and unachievable ‘disease free’ zones is now over, and we can now accept that livestock production in southern Africa must live with the FMD virus, but in a way that allows for safe trade and careful regulation. Sometimes the long, hard slog of evidence-based policy research does pay off, despite plenty of interests stacked against it. Congratulations to the 180 national members – and especially the African contingent – at the OIE Assembly!

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland





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