Research commercialised

Development Policy24 Oct 2011Fiona Dove

2012 is the year that a new, supposedly ‘modernised’ Dutch development policy, which puts “Dutch interests first”, is to be implemented [i]. What does this rather astonishingly regressive policy mean for development research in a globalised and rapidly changing world? On 21 September, I attended a consultation with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs to find out.

A brief backgrounder was shared with us in advance. The same critique we have been hearing about development efforts was applied to research for development. It was characterised as fragmented, lacking focus and a unifying framework. Now, it seems, the unifying framework is ‘competitive advantage’. Focus is to be provided by prioritising just four themes – water, food security, security & the legal order, sexual & reproductive health & rights – in which the Dutch are considered to excel, and targeting only 15 target countries[ii]. The Ministry’s website gives an example of the role envisaged for Dutch academic experts: “In 2012, the government will … invest… in schemes to use Dutch business and academic expertise to foster economic growth, for example, by enhancing food production in developing countries … to the Netherlands’ advantage and to the advantage of Dutch business.”

The question put to us at the consultation was what we thought of the government’s proposal for multi-stakeholder ‘knowledge platforms’. These would correspond to the four priority themes, while addressing important cross-cutting issues such as climate and environment, good governance, capacity building, health and education. A less defined but more technically conceived fifth platform was also mooted. The purpose of the platforms would be to develop research agendas. These would aim to produce both new knowledge and to make more effective use of existing knowledge. Stakeholders envisaged included researchers, private companies, NGOs, embassies, multilateral and international partners – certainly from The Netherlands and in some instances (though which was unclear) ‘from the South’. The platforms would not be established by the Ministry but would be co-established as a joint initiative, with all stakeholders expected to invest resources.

Populism and parochialism

So what did we think? The first salvos fired concerned the construction of a development research agenda in national terms. This went to the heart of the new (populist?) parochialism that seems to be characterising this Dutch government’s response to our crisis-ridden times, and which runs quite counter to the open, externally oriented image traditionally associated with The Netherlands. The world is a much more complicated, inter-connected place today. (Presuming one wants the agenda to serve ‘Dutch interests’ rather than more universal concerns,) would it not serve Dutch interests better, someone suggested, for The Netherlands to seek to position itself as a top international location for development thinking. Someone else was quick to add that one should be careful not to assume that the US and Europe still had a monopoly in this respect, and to ensure that the best thinkers were drawn also from the likes of China, India, Brazil, South Africa. This shift in the constitution of global power is ushering in new paradigms, new perspectives and definitions of ‘development’. The old North-South paradigm for development, linear notions of a transfer of ‘development knowledge’ from North to South, and the paternalistic relations embodied herein have no place in the new constellation. A number of people made the point in insisting on Southern participation in the platforms – and that this would have to be on an equal, horizontal basis.

Whose interests prevail?

As regards the role of the platforms, there was a palpable consensus in the room that this should not be disbursement of financial resources, which should instead be administered by a public body like the Dutch Science Organisation (NWO). The primary role of the platforms, it was agreed, would be agenda setting.

In other words, the platforms would determine what kind of research questions would be favoured for funding. In this sense, the platforms would quickly become a space in which different ‘stakeholders’ would lobby for the prioritisation of their research concerns. How one ensures a level playing field will be a major challenge for the platforms. Further, if — as current policy suggests — ‘Dutch interests’ are to be the guiding criterion for judging relevance, then I would anticipate that the research agenda will be skewed in ways that will likely prove untenable.

Corporate capture

Then there is the tricky question of money and the old adage about ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’. The government’s proposal was that not only DGIS but all stakeholders should invest in the process to secure co-responsibility. The problem is that the only other ‘stakeholders’ likely to have the resources to offer would be private business. One person made the point quite clearly — to a clamour of nods from many others — that the interests of private business and the poor almost never coincide. Most participants, however, seemed to prefer to side-step the implications of private interests funding the development research agenda.

This is an issue which will have to be confronted sooner or later. There is growing popular awareness of the dangers of corporate capture of public policy – especially in relation to the multitude of crises afflicting the world today. There is also a long bubbling unhappiness within the research community, particularly universities, about the commercialisation of academic research[iii]. The concerns include effects on research agendas, counter-productive impacts on the much sought innovation, curtailed scholarly independence, and instrumentalisation of results for commercial ends. A recent scandal in The Netherlands about how the results of research on the human health effects of the dairy industry were spun to the media illustrates some of the issues of integrity at stake[iv] .


Presuming the dilemmas about form raised above are resolved in ways that make a useful contribution to serving the interests of global human development, then there is still the question of content.

No-one present at the consultation, myself included, contested the four priority themes corresponding to the four proposed platforms. Presumably, we all accept these as the important areas in which The Netherlands has something particularly useful to offer – our ‘comparative advantage’. The fifth platform was not well defined and up for discussion. It was proposed as overarching and more of a common, technical space. Participants imagined it dealing, for example, with capacity-building, open data systems, or development (as in public) administration.

Personally, I saw interesting potential for this platform to be a more global space – in two senses: contextually and geographically. It could be the space where longer-term agendas are conceived, focused on new trends and changing contexts at regional and global levels – for example, shifting regional and international blocs, new development cooperation actors, emerging conceptions of ‘post-development’ or redefinitions of ‘development’, growing Chinese influence in the South, the declining influence of Europe and the US etc. It could also be the platform for exploring the linkages across the other thematic areas – for example, the link between water, food security, security & the legal order in the context of the global ‘land grabbing’ trend; or the link between sexual health and issues of security and the legal order via a focus on drugs policy.

This fifth platform could support the intellectual laboratory needed to better define and locate ‘Dutch interests’ in today’s rapidly changing world.


[ii] Which 15 countries have still to be confirmed by parliament. See

[iii] See the recent work of Prof Dr Hans Radder; and debates organized by See also political debates in Brussels over EU research funding