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Overarching Concerns Programme Paper 9: The Search for Policy Autonomy in the South: Universalism, Social Learning and the Role of Regionalism

4 Jan 2006

  • Author(s): Norman Girvan


In the 1950s, “development economics” made a significant contribution to policy autonomy in the global South by legitimizing the principle that their economies should be understood on their own terms, and by providing justification for policies that built up industrial capabilities. Southern institutions and the UN system supported a great wave of “indigenous” empirical research and theorizing in the developing world.

However, the marginalization of development economics and its policies in the 1980s meant that accumulation of policy experience stopped abruptly in much of the South, and a good deal of the intellectual capital developed in the earlier period was squandered. Neoclassical economics and neoliberal policies ruled out the notion of an economics sui generis for the developing countries.

Since the late 1990s there has been a reopening of the space for academic enquiry and policy experimentation in the South and North, according to the author. But, he argues, this new opportunity would be enriched by closer examination of the claims to universal applicability of neoclassical economics. He calls for a context-specific approach to economic analysis and policy making that accepts the “universality of diversity” and for the recognition that responses to economic policy instruments are conditioned by a wide range of political, social, cultural and institutional factors.

This leads to a discussion of “social knowledge”: the knowledge that inheres within societies at various levels, and of the role of regionalism in the South in this connection. In this context, the author considers the accumulation of local capacities for development policy making, which are linked to democratic participation in decision making at the national and regional levels.

But regionalism is not a panacea, the author concedes. 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 areas need to be satisfactorily addressed in order to realize the potential benefits of a regional approach.

Norman Girvan is Professorial Research Fellow at the Institute of International Relations, University of the West Indies, Trinidad.

Order UOC PP 9 from UNRISD, 13 pages, 2005; US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students.