Global Development Institute Blog

By Dr Louisa Hann

Last month, hundreds of development studies scholars arrived at SOAS, University of London to attend the annual Development Studies Association Conference. This year’s theme was ‘Social justice and development in a polarising world’, inspiring a diverse array of panels and roundtables unpicking some of the many challenges development scholars and practitioners face in an era defined by crisis, conflict, and hegemonic shift.

As ever, GDI colleagues came out in force to represent some of the pioneering scholarship taking place in and around the institute. While there were simply too many GDI-studded sessions for one comms team to cover, we’ve collated just a few key themes from the event, including sessions convened and papers presented by colleagues across various specialisms.

DSA attendees

DSA delegates attend a keynote session


Intersectional solidarity

The conference was set in motion by keynote speaker Shirin M. Rai (SOAS), who spoke about the concept behind her new book, Depletion: The Human Costs of Caring (OUP). Building on theories of social reproduction within capitalism, Rai argued that the exploitation of reproductive labour inexorably tends towards contradiction and crisis. Undervalued and taken for granted, care work depletes subjects both physically and mentally, creating knock-on effects for the wider labour market and social fabric.

Shirin M Rai

Shirin M. Rai


The solutions, Rai argued, require intersectional and contingent approaches that account for how depletion differs across class, race, gender, and generation, as well as the development of reflexive solidarity that promotes a better future for all. This message underscored the validity of a wide range of epistemologies and perspectives and provided a strong foundation upon which to build fruitful discussions and productive debate between delegates throughout the rest of the conference.

Nicola Banks (GDI), for example, used her presentation slot to address the practicalities of solidarity head-on. Alongside Chibwe Henry (Queen Mary) Banks questioned the wisdom of placing ‘localisation’ at the heart of social justice movements, especially given the inequalities and inefficiencies undergirding the aid system. Building on research into NGOs across the Global North and South, Nicola laid out how she and Chibwe are working towards a more equitable and impactful development system through One World Together – a social enterprise that emphasises the role of solidarity in funding and supporting community organisations across the world.

The panel generated lively debate surrounding the advantages and difficulties underlying localisation approaches, with other papers exploring lessons from mentoring slum-based women’s groups in India, experiences of a speaker’s action research on climate change adaptation in Cambodia, and the development of a new Decision Mapping Tool to support power shifts in development programming.

Nicola Banks

Nicola Banks

The future of Development Studies

Given the turbulence of our current political moment, delegates across many panels reflected on the current and future role of Development Studies in helping construct a fairer and more sustainable world. Building on a workshop that took place at King’s College London the previous day, Pritish Behuria (GDI) and Andy Sumner (KCL) convened a roundtable reflecting on the Future of Development Studies. Speaking from a range of positions and perspectives, panellists debated the challenges of recognising the universal exploitation of the capitalist system while addressing qualitatively diverse exploitations in specific Global South contexts.

For some, this meant identifying precisely where disagreements lie within the field, as abstractions such as ‘universalism’ and the ‘pluriverse’ appear to take on different meanings across debates and discussions. Such interpretative slippages inspired charges of scholarly ‘navel-gazing’ among some delegates, while others underscored the necessity of unpicking the messy problem of global capitalist hegemony to adequately grasp the political and economic dynamics of complex local problems.

Other questions that arose involved the meaning and importance of solidarity in Development Studies, the role of dependencies in relation to production, and the need to bridge gaps between academic disciplines to enrich current debates and scholarly impasses in line with a shifting world order.

Somewhat fittingly, the afternoon’s next roundtable was similarly interested in reckoning with the role of Development Studies in meeting current global challenges, albeit with different aims. Chaired by GDI head Sam Hickey, the session introduced, discussed, and critiqued Sam’s upcoming textbook, Global Development Politics, co-authored with Indrajit Roy (University of York).

Aimed at postgraduate students, the book will try to equip a new generation of scholars with approaches to dismantle the unhelpful hierarchies and Eurocentric assumptions that have framed Development Studies in previous decades. Drawing collegial comments and criticism from panel and audience members with a range of perspectives on global development, Sam and Indrajit took away plenty of food for thought about how to put the finishing touches to their textbook.


The role of emergent technologies in development

Another common theme that emerged throughout the conference was the role of new technologies in development. Rose Pritchard (GDI), for example. delivered a paper on remote sensing data and biodiversity conservation as part of a panel on data justice in development, convened with the help of several GDI colleagues.

Presenting preliminary results from a scoping review on the use of remote sensing data in the governance of conservation landscapes in Spain, Guatemala, the UK, and Kenya, the paper introduced delegates to some of the key questions behind the Justice in Earth Observation for Conservation project. Comprising a range of colleagues from GDI and around the world, the project team will elucidate how decisions about how new technologies are shaping decisions about biodiversity conservation, as well as the justice issues and risks such decisions generate for people living in conservation areas.

Other papers delivered in this session addressed epistemic injustices within econometric modelling, the use of a tool called SAGE to assess equitable governance in conservation areas, and the ethical issues surrounding the emergence of so-called ‘synthetic data’ in training machine learning models. Given the diversity of topics, the session elicited wide-ranging and energising discussions surrounding the potential for ‘data-fication’ to exacerbate power imbalances within development and generate complex governance challenges.


There’s plenty more to come from a thriving discipline…

Having sampled just a few of the panels DSA’s conference had to offer and heard from delegates across the world during the well-catered breaks, it was clear that Development Studies scholars continue to embrace fresh ideas, new approaches, and disciplinary evolutions. From Naomi Hossain’s (SOAS) arts-based cultural analysis in her keynote, ‘On Not Being Poor: Bare life and Bangla-futurism in the Aid Lab’, to Jimi Adeṣina’s (University of South Africa) critique of neoliberal ‘rights to development’ discourse in the concluding keynote of the conference, delegates were left with many reflections to consider in their own research and practice.

Naomi Hossain

Naomi Hossain


For more information about the other panels in which GDI colleagues took part, check out our pre-event blog post. Colleagues from the African Cities Research Consortium have also summarised discussions from the two panels they convened. Finally, you can head to the DSA website to discover more reflections from delegates and an overview of the entire event.

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.

Images courtesy of Development Studies Association

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