In conversation with Jan Pronk: Highlights

When you think
people away, you kill them
” said Jan Pronk, as he paced up and down
addressing the Oxfam Novib Academy and members of staff. At this Masterclass on
the role of youth in development, a number of Pronk’s sentiments resonated with

This sentence in particular stood out. Let me repeat,
mainly for myself to digest it.

When you think
people away, you kill them

This stung. And it stung hard.


Credit: Oxfam Novib | 
On the
left: Jan Pronk addressing the audience

Indeed, the process towards expulsion as Pronk refers to
(in reference to the work of Sassen: 2014), starts with the way we perceive,
think and consequently express our beliefs about a certain community. The
politics of language has been much debated, and it is even reflected in the
often exclusive (and often vague) language used by NGOs and practitioners in
the field of development. (Think: strategic, beneficiary, empowerment and

Pronk highlighted the ‘myth and fallacy’ of development and
proposed two in specific:

1: The international community is making us believe that we are ‘progressing’
in the ‘right’ direction.

The international community’s identity and opinions have
been claimed by large international organizations where we  are told to be optimistic and all freedom of
speech is only valid when it is speaking out against but still ‘within’ the mainstream.

Myth 2:
Growth solves everything

While Pronk is accurate in articulating that the existence
of these myths today are  fuelled by the
Western organized process of  globalization, I believe that voices of the
alternative are rising at an increasing rate to counter this. Some distinct
voices do exist within the international community such as that of the UNSCR, UNICEF
and bottom-up communities and movements such as the Zapatistas along with the
recent Baltimore
protests in the United States, the Anti-Zwarte
Piet protests
in the Netherlands, The
movement in South Africa and the Umbrella
movement in Hong-Kong
.. The unique nature of all, being that, they are
driven and led by young people.

While I think that protests and all other forms of activism
are integral to changing the conversation in a largely colonial and
modernity-driven system, I find it uncomfortable to grasp the fact that those
who are powerless are made responsible or have to take up the responsibility to
“fight” their injustice. A narrow and limited understanding of individualized
agency ‘accompanies this. (For more read, Madhok: 2013).  

Nevertheless, the insights provided by Mr. Pronk and the
group were encouraging. As seen in the examples cited above, change does indeed
come about with various forms of activism (here activism is used as an
all-encompassing term for different strategies. (For more read: The School
of Life’s ‘How to Change the World’


Credit: Oxfam Novib Academy | 
On the
left: Jan Pronk and Farah Karimi talking to the Academy at the Voices of the
Academy Exhibition| 
On the
right: The Academy at the Knowledge Lab with Jan Pronk

These also point out that the role of young people is
effective, dynamic and crucial as ever. For young people to keep going
however, Pronk left us with a few lessons:

1) While doing research, give away the power of
the question. It should be the community itself that should come up with which
question is relevant for their society and well-being.

2) Don’t fool yourself!

3) Be pessimistic, but beware of despair. While
pessimism makes you critically question, do not become complacent with it- that
would lead to despair.

4)  Never accept the first ‘best’ answer. Continue
to Question: The first answer is often the one meant to silence the
counter-idea. Push the limits.

was provocative, eloquent and critical. While many things resonated with me, I
begged to differ on some points he made. But then again, often in disagreement
is where learning lies. Like Pronk himself said, never accept the first ‘best’

The Masterclass was part of the Oxfam Novib Academy Mid-term event, followed by the Voices of the Academy exhbition, showcasing the work and recommendations of the interns, after which we had the Knowledge Lab. This involved a critical and intimate discussion  with Pronk, experts at Oxfam Novib on different questions posed by the students of the Academy. 

The podcast of the class will be up soon. 

Tasneem Kakal

Tasneem is working on building the Oxfam Novib Academy at Oxfam Novib. Born and raised in Mumbai, she believes in the magic of intersectionality for development. Her passion for change is as contagious as her love for smoothies.


Sumi. Rethinking agency:
developmentalism, gender and rights
. Routledge, 2014.

Saskia. “A savage sorting of winners and losers: contemporary versions of
primitive accumulation." Globalizations 7.1-2 (2010): 23-50.


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