Redistribution and the need for profound economic transformation

Professor Andrew Fischer reflects on his recent inaugural lecture
Yushu-Jyeku in Tibet
Inaugural lecture Andrew Fischer

On 1 December 2022, Professor of Inequality, Social Protection and Development Andrew Fischer held his inaugural lecture at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).

In this interview for our Professor Portraits series, he tells us more about his academic and personal journey. He also reflects on the message of his inaugural lecture: the need for a massive scaling up of redistribution.

Andrew Fischer grew up in Canada, where he was born in the late sixties. His mother and father were involved in the peace movement and his mother also spent many decades supporting indigenous struggles for justice. They both stimulated their son’s political awareness from an early age and had a big influence on his eventual career path. 

After obtaining his BA and MA in development economics from McGill University in Montreal, Fischer lived in India and Nepal for almost a decade, most of the time in the Tibetan exile community, where he studied Buddhism and learnt Tibetan. Towards the end of this period, while teaching ex-political prisoners English and social sciences, he became aware of a gap in the analysis of economic issues in Tibet itself. As a trained economist, who had lived deeply embedded in the Tibetan community for many years, he felt compelled to fill this gap, which led him to start a PhD at the London School of Economics. For this, he examined regional development strategies by the Chinese government in the Tibetan areas of western China, where he also spent another two years during and after his PhD.

Andrew Fischer on road to Derge, Sichuan in 2004
Andrew on road to Derge, Sichuan in 2004

In 2008, not long after obtaining his PhD, Fischer started working at ISS. He continued his research on Tibet and China, while also starting to engage in more global issues. Many publications in the field of development studies followed and he won an ERC Starting Grant in 2014 and the International Studies in Poverty Prize for his 2018 book, Poverty as Ideology. In addition to being a full professor, Fischer is the scientific director of CERES, the Dutch Research School for International Development.

For your PhD research you looked at the relationship between state-led development strategies in the Tibetan areas of western China and their impacts on Tibetans. Can you tell us more about this study?

‘At the time, very little was written on the economic situation of Tibet by exiles or foreign scholars, whereas inside China, scholarship was mostly by Chinese economists, not Tibetans. I felt it was necessary to complement the existing literature with a study rooted in a critical economics approach that was also informed by a deep understanding of Tibetan society. My macro-structural economic analysis was based on Chinese government statistics, demonstrating how their data could be interpreted in ways that evidenced discrimination and marginalization. But I also combined this with extensive fieldwork.

'In the late nineties, the Chinese government launched their ‘open the west campaign’ (xibu da kaifa). They started to heavily subsidise and invest in the western region of the country, where the Tibetan areas are located, incorporated into five provinces. Many other minorities also live in the western region, not just Tibetans: Uyghurs, Kazaks and other groups. The campaign led to a lot of changes. New infrastructure was built and big industrial hubs emerged. Consequently, the economies grew rapidly and standards of living increased. However, these development strategies are also political strategies. The Chinese government extended control over the minorities and suppressed protest. Policies were generally assimilationist and many Tibetans were marginalized in the process of change. New forms of inequality also emerged in urban areas.’

‘While moving out of poverty and out of rural areas, Tibetans faced new difficulties and exclusion in urban areas.’

In your PhD research, and the books you have published about this topic before and after, you describe how the development imposed by the Chinese state led to the disempowerment of the Tibetan people. Can we speak of ‘development’ if it comes at such a cost?

‘There are various views. For instance, many Tibetan exiles argue that we cannot call what is happening in Tibet as "development". I think it is development, in the sense of structural transformation. However, it is a development that has intensified discrimination, marginalization and alienation for many Tibetans. While moving out of poverty and out of rural areas, they faced new difficulties and exclusion in urban areas, which were dominated by Chinese migrants and norms. Language plays a big role, because Tibetans are not native Chinese speakers and their language is very different, so language proficiency tests in job competitions could easily discriminate against them. The changes have also been occurring at a very rapid pace and with little ability for these minorities to determine the speed or direction of the changes.

'I argued that a variety of subtle policy changes could have corrected for much of this discrimination and marginalization and allowed for development and employment creation to be more oriented towards local needs. During and after my PhD, I presented these arguments to researchers and some policy makers in China on several occasions, and there was an openness to the ideas. However, these types of exchanges started closing down after the major protests in 2008 and the self-immolations that occurred for several years after, and especially since Xi Jinping came to power.’

Walmart China
Stuart Wright

With their policies, the Chinese government tried to redistribute economic resources, although their strategy had strong social implications. In your recent inaugural lecture, you used the word ‘redistribution’ as a key word as well. What kind of redistribution are you talking about?

‘In my inaugural lecture I spoke about the urgent need for a massive scaling up of redistribution on a global level, which I refer to as the redistributive imperative of development. I believe that this is essential to address the needs of development and to face global challenges like climate change in a just and equitable manner, especially given how highly unequal the world is right now. Many see redistribution as a trade-off for economic growth. I do not agree with this. I argue that redistribution plays a synergistic role with production in our increasingly complex economies, and weakening this role makes our economies more dysfunctional. South Korea is a good example of a country where both domestic and international redistribution strategically supported productive development strategies, which I described in one of my articles.

'This being said, we also must be aware of the dark sides of state-led redistribution, as my research on Tibet shows. Nonetheless, the dominant trend at the global level right now is regressive redistribution, from poor to rich. Northern based corporations, for instance, increasingly own and/or control the most lucrative sectors of the global economy and direct a lot of value away from poorer countries. The international aid system has not been able to compensate for this and involves very little actual redistribution. Instead, reliance on foreign investment deepens dependency and facilitates financial outflows. So we need to start by plugging this constant drain from poorer countries, in addition to rethinking how to redistribute much more, and also to improve the financing of development in ways that do not penalize poorer countries.’

‘We must argue for this kind of change because I believe it is essential for our collective survival.’

Tibetan flags
Andrew Fischer

What could be other instruments to enable large-scale redistribution on a global level?

‘The idea of redistribution is dominated by ideas of taxing and spending, but we need to think beyond this, in more radical ways. For instance, we need to address the underlying structures that drive financial outflows. In my lecture I argued for a more radical transformation of the economic system. For instance, a return to strategies of nationalization of certain industries could address some of these structural issues. International financial reform is also desperately needed, because the current system penalises poor people and poor countries, subjects them to a lot of financial instability and disproportionately places the cost of crisis on them. The current ongoing, drawn-out debt crisis in large parts of the Global South is a good example of this. Addressing this would require reigning in and controlling private finance, and a huge expansion of public banking, although without punitive neoliberal conditionalities.

'I realize that my position is idealist. I do not have hope for it to become reality any time soon given the way we are currently moving. Yet we must argue for this kind of change because I believe it is essential for our collective survival. It is not the solution for everything, but in the absence of more radical redistribution, the alternatives are much more dystopic. I am writing a book on this. The work continues!’

Congratulations to you and thank you very much for this interview.

Coming full circle

'Indescribable, inconceivable, inexpressible, the perfection of wisdom
Birthless, deathless, in the nature of space
Experienced by one’s own self-aware wisdom
To the mother of the Buddhas of the three times I prostrate'

Verse on the Essence of the Perfection of Wisdom, transmitted to Professor Andrew Fischer by one of his lamas, the 9th Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa Rimpoche and translated by him in collaboration with Venerable Tenzin Tsepag.

In his inaugural lecture, Fischer recited a verse in Tibetan, a condensed version of the Perfection of Wisdom sutra. He elaborated on its meaning, explaining how the ‘the mother of the Buddhas’ refers to emptiness. In Buddhism, emptiness is the source of wisdom, which creates enlightenment and hence Buddhas. Emptiness is not nothingness or voidness. Instead, it refers to things being empty of a false perception of reality, which is the perception that that phenomena exist inherently, independently from their own side. The inverse is interdependence, that phenomena exist in dependence on other things. Emptiness and interdependence are two sides of every single phenomenon.

Fischer noted that, spiritually, interdependence is expressed as compassion, and he suggested that in political economy it is expressed through the concept of redistribution. In this way, Fischer came full circle in his inaugural lecture: weaving his knowledge of Buddhism and social sciences together, pointing out how the two are connected. Thus, his argumentation for the massive scaling up of redistribution from the Global North to the Global South was supported by concepts from both Buddhism and social sciences.

Inaugural lecture Andrew Fischer - walking into aula Inaugural lecture Andrew Fischer - sitting in audience Inaugural lecture Andrew Fischer - on stairs
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Professor Portraits interview series This interview is part of a series of Professor Portraits, highlighting the work and background of professors at the International Institute of Social Studies.

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