Obituary for a new manifesto

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MOMENTS of nostalgia are both moments of memory and invitations to rethinking. When the STEPS Centre, University of Sussex, announced that it was going to present a new manifesto for Science, Technology and Development, it was for many of us a moment of expectation. The previous document, prepared 40 years ago, and associated with legends like Hans Singer, had for long been regarded as one of the great development manifestos. Forty years is, however, a long time to reflect and turn self-reflexive.

The new manifesto involved outstanding scholars like Ian Scoones, Andy Stirling and Melissa Leach working on it. Everything about its rituals seemed utterly correct and open. Yet, as one reads the manifesto, one senses a redundancy. It is as if the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Sussex looks at the world and sees IDS.

Let us look at the document as a narrative. The framing is predictable. It begins like all manifestos do, with a litany of good intentions. Militarism is on the increase, poverty still haunts the universe. Yet, for all the talk of poverty, there is no sense of it. One misses what Leonard Boff, a liberation theologist, called ‘a preferential option for the poor against their poverty.’ The critique of poverty, which should have been a lens for understanding, becomes instead a picture frame for IDS to memorialize itself.

The document returns to cliché. It claims to rethink the way we think about innovation. Yet every scholar thinks his project is a solution to poverty. It thus makes scholarship and poverty self-perpetuating and creates complicity between the two. The current document creates participation without a hearing aid. It reads poverty but misses out on the poor, their theorizing, their modes of coping, their sense of the world. Because then its core would not have been the involvement with innovation but with democracy as an inventive process. Where, instead of fetishizing innovation, one sees innovation along with improving, coping, jugaad, satisficing and muddling through as strategies of survival and subsistence. The migrant, the marginal farmer, the craftsman, all improvise, invent and one needs a wider sense of that.

It criticizes progress in terms of its directionality. But in discussing innovation in terms of who gets what, when and why, it offers window dressing. It recognizes cultural variety but treats it superficially. The margins are still the object of study, not a subject of agency of innovation. It is still a managerial exercise, a human relations effort of laboratory-based science crying crocodile tears over land. Twenty round tables have added little to the imagination of science or democracy. The manifesto is also a bit touristy. After its global round-up, it returns home to become what it is, a provincial piece of Sussex.

One must accept it as a statement of good intentions. It claims to diversify the debate, yet it does not pluralize it. It demands that the number of stakeholders increase to include laboratories, funders, civil society, international agencies. But this is still a technocratic space which emasculates politics or reduces politics to a few NGOs. What one misses is the imagination of democracy, the debates on alternatives present in the works of Ashis Nandy, Gustavo Esteva, Paul Farmer, Arjun Sengupta, Rajni Kothari. It confuses variety and choice for alternatives. The document lacks specificity. It asks for democratic scrutiny but never specifies a single institutional innovation from the Right to Information to the new models of Swaraj. It points out correctly to distortions in health budgets where 10% of the health budget is spent on 90% of the diseases that affect the world’s population. Yet as analyst, it never sees itself as a case study. It does not ask: Did the Sussex idea of science and development contribute to this impasse.

I am not asking for breast-beating, but surely, IDS cannot be part of the solution till it recognizes that it is also part of the problem. It fails to use the pathbreaking work of its own scholars like Robert Chambers on ‘Farmer First’ or Mary Kaldor’s ‘Baroque Arsenal’ to create the understanding for a different kind of innovation. Eventually, it remains a boy scout thesis, a textbook civics. It talks correctly about innovations at the bottom of the pyramid, of the potential of local innovations but says little about how to create genuine citizenship and equity in the world of science and technology.

There is something of value in its observations on distribution and about user-centric innovation. But for that to acquire substance groups like IDS and SPRU will have to demystify themselves. They have to deconstruct the myth of expertise and rework it in terms of a democracy of knowledge. Bottom-up is poor metaphor for democracy. Bottom-up is a mechanical inversion at a time that one is looking for transformation.

What is missing is a new set of keywords or critical ways of looking at diversity, sustainability, vulnerability that invoke a new sense of the science studies debates about the nature of how science actually operates and the need for what Sheila Jasonoff calls a sense of humility. By black-boxing science and seeing it as a problem-solving instrument, it renders a disservice to science. It also renders a disservice to itself by not internalizing the work of scholars like Paul Richards, Sheila Jasonoff and Bryan Wynne. One is mystified by this self-imposed illiteracy.

For a manifesto to be come a vision, it needs a sense of imaginaries, constructs of possibilities which are not yet realizable. It has to summon the impossible, the not yet doable, not to create a shopping list of clichés around sustainability and environment. These words are becoming plastic words, whose shapes and meaning change as they become appropriated or routinized. For instance, does sustainability for the affluent have the same logic as sustainability for subsistence? Can one talk of justice in the world of IPRs or change when you do not want to rock the boat?

Unfortunately, at the end of the deliberation all one gets is the need for new innovation foras, a Global Innovation Commission. It reduces democracy willy-nilly to rule by committee, where committees have no place for communities. It has some interesting suggestions but they are discrete, lacking the wisdom of the whole. One asks for more because one expects more from the world of scholarship. Yet sadly, this is a document that illustrates the growing gap between the correct and the true. It is an irony that this is the new manifesto we will have to live with.

Shiv Visvanathan