Some weeks ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the Transformations Conference in Dundee, Scotland. The focus was on diverse transformations contributing to more sustainable socio-ecological systems. Diversity, multiplicity, heterogeneity. A diversity of actors, territories, pathways and so on. These key elements for transformation were continually addressed and given value during the conference. But surprisingly (or not), the concepts of developing and developed countries echoed in conversations, speed talks, sessions and papers throughout the conference.
What’s expressed above is not an exception. It seems difficult to abandon the lexicon of developed and developing countries that has been invented, diffused and imposed by mainstream research and politics. I wondered why such controversial and limited concepts are so stuck in the language of both academics and practitioners (in which I include myself), and how efforts to transform unsustainable systems are polluted with misconceptions that constrict our thoughts and therefore, our practices.
In their talk at the conference, Morgan Scoville-Simonds and Karen O’Brien reflected on the mainstreaming of the concept of “adaptation” and highlighted the pitfalls of an eventual appropriation of the concept of “transformation” into development. Such potential pitfalls relate to the de-politicization of the problems and the underplaying of the voices, choices, and values of marginalized groups to privilege the voices of experts. As Eduardo Galeano said,
“Development is a voyage with more castaways than sailors”
In her presentation, Sarah-Jane Stewart noted that the preconceptions and misconceptions held by high-level decision-makers in relation to the implementation of sustainability initiatives are one of the key barriers to transformational change.
From the other side of the ocean, Osvaldo Sunkel and Pedro Paz have explained the ideas derived from the conception of development as a race in which all participants (countries) are going to the same finish line under the same rules. According to this idea, there would be participants who have already reached the finish line (developed countries) while others are still running (developing countries).
Some pitfalls to avoid here are firstly to assume that all countries have the same objectives, capacities and ways to solve problems. Secondly, this conception of development downplays the differences in underlying power structures and asymmetrical interactions between countries. Thirdly, the language of ‘development’ shapes our beliefs and thoughts and therefore our mindsets, constraining the possibilities for transformation instead of enabling them.
Is it possible that the preconceptions of ‘developed’ countries, as horizons for ‘developing’ countries, are barriers to change?
The conference was very inspiring and made clear that there are more than two contexts, kinds of territories or “stages of development”. Cases of transformations in water management in Australia, cultural heritage in Europe, stewardship in South Africa, alternative food networks in America and waste management in Asia presented at the conference are just a sample of the diversity of contexts, problems, capabilities and – therefore – ways to address sustainability challenges. A ‘Three Horizons’ exercise at the conference helped to identify the many different horizons we’re capable of imagining and how many different practices we can support to foster those different horizons.
So why should we limit ourselves to a binary thinking?
The concept of “buen vivir” seems to be an interesting alternative to development, and can help us to reflect about these questions. It takes elements both from indigenous traditions and other schools of thought that challenge the essence of development and reclaim the value of diversity. The aim is collective well-being, including beliefs and practices, leaving behind anthropocentrism and the separation between humanity and nature.
As a final comment, I found the participatory art session at the conference very interesting. We each wrote down the things we needed to leave behind in order to shift to transformations on a post-it note. These notes were then fashioned into a giant egg of barriers, which was later burnt.
As Jade Cawthray-Syms said in her speed talk, it is necessary to transform research to transform society. And, in my opinion, to transform research we have to leave behind concepts like “developed” and “developing countries”. I did not include this in my sticky note, but I include it now.
Sunkel, O. y Paz. P. (1981) “Los conceptos de desarrollo y subdesarrollo”, en El subdesarrollo latinoamericano y la teoría del desarrollo, México DF. Siglo XXI
Smith, Adrian. (2007). Translating Sustainabilities Between Green Niches and Socio-Technical Regimes. Technology Analysis and Strategic Management. 19. 427-450. 10.1080/09537320701403334.
Gudynas, E. (2011) “Debates sobre el desarrollo y sus alternativas en América Latina: Una breve guía heterodoxa” en AAVV Más allá del desarrollo, Ecuador. Fundación Fundación Rosa Luxemburg/Abya Yala.
Galeano, E. H., & Galeano, E. (1972). Las venas abiertas de América Latina (No. 338 (8)(091)). Departamento de Publicaciones, Universidad de la República.