Breaking out of the development community

Evert-jan Quak | 27 June 2014

The EADI conference has closed its doors. What the conference has shown us is that the debate on inequality and the rise of the middle class in developing countries opens many windows of opportunity to reframe development and development policy as a universal issue.

The conference, which took place in Bonn, Germany, brought together around 400 development experts from all over the world. They discussed their latest research results in 21 EADI Working Groups and 41 Panel Sessions. Furthermore, there were several plenary sessions and lectures.

The Broker was the conference media partner and published directly from the event on its website. You can read all our contributions here. It would be impossible to draw one or two conclusions from all the topics that were discussed, but I would like to make just one observation.

The multipolar world, the rise of the middle classes in developing countries set against the struggles of the middle classes in developed countries, and the simultaneously increasing distributional gap between the poor and rich in most countries, opens up development studies or development economics to a wider perspective than ever before than just helping the poor out of poverty.

Of course this process includes the debate on how the middle classes can be defined and measured. It will always be the task of academics to think about and challenge mainstream definitions, as they have done regarding poverty. Interestingly, there seems to be increasing common ground in the development community that the middle class cannot include the income group of 2 to 10 dollars a day. The threshold is arbitrary, and many discussions will continue on this issue. However, it is important to realize that setting a threshold opens up new avenues of research to understand these groups better. You first need to have some consensus about the target group before taking the next step in research.

I see that this is really happening. Many presentations at the conference were about how to understand the dynamics of the middle classes in their local context: how they make use of public transportation (or not), how they are more aware of artistic and cultural expressions (or not), how they want to invest more in a better and cleaner neighbourhood (or not). Clearly, there is no answer yet, and it depends a lot on which perspective you see it from. Some experts are optimistic (like Peter Knorringa of ISS on the rise of ethical awareness of corporations in emerging countries, or Nancy Birdsall of the Centre of Global Development on declining dependence of middle classes on the state elite), while others have more concerns (like Joyeeta Gupta of the University of Amsterdam on environmental conflicts and access to water).

But whatever the outcome, it opens up a debate about the rights and responsibilities of the middle classes and how they can be change agents, renegotiate social contracts, fight against corruption, and demand better environmental protection and measures against climate change. And this agenda is far from being only a concern for developing countries. The same questions should be asked and research should be done by the development community in the industrialized and developed countries.

From this perspective the development community should take steps to open itself up. If development specialists want to help achieve a better world, they have to cooperate and discuss their progress not only with each other, but with academics who do not see themselves primarily as development experts. And events like this conference offer an opportunity for them to invite academics from other disciplines to reflect on their work. I believe that this does not happen enough.

To build an alternative framework for economic development, a more multidisciplinary approach is required. Bringing together, for example, environmental scientists, behavioural or cognitive development scientists, financial economists, and economists working on defining the concept of wellbeing.

Fortunately, the idea that development is related to the middle classes can bring different academic disciplines closer to each other. Thinking about the middle classes raises several questions that are not only on the radar of development communities, like how they contribute to stable economic development, how they grow to become middle classes, are they saving money or are they significantly indebted, and what are the consequences of that for longer term economic development? And understanding the rising middle class better will also help us to better understand pro-poor strategies. Let us see how this will all develop in three years from now at the next EADI conference.