Has development studies forgotten Latin America?

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Tom HewittTom Hewitt is a lecturer in IDD specialising in children’s rights and rights-based programming, development theory, distance learning, governance and politics of development, and science and technology policy.

Attending the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) conference in Toronto – over 3000 papers in 850 sessions over three days – shows that academic endeavour on and in the region is alive and well. Why then does Latin America have such a low profile in the UK’s development studies community?

Historic (colonial) ties of the UK with South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are part of the explanation. A more compelling contemporary reason lies in the narrowed focus of development research and policy on poverty reduction and the MDGs, particularly in Africa.

This is a shame. Latin America still has much to tell us about development – good and bad. This region was the home of structuralism and of the dependency school, of the first experiments in structural adjustment of the Washington Consensus, and even in part of short-lived post-development thinking. In short, Latin America has been a fertile source of influential ideas.

In 1993, Cristóbel Kay said “…the Latin American school’s greatest contribution to development theory has been to introduce a view from the South which exposed ethnocentrism and asserted the specific history of the South.”  Latin Americans still represent this independent voice and the current language about the continent’s development is illuminating.

Major themes running through the conference were ‘inequality’ and/or  ‘participation’. This is in contrast to the more common themes of poverty or governance to be found in recent development studies literature. Neither poverty nor governance is irrelevant in Latin America, but their analysis is more often than not made through a political and people-centred lens.

Latin America’s giant – Brazil – is at the forefront of emerging trends in development studies. Old labels of North-South, developed-developing, etc become meaningless as regional powers, such as Brazil, have sustained  economic growth rates combined with declining income inequality internally and, externally, play increasingly influential roles in international forums and in the aid business.

It is time to watch this space again.


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