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Back | Programme Area: Overarching Concerns

The Search for Policy Autonomy in the South: Universalism, Social Learning and the Role of Regionalism



This paper argues the need for the South to secure greater autonomy in development policy making and discusses some factors involved in achieving this. It utilizes a political economy analysis in the historical context of decolonization and contemporary globalization. Part I suggests that, in the 1950s, the new subdiscipline of development economics made a significant contribution to policy autonomy in the global South by legitimizing the principle that their economies should be understood within their own terms and by providing justification for policies that built up its industrial capabilities. Southern institutions and the United Nations (UN) system also supported a great wave indigenous empirical research and theorizing in the developing world. However, as argued in Part II, the marginalization of development economics and its policies in the 1980s resulted in a marked discontinuity in the accumulation of policy experience in much of the South and the squandering of much of intellectual capital developed in the earlier period. Neoclassical economics and neoliberal policies ruled out the notion of an economics sui generis for the developing countries. Nonetheless, developments since the late 1990s have shown that the triumphalism was premature, as global social movements, financial crises, contradictions in the World Trade Organization (WTO) process and the shifting political climate in the South have served to undermine the Washington consensus and have re-opened space for academic enquiry and policy experimentation in the South and North.

Part III argues that the utilization of this space process would be enriched by further interrogation of the epistemic basis of the claims to universal applicability of neoclassical economics. It endorses the view that such claims are associated with philosophical Eurocentricity and by inappropriate analogies between the social and the physical sciences. It argues for a context-specific approach to economic analysis and policy making that accepts the “universality of diversity” and recognizes that responses to economic policy instruments are conditioned by a wide range of political, social, cultural and institutional factors.

Part IV discusses the contribution that can be made by “social knowledge”: the knowledge that inheres within the society residing at various levels. It proposes a synthesis of the “policy cycle” approach with the factors giving rise to firm level “learning and technical change”, in which a specific objective is the accumulation of experience, knowledge and intervention capacities in development policy. Part V points to the role of regionalism in the South in this context. Regionalism’s epistemic dimension relates to accumulation of local diagnostic and prescriptive capacities for development policy making, linked to democratic participation in decision making at the national and regional levels; for example, the formation of “regional epistemic communities”. Regionalism’s instrumental dimension consists of the benefits of intergovernmental functional cooperation and of market integration: the former is of particular importance to small developing countries. Regionalism has also been seen as a building block for the construction of a polycentric world characterized by equitable development and respect for cultural diversity.

But regionalism is not a panacea: it has to contend with the diversity of interests among member countries that result from differences in size, levels of development and economic structure. The experience of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) is analysed to show that issues of national versus regional sovereignty, funding and provisions for disadvantaged countries and regions need to be satisfactorily addressed in order to realize its potential benefits.
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  • Pub. Date: 9 Oct 2005
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-816X
    From: UNRISD