Veerle Boekestijn

veerle-boekestijn2My name is Veerle Boekestijn and I am a student in the MSc program International Development Studies. I heard about the SDD track through my friend Kyra van den Hil (we make films together). I commenced my study trajectory at the University of Amsterdam with a BSc in Cultural and Development Sociology, which I followed up with a MSc in Contemporary Asian Studies. In my master’s thesis I focused on how sustainability is defined and acted upon in – what I perceive to be – a corporate context. I conducted my field research in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Singapore and North Sumatra and Java (Indonesia) where I looked into the way the corporation Unilever, the non-profit organization RSPO and the Dutch NGO IDH collaborate to realise what they refer to as ‘sustainable farming practices’ amongst independent smallholders in North Sumatra, Indonesia. In order to understand the rationale behind this project I analysed the assumptions that underlie and legitimate the ways people working for these institutions articulate sustainability, and how as a result a certain type of governance is created. In addition I spoke to many Indonesians who would refer to themselves as activists, concerned with how these institutions attempt to influence independent smallholders. In increasing amounts these activists are working for the very institutions they themselves are opposed to, which evoked the question whether they can still legitimately be considered to be situated within a counter-discourse.

The experience allowed me to acquire a broad but specialized understanding of local, national, institutional and global networks in the context of the sustainable food supply chain. My time in Asia sparked my interest in the role diplomatic negotiations amongst institutions of governance have within the framework of supply chains.

In the SDD-track I hope to further develop and deepen my understanding of the practice of international diplomacy in the field of sustainable development. I am excited to gain knowledge from different perspectives on how we can accurately recognise, interpret and project relevant forms of power by communicating with one another. Equally enticing will be to join in debates on what ontological frontiers may be considered to define diplomatic enquiries. It seems endlessly exciting to address such questions from different perspectives, with the aim to understand the logic of each discourse. It is my strong personal conviction that social scientists would do well to participate in this field. I believe the context of the SDD-track will teach me to step outside of my comfortable analytical position, without losing my critical gaze; to be convincing, without becoming dogmatic; and to do thorough research, without losing the capacity to communicate with people outside my discipline (and yes, I have written this sentence on my mirror, I repeat it every morning ;)). And as an overarching interest I am hoping to learn how to communicate with people within the corporate discourse, as it is my dear wish to be able to create a bridge between the world of academia and the world of business.

Below I attach my ‘elevator pitch’, as it captures both how I became interested in sustainable development as well as my current thoughts on how to approach the subject.

A couple of years ago I encountered an interview with Louise Fresco, in which she told a young student that she could make the world a better place (i.e. more socially and ecologically sustainable) by infiltrating the companies that are currently responsible for great environmental and social stresses[1]. Initially I felt empowered by this remark: this meant there is a possibility for us to inflict positive change by entering existing structures. Unfortunately I have lost this unbridled optimism about the chances of ‘creating change from within’. Like Fresco, anthropologist Carol Cohn believed in this idea, and decided to do her research in a university centre on defence technology and arms control. She entered the place with the assumption that she could change it from within -once she would have a full grasp of the discourse. She found out, however, that the discourse’s vocabulary simply did not include critique (1987: 710)[2]. A hegemonic discourse is of course most successful if it is not only able to create a coherent story, but if it successfully illegitimates any thinking outside of it too.

In a similar manner I believe this is why Latour bewailed ‘every time I try to think outside of capitalism I find myself at a loss of words’ when he reflected on the affects of capitalism[3].

Therefore, I discern two levels in how we need to go about approaching issues of sustainability. At one level, we need to act upon sustainable practices in the short term, simply because ‘time is running up’. At a second level, we need to invest in a more fundamental discussion that is currently either absent or held in polarized dialogues. Latour’s distinction between Gaia and the globe appears to be a good starting point for starting this fundamental discussion. Just like he discerns a dichotomy between ‘the land’ (backwardness) and ‘the globe’ (modernity), I feel as if in a lot of diplomacy and governance contexts a dichotomy between practical (realistic, ‘efficient’) and philosophical- for lack of a better word- (unrealistic and inefficient) thinking is pertinent and problematic.

The positivist arrogance rooted in the West influences many to believe we have now full access to truth, and causes many to remain in that comfortable position. Here could lie an explanation for how anthropologist Tania Li received distressed reactions from policy makers upon her discovery of a neoliberal ideology underlying their policies – as this was something they were clearly against![4] Not trained to critically reflect on their worldview, this seems a logical (though depressing) outcome.

We should not feel hopeless though. Richard Locke investigated private companies’ success in their commitments to environmental issues[5]. He realized how these companies had honest intentions of keeping these commitments – but nevertheless failed to do so. At least that means that people are honestly interested in sustainability. Another finding of his research was, to his own surprise (interestingly! For once it is not a leftist figure pleading for state intervention!), that regulating private companies without help of the state was not really effective.

A few weeks back I interviewed the chairman of the negotiations that took place to develop the new covenant where Dutch fashion brands in a multi-stakeholder approach promise commitments to sustainable development in the coming five years[6]. After speaking to him for about one hour, I admitted that the things he told me reminded me of the value of all (post-/neo-) Marxist literature I had read during my Bachelors. He informed me that he had read about it too when he studied sociology thirty years ago– but he could not do anything with it in his daily life ‘while they don’t offer an alternative’. This is exactly what I refer to when I try to make a distinction between sustainable development both requiring governance in the short term (to which this man –quite understandably- resorted), and in need of a fundamental discussion. Because the fact that this discussion will possibly take place in ‘unknown territory’ does in no way legitimise it not taking place at all.

[1] FutureFuel Quest –  Verantwoord boodschappen doen met Louise Fresco

[2] Cohn, Carol. “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.” Signs 12, no. 4 (1987): 687–718.

[3] Bruno Latour – The Affects of Capitalism

[4] Tania Li – Will to Improve 2007 Duke University Press

[5] Richard Locke – The promise and limits of private capital 2014