"No Single Road": PhD student, Winifredo Dagli Shares His Recent Experiences at STEPS Centre Summer School

Posted on Monday, July 9th, 2018

Written by Winifredo Dagli

Winifredo Dagli, a former MSc Capacity Development and Extension student and current Rural Studies PhD student shares his experiences and learnings as one of the 42 doctoral and post-doctoral students in the recently concluded STEPS Centre Summer School on Pathways to Sustainability in Brighton, United Kingdom.  This summer school was highly competitive and provided both academic credit and a tremendous learning opportunity.

Group walking in the woodsAbove Photo:  "Into the woods":  STEPS Centre Summer School’s walkshop consists of rounds of conversations that try to create moments of pure joy of discovery and learning as students wander into the beautiful South Downs of East Sussex.  Photo credit: Sunny Dhiman

Half past noon, we’ve been walking for almost two hours now along the rolling South Downs in the southeastern part of England and our destination is still out of sight. It’s become a yearly ritual for the STEPS Centre—a global research group hosted by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex—to bring a group of doctoral and postdoctoral students from all over the world to this swathe of countryside for a one of a kind learning experience they call the ‘walkshops.’

As we tried to avoid the stinging nettles along the dirt road, Lourdes Alonso, a PhD student from Mexico, and I gave our thoughts to the questions written in the card I am holding, ‘Does anticipation about complex futures not just confuse policymakers? Aren’t reductionist prediction and archetypes better? Then, all the 42 of us plus the researchers from the STEPS Centre gathered in a spot to share our insights with the entire group. After a few minutes, we exchanged cards and started walking again.

From May 14-25, 2018, I immersed myself in conversations with other PhD students and postdocs from 25 different countries, mostly in the Global South, to challenge certain ideas that pervade policies and actions on sustainability around the world. As STEPS Centre co-director Ian Scoones explained on the first day,

“Not all narratives about change and sustainability are equal. Some narratives are justified and can become powerful pathways. Narratives and their associated pathways get narrowed down and pushed in particular directions to become big motorways and overtime, other pathways get excluded. This is a political process that happens almost inevitably as different pathways compete with each other in political and social space. So, alternative narratives, hidden narratives, excluded narratives are always there but are they seen?”

It was a question that I’ve been wrestling with in my own research on the science and politics of climate-resilient agriculture in the Philippines. The dominant storyline about climate change in the agricultural sector is one that fits local ecological knowledge of smallholder farmers within the neat categories of mainstream science. This is coupled by market-based logic that pushes vulnerable, income-poor farmers and their families away from agriculture and the rural areas. Apparently, these so-called dominant pathways tend to privilege the more affluent, educated, and elite farmers who can access farm insurance, buy drought-tolerant seeds, and engage in agri-business activities.    

In the STEPS Summer School, I discovered that there is no single path to climate-resilient agriculture in the same way that there is no single Green Revolution, environmental management, and sustainable development. These are issues I will continue to discuss with my graduate advisor, Dr. Helen Hambly Odame and in my PhD studies. The STEPS workshops and discussions that we had on innovation, power, and directions of systemic change as well as the politics of sustainability enabled me to reimagine a future where an inclusive, just, and equitable type of change emerges from places or group of people one least expects it. Some of these issues were already familiar to me from my coursework in Capacity Development and Extension, but now I had the chance to question my learning even further.

But the unlearning process is difficult and a lot of times, painful. Hard questions kept coming in as STEPS Centre co-director Andy Stirling challenged our views on the notion of development as progress, the role of the market and technological innovation, and the special place of economics in the big conversations on development and sustainability. Ankita Rastogi, an economics-trained PhD student from India, once asked Andy during a session, ‘What if everybody in a poor community agrees to pollute a river, will that be considered as an alternative pathway?’ Although the question may sound a bit naïve, it resonates well with Ankita’s astute observation in India of how unequal power relations become deeply embedded in their culture.

Rethinking Economics

If there’s a field of study that was heavily criticized in the summer school for its stubbornness to rewrite its contested theories and methods, it would be economics. Using compelling graphics and simple words, Kate Raworth of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University showed us how the economy, the environment, and societies are being modeled in mainstream economics in ways that don’t capture the living world. She then proposed an alternative model that looks like a doughnut (hence, the term ‘doughnut economics’).  This new approach frames sustainability as a balancing act of meeting the physical and social needs of humanity without overshooting scientifically determined ecological ceilings or what Johan Rockström calls ‘planetary boundaries.’ The picture of sustainability that Kate tried to paint is aptly captured in these poetic lines in one of her slides:

"Earth, which is life giving, so respect its boundaries
Society, which is foundational, so nurture its connections
Household, which is core, so value its contribution
Market, which is powerful, so embed it wisely
Commons, which are creative, so unleash their potential
State, which is essential, so make it accountable
Finance, which is in service, so make it serve society
Business, which is innovative, so give it purpose
Trade, which is double-edged, so make it fair
Power, which is pervasive, so check its abuse"

I am just curious why the alternative is still focused on economics. The doughnut she presented and what it embodies is undoubtedly larger than any one of the fields of study.

Doughnut chartAbove image:  Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries. Photo credit: https://www.kateraworth.com

From Where We Stand

We ended the summer school in a ‘conference’ like no other. Every 30 minutes or so, students transformed the IDS workshop hall into a fortune teller’s tent, an auction house, a Bollywood theater, and a game show as each group shared their learnings in the most unconventional way. Our group facilitated two interactive games about the complexities of language and communication while others tackled the issues of competing values, researchers’ competencies, and innovation pathways. But among all the group presentations, the one on researcher’s positionality struck me the most. We were made to pick up a set of images from the random photos lined up on the floor and to reflect on our identities as researchers. As students began to share their one liner description of who they think they are, I realized how easy it is for many of us to become ivory tower scholars, slaves of corporate think tanks, or to simply stay and live comfortably in the countries where we study, if we don’t use our privilege and voice to mobilize with and for the communities.

As Shiela Chikulo, a PhD student from Zimbabwe, explained, “As researchers, we’ll encounter certain challenges as we try to navigate the policy space and the research space, but it’s important to find a position in which you’ll engage and you’ll find your voice as a researcher and just try to communicate that voice across. Let your message be heard.”

The walkshop is a metaphor of what the STEPS Centre School stands for: no single, dominant path will lead to sustainability. There are many theories of change and pathways will not be smooth. But if students and researchers like those of us in Capacity Development and Extension, and more widely, SEDRD and the Ontario Agricultural College, position ourselves in solidarity with those who are isolated and left behind, we can begin opening up spaces for alternative visions of and strategies toward sustainability. 

Students sitting on park benchPhoto Above:  "Building new alliances":  One thing that I will treasure from the STEPS Centre Summer School is the opportunity to meet and learn from scholars of agricultural and rural development like Professor Emeritus Erik Millstone of the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex. Photo credit: Sunny Dhiman.

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