New Developments on Development: An Introduction

August 13, 2018


Shortly after the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Program launched some 7 years ago, I was approached by the World Bank Institute to devise a fellowship program to recruit African champions of bank reforms, locally situated researchers who would study “the pathology that led Africans to resist adoption of World Bank recommended reforms.” It was astonishing language, both inflammatory and reckless. And most probably racist. I declined the request.

The request was all the more remarkable because it showed an amnesia about the Bank’s own history, including trenchant and thoughtful critiques that African scholars made of structural adjustment processes and of the Bank’s two-volume 1994 study, Adjustment in Africa.

Academics of extraordinary rigor -- not least Adebayo Olukoshi and Thandika Mkandawire -- wrote in 2003 carefully reasoned and empirically rich critiques of the bank reforms under the title African Voices on Structural Adjustment. These scholars, working under the aegis of CODESRIA, focused on the volatility reforms brought. Additionally, they drew attention to the lack of investment in infrastructure and education over reforms strategically intended to lure international finance. And they demonstrated that these reforms resulted in heightened inequalities even when aggregate performance suggested the beginnings of economic stability.  

In the 15 years since African Voices on Structure Adjustment appeared in print, development projects have shifted form again. Where in the 1980s and 1990s development efforts focus on financial reforms and the stabilization of reeling economies, today we witness renewed focus on growth, especially through investment in infrastructure. At present development increasingly is spurred by agreements drafted by corporations backed by sovereign wealth funds in Beijing above all but also Ankara, Dubai, Seoul, and agencies in Washington DC. Development at present seems almost to begin with infrastructure investments, often times rippling outward from port cities to roads that connect with megacities and secondary cities serving as sites of industrial manufacturing and finally with rural sites from which natural resources are extracted for refinement elsewhere.

With these shifts, even as growth rates soar, come new forms of inequality, displacements from land and housing, losses of livelihoods, and the remaking of both ecologies and legal protections. It is scarcely surprising that these dramatic transformations have attracted a new generation of talented scholars who seek to understand this unravelling and who look to understand how development increasingly alters social fabrics and even the workings of government itself.

Over the next several weeks, we will feature four Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa fellows who challenge conventional understandings of development in order to draw attention to new faultlines emerging as a result of development projects.

Yonas Demisse, a faculty member at Addis Ababa University, asks how the concept of development initially obtained legitimacy. Combining pre-modern history, linguistics, and international development theory, while using often overlooked Amharic and Ge’ez texts to situate the concept of development in a uniquely Ethiopian context, he looks at how statecraft and development exist together, each making claims on the other through vernacular traditions, and reminds us that even global processes are grounded in local contexts of great complexity.  

Anne Jempkemboi, a current fellow and graduate student at Makerere University, evaluates whether the estates model of commercialized agriculture—promised by both Western development literature and international financial institutions to provide growth—has actually ameliorated poverty in Uganda’s Busoga sub-region or whether it instead has contributed to new inequalities.

Eria Serwajja, a former fellow and lecturer in Development Studies at Makerere University, examines development projects in relation to gold mines in eastern Uganda to understand how new capital investments reallocate land rights with profound effects on gender relations and access to resources.

And finally, Bernadette Adjei, current fellow and lecturer at the University of Ghana Legon, examines the complexities of water development projects in Ghana that cut across various regulatory regimes, including local and international laws and customary rights. She observes the contradictions that natural resource governance propels and the conflicts that can emerge in the wake of state-led development investments and resource regulation.

We invite you to join us as we explore the research of four of our fellows—fellows whose work questions and enriches existing social science literature, and advances new developments on the concept of development.