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Introducing key global development challenges
Introducing key global development challenges

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3.4 Transformation

The change in form and function from a caterpillar to a butterfly is one of nature’s truly wondrous examples of a transformation.

Illustration of a queen swallowtail butterfly, Papilio androgeus, with caterpillar and pupa.
Figure 7: Queen swallowtail butterfly, Papilio androgeus, with caterpillar and pupa. Illustration drawn and engraved by Richard Polydore Nodder.

As you have already read, development is about change. However, change takes place at many levels and the outcomes can range from minor adjustments to what previously existed to a wholesale upending and emergence of something entirely new. Change is a modification or adaptation of what went before, it involves looking back to what already exists and seeking to improve upon it. Transformation is future- focussed, seeking to imagine something that does not yet exist, and then explores and nurtures its emergence into a reality.

Activity 5: The nature of transformation

Timing: 25 minutes

Listen to Audio 1, or read the transcript, in which the American anthropologist, Professor Joseph Tainter, discusses his interpretation of transformation with a focus on the level of transformation needed to make our economies and societies environmentally sustainable.

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Audio 1: Joseph Tainter: What is transformation?
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What difficulties does Professor Tainter see in trying to fundamentally change our social and economic systems?


Professor Tainter sees transformation as qualitative change, change that is so significant that we see that the system is different from what went before. The key difficulties in trying to bring about such a level of change is that we recognise transformation after it has happened, making it impossible to predict or direct the process. As humans, we have limited ability to think beyond our immediate needs and are ill-equipped to identify the transformations needed in the future with any clarity or precision.

Thinking of transformation as deep-seated and profound change immediately challenges the very nature of development theory and practice. The critique is that development effort is focussed on alleviating the negative effects of the prevailing global social, economic and political systems and processes. As an example, development approaches towards ‘making markets work for the poor’ sees the problem as being one where the poor are excluded from the market economy and the solution is to enable them to participate fully. The focus is on fixing or improving the current market system. The possibility that other factors – or even markets themselves – might operate to produce and sustain poverty and inequality is unquestioned. Transformation seeks to totally reconfigure these very things that go unquestioned, development theory and practice needs to shift from attempting to treat the symptoms of development ills to tackling their systemic causes (Ramalingam 2013).

The challenge of transformation calls for profound change of such a degree that is difficult to imagine clearly, and impossible to direct and control. Professor Tainter in Audio 1 argued that this is not an excuse for muddied and imprecise thinking but requires rigour and clarity as to what is to be transformed, for whom and at what cost. Even doing so will not guarantee outcomes. Transformation is a deeply disruptive process involving living with uncertainty and accepting losses as well as gains. There are powerful interests that benefit from existing social, economic and political systems - those benefiting are not only unlikely to seek change but actively resist it.