Ellie Chowns is a Research Associate in the Department of Geography. She attended the IDS 50 Conference, which took place on 5-6 July 2016 at the University of Sussex. In this blog, Ellie reflects on her key moments from the conference.


Inequality and sustainability were the two key themes for me at this week’s IDS 50 conference, ‘States, Markets and Society: Defining a New Era for Development’. The event was celebrating the 50th birthday of the Institute of Development Studies, which has played a key role in shaping development studies in the UK.  Coming as it did so soon after the result of the UK’s referendum on the EU, the discussion of global questions was inevitably intertwined with reflections on UK politics.

Sessions covered a wide range of themes – inclusion, citizen voice, finance and business, the reinvention of democracy, and accelerating sustainability.  It’s impossible to do justice to everything discussed over the two days, so here are just three ‘nuggets’.

From a session on the capitalisation of nature, one image from Andrea Brock’s talk particularly stuck in my mind: a German state-linked open-cast coal-mining company destroying ancient woodland, and ‘compensating’ by planting trees along a motorway verge.  The craziness of this highlights the enormous flaws in the way we measure value and progress; and this theme of the problems with GDP bubbled up in a number of sessions – though it perhaps wasn’t addressed as directly as it might have been.

Second, several speakers reminded us that ‘another system is possible’.  As Mariana Mazzucato argues, markets are not simple facts of life; they are outcomes, created and sustained by state policy, and we shouldn’t underestimate the constructive potential of states.  There are many policy tools that can help build a more symbiotic economic ecosystem founded on social – and, I would add, environmental – values; and many of these (e.g. progressive taxation, social protection) can start now.

Finally, as James Ferguson said in his keynote speech: we need a better story of development – of the future we seek.  That story has to acknowledge that many old assumptions (for example, about the nature of production and work) are obsolete.  Ultimately that story has to be built on a renewed narrative of what ‘progress’ means in macro terms – but at the same time it has to acknowledge how people make meaning in their personal, daily, social lives.

For me, there was a clear message from all of this: politics really matters.  The lever for building a more equal, sustainable world is ultimately the state – whether that means reforming taxation, expanding social protection, or changing the way we value nature and measure progress.  I came away from this conference with a sense of academics as citizens and activists as well as theorists, and a little more hope than at the start of the week!

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