Dr Matthew Davies
Just like the climate crisis, environmental degradation and the persistence of poverty, the Covid-19 crisis exposes the worst failings of current global socio-economic structures in the most dramatic fashion. The crisis highlights the fragility of the market, the insecurity of livelihoods and massive under-investment in key workers and services. In a more positive vein, in many places the crisis also underscores the potential for nature to regenerate when emissions and other acts of degradation come to a halt. Whether the crisis can act as the catalyst for significant positive change yet remains to be seen, but if it does, I would argue that what we need first is not just a re-thinking, re-tinkering, or re-balancing of economic structures, but rather a more solid dose of imaginative thinking beginning right at the core of how we understand the course of human history and the nature of the futures that we desire.
We are all educated into systems of thinking that contain normative assumptions that we find difficult to see, let alone to question. Core to these assumptions in many parts of the world is the idea of a universal or singular progress – a gradual improvement in the quality and nature of life enacted by working towards a singular model of the future, including an assumption that there is one form of perfect society and that we can attain that form. We often take this simple idea for granted, something that we cannot begin to question. But can we question this fundamental idea of progress and begin to imagine alternative worlds? Worlds where just, sustainable, and resilient ‘good’ lives and ‘good’ societies take on multiple forms and where futures are self-determined and guided by heterodox imaginations. In questioning our core assumptions about the nature of history (past and future), can we imagine not ‘a’ future, but a future of many futures?
The directionality of history
Critics of development practice have long questioned the models of modernity, progress, and transformation applied from the so called Global North to the Global South and have challenged the mechanism on which they rest - fiscal management, market integration, GDP growth, economic structural transformation etc. Yet these criticisms increasingly also apply to the global north’s own imagining of the future as much as they apply to the export of such futures to the south. Inequality, poverty, failing health and social systems, environmental degradation, climate change, viral pandemics - these are no longer challenges reserved for the Global South. Whatever modernity is in its current form, it is struggling, if not failing.
Yet the responses to these challenges lack not only historical memory (50 years of development practice has failed to address poverty in the Global South) but suffer from a dearth of imagination. The very solutions that we rest our hopes of transformation upon struggle to transcend the universalizing singular visions of the future which generated these problems in the first place. Economic growth is replaced by de-coupled economies and Green Growth, multi-national corporations become carbon neutral, we meticulously work to optimize by following the Sustainable Development Goals - but the broad structures of wealth and marginalization remain. The call to arms is not to do something new, but to do more of the same, ‘just better’. There is a faith that technology + the market will solve all and that this formula has historically been the solution, not the cause.
In short we run the risk of re-cycling the cause of crisis as solution because we are caught in the trap of assuming that the very course of history itself is situated along a trajectory of progress that must be right. The historian Fuglestad (1992) referred to this kind of ‘imperial history’ as given or a priory, as well as ‘directional’ in the sense of being a trajectory towards an assumed inevitable future. While Fuglestad’s work was largely concerned with the practice of scholarly history, we might apply his insights more broadly to contemporary events.
In particular, within this unquestioned directionality that shapes much western historical thought, we can see how crises of the present (whether poverty in the Global South or viral pandemics) come to be framed as deviations from this singular trajectory of progress. When crises occur, correctives, optimizations and bailouts are applied so that the status quo – the assumed trajectory of progress - may be maintained, rather than transformed. For example, mechanisms such as the SDGs retain great potential for positive transformation, but they can also easily be a vehicle for maintaining current ways of doing and thinking. They encourage us to hit targets along the trajectory, but do not necessarily create new systems, institutions, values and ways of being – they don’t necessarily challenge the trajectory itself. Fundamentally this leads to short-term cycles of correcting or solving the problems of the present, rather than designing new futures based on new values, new norms and practices.
Responses to the Covid-19 outbreak will have a similar effect if investments in key services and livelihood protection schemes are viewed only as temporary measures that allow us to wait-out the crisis until market-led economics can resume. As many voices are now pointing out, the key lesson to be learnt here is not that public borrowing can occasionally buffer the market at times of crisis, but rather that it is our history of market economics itself that has left us vulnerable to the crisis in the first place, and that we need to begin to fundamentally re-imagine new sets of economic values and futures post-crisis.
Re-imagining history for prosperity
So how do we begin to imagine history differently and where do we search for ideas to fuel our imaginations for prosperous futures? Well the first and perhaps most difficult step may be to acknowledge that while the past has brought us so far, that the principles of the past are now increasingly flawed and cannot be re-deployed for the present.
Second may be to realize that difference and diversity may be the key to resilient futures – just as biologists regularly describe diversity as a key characteristic of resilient ecosystems, so to our futures need to build a world of resilience by valuing and drawing on difference of life-ways, knowledges, experiences, economics and social-forms.
The world is already full of organically generated alternatives to the neo-liberal norm, we might cite political and community experiments with the concept of Buen vivir in Latin America; the Zapatistas of Chiapas; La Via Campesina and the Food Sovereignty Movement; Transition Towns; the plethora of community currencies and sharing economies emerging worldwide; and even Podemos in Spain and the global Extinction Rebellion movement. Though diverse in themselves and often far from perfect, these each question the ne-liberal Euro-American vision of history and offer multiple lessons on which we might draw. But while such movements are growing in number and scale, they often remain localised and marginalized within broader structures of power and policy, as well as generally vulnerable to being co-opted into existing structures of power to ‘rubberstamp’ rather than challenge the status quo.
At the IGP I see one of our focuses as being to learn from such cases, but also to speed-up, scale-up, facilitate, and support new transitions. Through mechanisms such as our Prosperity Indexes, Citizen Science Research, Transforming Tomorrow Initiative and our work on Universal Basic Services we aim to re-imagine the future as heterodox and as co-designed with rather than for communities. The aim is not to view prosperity as singular or universal, but to explore, support and generate heterodox notions of prosperity.
But further than this, our aim is not to use localised, non-western ideas and concepts to merely correct existing singular global futures, or to draw on tradition as counter-point to a failed modernity, nor as an analogy for re-designed western futures. We aim to avoid, as Zoe Todd (2016) cautions, appropriating non-western ontology and turning it to a new form of colonialism. Rather my, and indeed our, aim is to re-conceptualize heterodox, plural knowledges as active innovative and contemporary agents of change and to engage in practical processes of co-design, what Escobar (2018) would phrase as ‘Designs for the Pluriverse’. In large part then this process requires questioning the value and universality of the western historical trajectory while at the same time re-valuing and enacting non-western histories, knowledges, values and practices.
Fundamentally then I see our work at IGP as about building new imaginaries of history – both what should be valued from the past and what should be carried into the future – and listening to communities and working with them to produce these new histories.
At its core, prosperity work is about re-imagining history, how we conceptualize the relationship between past and future, how we treat crises not as deviation but confirmation that the path needs changing. How we move beyond reactively and circularly solving the challenges of the present with more of the same, to how we begin to design long-term futures with people and the environment squarely in the fore. This requires thinking well beyond our own imaginative horizons as well as developing the bravery to accept the imaginations of others. I for one am looking forward to this creative challenge and hope that many of you will join us.
Dr Davies is Associate Professor at the Institute for Global Prosperity
Escobar, A. 2018. Designs for the pluriverse: Radical interdependence, autonomy, and the making of worlds. Duke University Press.
Fuglestad, F. 1992. The Trevor-Roper trap or the imperialism of history. An essay. History in Africa 19: 309-326.
Todd, Z. 2016. An indigenous feminist's take on the ontological turn: ‘Ontology’ is just another word for colonialism. Journal of Historical Sociology 29: 4-22.
Image credit: Pixabay
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