Research themes

Our research explores value and valuation in a variety of social and environmental contexts, from the valuation of human life and development in the public and private sectors to the financial values being created in new markets for carbon, biodiversity, land and water.

Under the umbrella project Human, non-human and environmental values: an impossible frontier?, we are currently carrying out research under five separate themes:

Private and public sector development: how is value for money calculated?

In recent decades there has been an increasing call for the evaluation and assessment of the effectiveness and impact of international development aid. Increasingly, such impact measurement technologies take the form of complex mathematical indicators, which have come to lead the field of calculative devices in development, performing quantified representations of value in development. Research within this theme considers the calculation and performance of value in several key areas of development policy and intervention, including case studies of Black Economic Empowerment in South Africa and infrastructural development as illustrative cases of private sector development, and also cases studies of UK DfID’s assessment of ‘value for money’ in its development and humanitarian funding in the public sector, and the growing business of Social Impact Assessment in the third sector. In each of these cases, particular attention is given to how the concept of value is produced and framed by particular impact measurement technologies and how this ‘value’ relates to social and economic harm, care, and change.

Climate change futures: how is the value of certified emissions reductions (CERs) created?

The Green Climate Fund (GCF) was established at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban in 2011, with the World Bank named as an interim Executive in order to provide finance for climate change mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. Its institutional and operating practices are in the process of establishment. It will be central to the effort to create a better climate future, and yet the calculative practices of how different types of emission reduction projects are valued are not well understood, even within the national institutions which accredit successful projects with tradable certified emissions reductions (CERs). How various emissions reduction projects are certified relies on opaque quantification techniques and on the value of narrative around the technical issue of additionality. The extension of carbon markets through the GCF is expected to aggravate this pre-existing problem of valuation. This project examines the emerging functionality of the GCF globally through case studies in South Africa and India and of carbon traders at the ‘global level’.

Allowable death: how is human life valued or not?

There are many historical examples of cases in which certain groups of people have not been valued enough to be counted even when they die, as in the immeasurable loss of life in the colonial Congo, or in the Chinese famine of 1961. Lost lives have a particular place in political economy, as the death of one person can improve economic opportunities for others, and yet the context of expendable people is not well understood. This project examines the contemporary context in which it is possible to have ‘allowable death’ from poor health or malnutrition by detailing narratives that position certain human lives as not mattering to others, including to potential assisters in government and NGOs. It looks at how the social value of a person is calculated, how this is justified morally, and the role of stigma and blame in these processes. This theoretical research is being supported by an empirical case study of people living with HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe, which explores how the value – or lack thereof – of these people effectively confers on them an allowable death.

Conservation banking and the new calculative regimes associated with offset markets and payments for ecosystem services

Environmental management for conservation is currently animated by attempts to make legible the value of non-human nature in cost-benefit decisions regarding economic development. Policy efforts and funding are being directed towards creating calculative frameworks for ‘valuing nature’ that are global in reach, such that environmental externalities under conventional accounting practices can be clarified in terms of equivalent and apparently commensurable monetary representations. These are permitting non-human nature to be both conceptualised as, and aligned with, financial measurement, at the same time as facilitating the emergence of new marketised exchanges in these representations.

This research explores these processes through the particular case of species banking and biodiversity offsetting. This offsetting and payments model for species conservation is rapidly accelerating as a core market-based method for valuing and conserving biodiversity. It has significant implications in terms of both the conceptual disaggregation of species from the ecosystemic fabric in which they are embedded, and for the foreclosure of non-marketised motivations for valuing non-human nature. This research analyses two cognate case studies where non-human nature is being incorporated into conventional neoliberal economics at the frontiers of monetary valuation practices by means of formal property arrangements and particular efficiency and rationality assumptions. The first engages with recent reframing of conservation endeavour in north-west Namibia in terms of Payments for Ecosystem Services with particular attention to how value is being calculated and assigned to this particular conservation landscape, as well as the implications for use- and intrinsic values for these same natures as well as for different customary value and tenure practices. The second case study involves a comparative investigation of the way that conservation banking and biodiversity offsetting practices are being conducted in the UK. These practices were framed in the UK government’s recent White Paper on the Environment as core new policies for permitting sustainable development.

Land and water markets in Africa

Low levels of industrial employment in much of sub-Saharan Africa mean that development policy in the region continues to be framed in terms of agricultural development. Yet this policy arena is marked by a sharply polarised debate on the commoditisation of land and water for agriculture. On the one hand access to land through customary land tenure is argued to provide a (non-commoditised) safety net providing a means of subsistence for the rural poor. On the other hand the creation of tradable private property rights in land is argued to be a pre-condition for capital investment to raise agricultural productivity. These contradictory valuation premises underlie that what constitutes agricultural development is contested and that the question of land values is inextricably linked to the development of other resources, notably water for agricultural use. This research is concerned with tracing the formal and informal processes by which land and water used in agriculture are quantified and valued, and the key actors involved in these contested processes.