The irony of inequality policy? A small elite diagnosing the plight of millions

Inequality is at the core of our work at the Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre (ESID): our entire analytical framework rests on the idea that there are powerful groups and individuals – elites – who influence or make policy with the intended or unintended effect of perpetuating privilege. We ask why these actors behave the way they do, what kind of institutions they support, and what policies – if any – would encourage them to build less unequal societies. Our intent is certainly noble, and our focus on inequality aims to produce research that leads to a better world. But the profound irony in our work is that we ourselves belong to a small intellectual and policy elite, and I wonder whether we should match our fight against global inequality with a more intimate reaction against the unequal nature of our voice in this conversation.

Inequality in research

Consider the following:

  • Research costs money; fieldwork in developing countries even more so. Consequently, many of the most reputed departments and academics in inequality debates are based in wealthy countries.
  • Access to research funding relies on reputation. Almost inevitably this means publications in pay-walled peer-reviewed journals which are often too expensive for Southern researchers.
  • Access to publications depends heavily on training and methodological standards. By and large in the social sciences these standards are developed by and policed from Northern academic instutions.

At ESID we strive to minimize the negative impact of these barriers by working with Southern partners who receive funding, capacity-building support, and a platform for raising the profile among Northern academics. Still, inevitably the money flows from Manchester to Accra and Dhaka, not the other way around. And despite our best efforts, Northern male researchers are still the noisy core of the who’s who of inequality and development research (think of a decade worth of controversy between two middle-aged white guys named Jeffrey and Bill, both from elite universities in the same city!).

Inequality in impact and research uptake

These are murkier waters, but bear with me:

  • One way to achieve policy impact is through reputation and a prominent research profile: see above.
  • Another way is to participate in conferences and invitation-only events which tend to take place in Northern capitals and a few international hubs in the Global south. The costs of travel, accommodation and subsistence for these events are often prohibitive.
  • Impact relies enormously on personal networks, on trust built between academics, consultants, and policy-makers. A trusted researcher – not necessarily a high-quality researcher – will have greater impact. Trust requires frequent contacts and opportunities for frank conversation: see above…

Inequality in policy advocacy

Now we get to the promotion of policies designed to overcome inequality:

  • Advocacy is often carried out by a small group of elite researchers and technical experts within international development organizations, whether multilaterals like UNDP, government agencies like DFID, or NGOs like Save the Children.
  • These organizations are staffed by an elite of development professionals who have become adept survivors of the aid and development ecosystem, often migrating between government, multilaterals, consultancy firms and academic departments in a semi-nomadic fashion.
  • Access to this professional ecosystem requires a restricted educational and career profile that is determined and policed – you guessed it – by Northern-based or -staffed organizations.

Things are looking grim, right? Wait for the cherry on top of the cake:

Inequality in policy-making

At long last we get to policy-makers themselves, the ones for whose benefit research is produced and advocacy campaigns mounted. And the answer here is so evident it does not require any bullet points: in London as in Kampala, policy-makers often belong to the entrenched political-economic elites of their countries.

– – –

There may be very good reasons for inequality in research and policy advocacy, chief among them a need for technical expertise that is expensive to acquire and hone. But start peeling the onion and you will find major social injustices suffered by millions being defined and diagnosed by a very select group of intellectual elites. There are of course many dedicated efforts to curtail the undue impact of Northern elites on inequality debates. But without social movements, advocacy networks and political organizations arising from the very communities where inequality is most deeply felt, we will be left with a small elite of high-minded experts who ponder the ills of the world from the comfort of Manchester, Harvard or Geneva.

In the market for inequality policies, we in the Northern elite continue to be policy-setters, while the very people we are trying to help remain policy-takers. That’s the great irony behind inequality: even the fight against it seems to be an elite affair.


[This post was written for Blog Action Day 2014, which is devoted to the theme of inequality. #BAD2014 #Blogaction #Inequality. Agree? Disagree? Tell me on twitter @PabloYanguas]