Global Development Institute Blog

By Louisa Hann

The world has witnessed seismic political, social, and economic shifts since the turn of the new millennium. From the financial crash of 2008 to the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, the frequency and severity of era-shaping events seem to have ramped up over the past couple of decades. Some – like historian Adam Tooze – have adopted the term ‘polycrisis’ as shorthand to describe the web of acute and convergent challenges confronting humanity at this moment in time. Others prefer the term ‘permacrisis’ to capture the feeling that we’re living through an extended period of emergency and uncertainty.

However we choose to define the current political and social landscape, there’s no doubt scholars must grapple with the interconnectedness of global problems if they want to understand the present. For many, this means casting a critical eye over established development frameworks that emerged during a time of relatively stable capitalist hegemony and may no longer be fit for purpose.

As the editors of Challenging Global Development: Towards Decoloniality and Justice note (including GDI’s Professor Uma Kothari), ‘Key ideas such as post-developmentalism, decoloniality, and the pluriverse increasingly challenge mainstream development, signalling a renewed awareness of the “limits to growth” as integral to the modernising trajectory and of Western dominance. These ideas are beginning to counter the hitherto almost universally accepted Eurocentric understanding of what “development” means’ (4).  

Given its focus on addressing inequalities and promoting social justice, GDI is primed to grapple with shifting orthodoxies within Development Studies and produce scholarship that tackles some of the world’s most pressing issues. In so doing, we can help people develop the theoretical tools necessary to solve deeply complex issues.

To give you a taste of recent activities and projects taking place within GDI, we’ve set out some of the projects and publications that aim to address elements of the ‘polycrisis’. While we haven’t covered every element of our extensive body of research, the following examples (grouped by theme) reflect just some of the pioneering ways our academics are tackling contemporary problems to shape a better world.


Climate change and biodiversity loss

It’s difficult to ignore the intensification of the climate crisis and biodiversity loss as the twenty-first century wears on. As climate breakdown increases in severity, policymakers, private entities, and local communities are pushed to think seriously about mitigation strategies, such as reforestation and expanding protected area networks.

However, upending long-established methods of natural resource management and distribution is never easy. Inevitably, such interventions incur social and political tensions, often requiring people to navigate difficult trade-offs that impact local communities, landscapes, and more.

With this in mind, how can we ensure vital sustainability strategies are socially just and avoid perpetuating inequalities? One of the major projects within GDI addressing this question is Sustainable Forest Transitions (SFT). The SFT team (led by Dr Johan Oldekop) is researching the effects of reforestation on both forests and rural poverty, supporting the design and evaluation of forest-sector interventions. The team officially launched the project at Manchester Museum in March 2024, featuring an in-depth panel discussion now available as a podcast. Over the coming five years, the team will build on existing outputs you can explore on the SFT website.

Another significant environmental project is Dr Charis Enns’ open access book Settler Ecologies: The Enduring Nature of Settler Colonialism in Kenya (co-authored with Dr Brock Bersaglio), which tracks how conservation efforts may tacitly shore up settler colonial structures. Examining how settlers have enacted violent ecological transformations from the late nineteenth century to the present day, the book urges us to consider how seemingly righteous actions – such as rescuing injured animals or rewilding landscapes – may perpetuate injustices and hamper environmentalist aims.

As Enns and Bersaglio explain: ‘The unmaking and remaking of settler – and other unjust – ecologies may not initially unfold in ways that yield the typical conservation outcomes and timelines required by donors, investors, and authorities. Yet what may at first look like “a programme of complete disorder,” as Frantz Fanon writes, may still be necessary if a plurality of ecologies is to take root around the world and give seed to radically different and more abundant and truly (bio)diverse futures’ (174-5).


China-US competition and the ‘Second Cold War’

The first decades of the twenty-first century have witnessed significant geopolitical transformations, especially regarding China-US relations. Increasing tensions between the two nations – driven by competition in trade and technology, as well as diplomatic breakdowns – have energised discussions of a ‘New Cold War’ or ‘Second Cold War’. As states bid for global and regional hegemony, the outcomes of such a war could shape the future of capitalist development, with social and economic implications echoing across the world.

Several GDI scholars – who are members of the Second Cold War Observatory collective – have been working with colleagues to understand the trajectories and implications of a Second Cold War on infrastructure, digital, production and financial networks. They argue that ‘in comparison to the unipolar era, CWII [Second Cold War] affords countries in the Global South more space to implement independent development policy, and ultimately the actions of third countries reverberate and shape great power rivalry’ (4).

China’s emergence as a digital superpower is of particular interest to GDI’s Centre for Digital Development (CDD) group, which is exploring its implications for Global South states, firms, and consumers. In a recent special issue of The Information Society edited by members of CDD, for example, GDI academics challenge partial views and blanket claims about ‘the image of the Chinese state as the puppet-master directing and controlling matters’ surrounding the use of surveillance technologies (67).

Rather, ‘polities of all stripes from right to left, from less to more democratic, and from national to local levels have all procured these technologies from Chinese firms. This once again reinforces how an understanding of local context, local politics, and local history is essential to any analysis of China’s digital expansion in the Global South’ (67). Future research, they argue, should therefore bring more Global South voices into the conversation, carefully assessing how Chinese digital expansion may positively or negatively impact sovereignty, dependency, inequality, and environmental sustainability in Global South countries.


Global health inequalities

While the Covid-19 pandemic shone a light on certain shared vulnerabilities between the Global North and Global South, issues such as vaccine access also highlighted existing inequalities surrounding healthcare access and disease prevention.

Such inequalities motivate the research agendas of many academics within GDI, who have been tackling issues such as the impact of Ebola incidence rates on vaccine uptake, the efficacy of public health campaigns in informal settlements in Kenya, and the process of ageing within a development context. One of the most exciting project to address health inequalities involves the SMARThealth intervention – an app and screening programme designed to reduce cardiovascular disease burden in Indonesian villages.

Comprising a collective of researchers across disciplines – including GDI’s Dr Gindo Tampubolon – the project aims to address the fact that nearly 70% of Indonesians aged 40+ with moderate to high cardiovascular risk don’t receive any cardiovascular treatment. As cardiovascular disease rates continue to rise across the Global South, such statistics threaten to deepen existing global inequalities. According to the latest published research from the SMARThealth team, however, the intervention lowered the risk of all-cause mortality by 18% in intervention villages compared to control villages.


Where can you find out more?

Keen to dig further into the research taking place at GDI? Beyond the projects and outputs mentioned here, our academics are producing work on a diversity of topics intervening in debates surrounding the ‘polycrisis’ and the trajectory of our unstable twenty-first century. These include South-South migration, the socio-economic applications of artificial intelligence, injustices and inequities within contemporary supply chains, urban inequities and infrastructural development, the fourth industrial revolution, and much more.

Explore our research outputs on the GDI website or via Research Explorer. You can also keep track of the latest updates from the institute via X, Instagram, LinkedIn and regular e-newsletters.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Note:  This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.

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