Bangladesh: Rana Plaza is a parable of globalisation


Naomi Hossain photo miniNaomi Hossain

The garment factory collapse in Savar in Bangladesh is a parable of globalisation. The visceral images needed to make world headlines are there, as dead and broken bodies are pulled from the rubble for a fourth and fifth day. If there are any more survivors, as the tapping sounds of life fade out, they will have endured 100 hours trapped under the concrete and steel of the profit machine of a political youth leader – which description, by the way, translates in Bangladesh as ‘thug’.

Stories of heroism and agony and the criminal apathy of officials stirred up yet another round of mass violence in Dhaka. Factories were attacked and inevitably, someone died. This is with the secular-Islamic clash surrounding the Shahbag movement for justice for war crimes still bubbling in the background. There is a domestic politics angle to Rana Plaza, including the political lessons of the 2011 minimum wage struggle, and acute pressures on garments factories to deliver after political unrest slowed production and delivery since March. Yet the story outside Bangladesh, complete with labels from the Spanish chain El Corte Inglés dangling over the rescue teams’ heads, is all about how globalisation did this. Brand globalisation has been permanently damaged.

The facts are plain enough. Young women on low pay sew clothes in a poor country to sell to young women on low pay in a rich country. The key factor is the lowness of both their pay, which fuels the ease with which safety is sacrificed and the relentlessness of the demand for cheap clothes in a world society with powerfully consumerist values. The case is testimony to the effects of globalisation:

  • Demand for cheap new fashion
  • Regulations ignored because of pressures to deliver goods in time; ‘lead times’ are long in Bangladesh compared to China or India, so there is a premium on speed and volume. (Not all businesses in the building made their staff come in that day: BRAC Bank, the formal banking arm of the Bangladesh-owned BRAC group, did not open because of the warnings)
  • Tough times, with austerity in the North and world prices high and rising; people cannot afford not to work, is the message from the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility research project which includes research in garments workers’ communities in Dhaka: workers would have had no real choice but to show up[1]
  • Low pay and poor safety records, reflecting that the Bangladesh Readymade Garments (RMG) industry is not very productive: it has been competitive because protected by preferential trade agreements and profitable because of the large amounts of surplus labour in the nimble fingers of young women.[2]

The lesson here is that there is ultimately no accountability in the global economy. The factory owners have been arrested and may do a little time. But this is unsatisfactory, when Primark and others gain the benefits of these pressures on workers’ lives, without paying the costs. When workers in the global export chains, mostly young women, have serious grievances about their work conditions, who is listening? How can working in the global market mean you lose your inalienable human rights to safety? How then can the human rights of global export workers be assured? ‘Compliance’ is not enough; there must now be enforcement. Until the public authorities can supply this, the workers will continue to revolt.

[1] First year results from Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility, Squeezed, is out on May 14th.

[2] See Mushtaq Khan, ‘Vulnerabilities in Market-led Growth Strategies and Challenges for Governance’, 2008. This is common enough in the global export sectors; see Diane Elson and Ruth Pearson, ‘“Nimble Fingers Make Cheap Workers”: An Analysis of Women’s Employment in Third World Export Manufacturing’, Feminist Review, 7 (1981), 87–107.

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:

Find out more about the Politics of Evidence


Susanne SchirmerSue_Schirmer200

Yesterday a conference on ‘The Politics of Evidence’ got underway. It is convened by the Big Push Forward Initiative and hosted here at IDS, welcoming about 110 participants for two days.

For all those who haven’t been able to make it to the conference, the final plenary session will be live streamed at 15.45GMT this afternoon (Wednesday 24th April). This final session aims to bring together and synthesize the conference debates in generating ideas for collaborative efforts in tackling the drivers as well as the consequences of the current politics of evidence with respect to supporting transformative development.

You can find out more about the conference proceedings on the Big Push Forward website where Brendan Whitty has been blogging with reflections on the first day of the conference and Rosalind Eyben has outlined the conference aims and provided two papers prepared in advance of the conference.

Alternatively, follow the conference on Twitter (#evpolitics).

Sue Schirmer works as Communications Coordinator for the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS.

Debating the ‘politics of evidence’


chrisChris Speed

With just a few days left until the “Politics of Evidence” Conference tomorrow , we are all very excited for the coming conversations and experience-sharing with various programme participants from around the world! As a platform to systematically scrutinise roles of “evidence” and the results agenda in transformational development, we are looking forward to the plenary presentations and group discussions surrounding these contentious and important issues. During the conference, we will be sharing participant experiences and information via video, photos and narratives on various social media platforms to share and engage with others in the global development community. Even though the conference is now closed for participant registration, the final plenary session will be live streamed at 15.45 GMT on Wednesday, 24 April.

This conference comes at a time when international development practitioners and policy makers continue to debate and challenge existing modes of social change initiatives and evidence-based practices. Some of the key points participants will be debating involve:

  • the meaning of “the politics of evidence” and why it is important
  • transformative intentions and impacts of various approaches on evidence of and for change
  • what factors and relationships are involved in driving less useful practices and protocols
  • people’s acceptance or rejection of these existing practices and protocols and the ensuing alternatives for transformational development

Some of the conference goals include for the participants to collectively generate:

  • conceptual clarity about “the politics of evidence” and space for debates and practices around development results
  • mapping of consequences on all levels regarding current foci on evidence and results
  • strategies and new ideas to deal with results-oriented measurement
  • ideas for collaborative efforts to address and challenge the “politics of evidence”

There have been numerous interesting debates and online discussions around the “politics of evidence”. A recent blog post from Rosalind Eyben and Chris Roche spelled out well the arguments going into a conference such as this. Some key points include acknowledging and challenging our “philosophical plumbing”, understanding the politics of our “knowledge generation” as development practitioners and the value of reflexivity in challenging existing practices. I really enjoyed this particular quote from Eyben and Roche:

Those of us working as practitioners, bureaucrats and scholar activists in international development cannot escape the contradiction that we are strategizing for social transformation from a position in a global institution – international development – that can and does sustain inequitable power relations, as much as it succeeds in changing them.

 As an MA student at IDS who will be rapporteuring and assisting with social media at the conference, I am personally excited for the conversations that will be taking place next week. In particular, the exchange’s potential for shaping future development policy and practice. We look forward to you joining us on Twitter (#evpolitics) and with our live stream at 15.45 GMT on 24 April!

Chris Speed is an M.A. student in the Participation, Power and Social Change programme at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisLSpeed

Storytelling in Development Practice


Hamsini RaviHamsini Ravi

‘Reflective Practice and Social Change’ is one of the modules on offer to MA students here at IDS , convened by the Participation team. The course offers a stimulating weekly space to try out and reflect on practices that can potentially make us better development practitioners. In the session on storytelling and narratives, we reflected on the number of ways stories can be used in development practice.

We unanimously agreed that stories are a powerful, yet underrated medium. Humans are socialised through the myriad of stories, bonds are created, history is relived and lessons are learnt through stories. The non-profit sector is a treasure chest of humbling and powerful stories of men and women, seeking and braving change. Stories have the magical power to liven up a 500-page annual report that no one wants to read; they can foster a shared organisational spirit in a room full of people working in different contexts and capacities; as well as lend depth and meaning to an evaluation study.

In the context of a development organisation, stories and storytelling can be used in:

  • Research
  • Monitoring & Evaluation (M & E)
  • Communications/ Advocacy
  • Organisational learning.


Storytelling works wonderfully well in research studies and investigations, and can be an effective prompt, when asking people about personal moments in their lives. It also enables the storyteller, as well as the listener, to be reflexive  about the topic in consideration. For a researcher, it can help unpack their positionality in the research process and allow them to confront and work on their biases upfront. As a research tool, stories are accessible, account for cultural diversity and require no reading or writing skills. As useful as this may seem, there are some ethical considerations, viz, ownership, use of data, confidentiality, placing the story in its respective cultural context. These can be navigated by acquiring informed consent, and constantly reflection on use and interpretation of other’s stories by the researcher.

Monitoring and Evaluation

As a tool used in M & E, storytelling can challenge our linear thought processes, giving space for non-linear relationships in interventions. They enable a more holistic understanding of people’s lives, dismissing the categories that funding and donor agencies tend to box beneficiaries into. The politics of using storytelling in monitoring and evaluation of development projects is that the evaluator may not always hear the things he/ she wants to hear. It is therefore necessary to constantly negotiate expectations of community reviews with the donor.

Advocacy and Communications

In advocacy and communications, stories can make up the oft-missing emotional link. It can also inform funders of realities on the ground and be used in promoting inter-cultural communication and understanding. While, a proportion of non-profits do use stories in their marketing and advocacy collaterals, it is apparent that this is often plagued with issues of manipulation, representation and dissemination. Stories could be tweaked and exaggerated to suit the needs of the organisation, and these issues can be overcome by strengthening consent processes and quality checks.

Organisational learning

Organisational change and learning can involve a healthy dose of stories and storytelling. From organising sharing sessions to using stories in induction programmes to integrating divisions within an organisation, there are a multitude of possibilities. For instance, each division of the organisation could narrate the intricacies of their project through a story to the marketing division to foster better understand.

While tapping into the collective processes of sharing and telling, storytelling can make the development sector as a whole more reflective in its approach and policies. It can bridge geographical and hierarchical divides and highlight the more humane elements of our work and personalities. Can we take this as a personal challenge to incorporate more stories in our work as development professionals?

Hamsini Ravi is an MA Development Studies student at IDS.

The MA Participation, Power and Social Change (MAP) at IDS is a unique 12-month course providing experienced development workers and social activists with the opportunity to critically reflect on their practice and develop their knowledge and skills through a work-based action research project.

What Matters Most? Participate Initiative presents research to post 2015 High Level Panel


Catherine SetchellCatherine_Setchell200

This post previously appeared on 24 March 2013 on the Participate blog. Subscribe to their blog for regular updates on the Participate initiative.

The High Level Panel (HLP) of Eminent Persons appointed by the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon met for the fourth time at the end of March in Bali, Indonesia to debate the future global development agenda after 2015, when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire.

The Participate initiative, co-convened by IDS and Beyond2015 was there to present the findings of its synthesis research report‘What Matters Most? Evidence from 84 participatory studies with those living with extreme poverty and marginalisation’

Participate presented the early findings of their research synthesis at the second HLP meeting in February in Monrovia, Liberia to panel members and their advisors. Since this meeting, Participate has completed the analysis of 84 participatory research studies, and aims to inform the post-2015 policy discussions with evidence from people living in extreme poverty. The findings will be shared with the High Level Panel, civil society organisations and policymakers as part of a ‘town hall’ session on Citizens’ Voices for the Post-2015 Agenda at the Bali meeting.

The key messages that emerged from the research include the following:

  • In 83 per cent of the studies, social inequalities were identified as persistent and perpetuating exclusion at all levels of development.
  • A recurring message appeared in 63 per cent of studies that the very poorest are unable to access the infrastructure, services, support and opportunities that others who are less poor can.
  • 73 per cent of the studies identified the need for meaningful participation of marginalised people in development which will lead to local ownership and the sustainability of development approaches.
  • 44 per cent of the studies highlighted that poor governance reinforces poverty for the poorest and most marginalised.

Based on the findings from the research, Participate will be highlighting to the HLP in Bali that the success of the future post-2015 framework rests on its ability to respond to:

  • Highly dynamic contexts                     

The landscape of poverty is increasingly characterised by crisis, shocks, conflict, uncertainty and volatility. Policies and approaches need to be more adaptive to continuously changing environments and circumstances.

  • Social norms that discriminate

Systems and institutions that support people’s claims to rights can be undermined by intolerance and prejudice. Challenging unfair power structures that entrench inequalities is critical for positive change in people’s live.

  • Complex relationships between different problems.

Answering one part of a problem does not produce sustainable outcomes for the poorest unless all interrelated issues are simultaneously addressed. Policies need to be underpinned by a deep systemic understanding of people’s everyday lives. Agile learning and processes for generating feedback are required at local, national and global levels.

The research shows that people living in greatest poverty and those most marginalised want a different kind of development, where interventions and public policies enact principles that are inclusive and sustainable.

Participate’s key recommendations, based on the findings of the research are:

  • The post-2015 framework should aim for the eradication of extreme poverty and reduction in inequalities.
  • The post-2015 framework should strengthen the individual and collective capacities of people living in greatest poverty and marginalisation
  • Participation should be prioritised throughout the post-2015 framework.

Read other recent blog posts from Participate:

From making us cry to making us act: five ways of communicating ‘development’ in Europe


By Maria Cascantmariacs-60

A few weeks ago I watched the ‘Red Nose Day‘, an annual TV show in the UK that collects funds for development projects. IDS fellow Spencer Henson wrote a blog on the apparent disconnect between the high levels of donation for such events and UK citizens’ scepticism on keeping the target of spending 0.7% of national income on aid. As for me, I got caught by the images used, namely helpless children. I went to sleep that night wondering how much development communication had really evolved in the last decades.

picture of sad boy in Kenya

example of ‘shock effect’ type image

laughter blog 4 April

example of ‘positive image’ type

Some days ago, a colleague passed me the article ‘Post-humanitarianism: humanitarian communication beyond a politics of pity‘ (2010). I was fascinated by the read. The author, LSE fellow Lilie Chouliaraki, suggested three types of appeal used in humanitarian and development communication. Type number 1, the ‘shock effect’, may be familiar. An early example is the Red Cross/Life magazine photos on the 1951 Bihar (Indian) famine showing starving children, old women calling out ‘Sir, we are dying’ and a begging mother with a child in her arms. With increased criticism and ethical controls on these images, a more ‘positive image’ type of appeal emerged in the late 80s. These are images of children smiling or farmers with newly acquired farming tools. They can be easily found in most of current sponsorship ads.

One would think that starving children and smiling children are pretty opposed ways of communicating. Yet Chouliaraki sustains they are not. They are in fact the two sides of the same coin. Both use photorealism in their format and are emotion-oriented (guilt or gratitude) in their content.

It is here that Chouliaraki’s article suggests the emergence of a third ‘post-emotional’ type of appeal, which breaks with previous ones in both format and content. The format defies photorealism and experiments with a range of artistic methods. The content moves from using emotions to using branding (i.e. of a renowned NGO) to attract the spectator. A paradigmatic case is Amnesty’s ad ‘Bullet. The Execution’, which won the ad production prize at Cannes Festival in 2006. The use of popular TV stars in development communication and campaigning could also be seen to follow this post-emotional trend. In short, it is the message’s format and spokesperson what validates the message itself, more than its content.

Pretty different this time from the other two, one would think. Yet Chouliaraki objects again. All three types still transmit a disgraceful context ‘there’ while the sole action expected from the European spectator ‘here’ is to feel attracted (by pity or by brand) and to donate to solve the matter. The sufferers are depicted as perpetually awaiting the spectator’s generosity, portraying development as a gift from Europe to elsewhere. None of the three types opts to explain at least one of the many reasons that create the unequal situation in the first place. None addresses, in this sense, the limitations of development interventions.

Chouliaraki’s article concludes here, with the description of these three types of appeal. With current initiatives like the Red Nose Day show or Kony 2012, one would think, yes that must be it – development communication has not really advanced much further. But perhaps you may have in your inbox, as I do, one of those emails asking to ‘sign the petition’. Most of these do not seek (only) our money, but our ‘click’ – a click to show ideological support to a cause; to lobby a decision-maker, MP, bank or firm. Other petitions even take a step further: they ask you to sign but also to change something in your lifestyle.

For instance, the Clean Clothes Campaign (2010) explains how jeans produced with the abrasive technique of sandblasting have toxic effects in the Bangladeshi female workers that make them. Besides appeals for e.g.  lobbying those firms using sandblasting and asking governments to regulate on the practice, the campaign asks us to stop buying that type of trousers. In the same line, the Bank Secrets Campaign (2009) lists those banks investing in human right abuses such as polluting powers, controversial weapons, and repressive regimes. It then asks us to move our money to ethical banks and to organise chats, stalls and video-debates besides more lobby-based appeals like ‘discuss with a banker’ and ‘send an e-card’.

Are petition appeals different from previous ones? Perhaps not on the format. Petitions can be as creative as post-emotional type appeals (i.e. caricatures) but they don’t really suggest anything aesthetically new. Yet in terms of content, they do. They are political. They engage the spectator in an intellectual exercise instead of an emotional or consumerist one. They present a cause-effect message between the ‘here’ of the spectator and the ‘there’ of the sufferer, showing that at least one of the causes of the other side’s distress originates in the spectator’s own context (i.e. a MP decision, a consumption pattern).

Petitions have their own constraints. Lobby-type ones may become repetitive and bring a certain ‘petition fatigue’. They also miss out on self-reflection and personal change, and may even remind us of the immediacy and superficiality of post-emotional, consumerist modes (‘email this MP and done’). Conversely, lifestyle-type appeals are less efficient on tackling urgent actions than, say, crowd bombardment of a MP’s inbox. Both types seem thus complementary. For instance, one-off, massive, urgent petitions can be matched with longer-term pledges on the same cause by more committed, self-organised groups. What seems important in any case is that appeals use both consumer and citizen power to put pressure not only on those firms and banks operating unjust practices but also on states, the ultimate regulatory and decision-making bodies.

All in all, petitions are just petitions. They rely on large numbers saying ‘no’ all at once and are thus meant to be limited and timely to a particular cause. We can help save workers from sandblasting today, but forget their overall work precariousness tomorrow. Petitions may thus need other protest forms beside to help shake the more difficult political stuff. And yet, even within their limitations, petitions do have some relative power to keep firms, banks and governments thinking twice about their moves, and to keep citizens, including business, bank and government citizens, informed and active.

Promoting these more political types of appeal, rather than lingering on emotional ones or adapting to ad-like ones, would give development communication a more constructive role. Emotional types are still dominant, as seen with the popular Red Nose Day. Yet, some organisations and agencies have already made a move. They may lose in fundraising power and in popularity, but gain a lot in coherence. An opportunity cost worth considering. This would bring deeper levels of participation in development communication and campaigning, and ultimately, a paradigm of development engaged in personal and institutional change not only ‘there’ but also ‘here’.

Maria-Josep Cascant Sempere is a PhD candidate within the IDS Participation, Power and Social Change research team. She is interested in development activism with a focus on the links between popular education and economic (tax) justice campaigning in Nigeria and the UK.

Read other blogs by Maria Cascant