Restoring the social bargain. Some reflections from IDS’s 50th Anniversary conference

Posted on 19/07/2016
By Gillian Cooper
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Last week I attended the 2day IDS 50th Anniversary conference: States, Markets and Society: Defining a new era for development. It was a great opportunity to listen to and participate in discussions with some well-known and respected thinkers in the development field and a handful of practitioners from various corners of the globe. Concurrent panel sessions were structured around the five themes of the conference: Inequality; finance and business; sustainability; institutions and the reinvention of democracy; and, citizen voice. Indeed, these are some of the biggest issues and questions of our time, making it difficult to choose between sessions!


The themes were especially relevant against the backdrop of the Brexit vote in the UK the week before. In fact, an important conclusion from the conference was that the discipline of ‘development’ which has been focused on the global South, applies now, more than ever, to the Global North.  Ten years ago, when I began my first job in urban regeneration in London’s East End following an early ten-year career in participatory development in the Caribbean, I was struck by the lack of development knowledge transfer from the South to North.  What is stopping this technical transfer? Why are the linkages with the development community of the South practically non-existent with regeneration and inequality programmes in the North?


Tackling issues of inequality, fostering greater innovation in the finance and business sectors, building democratic institutions, ensuring the participation of citizens and moving to a greener development agenda are critical elements for a post-neoliberal world in the UK as much as in Uganda. ‘Development as empowerment that rejects orthodoxy’ in the words of Adebayo Olukoshi, Director of the African Institute for Economic Development and Planning.


The conference challenged participants to think about the triad of state-market-society and how the relationship between these three institutions needs to be reconfigured to address the five themes. This question, as the conference title suggests, underpinned all of our discussions. Without question, it was agreed that neoliberalism, the privileging of the market, its policy rigidities and narrowing world of possibilities, has damaged the social bargain between state and society. Sadly, I learned that there are few, if any examples where the relationship between state and society has been radically redefined. Even in some countries of Latin America that have provided the first wave to challenge neoliberal economics, central government policy has remained largely immune to civil society. Despite the rhetoric of participation and sharing power, new pathways for governance and participatory democracy have not been found.


‘Alliances’ and ‘hybrid forms’ between state-market-society were the buzzwords of the conference. Although there were few concrete examples, at least in the sessions I attended, this was offered as innovative ways in which to rebalance the relationship and enable a more universal understanding of development. This framing is closely related to the Foundation’s approach to constructive engagement between institutions in governance and civil society and its work around regional civil society driven networks for policy advocacy.


While hybrid forms may be a helpful new ideology, not enough was said about the social bargain between civil society organisations and society. As we have learned in the capacity development work at the Foundation, even if configured in new alliances, the legitimacy of CSOs is critical. As in the words of Sunita Narain, Director General, Centre for Science and Environment, India, ‘the term ‘society’ is inadequate.’ Critical for the triad of state-market-society are the capabilities at the bottom of the pyramid. CSOs have an enormous role to play in ensuring that policies and that government and corporate investments are pro-poor. Again from Sunita: ‘We need to talk about empowering the poor to demand more. Sustainable long term change will only happen when the poor demand change.’