Globalize the disciplines! Decolonize development studies!

What is left of “development” with an ever-expanding development agenda through the SDGs? What does the expansion mean for our understanding of “development” and “development research”?

These fundamental questions about the future of development research were addressed during the DevRes 2021 Conference ‘Advancing Sustainable Transformation’ organised by the recently launched Swedish Development Research Network (SweDev) in June 2021. In a Roundtable session on 15 June 2021 entitled Development Thinking in Flux — Continuity and/or Change, Fredrik Söderbaum initiated the debate as Chair. He is professor of Peace and Development research, School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, and also Chair of the Swedish Development Research Network (SweDev).

The panellists of the roundtable were: Maria Erikssson-Baaz, Professor of Political Science, Department of Government, Uppsala University, who has published widely on development research both internationally and in Swedish;  Anna-Karin Hurtig, Professor of Public Health, Department of Epidemiology and Global Health, Umeå University; and Henning Melber, President of the European Association of Development Research Institutes (EADI), member of the steering committee of the Swedish Development Research Network (SweDev), former research director of the Nordic Africa Institute, and former director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation.

The chair of the roundtable, Frederik Söderbaum, set the scene when arguing that a specific debate has emerged in the Swedish context about “development research” as a field of study. Some continue to approach “development research” as a distinct interdisciplinary, social science discipline, whereas others perceive it more broadly as “any kind of research of relevance for developing countries” — i.e., any discipline, methodology and research tradition focusing on poor countries. This post will focus on the critical intervention by Maria Erikssson-Baaz to inspire a continued and wider debate, which is relevant to any research community. However, you can watch the full roundtable session above.

Growing inequalities within countries rather than between countries

With reference to the article From International to Global Development: New Geographies of 21st Century Development by Rory Horner and David Hulme published in Development and Change Volume 50, Issue 2, March 2019, 347-378, Maria Erikssson-Baaz observes an undoing of distinctions between a developed North versus an undeveloped South both in factual terms and in policy rhetoric. Looking at a range of indicators – GDP growth, income levels (growing middle class), life expectancy, education, decreasing levels of aid dependency, carbon emissions. emergence of new donors, and most importantly growing inequalities within countries rather than between countries – they all reflect an increasing convergence between North and South.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which was agreed upon in 2015, departs from any form of spatial distinction as laid down in the earlier Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Not least the challenge of climate change puts considerable emphasis of the Global North and its elite populations.

Both trends contradict development studies as they used to be, i.e., researching any negative phenomenon in the Global South and the development industry involved in addressing poverty, poor health, low education etc. However, expanding this scope to include the Global North to study everything everywhere does not make sense.

Maria Erikssson-Baaz asks the question about where these recent trends leave development studies. The area of research becomes impossibly wide if developments studies is redefined in terms of poverty and inequalities everywhere. Should other disciplines, which address such issues in the Global North, e.g., social work studies, sociology, merge with development studies?

Globalize the disciplines

Maria Erikssson-Baaz points to the risk that analysis of the development industry would disappear if conventional development studies were to be abandoned in favour of integration into the disciplines. Also, research on Global South issues at large could diminish drastically, as that line of research in the Swedish context is devalued both by universities and funding agencies.

In response to a question from the chair of the roundtable, Maria Erikssson-Baaz stressed “we need to try to integrate these issues within the normal disciplines, [there should be] more global perspectives into disciplines. Fear of what would happen to area studies?  We need to take the fight, integrate these issues into the disciplines”.

Focus on the development industry

Is there a way forward for development studies? Maria Erikssson-Baaz expects the significant development industry to continue for quite a long time. That leaves development studies with a most important task of analysing and assessing the practise of that industry in Global South countries. This line of study is very limited in Sweden. Nonetheless, development studies will decline in terms of teaching and research volume at Swedish universities. Maria Erikssson-Baaz does not consider that a major disaster as research is being conducted in Global South. “We” are no longer needed, if we ever were, she says.

Decolonize research

The reformulation of development studies further holds the potential of decolonizing research. In a joint statement issued by seventeen researchers, including Maria Erikssson-Baaz, the marked inequality between on the one hand brokering researchers, who are based in the research setting and regulate the access and flow of knowledge and are referred to as “local research assistants” or “fixers”, and on the other hand contracting researchers who often are based in the global North and who contract brokering researchers. While accounts of research exploitation go long back in history, they have increased in recent years, mostly enabled by social media.

The discussion to be continued on


Maria Eriksson Baaz





partnerships for the goals