Can we do development research in the Trump-era?

Why continue to publish journal articles documenting climate change and the real mechanisms behind poverty and inequality, when one mans’ derailed rhetoric can reject it with no further proof?

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

I have to admit it: since Donald Trump won the elections in the United States on November 9, I have had a writer’s block and not been able to do my job as a researcher of politics and development. The whole endeavor of development research all of a sudden seemed meaningless: Why seek empirical data, build rational arguments and develop theory aimed at contributing to a better world for everyone when you can ascend to the most powerful position on earth based on lies and undocumented claims? Why continue to publish journal articles documenting climate change and the real mechanisms behind poverty and inequality, when one mans’ derailed rhetoric can reject it with no further proof? Why work to improve global institutions, when the most powerful state in the world, may seek to undermine them?  

Between the Hawk and the Slaughter

I was not prepared for the feeling of desolation that the election result would bring. I felt deeply uncomfortable with both candidates: Hillary Clinton because her foreign policy hawkishness reminded us of the extent to which the world order that we in the rich north have benefitted from, and that the development endeavor starting in the post-World War II era was embedded in, was based on violence and aggression. Although Clinton defended gender equality, liberal values and anti-racism, that did not mean that her foreign policies would contribute to the strengthening of such values in Africa, the middle-East, Asia or Latin America.

However, no matter how hawkish, she pledged to continue the support for this world order, not only through power politics but also through cooperation, institution building, and aid. It was light-years away from Trumps outright slaughtering of the values that are at the core of the field of development research as it has evolved over the years:  a belief in the possibility for improvement of living conditions through concerted human intervention; a belief in the necessity to include all groups in society into development through mobilization, organization, and the evolution of institutions; a belief in dialogue, rational reasoning, and that more knowledge will be a step towards better actions; a belief that with the strong evidence we have on the devastating effects of climate change, it is a human obligation to contribute to its reduction. As we feel that the world is moving into a direction that values none of these beliefs, it seemed difficult to motivate oneself to continue. And any individual research project (focusing as they most often do, on fragments of reality), seemed useless, short of projects that could show us the way out of Trumps gloomy world.

A six points agenda to move forward

Yet, as has been said repeatedly over the last days, this is not the time for resignation. It is the time to defend and redouble the efforts to change the conditions that have laid the ground for Trumps ascendance to the presidency. And there, development researchers have a role. Here is my six point list of action:

1. We have to counteract anti-rational currents within our own academic field, while incorporating their existence more closely into our own theories and empirical research.

The observation of so many projects and plans that have failed to create better living conditions for the majority, while often doing more harm than good, has led not only to a rejection of aid by many, but a rejection of the very possibility of improvements by the help of modern science and forms of organizing society.  However, that is to undercut the very basis for inclusive development-project, and pave the way for irrational forces, including those that have contributed to the Trump-victory. Perhaps was Bruno Latour right when he wrote, 23 years ago that “We have never been modern”. Modernity is a matter of faith. Yet, recognizing the how modern science and rational argument is mixed with emotions, religious currents, anger and longing for belonging, should lead us to better understand human behavior – economic, political and social, rather than giving up our belief in collecting evidence and build reasonable arguments.

2. We have to stop blaming everything on “neoliberalism”.

I have long been frustrated by the tendency in part of development studies to blame it all on the nebulous concept of “neoliberalism”. Some of the comments explaining the Trump-victory the last days have pointed to the same: this is the result of “neoliberalism”. However, what is lumped together in this broad bag is a mix of the ideas and policies of economic liberalism, like privatization, trade liberalization, and competition, and many features of society that the neoliberals tried to combat, including maintaining privileges given to a few, institutional corruption and nepotism. A general anti-neoliberal discourse, that does not distinguish between the possible positive impact of trade and competition, from the brutality of unregulated capitalism (including tax cuts and the “roll back of the state”) fits perfectly into a Trump-discourse blaming the misery of the laid-off working class, on the Chinese and the Mexicans.   

3. We have to help distinguishing between the actual processes that have led to the conditions preparing the ground for the Trump-victory and the often flawed perception of them.

The last days have seen the emergence of a new cottage-industry: producing articles that seek to understand the Trump-victory. Academics and journalists across the world have offered their views on the feeling of loss and hopelessness experienced by the white former middle class in the United States. However, rather than only seeking to “understand”, there is a job to do to explain – not to our academic audience – but to the Trump-voters, how the global economic system actually works. It could start with a lesson on how they as consumers are benefitting from the same system that they suffer from as workers: how they, if they want to bring their jobs back through cutting off ties to China and Mexico, also will have to accept a steep rise in the prices of the goods that they pick from their shelves at Walmart, thanks in large parts to the cheap labor of Mexican immigrants and imports of Chinese consumer goods.

4. We have to contribute to create a world order that does not hinge to such an extent on the fate of elections in one country.

It is both scary and infuriating  that the choice of a Trump-administration – made by a people of which only 46% hold a passport, that don’t care much about us Europeans, Africans, Latin Americans or Asians – still has such an enormous impact on the world. It is true enough, that the US has lost a lot of its clout in many global institutions, due a.o. to its stingy budgets for international cooperation. However, it still has major influence over key institutions, and has been able to block effective actions by other. We, as in development researchers, have to contribute to the reforms needed through providing the knowledge necessary for new institutions of global governance to emerge.

5. We have to redouble our efforts to do solid research and spread knowledge to all parts of society to ensure that beliefs like “climate change is not human made” or “walls between nations will create prosperity” to not settle as truths.

For that we need to be bold in our research endeavors and not be complacent by earning publication point for articles conveying research based on artificial construction of research problems.

6. We have to once and for good leave behind us the distinction between “developing” and “developed countries”.

The signs have been there for a long time: that misery exists both north and south, and so do the opportunities for cashing in politically on it. It has happened in the US through methods that are all too familiar for those of us that study Latin America: strengthening a sense of “us against them”, disqualifying opponents, simplifying complex matters, questioning institutions that work to their disfavor. It is an uncomfortable truth that we have to recognize that labels that we put on areas and countries like "developed"" and "developing", are both shifting and reversible. If the United States can slide towards a condition we often associate with "developing countries", so can we (but we don’t have to).


Having all that said: we development researchers with ample experience from collaborating with colleageus working in harsher conditions (in my case in Latin America that have seen their share of populist anti-institutionalist demagogues to the left and right) may have a certain advantage. From those colleagues I have learned perseverance and resistance and to never give up working for a better world, even in the darkest of times. I have also learned that there is a limit to the damage that one man can do, if he (yes, mostly a man) is not able to break down institutions or manipulate the masses. Let us start our “damage” control through protecting institutions and finding new ways to divulge good research beyond our regular audience, counteracting the possible manipulation that is about to come.

By Benedicte Bull
Published Nov. 11, 2016 2:29 PM - Last modified June 21, 2017 1:54 PM