The International Development Studies Alumni Association of Utrecht University

Development at a glance

by Teun Smorenburg

Changing the food game

In 1963 John F. Kennedy addressed the World Food Congress, organized in Washington DC. On that occasion he stated, “The persistence of hunger during this decade is unacceptable either morally or socially.” More than 50 years later, it is sad to admit, these words must be repeated. Despite all of the effort and the billions of dollars spent in combating hunger, and despite all innovations and scaling-up in the agricultural sector, 795 million people – or one out of nine people - still suffer from hunger. With  global challenges like a growing world population (estimated to reach at least 9 billion in 2050) and environmental degradation, the elimination of hunger may become even more elusive. Obviously, we are not doing something right.

That is what Lucas Simons, Director of New Foresight discusses in his book, “Changing the Food Game.” Simons argues that our current food production system is unsustainable and not capable of dealing with the future challenges of population growth and environmental degradation. Growing  enough  food  - sustainably - for  all  9  billion  mouths is  one  of  the  biggest  challenges  of  our  generation.

Lucas Simons presented his book ‘Changing the Food Game’ at a recent conference organized by the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, or CGIAR. During his presentation he underlined his perspective on how to meet this hunger challenge. He argues for a fundamental change at a massive scale in the agricultural and food producing systems which requires systemic change through a process called market transformation. Simons presents a new perspective on food systems which makes for a very interesting and innovative presentation and read. To learn more, check out the video below and learn more here and here.

The "Battery of Southeast Asia' or a transboundary water crisis?

The governments of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam are planning to build eleven large hydropower dams on the Lower Mekong River. In a remote part of northern Laos, planning becomes reality. Construction has begun on the final stage of the $3.5 billon Xayaburi dam, which is the first dam to span the entire main stem of the lower Mekong River. At the same time in southern Laos, preliminary work has begun on the $300m Don Sahong dam.

The construction of these dams has a dual benefit. Firstly, Laos envisions itself as the ‘Battery of Southeast Asia’ and the construction of these dams would allow Laos to sell electricity to its wealthier neighbors. Lao government officials claim that, besides generating employment, the Lower Mekong Dams will create a cash windfall that will open the doors to rapid economic development. Secondly, the electricity generated by the hydropower dams would help achieve Thailand’s commitment to increase their use of renewable energy.


As with any large hydropower dam construction, the area will be affected in many ways. First, an estimated 106,000 people would be displaced by the construction of the dams, depriving them of their livelihoods. Second, the construction of these dams will also affect the downstream residents in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Their livelihoods and food security will deteriorate. According to the International Rivers Organization, the first sale value is between US$3.9 and $7.0 billion. This statistic, however, does not include the countless people who sell fish at markets, who transport fish to cities, prepare food, and make related products and supplies. It also does not include the millions of people living along the river who catch their own fish and largely live outside the cash economy. The economic impact is thus much higher.

Besides, the river provides food in other ways as well. Millions of villagers grow vegetables in riverbank gardens. The highly productive agricultural and rice fields of mainland Southeast Asia depend on the nutrients that the Mekong River transports down from the north. River floodplains and wetlands trap sediments and nutrients, keeping the land fertile and protecting it from erosion.

Moreover, the biodiversity of the Mekong (second only to the Amazon river for the number of fish species) will greatly deteriorate. The dams would block the migration of fish and change their natural habitats. This would reduce Mekong fish species by an estimated 26-42 percent, resulting in losses of US$500 million per year. More than 100 species would be at risk of extinction (International Rivers). Lastly, the construction of these dams will also threaten the spectacular torrent of water that rushes over Khone Falls, a popular tourist attraction.

Broadening view

The dams were first proposed in the mid-2000s. At that time, there was limited understanding of the ways people depend on the Mekong River and its ecosystems. Nowadays, there is more clarity on this dependence and on the consequences of dam construction. These are similar to big hydropower developments elsewhere in the world (such as Orange River in South Africa and Lesotho, Yangtze River in China, and the Amazon river in Brazil). The disadvantaged are seldom fully heard and alternatives are not often taken into account. Construction often continues to the benefit of economic gain - but not for everyone. This seems to be the recipe of constructing hydropower dams.

This article has been inspired by the following articles (also suggested for further reading): 

International Rivers (2013), The Lower Mekong Dams Factsheet 

The Guardian (2015), Multiple dams are an ominous threat to life on the Mekong River

Progress of the world's women

Twenty years after the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, and at a time when the global community is defining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the post-2015 era, the global consensus on the need to achieve gender equality seems stronger than ever before. Gender equality is included as a standalone goal in the (new) Sustainable Development agenda and emphasized by the United Nations (UN) in their recently released Progress of the World’s Women report 2015-2016.

Laura Turquet, progress report manager at UN Women, explained the central tenet of the report: “Seven years after the global financial crisis there is a sense that economies are recovering. Actually we are seeing huge gaps between women and men, and also between rich and poor. There is more inequality today than at any time since the second world war. What we are saying is that if you put more money in women’s pockets then they are likely to spend that money, which in turn generates demand in the economy. It’s about identifying and running with the win-wins.”

What is wrong with the status quo?

UN Women argues that current economic policies are actually failing women in both rich and poor countries. Unsurprisingly, girls and women fall furthest behind in developing countries, where they are less likely to be sent to school, risk early and forced marriage (including child-marriages), are more prone to sexual violence as they carry out domestic ‘duties’ and die in poverty because they receive no pension. Also in developed countries women are disadvantaged. Discrimination at work remains widely spread and even for women at the highest level and in the EU alone, 75 percent of women in managerial positions have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Towards substantive equality

To achieve substantive equality, the Progress of the World’s Women report identified three priority areas to transform economies and realize women’s economic and social rights: 

Decent work for women.

Paid work can be a foundation for substantive equality for women, but only when it is compatible with women’s and men’s shared responsibility for unpaid care work. Women’s heavy responsibilities for unpaid care and domestic work limit the types of work they can undertake, which reinforces their socio-economic disadvantage.

Gender-responsive social policies. In order to contribute to substantive equality, social policies have to be designed around women’s rights. Particular care is needed to ensure that policies such as conditional cash transfers, which are often targeted at women, redress recipients’ socioeconomic disadvantage without reinforcing gender stereotypes or stigmatizing them for needing support.

Rights-based macroeconomic policies. Because macroeconomic policy is treated as ‘gender-neutral’ it has, to date, failed to support the achievement of substantive equality for women. From a human rights perspective, macroeconomic policy needs to pursue a broad set of social objectives that would mean expanding the targets of monetary policy to include the creation of decent work, mobilizing resources to enable investments in social services and transfers and creating channels for meaningful participation by civil society organizations, including women’s movements, in macroeconomic decision-making.

The report is full of case studies from countries where progress is being made and the Progress for the World’s Women makes clear that inequalities are not inevitable. However, only time will tell whether or not economies will be more women-inclusive or if economic reform will happen at all.

This article has been inspired by the following articles (also suggested for further reading):

The Guardian (2015), Here’s what an economy would look like if it actually worked for women

UN Women (2015), Progress of the World’s Women, full report 


UN Women (2015), Progress of the World’s Women, summary


United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2015)


Thai fishing industry turns to trafficking

Rohingya's trajectory from Burma to Malaysia (The Guardian, 2015)

In recent years, the Thai fishing industry, supplying seafood to millions of people around the world, has increasingly been tainted by the systematic exploitation of the Rohingya people. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority, most of them living in Burma. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya men, women and children have fled state-sanctioned violence in Burma since 2012.

Many Rohingyas are forced to take to the seas in a desperate attempt to reach the relative safety of Malaysia. Their journey takes them along the coastline of Thailand, through the jungles in South Thailand to eventually end up in Malaysia. The journey, however, is very perilous as increasing numbers of Thai fishermen change their source of income from fishing to human trafficking in transnational criminal syndicates, condemning the Rohingya people to become slave labourers in the Thai fishing industry. 

One year after the Guardian's expose of slave labour in the Thai prawn supply chain – prawns which end up being sold in supermarkets across the world - a new investigation has linked Thailand's fishing industry with the Rohingya crisis. In their mini-documentary, released on the 20th of July, they expose the transnational criminal syndicates and the misery that befalls thousands of Rohingya people after fleeing their country.

For more information, see the following:

The 'boat people crisis won't end until Burma stops persecuting the Rohingya

The Rohingya crisis

Child soldiers in South Sudan released

On the 9th of July 2011, South Sudan chose for independence. Despite the ecstasy, there is a lot of poverty and there are still numerous unsolved (armed) conflicts. A solution to one of these conflicts, however, was found in July 2014 when the South Sudan Democratic Army (SSDA) Cobra Faction and the government of South Sudan made peace over their tribe disputes. UNICEF was contacted to guide the release of child soldiers in the Pibor region. In January and February 2015, the first 660 child soldiers were released. In March 2015, another 654 children were released. This year, all child soldiers fighting for the Cobra Faction (3000 in total) will be released and the Cobra Faction will merge with the National Army of South Sudan. It is a ray of hope in the devastating civil war that affects over half a million children.


A relevant question for the future development of South Sudan is how to reintegrate these children into society? UNICEF, together with various local partner organizations, set up a reintegration program for the children. The reintegration of these children demands a focus on the area as well as on the individual children. Vital points in the program are:

  1. Providing clean water, food and shelter
  2. Providing education
  3. Setting up livelihood programs
  4. Providing Psychosocial support (counseling and social support, also psychological support in cooperation with traditional healers)
  5. Bringing the children back to their “protective environment” (family tracing units are aiming to reunite children with their

While this reintegration program is intended to contribute to the development of South Sudan, and the Pibor region in particular, it is not the solution to the ongoing child soldier problem. “In the end, the causes of war have to be taken away. That is the governments’ responsibility. There is nothing in South Sudan. No roads, no education, no safety and no food” says John Collins, clinical psychiatrist working with child soldiers on behalf of UNICEF.

Children are drawn to the military as it can provide food, shelter, water and, paradoxically, safety. Besides, children are armed very young to protect cattle. It is not unusual to see very young children carrying weapons, so it is not a huge step to then join an armed group. These are issues that need addressing alongside the reintegration of child soldiers to create a child soldier-free South Sudan.


Significant steps towards ending the use of child soldiers have been made before; resulting in a child protection unit established by the government of South Sudan. This progress, however, was halted and has been massively reversed since the conflict between the Cobra Faction and the government of South Sudan started again in 2013, after a peace treaty signed in 2012. Time will tell whether this program will be effective or just another pause until the next civil conflict.


This piece, written by current SD-ID master student Teun Smorenburg, has been inspired by the following articles (also suggested for further reading):

De correspondent (2015), Eindelijk zijn deze kinderen vrij (alleen nog niet van hun verleden)

The Guardian (2015), What's next for South Sudan's 3,000 freed child soldiers?