Theory, policy and practice perspectives from Royal Holloway

Geographical Perspectives on “Development” – Where are we going?

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While a summer school beginning in October sounds a bit implausible in the UK, Bonn just about managed to find enough sun to justify the title of its conference!

The University of Bonn was host to the Human Geography summer school 2016, Geographical Perspectives on “Development”. Bonn itself is a green, bike friendly city located along the River Rhine and host to the headquarters of UN agencies, German development agencies, and key international NGOs. Introducing the conference, Professor Detlef Müller-Mahn challenged participants to consider what they themselves mean by “development” through reflecting on theoretical orientations and personal positionality. Questions posed included what do we mean by development, what approaches can be used to generate meaningful results and how research in this field can be conducted in both a critical and constructive way. Through this lens workshops ranged from ‘Politicising global chain governance’ to ‘Manoeuvring challenging research contexts’ and ‘Community owned solutions for sustainability challenges’ run by Royal Holloway’s own Professor Jay Mistry.

In the workshop “Theorizing, researching and (re)politicizing “economic” “entanglements” in the Global South”, participants were challenged to pin the tail on the research and locate yourself between the four points of economic, development, social and other geographies; or if brave enough in the slightly less certain lands that lay outside! Not as simple as it may sound, the exercise provided a means to reflect on where participants feel their research stands and what academic understandings they draw on when conducting research (see Vira and James, 2011 as to what happens when you try to cross economic and development geography). Further discussions on “economic” “entanglements” led to participants problematizing what are often conceptualised as the ‘impacts’ of integration into the global market (for example standardised mangos in Ghana or the cut flower industry in Kenya) and utilising conceptualisations of (dis)articulation to re-evaluate how these entanglements shape livelihoods in the global South. While on occasion it was hard not to feel somewhat overwhelmed by the abundant post-de-re- terminologies of development discourse in the workshop, it also highlighted the twists and (re)turns that have taken place in the field since the simpler days of modernization theory.

bonn-20161In the workshop “Manoeuvring difficult research contexts” participants were asked to share their experiences of conducting research in different locations and some of the difficulties they faced ranging from managing positionality to gaining visa’s and eventually leaving the field. Professor Martin Doevenspeck of Bayreuth University shared his experiences of research in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, negotiating positionality and managing civil war and UN helicopters. While most of the participants could not quite match this for excitement, experience was shared of conducting research with the peasant movement in Indonesia, agrarian land reform in northern India and even regional beer culture in Germany. The workshop highlighted common themes that are experienced by researchers in very different contexts from managing one’s positionality in order to further progress research to some of the dilemmas that researchers face managing relationships with research assistants when in, and also leaving the field. Prof. Doevenspeck concluded with a reminder of the importance of continuous reflection and dialogue with contacts in the field and also supervisors and colleagues in the home institution to ensure these issues are not left to chats over beer in the evening, but are systematically addressed on an ongoing basis.

On the final day, a workshop titled “Things they never told you about Culture(s), Risk and Disasters” engaged with the challenges of implementing disaster risk reduction and disaster relief programmes in differing cultural contexts. This workshop was led by Dr. Klaus Geiselhart, Prof. Fred Krüger, and Dr. Alexandra Titz from University Erlangen. The workshop began with compiling ideas on 4 sheets of flip chart paper which we headed as: culture, development, disaster and why did you come to this session. The participants were divided into 4 groups and given two minutes to add ideas to each piece of flipchart paper. These ideas became the catalyst for discussion throughout the rest of the session. Participants engaged with the challenge of bringing development and humanitarian relief literatures and practices together, recognising that these fields are often considered as separate and distinct despite their obvious overlap. The role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the ‘culture’ that they bring to disaster settings was heavily critiqued, as were the agendas of donors and the ‘value for money’ culture which prizes quick ‘results’ over a more sensitive engagement with those residing in disaster afflicted areas. There was not sufficient time to come to confident conclusions by the end of the workshop, however it was agreed that disaster settings comprise a multitude of cultures, including NGO and bilateral donor cultures, and that local cultures risk being disregarded when subsumed into the time-scarce culture of the NGO and relief effort.

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Dorothea Kleine, Jay Mistry and Simon Malyon outside the UN Building in Bonn

The summer school concluded with a plenary where participants discussed the questions posed to us on day one. It was suggested that the word ‘development’ was no longer used by participants over the course of the conference to conceptualise their own research while others argued that geography has an important history of action research and should maintain links to development policy to ensure its relevance. Professor Detlef Müller-Mahn concluded with the impassioned reminder of the important role of geographers on issues of social justice, poverty and inequality and the need to ensure this focus is maintained alongside vital reflections of where we continue to position ourselves and our research.

Simon Malyon, Gemma Pearson and Jay Mistry

Simon Malyon and Gemma Pearson are PhD students in the Department of Geography at RHUL. Jay Mistry is Professor of Geography at RHUL.

 

References:

Vira, B. and A. James (2011). “Researching Hybrid ‘Economic’/’Development’ Geographies In Practice: Methodological Reflections From A Collaborative Project On India’s New Service Economy”. Progress in Human Geography 35.5: 627-651.

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