What is development about in an unequal world?

Dr Susan Johnson chairs a recent event to celebrate 40 years of our Centre for Development Studies.

Dr Susan Johnson chairs a recent event to celebrate 40 years of our Centre for Development Studies.

Why is inequality increasingly important? How should international development policy and practice best respond in order to improve the life chances for some of the poorest in societies around the world?

To mark 40 years of our Centre for Development Studies (CDS), researchers, students past and present, and partners came together in a public event to reflect on the reasons and solutions to seemingly ever-rising global income inequality.

New global development goals are to be ratified later this year at the UN General Assembly Meeting in New York. In this context, the event asked whether the focus of new goals on eradicating absolute poverty is sufficient or whether a focus on inequality is also necessary.

Falling absolute vs rising relative poverty

Setting the scene, Professor James Copestake emphasised the persistence of high levels of global inequality even as the proportion of people living in extreme absolute poverty has fallen. Rapid economic growth in a few large and poor countries over the last forty years, led by China, has reduced global inequality and poverty; but this has been offset by stagnation in many other poor countries, and by rising levels of inequality within countries.

These trends weaken the case for ignoring inequality and relative poverty in favour of a sole focus on absolute poverty – a point acknowledged by the World Bank through extension of its mandate to include promoting ‘shared prosperity’. They also reinforce the rationale for development research to forge strong links with social policy - which has been a feature of development studies at Bath.

Development to increase poor people’s wellbeing

A packed audience of current and former students and researchers, along with experts in the field, were on campus for the 40th Anniversary for our Centre for Development Studies.Dr Sarah White, reflecting on her fieldwork in Chiawa, Zambia, suggested that “inequality seems too small a word for the vast differences in wealth and poverty” that are seen there.

Development is taking place in Chiawa in the form of new roads and a much needed bridge, the development of tourism related to the nearby wildlife reserve and large scale agriculture. But these initiatives are undermining local livelihoods, because local people have no secure land titles and are losing their traditional rights to land and to the other resources like water and grassland on which they depend.

She argued that taking inequality seriously means planning development with and for local people, if the benefits are to be more equally shared.

A new fault line for development

Dr Joe Devine, speaking from his research into inequality, poverty and wellbeing in Bangladesh argued that: “Inequality matters because it impacts people’s lives; inequality matters because it tells us something about how societies choose to organise themselves” and that might be a new fault line for international development.

Bangladesh can be considered a development success with reasonably strong growth, reduced numbers living in poverty, and overall improvements in life chances. However he reported that there is “an unequal distribution of outcomes at the same time as we have seen overall improvements”. This means that development can no longer continue to do “business as usual”.

Dr Devine argued that in order to engage with increasing inequality, development researchers and practitioners will have to get much more serious about not just thinking politically – which has been a recent trend – but actually working politically. He has been involved in a Manifesto for the Extreme Poor which has sought to do that. This task poses new opportunities but also new challenges, he suggested.

Why we won’t solve the problem of inequality without global power shifts

“Each of us is implicated in the production and perpetuation of inequality”, suggested Dr Jason Hart in his talk on the links between international development and the political and economic forces which impact on the abilities of countries and people around the world to create more equal societies.

With last year marking the 25th Anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, he suggested that it is a good time to take stock of the achievements to date in the field of children’s rights.

Whereas progress has been made in certain key areas – including access to education for girls – wider progress is being held back by lack of will amongst international development actors and governments, to address the political and economic forces which are perpetuating rising levels of inequality.

Exploring the dynamics of inequalityInequality: a new fault line in development?

Two discussants - Professor Barbara Harriss-White who is a leading international development scholar from Oxford, and Judith Randel who is co-founder of Bristol-based NGO Development Initiatives and also an alumna of the MSc Development Studies - joined speakers for a wide-ranging, lively and well-informed debate (see video below).

Centre Director and event chair Dr Susan Johnson said: “The Centre’s research agenda over many years has had concern about the dynamics of inequality at its core. In particular there has been a strong focus on how the social relations of class, gender, age, ethnicity and religion come together to produce unequal development outcomes.

“It was fitting that to mark our 40th Anniversary those who have been involved in the Centre from its inception through to the present could meet to debate this pressing issue and consider what research, development policy and development actors must all do in order remain relevant.”

Research Excellence in Development Studies

In the past year, the research of CDS contributed to the University being ranked sixth nationally for Social Work and Social Policy in the Research Excellence Framework. Most recently Bath was placed in the top 50 worldwide for Development Studies by the QS International Rankings by subject.

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