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In Memoriam – Thandika Mkandawire (10 October 1940 – 27 March 2020)

31 Mar 2020


In Memoriam – Thandika Mkandawire (10 October 1940 – 27 March 2020)
“As Mark Twain observed, what does damage is not what we do not know, but what we do know that is just not so. …Policymakers often share the same weltanschauung and often think within the same paradigm. Paradigms can remain dominant if there are no alternatives and if they continue to satisfactorily answer the questions posed within them. But all paradigms have their blind spots, so that at least some of the evidence undermining them will simply not be seen. It is this, rather than an absence of knowledge, that accounts for the persistence of policies that are contradicted by actual experience and available knowledge. So the issue, often, is not one of knowledge versus ignorance, but of knowledge “authorized” by different paradigms and acquired by policymakers at any given time.”1

Thandika Mkandawire passed away on 27 March 2020 in Stockholm. In mourning this loss, UNRISD joins Thandika’s family, as well as innumerable friends, colleagues and students: Thandika was well loved, well known and well regarded, and he will be well and truly missed.

A Swedish national of Malawian origin, Thandika studied economics at Ohio State University and the University of Stockholm, and holds a Doctorate in Letters from Rhodes University. Thandika was Director of UNRISD from 1998 until his retirement from the UN in 2009. Prior to joining UNRISD, he was Executive Secretary of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) in Dakar, Senegal. After UNRISD, Thandika went to the London School of Economics, where he was the first person to hold the position of Chair in African Development.

There will be many tributes to Thandika’s life and intellectual work in the coming days and weeks. CODESRIA has established an online book of condolences and tributes for Thandika, accessible via this link. UNRISD’s In Memoriam highlights just a fraction of Thandika's contributions, many from his time as Director of the Institute, where his legacy lives on in our work.

Development as “catching-up”


Thandika held the strong conviction that the perspectives of the global South had to be central in both the process and the substance of development research. He believed that with realistic vision and well-crafted policies, developing countries could “leapfrog” and catch up with developed countries. He eschewed any kind of linear view of history and development, as well as the idea (widespread in development discourse and practice since the 1980s) that transfer of a single type of institution or policy (or institutional or policy model) could be a panacea for developmental problems2. At UNRISD, studying and emphasizing the multiple paths taken by various late industrializers from the Nordics to East Asian countries,3 he consistently argued that developing countries have a vast range of lessons at their disposal and could learn from others, so as not to mechanically retrace the path traversed by the forerunners, but rather to forge their own developmental paths appropriate to their circumstances and preferences. The policy lessons earlier drawn from the East Asian developmental experiences, he felt, were too often tendentious and tainted by the presuppositions of the observers. He lamented that some lessons were even "retrofitted" to suit certain free-market policy positions which, in fact, contradicted the development trajectories of these countries where state interventions and social policies had played a central role. He put his support behind many scholars and studies that sought to demonstrate this4,5,6 during his time at UNRISD (and beyond).

Thandika’s understanding of development was grounded in a strong interest in history, including the evolution and path-dependencies of contemporary policy regimes. In the last work he contributed to UNRISD, in which he identifies three types of welfare regimes in Africa based on the insight that tax and expenditure regimes are closely associated, Thandika shows how today’s welfare regimes in Africa have been strongly determined by the ways in which different countries were incorporated into the colonial economy. Yet he avoids historical determinism.

“It is striking that 50 years of colonial legacies can be the basis of classifying African welfare regimes. However, colonial legacies are not destiny. Indeed, the process of challenging such legacies can be a stimulus to efforts to redress the injustices of the past or to create new institutional arrangements appropriate to current conditions.”7

His understanding of development was always firmly based on developmentalism from and for the global South8—the founding fathers of Pan-Africanism, developmental leaders in African countries in the 1960s and 1970s, the Bandung Conference. Throughout his academic life, and his time leading UNRISD, he worked to elevate and translate the ideas of catching-up, emancipation, self-reliance and independence, the right to development—global South–born and –grown developmentalism—into policy lessons that could be taken up and used by developing countries.

Social policy in a development context


“In the past it was widely assumed and accepted that the means for development would be different from the ends of development, that countries would have first to traverse the vale of tears and overcome authoritarian rule, inequality and social exclusion. In such a view both democracy and equity constituted end states of the development process and could not be part of the process itself. It seems to me that the real challenge of social policy is how promote the ends of democracy, equity and social inclusion with the means of democracy, equity and social inclusion.” (Mkandawire, “On the Social Science – Policy Nexus”)

That was the premise for the UNRISD flagship programme during Thandika’s tenure at UNRISD, which set out to “rethink social policy”. He contrasted the methodological “thinness” of the literature on social policy in developing countries with the situation in Europe. “There is little in social policy studies in developing countries that is as heuristically potent as Esping-Andersen’s work on welfare regimes”, he wrote, in the Introduction to Social Policy in a Development Context (2004).9

Interviewed by Kate Meagher in 201910, Thandika reflected on the genesis of this programme of work:

“With the exception of Gunnar Myrdal no one had suggested that the Swedish experience could provide useful lessons for developing countries. It took me years to realize that. Ironically, it was when I came to UNRISD (in 1998) that I realized people were studying social policy with little mention of the Nordic experience. If you are interested in development and insisted on a democratic order, then you had to bring in the Nordic experience because it was there. It demanded attention, not as a model to be replicated, but as one suggesting alternative paths of development for late industrializers. I also felt that social policy in developing countries had to go beyond the ‘welfarist’ task and become more transformative or developmental.”

As the UNRISD programme came to demonstrate, both the history of social policy in the developed countries, and how such policies were used in those countries, provided useful insights and lessons for developing countries. Thandika was foresightful in his framing of this influential programme of research at UNRISD that brought social policy back onto the development agenda and pushed hard for its integration with economic policy. The concept of transformative social policy which emerged from this research inquiry has inspired a new epistemic community of social policy scholars in the global South across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

“Social policy has always played redistributive, protective and transformative or developmental roles. Although these different roles always work in tandem and synergistically, the weight given to each of these elements of social policies has varied widely across countries and, within countries, over time. In the context of development, there can be no doubt that the transformative role of social policy needs to receive greater attention than it is usually accorded in the developed countries and much more than it does in the current focus on “safety nets”.”11

The continued relevance of the programme’s conceptualization of the transformative role of social policy—that is, its role for production, reproduction, redistribution and protection—is evident today, not least in demonstrating the limitations of an approach in silos—one that separates economic development from its social moorings—and the need to take into account the politics of social development. This work also cross-fertilized influential research at UNRISD on the political and social economy of care,12 which illuminated the reproductive role of social policy, and how care can be distributed more fairly in society through public policies and changing social norms, an objective which has been taken up in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in target 5.4.

Targeting versus universalism


Another of Thandika’s significant contributions during his years at UNRISD was an influential critique of targeted approaches to social protection, published in 2005. As he pertinently observed: “international development goals may be stated in universalist terms (such as education for all, health for all), but they are often implemented through selective or targeted programmes. This raises questions about the appropriate linkages between goals and means of implementation.”

He wrote:

“One remarkable feature of the debate on universalism and targeting is the disjuncture between an unrelenting argumentation for targeting, and a stubborn slew of empirical evidence suggesting that targeting is not effective in addressing issues of poverty (as broadly understood). Many studies clearly show that identifying the poor with the precision suggested in the theoretical models involves extremely high administrative costs and an administrative sophistication and capacity that may simply not exist in developing countries. The story of both the political and administrative difficulties of targeting is repeated so many times that one wonders why it is still insisted upon. Indeed, from the literature it is clear that where poverty is rampant and institutions are weak, what may be wrong is not the lack of appropriate data but targeting per se.

“There is ample evidence of poor countries that have significantly reduced poverty through universalistic approaches to social provision and from whose experiences much can be learned...most governments tend to have a mixture of both universal and targeted social policies...in the more successful countries, overall social policy itself has been universalistic, and targeting has been be used as simply one instrument for making universalism effective.”13

These were prescient arguments. From a focus on “development” in the 1960s and 1970s, to “poverty reduction” in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, the (mainstream) pendulum started its swing back to “development” in the 2010s. With the universal 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the kind of broader development agenda for which Thandika researched and advocated has taken hold. Perhaps we are now also at a moment when the dominant paradigms no longer offer satisfactory answers, when (like Thandika) we see that there are alternatives, and a shift towards more transformative pathways and paradigms has begun.

Further reading


1 “On the Social Science – Policy Nexus” (Keynote Speech by UNRISD Director Thandika Mkandawire at the International Forum on the Social Science–Policy Nexus (IFSP) Opening Day, 20 February 2006, Buenos Aires, Argentina)

2 Institutional Monocropping and Monotasking in Africa. (Thandika Mkandawire 2009).

3 Social Policy in a Development Context. (UNRISD research programme 2000-2009).

4 Transforming the Developmental Welfare State in East Asia. (Huck-ju Kwon 2005).

5 Neoliberalism and Institutional Reform in East Asia, A Comparative Study. (Meredith Woo-Cumings 2007).

6 Learning from the South Korean Developmental Success: Effective Development Cooperation and Synergistic Institutions and Policies. (Ilcheong Yi and Thandika Mkandawire 2014).

7 Colonial Legacies and Social Welfare Regimes in Africa: An Empirical Exercise. Thandika Mkandawire. UNRISD Working Paper 2016-4. (Forthcoming in The Politics of Domestic Resource Mobilization for Social Development, Katja Hujo (ed), Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan and UNRISD, 2020).

8 Running While Others Walk: Knowledge and the Challenge of Africa’s Development. (Thandika Mkandawire 2011).

9 Social Policy in a Development Context: Introduction. Thandika Mkandawire. Chapter 6 in UNRISD Classics, Volume I: Social Policy and Inclusive Development (Originally published as the introduction to Social Policy in a Development Context, edited by Thandika Mkandawire [UNRISD and Palgrave Macmillan, 2004].)

10 Reflections of an Engaged Economist: An Interview with Thandika Mkandawire (by Kate Meagher, in Development and Change, Volume 50, Issue 2, FORUM 2019, March 2019, pp. 511-541).

11 Social Policy in a Development Context: Introduction. Thandika Mkandawire. Chapter 6 in UNRISD Classics, Volume I: Social Policy and Inclusive Development (Originally published as the introduction to Social Policy in a Development Context, edited by Thandika Mkandawire [UNRISD and Palgrave Macmillan, 2004].)

12 Why Care Matters for Social Development. Chapter 9 in UNRISD Classics Volume II: Gendered Dimensions of Development. (Originally published by UNRISD as a Research and Policy Brief, 2010).

13 Targeting and Universalism in Poverty Reduction. Thandika Mkandawire. Chapter 7 in UNRISD Classics, Volume I: Social Policy and Inclusive Development (Originally published as an UNRISD Programme Paper [UNRISD, 2005]).

More tributes


CODESRIA has established an online book of condolences and tributes for Thandika, accessible via this link.

Read Yusuf Bangura's tribute to Thandika by clicking on the file below.