Development Studies as a Prefigurative Discipline of Conscience in the Time of Polycrisis

Bonn Juego
Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the University of Jyväskylä, Chair of the Finnish Society for Development Research, and Co-Chair of Development Days 2024

[Revised and edited opening remarks to the Development Days conference with the theme “Crises and Futures of/in Development”, 15 February 2024, Helsinki]

Good morning! Dear colleagues and international guests, on behalf of the organizing committee of the Development Days conference and the Finnish Society for Development Research, I warmly welcome you all to the opening of our two-day event.

The significance of our conference’s theme this year – “Crises and Futures of/in Development” – resonates with the happenings in our host city (Helsinki) and host country (Finland). Tens of thousands of organized workers are embarking on a wave of political strikes, causing logistical and transportation inconveniences for us in the organizing committee and the conference participants. Yet, we also recognize the sense of urgency for laborers – the class identity all of us identify with – to reassert the countervailing power of labour unions, as well as of civil society, to defend against governmental and political plans that jeopardize the same values, principles, and policies that we hold dear as development researchers: workers’ rights; human dignity; social security; active citizenship in a democracy; care for women, mothers, children, youth, students, and the vulnerable groups; and a progressive welfare state, which is indispensable for the process of social reproduction.

Undeniably, holding this international conference makes us appreciate again the rapid advances in technology and communications. But, at the same time, we should be aware that we are conducting this conference from, in global comparative and relative terms, a position of socio-technological, economic, and individual privileges.

We are gathered here today when our global society grapples with an accumulation of simultaneous and interrelated crises that are inextricably linked to our research endeavour and professional sense-making. Notably:

• The climate emergency, which poses real threat to our natural life support system. However, the relentless, competitive drive of corporate capitalist interest in consumerism and the persistence of economic neoliberalism’s GDP growth obsession are leading us to mass and planetary extinction each and every day.

• The aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, a 3-year worldwide health crisis, which many of us initially hoped to be an opportune moment to forge and advance alternative futures. Sadly, we had lost the momentum and opportunity – opened by the pandemic crisis – to steer the mainstream world’s ways of thinking, relating, and doing toward a more just, humane, caring and flourishing global community of living-together.

• The prolonged Ukraine-Russia war, which adds to many other longstanding global and regional flashpoints and local conflicts. At the level of discourse, including in social media, these wars have largely silenced, if not vilified, the perspective of ‘peace’ in development research and hegemonized the ideology of militaristic securitization.

• And lastly – but most urgently – the Israeli-Palestinian disputes, which is intensifying alongside the atrocities across the world, from Tigray to Myanmar. These current events are not only testing our critical thinking skills, knowing that the first casualty of war is the truth. But they are also testing our own values, humanity, and conscience as global development researchers. We are witnessing, right in front of our eyes, in the digital age, the infliction of horror, death, misery, and cruelty, as, arguably, a genocidal war or genocide – the crime of all crimes – is being carried against innocent civilians – women, children, and mothers – in Gaza and now, reportedly, in Rafah.

These multiple crises coexist in a complex and uneven landscape, particularly exacerbated across countries in the Global South with persistent poverty, privation, inequalities, and injustices. While the topic of crisis is a perennial problem in development research, the study and practice of development itself is also in crisis. The resurgence of nationalism, right-wing populism, and conservatism in Finland, in Scandinavia, and in donor countries of the European Union endangers the availability and sustainability of financial resources for international cooperation, social science research, and study programmes on development in universities. This emergent rightist turn in politics reinforces structural coloniality, institutional racism, and cultural insularity, conditioning public consciousness in ways that contradict the ethos of global responsibility, justice, and solidarity.

The 2024 Development Days conference is dedicated to sharing research results and ideas about and in response to crises and futures of/in development studies, policy, and advocacy. To this end, while we – as development actors and stakeholders – need to have moments of introspection to reflect upon the history of crises of/in development, it is equally important to have a forward-looking perspective on how to imagine and strategize for futures of/in development.

We are fortunate and grateful to have our Keynote Lecturers – Professors Barry K. Gills, Jayati Ghosh, and Alfredo Saad-Filho – to help us frame, stimulate, and reflect on our discussions ahead. All of them are well-regarded and prolific researchers with socially engaged scholarship in global development studies. They have reflected, taught, and communicated about our conference theme on crises and futures of/in development for many decades, connecting present developmental challenges in light of the past for the benefit of a better future.

Indeed, the past, present, and future of development as a field of scholarly and practical endeavour are intricately intertwined with the evolution of the ‘polycrisis’ across economic, ecological, societal, and political dimensions over time. The slogan ‘rethinking development’ may sound cliché, yet a critical self-examination of our development thinking, relations and engagement is an essential part of the solution to these problems.

On my part, I am contemplating whether we should rethink development studies as a ‘prefigurative’ academic discipline, including making development studies as ‘a discipline of conscience’. This means that amid the pressures and tendencies of the polycrisis, we should conduct our everyday work individually, institutionally, and in relation with colleagues, students, fellow human beings, society, and nature, in ways and relationships that are consistent with the morality, ethics, and practices that we envision our collective future to be.

Finally, as the Chair of this conference and the Finnish Society for Development Research, I believe that we cannot make sense of our discursive activity this week, nor can we make sense of our work and profession in global development research, without talking and thinking about the injustice, sufferings, and barbarism being experienced in the occupied lands of Palestine. I agree with the view that this is a preeminent demand for all of us, in the spirit of solidarity and humanity, as scholars, researchers, and intellectuals of conscience in development studies.

May I therefore close my welcome remarks by requesting everyone to observe a moment of silence to mourn the unnecessary violence on and horrific loss of lives of innocent civilians in Gaza.

Have a truly meaningful Development Days 2024 Conference. Thank you!