25 July 2022
Online Conference at UCL: Discussing just sustainable futures at the Development Studies Association Conference
Historically, the development sector has often intended to bring Western ideas of progress to the so-called Global South. The opinions and knowledge of local communities were considered irrelevant, threatening their prosperity and well-being.
I was therefore enthusiastic to take part in this year’s Development Studies Association (DSA) Conference, since it aimed to put justice and equity at the centre to explore just sustainable futures in an urbanising and mobile world. The innovative conference format adopted a range of approaches in order to get the most from the online format and make it an even more inclusive event. DSA and UCL aimed to provide a welcoming, inclusive, and safe forum where the development studies community can share work, discuss ideas and connect with others. The conference was co-organised by the Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) and other UCL departments.
“I have become sustainably just”
The online nature of the conference, as well as funding from UCL, greatly supported the conference’s emphasis on justice. Indeed, it enabled almost half of the participants to be based in the Global South. However, as a young scholar, a conference is a good occasion to make friends and create a network, and this proved to be more difficult online.
From the conference, I would like to remember three elements. The first is the Conference Opening Poem, “I have become sustainably just”, by IGP’s poet-in-residence, Cameron Holleran. It resonated with my current struggles on how to build a better future. They highlighted their hesitancy on which possibilities for the future to opt for while “Those who do not know how wet clay feels […] busy themselves picking up the colour of the glaze”.
The second is the innovative format adopted based on UCL expertise. Each panellist uploaded their video presentation a few weeks in advance. The actual conference was then divided into an asynchronous and a synchronous part. The former consisted in watching other panellists’ presentations, while the latter was dedicated to discussions. Such format has been evidenced to reduce “Zoom fatigue”. However, it required participants to watch the pre-recorded presentations in advance in order to engage in synchronous discussions. This sometimes proved to be challenging, as several sessions did not attract many participants.
Decolonising ideas of just sustainable futures
The third is the presentations and discussions which focused on knowledge production, and in particular on how non-Western and marginalised narratives can have a voice and be listened to. There is a clear need to decolonise ideas of just sustainable futures, as explained by Farhana Sultana in her keynote speech given from the sweltering monsoonal heat of Bangladesh.
These interventions helped me to reflect on my own practices, as a PhD student involved in participatory research with rural and indigenous communities. Here are some interesting questions that were raised: Who are the “experts”? Can the coloniser listen? How do we avoid romanticising the Other? How can we create institutions that favour other forms of knowledge to emerge? How can scholars and universities work together to attain this goal? These are important questions for development studies and beyond, and I am grateful that the DSA Conference started such conversations.
Adrien Plomteux is a PhD student at IGP. He is carrying out participatory research with communities in Iceland and Kenya to better understand how large-scale societies could live well without much consumption. He is involved in the degrowth movement.
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