1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

  • 0
  • 0


Development in Practice on Visible Hands

5 Feb 2003

  • Source
  • Title: Development in Practice
  • Author(S): Deborah Eade
  • Date: 1 Feb 2001
  • Publication: Development in Practice

The report produced by UNRISD for the 1995 Social Summit was going to be a hard act to follow. Now available in many languages, States of Disarray: The social effects of globalization remains a touchstone text on the various impacts of unfettered capitalism at the end of the twentieth century. With it, UNRISD succeeded in staking out the intellectual and ethical ground for social development, demonstrating in so doing that first-rate analysis can be both accessible and undertaken with a fraction of the resources available to far larger players in the UN system. This sequel, Visible Hands, was published to coincide with Geneva 2000, the latest in the series of 'Plus 5' meetings to review progress towards the goals espoused in the spate of UN conferences held throughout the 1990s. Again, UNRISD has provided a popular version of its ongoing research programmes, spanning and drawing the links between economic liberalisation and fiscal policy, global governance and democracy, public sector reform and social polarisation, corporate sector behaviour, gender inequity, environmental degradation, civil society, NGOs, and grassroots mobilisation. Once more, UNRISD has come up with a coherent, compelling, and concise account of a morally incoherent world.

This report's mood is, however, more downbeat than that of its predecessor. In Copenhagen, there was everything to play for: the ideological battle was on between the international financial institutions who still favoured their 'pain now, gain later' dogma and the bulk of UN organisations and development NGOs favouring human and social development as ends in themselves, and as the best means to stable economic growth. The infectious vitality of the Summit's chief architect, Juan Somavía, seemed to embody the sense that change was not merely possible, but also imperative. Today, UNRISD derives hope from the fact that a more 'enabling environment' is emerging as 'globalisation faces a crisis of legitimacy' and that 'even' the Bretton Woods institutions 'are beginning to question their prescriptions and models'. A less disabling environment might be a better description, for Visible Hands shows that, from the perspective of most of the world's population, the commitment to eradicating poverty, to generating full employment, and promoting social integration has proved so much windy rhetoric. To some extent this was inevitable since, in order to establish a fragile global consensus, the Copenhagen agreements glossed over the profound ideological splits that would have precluded any international agreement.

Although presented at the 'Plus 5' Summit, Visible Hands does not address the Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action head-on, nor does it seek simply to update the earlier volume. Essentially, it is a distillation of some 45 works, ten of them published in full as UNRISD Occasional Papers. Each of the chapters is, therefore, grounded in current research and several - notably Chapter 3 ('Fragile democracies') and Chapter 4 ('Calling corporations to account') - are valuable essays in their own right. But this parcelling up of the chapters by research topics is also the source of what I see as the report's principal failing, which is that while including a superlative account of gender issues (Chapter 7, 'Getting development right for women'), this crisp feminist analysis does not form a point of departure for the report as a whole and is conspicuous by its absence from some parts of it. Even allowing for the limitations of space and for needing to be both analytically cogent but also readable, the discussions on tax reform, on democratic transition, on technocracy, on ethnic diversity, on public sector management, on corporate social responsibility, and on civil society, would have been much enhanced had this chapter appeared earlier in the report, or at least been expressly alluded to throughout. The otherwise bizarre photograph of the G-7 finance ministers and central bank governors on page 53 - a line-up of 16 middle-aged men in dark suits - would then have resonated with the comments on 'women's invisibility in the world of institutional politics' (page 117), with 'a political and social environment that is hostile to social expenditure' (page 120), and with women's alleged 'lack of fluency and skill in economic analysis' (ibid.).

My other main criticism has to do with form rather than with substance and so may be just a matter of personal preference - and, as we know, there is no disputing tastes! The problem is that of how to popularise complex scholarly arguments without over-simplifying or irritating the more knowledgeable reader. Translation is never an easy task, the more so when a significant change of register is involved; and UNRISD is to be congratulated for making a genuine effort in this regard. I did sometimes feel, though, that it had lost more than it had gained in going so far down the journalistic route with its passion for punching every point home and for collaring the reader by repeatedly starting sentences with 'And …'. Again, UNRISD was right not to litter the text with footnotes, but for me this led to rather too many question-begging references of the 'one report finds …' variety. I was troubled too by the illustrations. The earlier report had included a few eloquent photographs, and these were either black and white or colour plates. In Visible Hands, the editors have opted for sepia (a wise choice?) and glossy paper, few pictures can be easily understood without the captions - and these can only be read by resorting to a magnifying glass. I imagine the aim was mainly to break up the text, but wonder what a picture of a village meeting in Bhutan (apparently attended only by males) (page 102) really adds to our understanding of civil society, or indeed that of a women's meeting in Burkina Faso on the facing page. Unless the implicit point is that civil society is profoundly gendered - though if so, I suspect this subliminal message will be lost on most readers.

It would be churlish, however, to dwell on the report's shortcomings. UNRISD sets itself the highest standards and Visible Hands deserves to become essential reading for all those who need (and who doesn't?) an informative synthesis of the major social problems in the contemporary world - and a sanguine view of how to tackle them.

Deborah Eade is Editor of Development in Practice.