A Class Act: interrogating privilege, development and sexual rights


Stephen WoodStephen_Wood200

Over the last quarter century, there has been a conscious shift in the manner by which researchers examine positionality within their chosen fields.  Whilst age, gender, disability, religion and sexual orientation are factors we increasingly consider when undertaking intersectional analysis, the inclusion of class has seemingly become less fashionable.  Have we, as Tony Blair once argued, become a truly classless society?

Not even close. The UK remains a heavily class-stratified society, with attendant inequalities continuing to widen and a discernable lack of representation in politics and the media of authentic working class experiences.  This diminution of working class voices in public life, coupled with the unchecked destruction of the British manufacturing industry from the heyday of Thatcherism, has herald a period in which the working class have found their identities written out of the national narrative. It has created space for the evolution of negative definitions of working class communities, such as the ‘chav’ and ‘Little Britain’ stereotypes, conspicuously the products of middle and upper class commentators and authors.

At the same time, an insidious prejudice has developed against those who attempt to make the links between class privilege and deteriorating living standards for the poorest in society, dismissing them as out of touch or purveyors of the dinosaur politics of envy. Inequality across class boundaries has become the unmentionable middle class dinner table conversation, in favour of denunciations of racial and sexual discrimination, which have become untroubled, fetishised badges of progressive modernity.

Broadening this trend out to encompass both the sexual rights and international development fields, I believe that the legitimacy of many strands of aid programming and policies find their roots in class-based ideology. For many years now, Southern academics have cogently argued that international development itself grew out of upper class dilettantism and a post-colonial white-saviour complex. Expertise within the development field has been measured and articulated through elitist language and even the respected ‘victim narratives’ of the poor (when heard) are mediated and given legitimacy through ‘objective’ Northern voices.

In many of the policies undertaken specifically around sexuality, we see prescriptive control over black and brown bodies. Take as an example the IDS working paper written by Andil Gosine, which examined how population control programmes are conduits through which the anxieties of developed countries around sexuality are rendered visible. By imposing policies to encourage women not to have too many children and instinctively prizing the traditional nuclear family as optimal, Western countries have endeavoured to control and ‘civilise’ the (seemingly) unrestrained sexuality of the Southern subject.

One of the problems the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme encounters when we convene discussion around sexuality has been the sense that it is a trivial issue compared to the core concern of poverty, but this high-minded dismissal frequently disguises conservative ideologies masquerading as evidence – and the regulation of non-normative sexualities. Paradoxically, we can be accused of concentrating upon an issue of no material relevance to development recipients, as though sexual autonomy, choice and pleasure play no part in the experience and aspirations of poorer communities.

We must not confine this tendency solely to Western countries, though. How easily can we depend upon the dominant narratives around sexual identities coming out of southern contexts as being authentic grassroots views?  Who is defining those sexual identities? Dominant elites in the Global South, such as the anti-trafficking lobby in parts of Asia, can represent the anxieties of upper class / caste communities around sex work and whose concerns dovetail with western European concern around migration, but not the lived experience of marginalised communities for whom sex work is a daily reality and for some, an informed choice. Minority sexual rights movements for whom the term LGBT has limited relevance find themselves using this Western-coined framework in order to access desperately needed resources from aid agencies and philanthropic donors.

In order to have confidence in the dialogues we undertake with individuals in the Global South, we need to interrogate our own privilege reflexively and conduct an honest evaluation of those individuals and organisations we undertake partnerships with and the decision-making process by which we decide to work with them. The risk of self-selected partnerships that reinforce our ideologies and retain old North/South power relations can go easily unnoticed, especially for veterans of the aid field. As my colleague Rosalind Eyben argued in her recent blog post around reflexivity “How does power operate to foreclose new ways of thinking and challenge our assumptions?”

In my experience, those who choose to work around sexual rights do so for a variety of motives: representing their communities, risking their physical safety to affect social change – and sometimes for legitimately economic motives, as well as political and social mobility. How can we encourage our partners to examine and share their own positionality if we fail to hold up the same mirror to ourselves?

It sometimes feels quaint or antagonistically unreconstructed to insist upon a class analysis in the way we structure and conceive our research projects, the choice of partnerships we undertake and the sites of our study, but as others within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team are the first to argue, lines of power are buried deep in everything we do, unremarked and unchallenged.

As the development industry continues to experience a crisis in democratic legitimacy, aid practitioners (and in my view, the Institute of Development Studies itself) should reflect on how to evolve and adapt to the changing global development context by undertaking a class audit of our cadre of researchers and students. We must ask ourselves whether we are truly representative of those communities we aspire to partner alongside and if not, what this might mean for us strategically moving forward. Can we truly say with confidence that the co-creation of the knowledge we undertake represents a dispassionate analysis or does class or caste continue to leave a subjective thumbprint over our research findings?

Stephen Wood is a Researcher on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

Read other recent blogs by Stephen Wood:

Bangladesh is revolting, again


Naomi HossainNaomi Hossain photo mini

Anyone with a Bangladesh connection remains fixated on the two week occupation of Shahbag junction and the wider movement it has spawned. Shahbag, in case you missed it, is a mass movement protesting that Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah got off too lightly with a life sentence on February 5th for convictions that link him to mass murders and child rape during the 1971 war of liberation from Pakistan; justice has long been delayed, and now most people think, it has been denied, too (as novelist Tahmima Anam explained last week . Even Mollah reckons he got off lightly: his infamous two-fingered gesture when leaving the courtroom will go down in history as the first hand gesture to launch a mass movement.

The need for justice for the genocide of 1971 is so glaring that most Bangladeshis choose to overlook the problems in the misleadingly-named International Crimes Tribunal (its mandate is domestic, not international; see http://bangladeshwarcrimes.blogspot.co.uk/). As the party that won the war (but arguably not the peace) for Bangladesh, the Government was only too pleased to change the law yesterday, allowing it to appeal decisions of the Tribunal it disagreed with.

Shahbag is being feted as the return of the spirit of ’71, and it has many of the qualities of that wonderful tragic time: cross-class, secular, youthful, nationalistic, idealistic (bar the pro-hanging bit). It probably will mark a shift in Bangladeshi political culture, as middle class and elite young people are getting a crash course in street politics they won’t unlearn in a hurry. There is a lot of social media and good visuals, all of which matter a lot in 21st century protest. And at a time when the organized religious right has stolen popular revolutions across the Middle East, it is sheer joy to see Jamaat on the backfoot. This is partly catharsis postponed: the Pakistan ‘tilt’ in US foreign policy and other reasons best known to the international community meant they discouraged a process of transitional justice 40 years ago, when it would have made most sense. War-torn, aid-dependent and starving, Bangladesh was in no position to insist back then. So the injustices of the war and postwar period were institutionalized in some of our more unique political pathologies, the personalized animosity between The Two Begums included.

So all in, there is a lot to like about Shahbag. It feels like something fresh. In fact the only audible ambivalence – other than among the fundies and war criminals – is among the good governance / human rights types, who see patterns we don’t like. The pro-hanging stance is a source of some discomfort. Mollah’s crimes would test the softest-hearted liberal’s views on capital punishment, yet it is probably the main reason the international media found Shahbag hard to make sense of. Two robust yet telling arguments are made in support of hanging. One is that the argument against capital punishment is a separate debate: this argument is that the crimes of Mollah et al merit the highest punishment under the law, which happens to be hanging. A second is that in a country in which every aspect of life is party politicized, Mollah and his gang would only have to wait for the government to change (which it does regularly) to get their release. So they need to be hanged to ensure they get the punishment they have earned. This was a reasonable enough argument before the Government changed the law to allow appeals; now it has changed the law, it is surely watertight.

Both pro-hanging arguments tell us something important about why Shahbag has happened, and why all other forms of important progressive change, big and small, tend to involve such unruly politics in Bangladesh. Both are arguments about the importance of rules, and both say it is important to break rules precisely because they are so important. This is the powerful logic of Bangladeshi political culture: a schizophrenic desire for order that requires the overthrow of order. All relevant examples of progressive political change – starting with the struggle against the Raj – feature a powerful sense of exceptionalism (‘this time is different’) coupled with an equally powerful desire for rules that work. In Bangladeshi politics the ‘state of exception’ is the norm, so rules are routinely broken precisely with the aim of achieving a more ordered state. A series of genuine political and economic crises through our history coupled with a political DNA imprinted with the successes of unruly politics makes this a winning repertoire it will be very hard to unlearn.

It is too early to be discerning larger meanings from Shahbag, but here is my ten takas’ worth: Shahbag will matter partly because it will reinforce the message that it is only through breaking the political (and indeed judicial) rules that progressive change can be achieved. Once again, we learn that we need a mass movement, not due process; a huge upsurge of human emotion, not rational rules or agreed, adhered-to systems or laws, if we are ever to resolve our problems. So let us hope that this time it really is different.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other recent blog posts by Naomi Hossain:

UN High Level Panel engages with the Participate initiative in Monrovia, Liberia


Catherine SetchellCatherine_Setchell200

This post previously appeared on 12 February 2013 on the Participate blog. Subscribe to their blog for regular updates on the Participate initiative.

This month the UN High Level Panel (HLP) on the Post-2015 Development agenda met in Monrovia. At the meeting the Participate initiative  , based at the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS, ran a 90-minute interactive workshop session with members of the HLP and their advisors, to share a synthesis of early research findings that would inform the post-2015 debates. Panel members explored key recommendations from those who are living in poverty and who are most marginalised.

Panel members engaged with the perspectives of those in poverty via:

  • An early findings synthesis report of participatory research programmes from over 57  countries;
  • A short film about an indigenous people’s housing project in Chiapas, Mexico
  • Small group discussions based on case studies from the research.

These case studies generated lively debate amongst panel members and their advisors as they tackled questions posed by Participate, around the implications of the key messages for international development and national economic transformation, and how they could translate these into principles and guidelines that could be built explicitly into the High Level Panel reports that will inform a post-2015 framework for development.

The case studies provided illustrative examples for the panel members to discuss the complex realities of people living in poverty and their experiences of development assistance. They looked at some of the reasons for why programmes have failed in the past, and what key lessons can be learnt from these mistakes, so that a new development framework reflects the real needs of those living in extreme poverty and marginalisation.


A local resident featured in the Chiapas film explains why a state housing project failed

Key messages resonated with some of the panel members’ and advisors’ own understanding of the complexity of poverty and the failings of some development interventions. Members of Participate’s Participatory Research Group (PRG) – James Kofi Annan, Challenging Heights, Mwangi Waituru, The Seed Institute, and Masiiwa Rusare, African Monitor – reinforced these messages with first-hand stories.

Discussions centred around the message that development programmes are too often top-down interventions, based on simple cause-effect assumptions that fail to respond to the everyday realities of those in poverty, and only serve to reinforce long-term dependencies and an increased sense of powerlessness. They recognised that extreme poverty is characterised by difficult trade-offs and impossible choices that make the benefits of mainstream development inaccessible for the very poor.  The panel reflected on the need to engage much more with power, social norms, customs, attitudes and behaviours, and that building relationships and greater participation of local communities, would contribute to more effective and sustainable development.

The High Level Panel debates of Thursday and Friday followed Participate’s workshop session.  Participate asked the HLP to take some of the main lessons and reflections from the session with them as they debated a post-2015 framework for international development and economic transformation. Participate will continue activities to bring the voices of those most marginalised to the policy debates.

Catherine Setchell is a Research Communications Manager for the Participate initiative, based at the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS

Read other recent blog posts from Participate:

Six aspects of reflexivity


Rosalind EybenRosalind Eyben photo mini

I am in the middle of writing a book about international aid and reflexive practice.  Six inter-related aspects of reflexivity seem important to me in that regard. I am interested in how others see it.

(1) Marx famously wrote ‘Men make their own history but they do not make it as they please: they do not make it under self-selected circumstances but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’  Critical reflection on the inter-play between our life history and the society that has shaped us makes me aware that although I am influenced by the time, place and relationships into which I was born and raised, yet I am not totally circumscribed and I can choose how to contribute to shaping our collective future.

(2) We understand our lived experience as a whole wherein we recognise that our values, emotions, knowledge and relationships in one part of our life influence the other elements of our life. This is especially so for international development practitioners living, possibly with family, in an aid-recipient country because of how inter-twined are their personal and professional lives.  What are the implications for aid practice and relationships with the people of the country?

(3)  Reflexivity encourages us to ask how we know about the social world and challenges us to experiment with other mental models for alternative interpretations of reality. What don’t we notice and whose point of view do we ignore?  How does power operate to foreclose new ways of thinking and challenge our assumptions?

(4)  Reflexive practitioners understand that their observation of the world is an interpretation, one step removed from reality. Other people differently positioned may have an alternative reality that participatory methods will not help us discover unless we respond to and address the underlying power relations that shape whose knowledge counts.

(5)  An important aspect of reflexivity is discovering and responding to others’ perceptions of our personal, professional and organisational identity. Reflexive practice includes appreciating that my and my organisation’s benevolent objectives, may be regarded with rather differently by those whom the organisation is aiming to help.

(6) Critical reflexivity’, writes Cunliffe, is about ‘questioning our own assumptions and taken-for-granted actions, thinking about where/who we are and where/who we would like to be, challenging our conceptions of reality, and exploring new possibilities.’ Missing from this definition is appreciating that our relationships shape our sense of self and understanding of the world. Although some of our relationships are pre-determined, a reflexive practitioner can also consciously choose with whom to associate and learn from and with.

Rosalind Eyben is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and her Twitter account is: @rosalindeyben

Previous blog posts by Rosalind Eyben:

Post-2015 civil society consultations: our shared perspectives


Danny Burns2 photo miniDanny Burns

This post previously appeared on 29 January 2013 on the Participate blog. Subscribe to their blog for regular updates on the Participate initiative.

Yesterday saw the opening of activities related to the High Level Panel (HLP) meeting in Monrovia.  Civil society organisations (CSOs) from across the world engaged in discussions about what to present to the High Level Panel at the official CSO Outreach meeting on Wednesday. We were interested to see whether the issues that were being generated through civil society representation, resonated with the early messages that are coming out of our participatory research. These are some of the things that struck us:

Development does not reach the poorest and most vulnerable

Many civil society contributions stressed the fact that the most marginalised aren’t being effectively engaged and their perspectives need to be taken into account – which of course is the core purpose of Participate. The disability groups in particular were concerned that available statistical data was not disaggregated to show disability. This is one of their key demands of the post-2015 framework, and was echoed by others, who pointed out the inequalities that are hidden in statistical averages.  One speaker from Bangladesh explained that whilst education enrolment has extended to the vast majority of children in Bangladesh, this has not been the case for disabled children, where only 10 per cent of disabled children have access to education.

This theme of inequalities was recurrent in the debate with civil society groups and speaks to one of the key findings from Participate’s first analysis of participatory research – that even development that has had demonstrable positive impacts on society as a whole, frequently fails to reach the most excluded and those living in greatest poverty. We will talk more about the research findings in our blog on Thursday, when the High Level Panel will have explored the implications.

Civil society groups come together ahead of the High Level Panel meeting in Monrovia

Constraints of consultation

One of the civil society representatives spoke about how they are engaged with the formal consultations on the post-2015 framework. She recounted how “rigid” the questionnaire was and that participants were unable to express the qualitative issues that they wanted to talk about. This resonates with underlying Participate principles that genuine enquiry needs to start with people telling their stories and articulating their issues in their own words, without being constrained by pre-constructed questions.

Rights-based approach

A large number of speakers stressed the importance of a rights-based approach to the post-MDG framework. This is clearly strongly supported across civil society and may be one of the major points of tension with established institutions and governments, who lean towards quantitative measures of growth and development. The Beyond2015 campaign also stresses the importance of a rights-based approach.

Commonality of causes

One of the paradoxes of both this meeting and the wider process is that the debate is structured around different constituencies, for example, children and youth, people living with disabilities, women, older people, etc. – with the NGOs that are advocating on their behalf, fighting for space to get their voices heard in the MDG process.  At the same time they recognise the commonality of their causes. Participants gave strong examples of the interconnection of constituencies and issues. One delegate talked about how one of the great burdens for older people is childcare, particularly in African contexts where for various reasons, grandparents are primary child carers, and so outcomes for children are closely connected to the wellbeing of older people.

Finally and inevitably there was a great deal of discussion about prioritisation of issues and goals over one another.

Danny Burns is a Co-Director of the Participate initiative and Team Leader for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other recent blog posts from Participate: