Opinion: Populism, Development, and the Importance of Communication (November 2019)

By Christopher Chagnon, PhD Researcher, University of Helsinki

world sees many crises today, but I’d like to focus on the political crises of right-wing populism seeming to grip so much of the Western world. There are in-your-face examples such as the Presidency of Trump in the United States; and the ascendency of Boris Johnson in the UK[1]; the long running and increasingly authoritarian rule of Orban in Hungary; the continued rule of the Law and Justice Party in Poland under the defacto leadership of Kaczyński, pushing paranoia and populism; in Italy the attempts of Salvini and the League to seize greater power (which ultimately saw his exit from the ruling coalition); the challenges that Wilders in the Netherlands and La Pen in France show how mainstream these movements have become, even if they do not capture leadership. Even here in Finland, while the parliamentary elections of April produced a left leaning coalition government led by the Social Democrats, the far-right Finns party still came in a very close second overall.

There has been plenty of speculation about what is behind this rise in right wing populism, but there is no clear silver bullet of an answer. Dani Rodrik wrote in 2018 about the connection to rapid globalization and the failure/disconnect of orthodox economists to take “externalities” of social conditions into account. In the context of the US, the ascension of China to the WTO in 2001 and poor preparation/negotiation has been pointed to as a contributing factor. While orthodox economists predicted that there would be job losses, they assumed that labor was fluid and people who lost jobs in low-end manufacturing would simply switch fields. They did not take into account that most of the industries hit would be disproportionately in small towns in the Midwestern US, and that the groups hardest hit would be older workers. They did not see that many people like their small-town lifestyle and would not simply want to pack up and move to a larger city. They did not expect the disastrous knock-on impacts on small town economies when these jobs left. They did not expect that, even with retraining programs, people might not be able to access them, or they might be advanced enough in their careers that they do not wish to retrain for something and start all over (not to mention the difficulties that older people could face in being hired in new industries). Today, these are the hotbeds of right-wing populism in the US.

Personally, I believe that there is an important demographic aspect. There is a natural tendency for groups of people, on the whole, to be more conservative as they grow older. The “Baby Boomer” generation was the largest that the Western world had ever seen, and they are living longer than any generation before. This would lead to a natural rightward lurch in politics, as older generations would wield more electoral power than ever before (of course, I do not mean to say that ALL people fall into this, just rather that it is a broad pattern). Combine this with the fact that people of this generation were raised steeped in the Cold War, taught that socialism was the ultimate enemy (in the Western European/US context; or grew up seeing the dark side of the second world first-hand), but never seeing first-hand the horrors of far-right ideologies. On top of this, we have a factor that would naturally push people toward feeling alienated and disenfranchised – an unprecedented evolution of technology. The technology underpinning so much of the global economy today is completely different than it was 30 years ago, and the skills required to succeed have also shifted significantly. I believe these broader demographic factors also play a significant role. This is not to say that this is purely of a single generation this is a very deep feeling, and many people in Generation X and Millennials believe strongly in this.

All this combines with the way that neoliberalism systematically eroded social safety nets, workers’ rights, and incomes for the lower and middle classes. The way it spread ideas that easily disproven myths that the unregulated market comes up with the best solutions for everything; that government is inherently corrupt and incompetent, while business is inherently fair, smart, and efficient; that, deep down, everyone wants to be like the West and that unfettered free trade is good for all. These messages till reverberate deeply in the psyche of right-wing populists. Though, ironically, it was precisely this ideology that set up the situation that allowed so many people to be left behind.

But, I digress. We could have a long discussion about the various ways that this populism has grown, but we want to focus on the impact it is having on development. To put it simply, this sort of right-wing populism is usually terrible for development study and practice. The rhetoric of “(whatever country) first” not only serves to create an in-group/out-group dynamic with minorities, immigrants, and refugees within countries, but it also attacks development practice and spending. It often makes false connections trying to tie money spent on development to the failures of the social safety net at home. It mischaracterizes all development actions as emergency charitable work, and completely ignores how development work usually has positive economic impacts domestically, how it helps improve countries’ soft power, and how drastically it helps improve global security. When President Trump first discussed slashing budgets for USAID, the military were some of the most vociferous opponents, with conservative darling Marine General “Mad Dog” Mattis leading the way saying that development work did more to ensure global peace and security, for less money, than the military did.

But, still, we see erosion of funding and support for development. In the US, the Trump administration has successfully slashed the USAID budget and seems to be shifting funding toward increased private sector leadership. In the UK, there has been ongoing speculation that all of DFID might be abolished and merged with another department if the Johnson premiership continues after the upcoming election. All this comes at a time when we see non-traditional actors making pushes to take leading roles in development. China, famously, has become a major partner and investor in the developing world, not only in things like infrastructure, but in areas of education. And while there is certainly alarm from traditional partners, there is little recognition of the potential long-term impacts of these shifts, and little being done to address them beyond saying negative things about these rising actors.

The great irony in all this is, of course, that development as a field of study and area of practice has so much to offer in this crisis. It is a big tent and broad spectrum, but it is also one that is devoted to addressing just the kind of problems we are seeing today. If you put aside the in-group/out-group dynamics (and their negative ways of expression), much of the rhetoric of those who feel left behind speaks directly to the heart of development practice – wanting their freedom and rights to be assured; wanting their culture, traditional knowledge, and way of life to be respected and protected; wanting to have a say in their local governance and fate; wanting to be able to make a dignified living; wanting to be able to be socially mobile; wanting their children to be able to enjoy the natural beauty they enjoyed; wanting to be heard and respected… These are the type of desires that inspired movements like Swaraj and Rojava; and inspire the push for protecting indigenous knowledge and embracing the pluriverse.

This is not to say that we have all the answers, but it is to say that we are in a position to do more. It is easy to paint people who support right-wing populists with a broad brush, to feel stung by their attacks on our field and on intellectualism, and to dismiss their point of view. However we should try to understand their point of view and how we can help address the issues at their root. We need to understand how we are viewed and how to overcome negative, “ivory tower” perceptions.[2]

We need to get better at communicating and presenting our hard-earned knowledge in a way that is engaging and digestible to people.[3] Because we help no one if we keep the knowledge limited to within our group. Because if we want to really be able to help people address their problems, to help tackle the global climate crisis/rights crises/promote understanding, sustainable development, and peace, we need to have people listening. Because, it is a lot easier to protect our positions, rights, and budgets if people know who we are, and understand/appreciate what we do. Because, if we do not, as a whole, adapt to new technologies, communications methods, and modes of engagement, we too will be left behind.


Please Note: All opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

[1] As someone from the US, most social gatherings are a countdown until someone mentions Trump. I’m always extra thankful to have British people around, because Brexit is one of the few topics that can divert from this.

[2] Coming from a small town in a very conservative area, this is something near and dear to me. I believe we must always fight the far right with all our energy, and keep inclusion and understanding at the core of our fight. However, I also believe that a lot of people swept up in right-wing populism would really support our ideas and messages, if we can share them the right way.

[3] I personally believe that every doctoral researcher should have to take at least some courses in communications, media, and advertising to help do this – or, at the very least, have options to do so easily accessible and highly encouraged.