Knowledge in These Times Of a la Carte Research
There’s little reflection on the influence that international cooperation
from the North is having on the South’s researchers, their work
and the knowledge they’re producing here in Central America.
But there’s a real need to reflect and question.
We’re living in an era of a la carte research
that has turned researchers into service providers.
What are the political and cultural consequences of this?
José Luis Rocha
In Senectud, Italo Svevo wrote, “That conceited sponsor had been on his back constantly, demanding he deliver a determined amount of work every day. Lacking his own criteria, like a good bourgeois, he wasn’t capable of appreciating art beyond what was explained and demonstrated to him. At night, sick of working and holding forth, Balli sometimes wondered if he hadn’t fallen into the trap of that commercial agent post from which he had freed himself by pure chance.”
The “Monsanto model” of social researchFor decades, foreign cooperation has been injecting life into the production of knowledge in Central America. Concepts, theories, issues, research grants and other funding have come from its inexhaustible coffers and been placed in the brains, documents and pockets of Central Americans eager to do research. Science needs sponsors and the social sciences need more daring and generous ones because their findings aren’t always “visible”: they don’t describe a concrete situation, but rather an abstract dynamic whose links with empirical expressions are mediated by a theory; and they aren’t always “used,” as they frequently have no immediate practical application.
Marx wouldn’t have been able to spend so many years studying and writing in the British Museum without the financial support of his selfless friend Friedrich Engels. Who else would have been willing to finance the discovery of such strange concepts as surplus value, the class struggle as history’s driving force or ideologies as masks of the dominant groups? There was after all a great deal of political inconvenience and even greater academic uncertainty, as with the exception of his youth, Marx remained isolated from academic circles.
International solidarity has acted as an Engels figure for research in non-industrialized countries. It has backed research without sufficient international academic credentials, with uncertain results and sometimes even politically subversive implications. But the nature of its patronage is changing, sliding towards the “Monsanto model,” named after the transnational corporation that pays its scientists to produce more productive genetic varieties with sterile seeds. The Monsanto model implies taking the natural sciences as an epistemological paradigm for all other sciences and all knowledge, a demand for immediate applicability, specific products as a goal and some form of profitability as an essential objective. By cloning this model, foreign cooperation is promoting social research with methodologies preferably linked to mathematics, applied studies with a specific impact on the orientation of development projects. and knowledge that can be used in policies, recommendations and project guidelines. Even when they study a phenomenon as viscous and formless as corruption, World Bank scientists manage to formulate an impeccable equation to explain it. Studies of micro-financing mustn’t look too closely at the dynamic of financial flows and the chronic dependency of the loans, but rather concentrate on the credit market in a certain zone, identifying producer segments, target groups, production categories, risks and financial products. None of the budgets for this or other programmatic options are questioned.
This essentially instrumental conception of knowledge is not innocuous. It is depoliticizing the social sciences and sliding them toward a managerial model, purpose and language that sterilize them, make them the accomplices of the current order and help perpetuate domination. By becoming the servers of projects, the social sciences lose their vocation for daring proposals along with any vision of the future that incubates new realities. As they are expected to limit themselves to registering what already exists and suggesting more and better forms of the same, the social sciences are tamed and domesticated by hegemonic visions. Marx said there’s no point pricking with pins what must be demolished with a mallet. It could be said that the current turn of events is whittling our mallets down into pins.
The invasion of instrumental knowledgeWe researchers are partly responsible for this situation because we haven’t had the creativity and aggressiveness to propose and impose a research agenda. We haven’t emerged from the perplexity caused by the failure of the different forms of real socialism and have sat down without any discussion at the table served by an international cooperation increasingly dominated by business administrators’ mental schemes. It was proved that paradise couldn’t be ushered in just by bringing down the military and dictatorial regimes. The Central American revolutionaries adjusted to the new times and the discourse of the Left became devalued. The winds of post-modernity eroded the frontiers between Left and Right. As opposed to abrupt revolutions, incremental changes had to be added up and promoted.
So what program had to be followed? With the emptying of programmatic content came a veneration of form. SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analyses, strategic planning, “logframes” (logical frameworks) and other imported species appeared as managerial substitutes for the commitment and will to be alternative because they are instruments that guarantee impact. Data tables and power point presentations replaced well constructed arguments, while “clients” and “counterparts” replaced comrades. And lest anybody think this particular analysis is aimed at self-exoneration, let me be the first to admit that I’m throwing a lot of stones—although not necessarily the first ones—without being free of sin.
Foreign cooperation has also had and continues to have its share of responsibility in these turns of events. It’s still true that he who does the dividing up and sharing out makes off with the best and biggest part. The instrumental conception of knowledge—particularly of the social sciences—depends in part on the skepticism of academia in industrialized countries regarding the third world’s capacity to manage concepts and macro-variables. But it also depends on a process that has been silently advancing from the 1990s to the present day and its roots are sunk in more global processes that started a century ago but have been presented in tropicalized and caricatured versions in Central America.
All these transformations make us wonder whether foreign cooperation’s ideological remittance contains the right concepts, theories and subjects for us to break with the abuse from the historically dominant or new cohorts of former revolutionaries who have joined up with them. Or are their funds a poisoned chalice? To explore this sore point, we will quickly review some of the stages and features of this process in Nicaragua.
Research in Nicaragua was limitedSomeone had to believe in research in order to pay for the installation of capacities to make the research itself and its dissemination possible. In Nicaragua, as in other Latin American countries, research was sponsored by foreign cooperation under the supposition that it would make a vital contribution to development. The research carried out in Nicaragua before 1979 has been described as “limited and precarious” by current Education Minister Miguel de Castilla: there were few centers and very limited financial resources and dissemination. The state research centers were created in response to the demands and funding of international organizations rather than the initiative of the dictatorial Somoza administration.
and precarious until the seventies
The National Meteorological Service, the National Geographic Institute and the Cadastre and Natural Resources Inventory all emerged under these conditions, dedicated to the gathering, tabulating and primary processing of information. The most elaborate research studies, which required greater technical ability, were entrusted by the government to foreign private consultancy organizations. The private and university centers concerned themselves with historical, economic and social research and received financial support from foreign NGOs. Agencies from the Nordic countries emphatically supported university research. Their support and that of private universities from industrialized countries gave rise to the Central American Business Administration Institute (INCAE), the Center for Research and Socioeconomic Advice (CINASE), the Nicaraguan Human Promotion Institute (INPRHU), the Central American Historical Institute (IHCA) and the Center for Research into the National Reality.
In most public higher education centers, research was reduced to monographs done by students as part of their graduation requirements. However, the regional coordination encouraged within the Central American Common Market framework did provide results, as demonstrated by the high-quality publications of the Central American Higher University Council (CSUCA). In the 1970s, Nicaragua’s national university was taken over by intellectuals who were critical of the elites and it won a degree of autonomy that allowed it to disseminate critical analyses that had a great influence on subsequent changes.
The state of research in the eightiesDuring the following decade—the revolutionary eighties—most of the research institutes in Nicaragua flourished outside of the academic institutions. The Nicaraguan state became a great promoter of research, often with the support of foreign cooperation, with the creation of the Center for Research and Studies of the Agrarian Reform (CIERA), the Work Studies Center (CETRA), the Economic and Social Research Institute (INIES), the Institute for the Study of Sandinismo (IES) and the Research and Documentation Center on the Atlantic Coast (CIDCA), among others. Each ministry had its own research center. At the beginning of the 1990s, CIDCA and IES were absorbed by the Central American University (UCA) as part of the negotiations around the assignation of the public budget to the national universities system, while CIERA became an NGO under the name of CIPRES.
During the 1980s, the FSLN state-party operation controlled the production of these centers, guaranteeing that only on very limited occasions did the analysis significantly differ from the point of view of the top party leadership. In the private sphere, INCAE continued to operate and the Regional Economic and Social Research Coordinator (CRIES) emerged, along with other research centers in the UCA. The private centers had a notable production, but their number and capacities had been decimated and many of their researchers had passed over to the state apparatus.
The nineties: “projectism”With the FSLN’s electoral defeat, the switch from a semi-planned economy to a market economy and the accelerated contraction of the state apparatus, the nineties began with the migration of many social scientists—and even research centers—from the state sector to the universities, freelance work or NGOs. The NGO sector noticeably fattened up on researchers in full production, absorbing many of the country’s best intellectuals.
and “a la carte” research
The enormous human capital that migrated from the public to the private sector implied the re-emergence of a civil society that had been subsumed and obedient to the designs of the state-party, but was transformed and enriched during the new stage of the nineties by the former Sandinista government’s investment in human capital, including education, the development of bureaucratic skills and the forging of connections with foreign cooperation from public sector administrative posts. A considerable re-channeling of foreign aid from the public sector to many nascent NGOs provided research with its financial fuel.
Over the next four years foreign aid changed the rules. Funding for long-term research and macro-issues was extinguished. The comfortable, flexible budgets with few conditions that allowed complete dedication, prolonged field work and specialization in a single issue now seem like a fairy tale invented by research veterans to leave amateurs with their jaws hanging open. That generosity was replaced in most cases by precise contracts that established very short investigative periods, well-defined products, a target group and results measurable in published articles, the number of readers, seminars organized, talks given, public policies transformed, etc. A similar situation was described ten years ago by Chinese historian Albert Chan, who lamented that his articles for encyclopedias were paid by the word. “They don’t appreciate my work,” he told me. “What do they know about all of the research that goes into a ten-word phrase?”
The Nitlapán-UCA researchers rightly dubbed the new model of relations with foreign cooperation “projectism.” Soon “projectism” turned into a caricature of itself: “a la carte” research. The cooperation financier takes a seat at the table and orders. The researcher duly serves up an appetizer of power point consommé and then a roast article or report as the main course, accompanied by a survey purée and a glass of Michael Porter on the rocks. Things are rounded off with a policy briefing cheesecake. All too often the researcher offers a talk, a report, surveys and presentations, knowing it has to be sold at an attractive combo plate price or else the cooperation official will take his bulging wallet to some other fast-food joint.
Business language and “A la carte” research is not the result of a decision taken by NGOs or third world researchers, but rather follows the logic of a decisive change in foreign cooperation. The appearance of more cooperation agencies in the industrialized countries and the subsequent competition for funds made the governments of those countries more capable of—and more interested in—controlling them and demanding that they measure their impact on development and poverty reduction.
the bureaucratic hurricane
This shift multiplied the forms of bureaucratic control, which is a symptom both of a decline in the confidence levels and of the requirements demanded by donor governments. Cooperation started to prefer very precise contracts and reduced long-term support. The Indian specialist in knowledge and education, Jandhyala Tilak, points out that international cooperation’s intervention in research takes the form of consultancies and establishes the research agendas so that cooperation’s short-term needs and compulsions help negate the value of long-term research and fail to build sustainable capacities in the universities and other research bodies.
Foreign cooperation went about creating a consultancy market into which certain researchers from NGOs and the universities leapt. The market dynamic, opportunities and consultancy requirements deprived the universities of many of their best-trained human resources. This leap was made particularly by people who had actively cultivated the networks and social relations needed to facilitate their access to the contracts.
The different financing agencies reacted in different ways. Some maintained funds for institutional support for a while, but gradually they all ended up applying a funding model based on very specific issues, goals, results and indicators. Specific results were desired and only “a la carte” research could provide them. What British anthropologist David Lewis refers to as managerialist language imposed its vocabulary of “institutional consolidation,” “capacity building,” “strategic planning” and “best practices.”
The bureaucratic hurricane put an end to institutional and long-term support and therefore the possibility of building an independent research agenda. The financing organiza-tion’s main agenda started to strongly influence the selection of hypotheses, issues, methodologies, etc. Before sending a proposal, a researcher knows what to say—and not say—and which organization is looking to finance what studies. The building of knowledge became largely geared to maintaining the resource flow.
The era of profitability and surveysThe “a la carte” research model imposes the choosing and excluding of certain issues. Some issues, such as natural resources and micro-finance, are highly profitable while others, including labor problems, have low profitability. This exclusion affects aspects as vital as the subject of this article: the role of the knowledge producers and their relationship with the financing organizations.
British geographer and researcher Anthony Bebbington points out that very little research has been done on the financing agencies themselves: how they identify priorities, how they select and work with organizations from the South, how they draw up their development models, the structure of their personal networks with Latin American researchers and other related issues. Most of the organizations that receive research funds have done no solid, critical or propositional reflection on the fads and phobias of international cooperation and its definition of what constitute legitimate subjects of research and objects of public policy. There has been little reflection on how the environment influences researchers and the institutions they work for, molding many of their “opinions.”
In most cases the relationship with the financing agencies has suffered regrettable changes. Their officials stopped being comrades with whom to conspire and turned into clients to whom determined services were sold. International solidarity, which should have served as a mechanism to compensate for market injustice and insufficiencies, itself adopted a mercantile logic, and also applied it to the production of knowledge. Impact evaluations, financial market studies, assessment studies, etc. are all up for sale. In that difficult context, various NGOs dedicated to the production of knowledge, such as CRIES, disappeared.
Most for sale of all are surveys. In an era where one needn’t think too much, research is considered good if it concentrates on the instrument par excellence: the survey. Since it is no longer possible to aspire to an objective truth, average truths are sought. Surveys provide the truth because they are the sum and average of many subjectivities. They also often end up finding only what they do because the renunciation of self-reflection leaves the instruments of analysis, marked as they are by the society that produced them, unable to move beyond their own starting point. So the more social science is turned into pure formalism—an incarnation of methods such as surveys, statistical calculation, the application of formulas, the establishment of indicators, the proposal of incentives—the more it becomes a slave of the system and the reigning injustices and the more it contributes to inertia or the increased power of the dominant sectors.
The instrumentalizing of knowledgeThe consultancy market assumes that researchers able to quickly produce assessments and evaluations with very precise and applicable recommendations must be rewarded. Presented at a forum or to a state “client,” such work represents the classic form of “advocacy” aspired to. It is the legitimate market, with knowledge a piece of merchandise that seeks legitimacy by finding a buyer. Researchers survive as such in the market if they can crank out attractively packaged combos at the speed of light and at a good price. Knowledge now has value only if it can be sold, and it can be sold only if it can be used.
German philosopher Max Horkheimer has studied this market-reinforced and -legitimized instrumentalization of knowledge in his incisive work, A Critique of Instrumental Reason. Horkheimer sustains that the instrumentalization of knowledge constitutes the triumph of pragmatism, which views truth not as desirable in itself, but only insofar as it functions better. To prove that it’s based on reason, he continues, all thought must have an excuse; it must guarantee its functional utility. According to Horkheimer, thinkers long after Plato still sought an objectivity that wasn’t subordinated to any interest. Clinging to the idea of objective truth under the name of absolute or other spiritualized formulations, philosophy relativized subjectivity. This is why it made the distinction between mundus sensibilis and mundus inteligibillis: on the one hand, the image of reality as structured by the intellectual and physical instruments of man’s dominion in line with his interests and actions; and on the other, the concept of an order or hierarchy capable of doing full justice to things and to nature. The Enlightenment ushered in the fight against absolute objectivity, which was considered an illusion.
With the veneration of empirical methods, reason was reduced to a formalization: a means for achieving ends whose goodness is beyond reason’s competence to determine. These ends refer to values, which were no longer seen as belonging to the sphere of an order to be realized, but rather to the sphere of subjectivities, questions of choice and taste.
Horkheimer observes that justice, equality, happiness, tolerance, all the concepts that in centuries gone by beat within the heart of reason, or had to be sanctioned by it, have lost their spiritual roots. They are still goals and objectives, to be sure, but there is no rational instance whatever capable of taking on the task of assigning a value to them and connecting them up to an objective reality.
Science concerns itself with the means. Horkheimer argues that it is an instrument not given to trying to determine the structures of social and individual life. Reason has been neutralized, deprived of any relation to objective content or the force to judge it, thus demoting it to a mere executing capacity, leaning more toward “how” than “what.”
The era of technocracyThis conception turns knowledge into a means at the service of the system rather than something called upon to criticize and transform it. Thinking tends to overflow the limits of a given social order in its pursuit of truth, but when reduced to a mere instrument, it is limited to just recording facts and illuminating the chain of means and effects to achieve certain goals. Hokheimer argues that reason’s operational value, the role it plays in the dominion of men and nature, has finally been turned into a single criterion. As a result, he says, as soon as the words aren’t clear and openly used to weigh up technically relevant probabilities, or are at the service of other practical ends, they run the risk of coming under suspicion of being nothing more than idle talk, because truth is not an end in itself.
with no utopia
Faith in a socialist paradise was like a dike against the advance of instrumental reason in certain spheres, organizations and people. But in the nineties, when the dike burst, technocracy devoid of utopia made its entrance. The production of knowledge, which receives the support of international solidarity, was severely affected by the demand that it produce functional findings (applied, applicable, translatable into programmatic guidelines) that are technically pure (that don’t question or even state the political options they serve) and limited in their pretensions to specific projects, without examining any societal project. In short, “a la carte” research.
Self reflection on the role and most profound options of research was off limits. Nobody wanted to finance it. This change has resulted in three big transformations that touch on the legitimization of the production of knowledge supported by foreign cooperation. The a-critical acceptance of these transformations ends up contradicting the very basis of the support received by research. Legitimization of the market and the transformations it implies excludes other legitimizations and domesticates reason to the point of making it docile to the prevailing social order. But there are other ways of proposing legitimacy that do not domesticate the production of knowledge, rather allowing it to unfold its potentialities more fully.
First transformation: The first transformation and first area in which the legitimacy of the production of knowledge is at stake is in the relationship between knowledge and its influence. The financing agencies began to say: “If they have an impact, they’re legitimized.” Justification comes from the applicability of the knowledge, or rather—to borrow a very fashionable metaphor—from the existence of a bridge uniting researchers and policy designers.
The knowledge is legitimized if it’s influential
Lewis finds that earmarking resources to the elitist activity of research requires tangible documentation of its impact, given the growing trend to invest funds in activities that directly and immediately reduce poverty, regardless of whether this is conceived as development. Researcher Diana Stone sustains that the relations between researchers and policy designers are molded a priori by the way the problem is defined.
The dominant model of thinking has defined the problem in supply and demand terms. The demanders cry out for greater accessibility, abundance and quality of the supply, while the suppliers complain about the incapacity of the state and its policy designers to take any interest in or digest the research findings and translate them into policies. Within this conceptual framework, the proposed solutions are technocratic.
On the supply side this involves producing policy-relevant knowledge, improving the research study’s accessibility (web sites and distribution lists), building methodologies to evaluate its relevance (case studies and examples of best practices) and working on the presentation style so the findings are more digestible and applicable (improved communication skills and the production of simplified materials for dissemination). On the demand side, this includes establishing commissions in which researchers and decision-makers participate, training bureaucrats and hiring “editors” who select research studies for their relevance and quality. This supply and demand model, also known as “push-pull,” is based on the assumption that knowledge and policies are two separate worlds that need to be united. It also ignores other segments of knowledge consumers.
Influencing means posing challenges, The problem of impact could be proposed another way, using what Stone termed the “political models” perspective, which dilutes the distinction between the knowledge producers and users and proposes a reflection based on the idea that research is undertaken within—and influenced by—the broader social context. This approach reorients both the points of attention and the solutions. Given that knowledge influences perceptions as well as policies, it focuses on influencing broad socio-political, economic and cultural patterns. This includes, for example, impacting the media and NGOs, or even the government over time by serving as the basis for training some of its officials. It thus assumes a long-term perspective in which the cultural influence of the research could be revealed no sooner than in a generation’s time.
not handing out recipes
This perspective also focuses attention on political projects and ideologies, which inolves moving from technical aspects of the relationship between researchers and the government to the field of institutional arrangements, the nature of the power regime, the culture of public debate—or lack of it—and hegemonic ideas as spaces that structure what is considered useful or relevant knowledge. From this focus, the main crux of the relationship between researchers and policy designers revolves around whether or not they share a political project, in which the lack of synchrony with political leaders does not invalidate the knowledge produced, but can legitimize it as a counter-discourse.
Even though challenges need to be raised rather than recipes provided, the current model ignores the need for counter-discourses. The idea of improving the relationship between researchers and decision-makers must not be renounced; the important thing is to recognize that different political settings, institutional structures and political arrangements produce different ranges of opportunities and limits to the dialogue.
By focusing on the social construction of problems, beliefs and political identities, this perspective allows legitimization through long-term broad impact and opens arenas for researchers to be legitimized as producers of counter-hegemonic discourse, while at the same time laying the groundwork for questioning the kind of knowledge, interpretation of the world and what is defined as “best practices” found in the funding and mixed research package.
The political models approach requires self-reflection on the research agenda, the elite technocrat status and the relationship with other producers of the kind of knowledge that few or no other organizations or individual knowledge producers take on. This approach is more interested in the long-term and atmospheric nature of the dominant thinking than in how the knowledge is used—with the instrumentalism such a position involves.
Second transformation: A second sphere to consider is the ideological-programmatic one. Throughout history, one of the most notable features of researchers has been their role as subjects who inform and confront power centers to shake up the prevailing development visions and practices. The fact that skepticism and bitter criticism have been nourished by the vague way the concepts of “alternative” and “development” are treated, as well as by the research centers’ effects on democratization and their adaptation to the predominant currents, indicates the continuing importance of the “alternative” stamp in legitimizing social scientists’ role.
The perverse confluence
In research it’s important to know if we’re still alternative, if we’re offering something that others aren’t, if the knowledge we’re producing creates a field of opposition to the system. Focusing on the programmatic sphere, Brazilian political scientist Evelina Dagnino proposes distinguishing among three political projects adopted indistinctly by subjects of both the public sector and civil society, which represent two heterogeneous spaces. The three projects are the authoritarian project, heir to the style of the military regimes and caudillo culture; the neoliberal project; and the participatory project. Dagnino’s proposal encroaches on the sphere of values, as these projects aren’t just routes towards development, or at least economic growth, but also underpin sets of values in themselves.
The neoliberal project implies a minimalist vision of politics, the state’s role and the exercise of human rights, because citizens are reduced to the status of “users” of state services and the state is reduced to the status of facilitator of the market’s effective functioning. Everything is reduced to technical problems, papering over political conflicts, because the idea is to reproduce the prevailing social order. This three-projects model serves to distinguish between those who bank on a market automatism (the neoliberal project) and those who intervene to domesticate the market and make it more inclusive, aware that it’s not a panacea or the only battlefield (the participatory project).
What’s at play here is whether the production of knowledge is to change a system, make changes to the system or only implement light reforms. Thus the importance of the concept of “perverse confluence,” used by Dagnino to characterize the discourse-level coincidence of supposedly antagonistic projects concealed beneath common references and even institutional procedures and mechanisms that maintain a significant similarity.
Taking up Paulo Freire, Dagnino refers to the internalizing of neoliberal elements into the political projects of organizations and subjects that present themselves as alternatives. That process takes place through dislocations of meaning in supposedly common references when individual and organizational political projects are not made explicit. The most frequent perverse confluence, in which many of us researchers have either consciously or unconsciously collaborated, is the promotion of a citizenship and a democratization that are reduced to the market.
If knowledge production continues to be proclaimed as alternative and the generator of new, more inclusive development models, it must be alert to and dodge the danger of the perverse confluence, which is served up when researchers accept the “a la carte” research system without questioning or even making explicit their “clients’” political programs under the pretext that science only contributes means and applicability.
The third transformation: The scope of the proposals, the relationship with the environment and problems associated with the reproduction of the system are a third area to be considered. They can be explained by the distinction—re-elaborated by British researchers Mitlin, Hickey and Bebbington—between two meanings of the term “development”: development with a small “d,” which refers to the geographically unequal and profoundly contradictory processes underlying the unfolding of capitalism; and Development with a big “D,” which refers to the third World intervention projects that emerged in the decolonization and Cold War context.
from Development to development
It boils down to distinguishing between political economy and intervention and thinking about structural changes, in the knowledge that there’s a clear relationship between the two faces of development. Researchers propose Development interventions, but are also part of the societies and political economies in which they operate. They are part of development, while at the same time using Development to try to intervene in and modify the nature and effects of the broader development. The instrumental—and reformist—conception of knowledge has researchers designing and evaluating alternative Development projects and constrains anything alternative to that camp. But other ways of conceiving what can be termed “alternative” refer to alternative ways of organizing the economy, politics and social relations. Is the indicator for the alternative scope of research findings the production of alternatives to development or merely Development alternatives?
The ominous balance of reformism,To be legitimized as an alternative in the broad sense of the term, it is necessary not to repeat hegemonic concepts or reinforce dominant models. Bebbington argues that pushing reforms in the Development interventions of other actors is one path toward alternatives. But it does not exclude another: the production of strategies that transform the underlying ideas and social relations of the contemporary social order.
depoliticization and mercantilism
The search to have an impact on development opens the possibility of falling into a crassly instrumentalizing conception of knowledge. In such instrumentalizing reductionism, research for the production of development proposals has been gradually replaced by baselines, impact evaluations and the criteria and strategies used in market studies.
We verified three reductionist transformations: influence governed by supply and demand, political citizenship drowned in market citizenship and the conception of development post-modernly limited and fragmented into Development proposals. The three express an instrumentalist spin that confuses mallets and pins and are based on an “a la carte” model of research in which the cooperation official client purchases knowledge whose influence is limited to defining means—policy recommendations and Development projects—so that the market can function better, without being explicit about the underlying systemic options much less questioning them. Anything alternative, non-conformist or seeking a greater scope for the proposals has no place in this restricted horizon. There has been a slide toward depoliticization, reformism and the sale of services, which Dagnino considers characteristic of the neoliberal project, that result in the cooking up of cognitive combos for clients who want solutions that fit the framework of their sphere of action: very focused projects limited to one territory and aimed at one target population. Meanwhile, other non-political points of view pop up to explain underdevelopment and poverty.
When being a citizen onlyLack of market access has been increasingly presented as a more important limitation on local development than lack of political participation. A seductive connection has been established between citizenship and market. As Dagnino explains it, “Citizens’ evolution now means individual integration into the market as consumer and as producer. This appears to be the principle underlying a great number of programs to help people ‘acquire citizenship’; i.e. help them learn to start micro-businesses. In a context in which the state is progressively bailing out of its role of guaranteeing rights, the market is offered to the citizenry as a substitute authority.” What matters is access, not the initiation of processes.
means being a businessperson
As citizenship is expressed through being a micro-businessperson, people who don’t have micro-businesses are not the object of study. Those studied are businesspeople who can apply forestry practices, protect natural resources on their plot of land—not in their community—and support municipal governments, etc. This bias seems to be a reaction to the collectivism of the 1980s, but in any event, it is a widely exclusionary reaction because it doesn’t concern itself with the millions of salaried workers; business owners’ strategies are studied, but not their relations with their employees. The relationship between business owners and their physical environment is also being studied more, while the social environment is limited to a series of entities that generate incentives. Social capital is studied… but only a depoliticized social capital. Most of the production of knowledge is located along this line of technical neutrality and the cognitive construction of the citizen as client/micro-businessperson.
As transferring the logic of the market to the state sphere turns governments into “service providers” and citizens into “clients” or “users,” the political dimension of the development proposals remains unperceived because the research studies primarily concern themselves with Development. The political implications of this turnaround aren’t made explicit or analyzed because the researchers’ own role is itself understood according to the logic of the market: they too are service providers. The fall into “a la carte” research can be understood as their conversion into service providers.
This enthronement of the market involves what Dagnino terms a “minimalist vision of politics,” in which the policies and questions being addressed are treated strictly from the angle of technical philanthropic management. As a result, poverty and inequality are being withdrawn from the public arena—politics—and even from their own domain: justice, equality and citizenship. The technocratic limitation of knowledge, restricting it to being an instrument, is reducing researchers to data processors, recyclers of ideologies and reproducers of visions that they swallowed without even realizing it. As Horkheimer put it, knowledge has been emptied of content. That’s why social scientists tend to comment less on justice and equality.
Fear of stereotyped ideas and Giving up on dealing with these thorny issues has gone hand in hand with a certain impermeability to what are seen as “politically incorrect” approaches, issues and ideas. An issue that needs to be explored in greater depth is the history of the inclusion or exclusion of concepts and theories that are judged either worthy or unworthy of being disseminated and that reinforce the hegemonic way of thinking in which development is conceived as poverty reduction and an obsession with vulnerability and market insertion. Yes to Douglas North and Joseph Stiglitz; no to Bourdieu, Petras, Tourraine and Castells.
being “politically incorrect”
Bebbington recalls that during the seventies and eighties NGO staffs were well versed in the writings of radicals such as Paulo Freire and Saul Alinsky, wheeas their shelves are now filled with more technocratic and depoliticized texts on specific sectors. They are currently choosing concepts and theories with the greatest political fungibility—those that can be used as technical tools by thinkers from different ideological affiliations, regardless of the political project from which they originated or their revolutionary potential.
The most serious problem is the current prevalence of the tragedy Horkheimer warned of 60 years ago, when he said that thinking as such is being tendentially replaced by stereotyped ideas, which he explained are treated on the one hand as purely utilitarian instruments, taken up and abandoned in a purely opportunist way; and on the other as objects of fanatical devotion. Certain thinkers and theories become the object of an irrational cult and their concepts are not subjected to criticism.
This isn’t what the knowledge market expects from third world researchers, No cooperation agency pays for that service, if any of them consider it as such. It’s good enough to stick together concepts like discolored pieces of a jigsaw puzzle with very few variants. Horkheimer said that concepts have been converted into rationalized means that save work, as they don’t offer the slightest resistance; as if thinking itself had been reduced to the level of an industrial process, subjected to an exact plan and converted into a fixed element of production. In response to a similar process in historiography, Toynbee talked of the potter’s tendency to become a slave to the clay.
A future reduced to sleeping with the enemy?If in the logic denounced by Horkheimer the factory was the prototype of human existence, molding all spheres of culture according to the production line model or rationalizing bureaucratic organization, in the era of “a la carte” research, the managerial market, language and modus operandi are dominating the production of knowledge.
This article reflects the change that has taken place in the cognitive paradigm and spheres of legitimization, passing from the organized citizen to the citizen-client, from development to pure Development and from the questioning of the models for interpreting the economic-social model to a supply/demand approach adapted to the requirements of those providing the funding. The thematic changes, everything implied by the construction of the object of knowledge, the theoretical referents and the progressive tendency towards depoliticization all point to a slide toward a perverse confluence with the proposals of the neoliberal project.
Foreign cooperation has been a dangerous friend. It has encouraged this slide through the market dynamic of consultancies, a narrow concept of influence, a purely instrumental conception of the use of knowledge, a demand for Development projects with limited horizons and an increase in bureaucratic procedures. The result has been to favor marketing at the expense of a more wide-ranging mission and a vocation for the alternative. The big contradiction here is for the logic of the market to be the arena that legitimates a production of knowledge supported by international solidarity. The financial model and its requirements ended up carving out the political mission. There are no funds or time to think about development and alternatives to the current social order. There’s only time to apply patches.
It’s essential to know what kindsLegitimization cannot be reduced to the sphere of supply and demand or it will fall into the pure instrumentalization of knowledge. The practical uses of knowledge are necessary but not enough in themselves. And the purely instrumental conception is devastating. One aspect of the political models approach implies revealing how the purely technological-instrumental conception of knowledge is linked to the notion of development as the application of projects and the obtaining of tangible material results. But there’s a lot about development that’s intangible. Knowledge is frequently about providing a different point of view; changing a perception—putting what can’t be seen under another “light”; showing that things could be another way. In fact, changes in the conception of knowledge and its use and in the vision of development are essential for the continuity of research.
of knowledge receive funding
Legitimization in the political models approach goes back to alternatives and to development, proposing different forms of influence and providing a suitable platform for questioning the neoliberal project because at its heart is a questioning of the standardization of knowledge. Standardization runs counter to what is alternative and to changes in development because it legitimizes the present social order. Knowledge entirely guided by the unquestioned demand for Development projects loses all hope of being counter-hegemonic and providing services others don’t provide, because it concentrates on producing competitive goods rather than generating redefinitions and new visions of development.
If it doesn’t build its own agenda, knowledge ends up lacking a political project and merely reproduces the current social order. The vicious circle has to be broken: the knowledge produced by experts legitimizes certain social and economic issues as “public political problems” and researchers and research centers gain authority and political visibility for their treatment of these issues. As Stone sustains, the problem isn’t simply how to apply the knowledge, but rather the kind of knowledge that’s produced and the kind of knowledge that dominates and structures development policies. We can’t give up on investigating and questioning the kinds of knowledge that receive funding. Let’s remember that research is set in the broad context of a fight over discourses, visions of the world and regimes of truths.
Reveal those valuesTo conclude, I want to take up the challenge thrown down by researcher Andrés Pérez Baltodano in his reading to mark the inauguration of the 2007 academic year in the Central American University and share the spirit that animated these reflections: “To avoid the enthronement of the market as a regulating axis of social life, there is a need for those of us who believe in education ‘at the service of others’ to work so that knowledge helps reveal the values, beliefs and meanings that provide normative dignity to market rationality. If not, the subjectivities and meanings that serve as the underpinnings of that rationality will remain hidden in a pre-theoretical silence that helps ‘naturalize’ both the institutions in which power is materialized and the interests it represents.” Breaking that silence is the task of alternative researchers.
José Luis Rocha is a researcher at the Jesuit Service for Central American Migrants (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council.