The London riots – a development review

Don’t worry, this is not another post about what has been happening in London and other parts of the UK over these past few days. Well, in some ways it is, because among many, many, many other things the riots and the immediate political reactions offer some interesting, humbling lessons for those who try to make sense of development and its challenges. Especially for those who may not be involved in development debates on a routine basis this could be a good opportunity to reflect on some broader issues. It could also be a great opportunity for those high-level policy-makers and strategists to question some well-known assumptions about development dynamics. For the sake of brevity, I will limit my comment to three areas: Complexity, uncertainty and democracy.

Complexity: Believe it or not, there is no single story that can explain social problems

As more and more commentators step forward, a highly complex picture emerges that includes historical, economic, social and cultural problems. Why do you think it would be different in any other country/community/village? If those who work in development explain something with ‘it’s complicated’ at the beginning, you may want to take these caveats more seriously. Also, if you are entering a new territory as volunteer, aid worker or researcher, keep in mind that you are about to enter a complex social web. And if you are an evaluator who is interested in ‘impact’ a single, linear narrative probably won’t do it for you. Which brings me to the second point:

Uncertainty: Sometimes we can’t fully explain why things happen the way they do.

There are many complex reasons why riots erupted – but there will always be an element of uncertainty, of group paradoxes and behaviour we cannot explain fully and rationally. People make bad choices, some people are stupid, some are opportunistic and some, well, they are plain simply weird...that’s part of the human condition. So whenever you engage with ‘poor people’ for example keep in mind that rational narratives will only get you thus far. Or when you engage in peace/conflict research keep in mind that many things can be explained, but that there will always be an element of uncertainty why rebels behave that way and not the other-and why they behave differently today than they did yesterday. Sometimes motives will overlap; sometimes they may seem irrational, sometimes they are. At the end of the day, your organisation’s strategy paper, background reading and evaluation reports can only be guidance tool and need to be flexible enough to be adapted to situations on the ground.

Democracy: Acknowledge the limitations of ‘our’ system when exporting it abroad

One of the first political responses in the UK was to call for less civil liberties and freedom, e.g. with regards to social media and communication. It’s a short-sighted political response, but that’s what politics is often about. It’s about ‘sending a signal’, responding to popular or populist demands and thinking short-term rather than long-term. The UK is not an exception, but the current situation shows some of these limitations of how politics work. Forget about ‘participation’, civil society or ‘evidence-based research’. It’s about the government appearing to be ‘in charge’. Besides many other things it’s an indication how feeble the democratic consensus is, how people can change their minds in view of certain events and how difficult it is to lecture other countries, governments or regimes about ‘democracy’. When promoting ‘good governance’ or democracy be more aware of how less-than-perfect these processes are and will remain over time and how they will adapt to local situations, customs and norms-whether you/your organisation like it or not.

I know that many who work in development are aware of these challenges, but it may be a good reminder for those who may not be thinking about international development that often or still regard it as a completely rational, reasonable process of economic development. When it comes to understanding our/their communities, we will never be able to fully explain some of their actions, mistakes and motives.


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