As of 2019, close to 10% of the world’s population were living on less than $1.90 a day, and over a quarter faced moderate or severe food insecurity. 144 million children under the age of 5 were affected by stunted growth: three quarters of them lived in just two regions: Southern Asia (39 per cent) and sub-Saharan Africa (36 per cent) (UN Stats 2020). Of course, all of this was before the global coronavirus pandemic and war in Ukraine compounded existing inequalities with the effects of new chronic illness, widespread job losses, paralysed production chains and food price inflation. These harsh global realities make ongoing work to reflect on, revise and improve thinking about what we do in the name of ‘development’ of vital importance. Alongside recent trends to better harness the power of data for development and promote greater localization, one of the latest - and lesser-studied - methods being trialled across the development sector to help advance progress towards achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is ‘twinning’.

In the broadest possible sense, the notion of ‘twinning’ aims to capture an array of practices involving the establishment of sustained links between communities, usually - but not exclusively - located in different nation-states. Concretely, these relationships tend to involve an ongoing exchange of people, ideas and resources, albeit for different kinds of ends. In Western Europe, the notion of twinning has been most readily associated with the enormous peacebuilding effort which took place following World War Two and the promotion of sustained social and cultural connections between towns that had been on opposing sides of the war (Zelinsky 1991; Vion 2002; Langenohl 2017). Moving beyond the post-war period and the town twinning movement, the practice has been successfully adapted and redeployed in a variety of new contexts and for a range of purposes, from expressing political solidarity and anti-racism to promoting inter-city trade and global education (Clarke 2009, 2010; Ryan and Mazzilli 2021b; Ryan 2022). Existing scholarship from the fields of history, international relations and geography has chronicled these developments and transformations. Within this, twinning has been conceptualised in terms of cultural diplomacy (Zelinsky 1991), municipal internationalism (Vion 2002; Grosspietch 2009; Clarke 2009), paradiplomacy (Ryan and Mazzilli 2021a), fast policy (Clarke 2010), affective community (Ryan 2022) and even neo-imperialism (Papagaroufali 2005).

The relationship between twinning and development, however; and particularly the extent to which United Nations specialised agencies, programmes and funds have utilised twinning in their work, does not yet appear to have been systematically documented. Nonetheless, even a quick web-based survey reveals an abundance of recent examples. In 2016, the World Health Organisation (WHO) put together the Twinning Partnerships for Improvement (TPI) package which includes a raft of guidance for establishing institutional links between hospitals, clinics and primary care facilities in the wake of an epidemic or other shock to the healthcare system (WHO 2016). In 2019, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) proposed a Twinning of National Ozone Officers and Energy Policymakers for Energy Efficient and Climate Friendly Cooling. This initiative brought together National Ozone Officers (NOOs) from developing countries for a programme of peer-to-peer learning and exchange based around the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (UNEP 2019). Recently, The United National Development Programme (UNDP) has used twinning to aid newly merged federal districts in Pakistan bolster their capacity for governance (UNDP 2019); and, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has promoted a series of World Water Assessment Programme learning partnerships focussed on the role of women and girls in the provision, management and safeguarding of water (UNESCO 2017). In 2020 meanwhile, a United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) Twinning Programme was organised with a view to reflect on progress towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the conduct of Voluntary National Reviews (UNESCAP 2020).

Evidently, twinning is en vogue across the UN system. Over the last decade it has emerged as part of a wider repertoire of strategies designed to promote ‘good governance’ via knowledge exchange, collaboration and the sharing of best practice examples among professional counterparts and institutions. In other words, twinning is regarded as an effective and broadly replicable methodology for improving development outcomes, with a particular emphasis on building up human resources and technical capacity within governments and national bureaucracies. Generally, the twinning relationships in question are time-bound and target-driven. On the face of it, they are uncontroversial arrangements that draw people together to learn and reflect on the technical aspects of institution building and policy implementation. In this equation twinning is a tool for development. It has no ostensible history nor discernible ideology. And yet, as our paper endeavours to show, the relationship between twinning and development has not always looked this way.

Using a genealogical approach inspired by the work of social theorists from Foucault (1972, 1977, 1984) to Fraser and Gordon (1994), Koopman (2013) and Bourbeau (2018), we demonstrate that the modalities of twinning and development have in fact converged several times before with rather different outcomes, but which all point to a gradual loss of the overt political nature of the phenomenon and its relegation to a tool of neoliberal development discourse. Our paper traces the contours of three major episodic convergences of twinning and development which have occurred within the last 50 years. Each of these episodes reflects deeper shifts in the global political economy, with the practice of twinning variously mobilised in acts of acquiescence or resistance to mainstream development thinking.

The article advances both our empirical and theoretical understanding of twinning and development. On the one hand it illuminates understudied processes, relationships and phases in the trajectories of both development studies and the twinning movement. On the other, it illuminates just how a genealogical approach can be put to work to help denaturalise, contextualise and historicise current practice. It unpicks the current relationship between twinning and development by showing how and where different approaches have come to bear; and in so doing it reinforces the utility of genealogical methods for recovering alternative pathways, politics and practices of development.

Genealogy and the politics of disruption

In recent years, scholars of International Relations (IR), International Political Economy (IPE) and Development Studies (DS) have made a concerted effort to expand their fields of analysis and enhance their methodological toolkits to account for lives, spaces and experiences which have been marginalised from existing paradigms. Recognising the false promises of grand meta-theoretical designs (See Bleiker 1997; Kratochwil 2007), researchers exploring the political economy of the everyday (Enloe 1989; Hobson and Seabrooke 2007; Stanley and Jackson 2016), the politics of global supply chains (Macdonald 2014; Phillips 2017), and logistics and infrastructures (Khalili 2017; Langenohl and Westermeier 2022) have convincingly exemplified the need for more agile and flexible approaches that can trace the workings of capital across multiple sites, scales and temporalities. Meanwhile, feminist and post/decolonial works have expounded the pitfalls and violence of Eurocentric knowledge production and problematised the existing ‘canon’ of literature by exposing its reliance upon gendered and racialised discourses and structures (Tansel 2015; Elias and Roberts 2016; Tilley and Shilliam 2018). We situate our own modest intervention within this wider epistemic project to push IR, IPE - and particularly Development Studies - beyond its existing limits by illuminating heretofore unexamined sites of activity and experimenting with historical methods to scrutinise, unsettle and disrupt established discourse and practices. In this paper we adopt a genealogical approach to help achieve this.

Genealogy can be considered as both a historical perspective and investigative method. The approach derives from German philosophy, and particularly the works of Friedrich Nietzsche (On this see Bleiker 1997), but it is today perhaps most closely associated with the French social theorist and philosopher Michel Foucault. Qua Foucault, the aim of a genealogical study is to articulate “a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions” (Foucault, 1977:174) that tell us something new about our present circumstances. As Colin Koopman (2013:1) puts it, “genealogies articulate problems”. However, they do not articulate just any problem, they serve to focus our attention on “submerged problems”, or “those that condition us without our full understanding why or how” (ibid). The point of a genealogy then, is not to identify and address easily recognised problems, but rather to problematize things that are already perceived as normal, routine or unremarkable. Following Foucault, the point of a genealogy is to denaturalize received wisdom and account for the ways that aspects of contemporary knowledge and practice so easily taken as ‘natural’ have in fact been composed, moulded, and conditioned through acts and omissions that are always, at their heart, political. Moving beyond the meditations of Nietzsche and Foucault, a huge variety of contemporary scholars have put genealogical methods to work in their research. In their landmark work on welfare dependency, Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon (1994) use a genealogical method to excavate some of the tacit assumptions and negative connotations that the term ‘dependency’ carries in the United States today: connotations that are normally unspoken but entail very real consequences for people’s economic and social lives. In the same year Christine Sylvester revisited paradigmatic debates in the field of IR in order to tease out the consequences of their failure to take women and gender seriously. Much more recently, Phillippe Bourbeau (2018) has examined the concept of ‘resilience’, which has become a ubiquitous theme in the public policy realm and various sub-fields of world politics. Bourbeau’s genealogy traces how a particular genesis story linking resilience to the field of ecology has been repeated and mainstreamed, with the effect that alternative multidisciplinary perspectives, together with their attendant tools and potentials, have been sidelined or neglected.

Several threads or concerns animate these scholars and their works. The first is, as Bleiker (1997:61) puts it, “the quest to find out where the ideas and underlying principles that influence our life emanated from”. This quest is undertaken, not to construct a monolithic new genesis story, but rather to prompt scrutiny and reflection with regards to apparently unchanging or unchangeable artefacts and aspects of political life. The second unifying quality of these works is their keen sensitivity to the performative and constitutive power of discourse: the ways that particular speech acts, representations and utterances have come to intervene in and actively shape what we see, hear and perceive as ‘true’. As Franzosi (1998), Koopmans and Olzak (2004), and Boswell et al. (2011) all remind us, historical ‘evidence’, testimony and theory are far from being value-neutral. They tend to draw down from and reaffirm existing patterns of thought, which in turn reflect relations of power. One of the main tasks of genealogy then is to disrupt well-established discourses and expose that power.

Genealogies can be conducted in different ways and for subtly different ends: “…different genealogists address themselves to our different problematizations in different ways: some denounce them as deficiencies, others applaud them as achievements, and some remain content to illuminate difficulties we have always had some sense of but have not had a sense of how to articulate” (Koopman (2013: 2). For our purposes, genealogy provides a particularly useful mode of inquiry into the relationship between ‘twinning’ and ‘development’. This is due to its ability to expose the inherent instability of these discursive markers or ‘key words’ and illuminate how, over time, they have each been shaped by varying normative aspirations, ideological claims and orienting discourses.

Our genealogy chiefly relies on material that was gathered during an Economic and Social Research Council funded project on twinning. Although our project was initially concerned with situating twinning within the ambit of scholarship on civil society and everyday politics, our research soon revealed a significant number of heretofore unexplored examples of twinning practice that were quite clearly articulated as a challenge, addendum or complement to international development work. As scholars of International Relations and Development, this of course piqued our interest, and we started to catalogue and collate mentions of twinning and development across our emerging corpus of empirical work and to seek out new leads where relevant. Our genealogy is thus informed by qualitative data that we gleaned from semi-structured interviews with state and non-state actors whose work and experience of twinning cut across the field of development: these individuals ranged in positionality from local volunteers with “North-South” twinning, linking and friendship associations, to local government officials and programme officers working for specialised funds and agencies of the United Nations. It is also informed by a detailed review of organisational websites, reports and UN Resolutions linking the key words of twinning (or ‘linking’, for reasons explained later on) and development; as well as, reports and ephemera from the uncatalogued archives of several twinning associations. Altogether these materials have allowed us to reconstruct a loose chronology of the relationship between twinning and development and to identify periods of heightened activity, contestation and change that are suggestive of three major episodic convergences.

Our study reaffirms the validity and usefulness of Foucauldian-inspired genealogies in the sphere of development studies. It demonstrates that, by problematising the particular rendering of twinning now adopted across the UN system, it is possible to peel back the apolitical veneer that has been applied to what is, at root, an ideologically varied and manifestly political practice. Thus, our work has interesting parallels with Bourbeau’s work on ‘resilience’. Bourbeau’s genealogy reveals how an apolitical framing of the term ‘resilience’ resulted in its mainstreaming within development circles. We suggest that a similar phenomenon has occurred with twinning. While we are not concerned with finding a new theoretical orthodoxy apropos of twinning and development per se, what our work does do is expose the political nature of the hidden assumptions and discursive power plays that have led us to the current conjecture.

Re-reading twinning in/for/against development?

The emergence of ‘development’ as a distinct political project in the twentieth century is quite often associated with the inaugural speech of former US President Harry Truman. In 1949, Truman famously set out his vision for US foreign policy in the post-World War Two era, proclaiming that the time had come to “embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas” across the globe. Truman’s vision for a more equal world was grounded on the belief that industrial progress via incorporation to the global economy would help to lift so-called ‘underdeveloped areas’ out of poverty and thereby contribute to the broader goal of world peace. His perspective derived, in large part, from arguments about the gains from free trade put forth in the 18th century by classical liberal economists, Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

Representing the mainstream doxa, this neo-liberal (in the sense that it recuperates ideas from classical liberalism) discourse has guided development thinking for much of the past century (Selwyn 2011). Nonetheless, the precise contours and content of neo-liberal thinking have varied greatly over time. Earlier proponents of export or trade-led growth - Truman included - largely recognised the need for forms of state intervention to kick start and accelerate growth. However, in the latter part of the twentieth century, major proponents of neo-liberal economics took on the more extreme premises that a minimal state and unencumbered competition in free markets would optimise growth, efficiency and social gains for all. In this view, the role of government was to be confined to creating and defending the ideal conditions for markets to thrive. These ideas are often associated with the Chicago-based economist Milton Friedman and his followers but they have earlier origins and antecedents in the works of Friedrich von Hayek and the Mont Pelerin Society (Kiely 2018; Mirowski and Plehwe 2015; Plehwe et al 2020). Following the ‘debt crisis’ of the 1980s, which threw much of the developing world into a long and hard period of recession, these ideas came to dominate thinking within the major International Financial Institutions (IFIs) who attached loan conditions to domestic reforms that would ‘open up’ developing states to market competition and thereby allow them to ‘follow in the footsteps’ of the industrialised world.

Ideas about the gains from free trade and marketisation have not gone uncontested. At various junctures, dissenting voices have emerged from different theoretical persuasions and corners of the globe. From as early as the 1950s, economists from Latin America and the Caribbean pointed to continuities between the extractive economic model that structured relations between empires and colonial nations and the emerging terms of trade which looked set to lock postcolonial states into low-tech, low-value economic activity (Prebisch 1949, 1981). The work of Prebisch and his contemporaries at The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC/CEPAL) was followed in the 1960s and 1970s by Dependency and World Systems Theorists who developed these ideas into a more dynamic model that gestured towards an exploitative global division of labour that had been consolidated over centuries of colonial and capitalist domination (Arghiri 1972; Frank 1969; Wallerstein 1974). The favoured antidote and antithesis to the inequities of free trade and marketisation has usually been a return to the state, and often to ideas attributed to another 18th century thinker, Georg Friedrich List. List is best known for his arguments around infant industry protection and the recognition that countries in their early stages of industrialization are not yet equipped to compete internationally with those that have advanced manufactures. Palimpsests of List’s ideas can be found in the works of many contemporary economic planners and observers from China’s Xi Jing Ping and Argentina’s Alberto Fernandez to Ha Joon Chang (2002) and Joseph Stiglitz (2002).

Despite their best efforts to do and think about development differently, Listian advocates share a common conjecture with their pro-free trade and neo-liberal counterparts. That is, the baseline assumption that, if states could just pursue the ‘correct’ catalogue of policies, they would be able to progress away from non-productive economic activities to gain a rightful place in the modern industrialised world (Burkett and Hart-Landsberg 2003; Selwyn 2011; Antunes de Oliveira 2020). The seeming inability to escape a teleological view that figures the Global North as some kind of aspirational model, has led some scholars to argue that we should do away with the enterprise of ‘development’ altogether. As post-development theorists such as Escobar (1995) and Ziai (2016) have argued, the discourse of development resurrects the logic of ‘civilising missions’ from the colonial era and reproduces its violence. From Truman to the workings of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organisation, these scholars demonstrate how policy prescriptions remain inflected with paternalistic assumptions: the notion that people in formerly colonised states remain imperilled and unable to improve their lot by themselves. They must be made similar - and hence equal - by following guidance and patterns set by the rich, industrialised world.

The tensions between neo-liberal, Listian and post-development perspectives demonstrate how one concept, mark or signifier can be subject to competing interpretations. Academics have established neat ways of organising and categorising these debates but things often get a lot messier when our theories brush up against the complexities and contradictions of lived politics. ‘Development’ is thus a contested and contestable discursive terrain, one in which various actors – local communities, international agencies, academics, NGOs, and governments – continue to vie for influence, albeit on very unequal terms. A more thorough excavation of the history of twinning and development helps to further reveal these tensions, problematising the phenomenon of twinning in development and, in the process, illuminating some of the latent alternatives that have been trialled and later subsumed by

new ideological master frames and orienting discourses. Twinning - as our genealogy reveals - has at different junctures been posed as a means towards achieving development, but over time the practice has been gradually blunted and depoliticised within development thinking.

In the section that follows, we observe the different ways in which ideas about development and twinning have come into contact, identifying three distinct phases of activity. The first one of these dates back to the 1970s, when two parallel movements began to promote twinning as a strategy for improving the lot and condition of postcolonial states. In the wider context of the Global Cold War, top-down efforts to connect localities were mirrored by another more ‘grassroots’ movement that saw the emergence of twinning in the name of international solidarity, democracy, human rights, and anti-imperialism. A second phase of activity began in the wake of the Cold War and stretched to roughly 2010. This phase of activity saw the consolidation of a more unified North-South twinning movement which gathered momentum and gained political space by adopting the master frame of Sustainable Development at the expense of more heterodox and radical approaches. The third and last phase of activity started in the early 2010s and is still ongoing. This final convergence has been shaped by the consolidation of a neoliberal development paradigm and the shift from more holistic twinning agendas to more ‘precise’ technical goals that are subject to targets and measures.

Three episodic convergences of twinning and development

The first phase of convergence (1970‒1985)

The relationship between twinning and development can be traced back to the 1970s when several political and socio-economic processes converged to reorient the trajectory of twinning practice and the work of major international governmental and non-governmental actors away from Europe and towards the decolonised or ‘developing’ world. These efforts first emerged within the United Towns Organisation (UTO), an entity originally founded in 1951 by campaigners committed to the promotion and preservation of the English-French bilingualism. The UTO, like its regional counterpart the Council for European Municipalities and Regions, had been founded in the aftermath of World War Two, with the goal of sustaining peace among nations by building up more granular social and cultural connections between peoples and communities (ie. building a ‘positive peace’ qua Galtung 2011). However, while the CEMR focussed its efforts on intra-European peace and reconciliation, the United Towns Organizations (UTO) set its sights on the emerging Cold War divide as well as the stark and growing division between the so-called ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ worlds in the wake of decolonisation of large parts of Africa, South Asia, the Caribbean and the Middle East (Clarke 2010).

The UTO began to promote twinning as an activity that could bridge these chasms and enable towns/cities to cooperate, even in the event of growing antagonism between national governments. Cities of the USSR played an active role in the UTO and by 1970, more than 120 Soviet urban centres had developed fraternal relations with counterparts in capitalist and developing countries. The UTO’s endeavour to encourage friendships across the ‘iron curtain’ led to some discord with the CEMR and resulted in the organisation being accused of ‘harbouring Communist sympathies’ (Clarke ibid.). Historians note that relations between the CEMR and UTO organisations deteriorated over the next two decades as they carved out different pathways and ideological underpinnings for their twinning work. While the CEMR remained focussed on Europe, the UTO worked increasingly at the global level, attaining NGO consultative status with the United Nations General Assembly’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Under the auspices of the UTO, European states lent financial and other forms of assistance to communities located in recently decolonised states. By the 1970s the UTO had successfully united local leaders from more than 1,000 cities across Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas and it acted as a kind of ‘switchboard’ or ‘clearing house’ for municipal leaders to connect internationally. The UTO became the major force behind United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2861 (1971) on “Town twinning as a means of international cooperation”. This Resolution is among the first major international documents to elaborate and avow the potential benefits of twinning between the industrialised world and those in so-called developing countries, considering that:

…if carried out between towns in industrialised countries and those in developing countries, twinning affords, in addition to the intellectual and spiritual enrichment of those parties to it, technical and material support for growing towns….

The Resolution affirms that the international cooperation of local bodies can play an important role both in terms of bringing peoples together and boosting the ‘universal’ values embodied in the UN Charter. It also calls on the UN Secretary General to enable local and regional bodies to play a more active role in development planning.

Ultimately, the work of the UTO at the United Nations was an endeavour to embed a global twinning project from the top-down. Given its work to attenuate Cold War divisions, the UTO towed a careful line ideologically and its approach to development was neither overtly aligned to neo-liberal nor Listian forms of political economy and state-building. Nonetheless, there was an implied belief that the long-term, place-based partnerships embodied in twinning could complement existing poverty reduction strategies and facilitate in the transfer of intellectual and cultural resources, wealth and skills from North to South. In this way, the UTO’s work was aligned with the prevailing intellectual paradigm and thus reflected its various teleological and Eurocentric trappings.

Whilst the UTO pursued its work programme on twinning with national and municipal leaders operating at the global level, our archival research and interviews intimate that a set of parallel processes were under way translocally (by which we mean beyond and below the state) to widen the ideological scope and utility of twinning as an everyday international practice. Thus, the 1970s and 1980s also witnessed the emergence of a variety of more politicised grassroots initiatives: projects that self-consciously appropriated the twinning model to find new ways of targeting structural inequalities between communities in industrialised North and Global South. In Western Europe and the United States, some of these new links emerged as a tool or strategy of leftist social movements and solidarity campaigns and were directly influenced by Marxist-socialist and anticolonial thinking. One of the most notable and enduring examples is the multiplicity of relationships made with towns and communities in Nicaragua after the 1979 Sandinista Revolution. These links became a conduit for material and rhetorical support to flow to Nicaraguan communities as they endured the US-backed contra war and pursued an alternative path for development inspired by the eclectic ideological melting pot of revolutionary Sandinismo. Inspired in part by the idea of ‘protective witnessing’, the intense international interest channelled toward Nicaraguan towns and cities that were ‘twinned’ was thought to provide a semblance of security for civilian homes and infrastructure. Meanwhile, skills-based delegations were mobilised to assist with healthcare, education and other vital services that had been affected by the war (Ryan 2022).

Other grassroots links (particularly in the UK and Western Germany) emerged in reaction to the debt crisis of the 1980s and the catalogue of harsh neo-liberal ‘adjustments’ which followed at the behest of the International Financial Institutions. Springing from a motley assemblage of local reading groups, diasporic communities, activist circles and church assemblies, these unlikely internationalists had been galvanised by publications like Oxfam’s ‘A Picture of Poverty’ (1979), ‘Nicaragua: The Threat of a Good Example’ (1989) and ‘The Caribbean: Making Our Own Choices’ (1990) which persuasively argued that the free market could not provide a remedy to global inequality and showcased the ways that Southern communities had carved out their own cultures of resistance and survival against centuries of dispossession. Also (perhaps surprisingly) influential was ‘The Brandt Report’ of 1980 which called for renewed cooperation locally and globally to address the growing gap between North and South (Centre for Global Negotiation, 2007; Maurice 2020).

For the community activists who mobilised to form these connections, there was a general sense in which existing approaches to ‘development’, driven by the imperative to deregulate and open vulnerable economies to fluctuating global markets, were failing the world’s poor (Maurice 2020). In this context, open-ended community partnerships including Warwick-Bo, Hull-Freetown, Marlborough-Gunjur and Tower Hamlets-Western Sahara were established. These relationships bypassed the existing bilateral frameworks and aid commitments of national governments in order to establish more direct and urgent channels of contact and cooperation between local communities. Moreover, articulating concerns about the heavily institutional emphasis of the existing ‘twinning’ model, some of these North-South partnerships saw fit to eschew the language of ‘twinning’ in favour of the term ‘linking’ (Interview conducted by the author(s) with Jane Knight, Founder of One World Link (linking Bo in Sierra Leone and Leamington, United Kingdom), Warwick, 2019). From the mid 1980s a variety of grassroots led North-South linking initiatives came together to form umbrella organisations, such as the United Kingdom One World Linking Association (UKOWLA). UKOWLA was a registered charity, established with goals to promote and sustain community partnerships between the UK and the rest of the world, particularly in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America (UKOWLA, 2007). It operated as a knowledge-sharing forum, holding annual conferences and periodic reports on twinning and linking. One of UKOWLA’s main preoccupations was finding new ways to enhance the voice and visibility of Southern partner communities who often faced barriers to meaningful participation in development planning. UKOWLA-affiliated links were generally united by a desire to overturn the global hierarchies which situated ‘The North’ as a font of knowledge, wealth and expertise; and ‘The South’ as a recipient or beneficiary ‘Other’ characterised by want. They were not altogether successful in this aim but nonetheless, through these experiences, many enduring translocal friendships and bonds of care were formed between communities that were otherwise divided by geographical distance, wealth and culture.

In sum, during this first phase of convergence, it is possible to witness the germination of two different pathways or approaches towards the relationship between twinning and development. One of these was ostensibly aligned with mainstream, teleological understandings of development. The other emerged from a position of frustration with the status quo and sought to generate political opposition to the existing paradigm from the local - or rather a multitude of local - levels. In this pathway, twinning attained a contentious character and the objectives of the protagonists remained overtly political – pushing for political change, expressing solidarity with groups fighting oppression, and attempting to overturn colonial logics by promoting an ethic of reciprocity. However, looming geopolitical changes and a new orienting discourse would serve to transform much of this oppositional energy into something qualitatively new.

The second phase of convergence: 1990‒2005

The second phase we examine is marked by a growing formalisation and increasing conjunction of the two pathways for twinning and development that we identified in the previous section. There were several events and wider discursive shifts that took place to form the backdrop for these changes. Indeed, the international political arena of the 1990s and early 2000s was shaped by the temporary(?) cessation of Cold War hostilities and a renewed optimism for global peace and prosperity. Sometimes described in terms of the ‘unipolar moment’ (Krauthammer 1990; 2002), this period was characterised by the emergence of the United States as the major world superpower and the growing dominance of free-market Capitalism as the leading economic discourse, together with greater international cooperation on issues of global concern, from poverty, inequality and forced displacement to labour standards, environmental degradation, and climate change.

Before long, many of these issues were captured within the ambit of a new orienting discourse or master frame: Sustainable Development (SD). The concept of Sustainable Development was popularised in the early 1990s following the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the widespread adoption of the Agenda 21 plan of action. As Benford (2013) writes, a discursive master frame entails connotations and attributions that are sufficiently elastic, flexible, and inclusive that any number of political actors and movements can adopt and conform to it. The discourse of Sustainable Development fulfilled these criteria by merging social development and ecologial theories with a broad recognition of the uneasy trade-off between national processes of industrialisation and local/national/global calls to address looming environmental crises (Vanhulst and Beling 2014). It successfully harnessed the political momentum provided by the ‘unipolar moment’ to move governments away from siloed thinking towards a renewed global commitment to tackling poverty and inequality in a manner that would preserve ecosystems and habitats for future generations to enjoy. Enshrined in the Millennium Declaration, Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and later the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Sustainable Development became a central axis in national and international policy design, infiltrating donor agendas and therefore shaping the working practices and project designs of corporate and civil society bodies (ibid).

These included North-South twinning and linking partnerships, many of which began to undergo a process of up-scaling, formalisation and transformation in this period. This could be observed, for example, with some of the aforementioned UK-Nicaragua twinnings, whose emphasis changed from political solidarity to sustainability following the 1990 electoral defeat of the Sandinistas. With an incoming government that was hostile to the political agenda of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) and its international allies, it was necessary to find a new lexicon and grammar for describing these links and their activities. Conveniently, the focus on community-based clean energy, sanitation, health, housing and education projects previously figured as ‘solidarity work’ fitted comfortably against the emerging Sustainable Development agenda and even granted access to new sources of project-based funding (among which included The British Council and the European Union).

Elsewhere in the twinning and linking movement, several of the actors that had been influential in the formation of UKOWLA came back together to pilot new initiatives that would expand the scope and breadth of their activities. Thus in 2002, “Connecting Communities”: A Conference for Action was held at Cumberland Lodge in the UK. The conference was framed as an opportunity for building on, celebrating and improving North-South community links. In effect however, it brought the linking movement more in line with mainstream development thinking and practice. The Marlborough Brandt Group (MBG) linking Marlborough (UK) to Gunjur (The Gambia) played a significant role in organising the event. MBG staff collated lists of existing North-South links across the UK and successfully brought together a wide pool of development actors to meditate on the future of linking for development. Participants included representatives from the Commonwealth Foundation, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Voluntary Service Overseas, Oxfam, The Development Education Association, Friendship North/South, UNDP, Abantu for Development, Southern Voices, Womankind, The British Council, as well as various city/borough councils and country ambassadors (Maurice 2020).

The first session of the conference was chaired by journalist Jon Snow, who had founded his own linking initiative “On the Line” at the turn of the Millennium. “On the Line” aimed to forge links between communities living in the same time zone along the Greenwich Meridian line. The Cumberland Lodge encounter renewed commitments to linking and culminated in two major developments. First, Kevin Barron (Former MP for the Rother Valley) left the Cumberland Lodge conference with a promise to set up an All Party Parliamentary Group, “Connecting Communities” which was formalised in 2003. The purpose of the APPG was to advocate on behalf of existing links at Government level, while helping to promote the potential of long-term place-based connections in fostering Sustainable Development. Second, the conference ushered into being a new organisation, Building Understanding Through International Links for Development (BUILD). Intended as the advocacy arm of the linking movement, BUILD sought and achieved Commonwealth Observer status which propelled it from a local, UK-based entity into the arena of international organisations (IO).

At the international level, BUILD would be counted among a number of other non-state twinning networks that were scaling up their work through interactions with different parts of the IO ecosystem. In 2003, for example, the US-based non-profit Sister Cities International (SCI) partnered with UN-Habitat and the World Bank Institute to launch the “Sister Cities Network for Sustainable Development” whose job was to promote “cross-cultural projects” that would be a catalyst for advancing sustainable development concepts throughout the world” and advance the “practice of sustainable development through long-term, sustainable relationships…” (United Nations 2022).

While these twinning networks were busily engaged in international processes which saw them draw somewhat closer to mainstream development thinking and practice, the IFI’s of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were also working behind the scenes to take stock of a looming crisis. By the mid 1990s it had become abundantly clear that the market-based stabilisation and structural adjustment policies that these organisations had promoted as an antidote to the debt-crisis of the 1980s had not delivered on their aims. Observers could point to a significant rise in unemployment, poverty, inequality, and the informal economy in many of the countries that had undertaken the prescribed neo-liberal reforms (Stiglitz 2002). The apparent failures of these reforms to deliver prosperity or stability prompted a process of reflection within the IMF and World Bank. A revised consensus emerged which suggested that global neo-liberalism could only succeed in an ideal governance environment. In other words, it was not the neo-liberal model that was to blame for the lack of progress, but rather the immature, corrupt and inefficient state administrations. As Demmers et al (2004:1) put it, ‘the call for less state was substituted by a call for a better state’. Hence, the notion of ‘good governance’ emerged, initially guiding the work of the World Bank, but gradually gaining ground across other development agencies and organisations.

Within the Bank, the influence of the good governance agenda can clearly be seen in the production of a 2004 report on twinning. Compiled by one of the Bank’s Evaluation experts, Fumika Ouchi, this extensive research paper collates examples of twinning in development. Quite notably however, it misses the work of burgeoning civil society networks such as UKOWLA, BUILD and SCI, instead focussing on a rather specific manifestation of twinning that had been trialled within the World Bank, the European Community (EC), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), and the Norwegian Agency for Development Co-operation (NORAD). Ouchi’s case selection, review and recommendations are focussed largely on the twinning of administrative branches within governments or IOs. The document is thus shaped by a strong underlying interest in capacity-building and knowledge exchange. It forms an evidence base for the merits of institutional twinning: a method whereby a ‘mature’ and ‘successful’ (usually) Northern institution, ministry or agency is partnered with an ‘immature’ Southern one. When we fast forward to the present day, this is the model that we can see popularised across the development sector.

Our genealogical exercise reveals how, from roughly 1990–2005, many of the grassroots twinning actors that became active in the 1970s and 1980s consolidated into wider networks and moved to situate their activities as part of the mainstream Sustainable Development agenda. Enabled by geopolitical transformations and discursive openings at the end of the Cold War, these actors managed to gain a platform within the national and international political arenas. The flexibility and inclusivity of the SD master frame, in particular, allowed them to pursue a holistic model of community linking, which emphasised long-term connections, tangible and intangible goals such as intercultural learning, friendship and understanding alongside (or as necessary to) efforts to redress structural inequality. Nonetheless, just as these grassroots networks were gaining ground within the IO ecosystem, an alternative agenda for twinning emerged within the World Bank. Efforts to build an evidence base for twinning as an institutional (rather than a holistic community- or place-based) practice signalled the beginnings of another important shift in the relationship between twinning and development: one fashioned by increasing technocratisation, results-oriented instrumentalism and the consolidation of neo-liberal managerialism as an outcrop or extension of ‘good governance’.

The third phase of convergence: (2010 to date)

As we alluded to in the earlier part of this paper, examples of time-limited, project-based institutional twinnings within the development sector have become numerous, especially in the period since 2010. In this time, The World Bank, UNDP, UNESCO, UNEP, and the WHO have all supported institutional twinnings as part of their project work. Although quite different in terms of emphasis, each of these initiatives employs twinning as part of a wider repertoire of strategies or tools designed to promote knowledge exchange, collaboration and the sharing of best practice among professional counterparts. As such, they invoke a model of twinning that is increasingly specific, task-oriented and technocratic. The third and final phase of convergence between twinning and development has therefore been marked by the increasing use of twinning as a replicable tool or methodology by varying parts of the IO ecosystem and the contemporaneous side-lining of politicised, long-term and holistic modalities of twinning in favour of a more depoliticised, short-termist and results-oriented approach.

This shift can be attributed in large part to the consolidation of a neo-liberal managerialist paradigm within the development sector. The turn to good governance in the 1990s is one part of this story. The agenda of good governance, as we argued above, was designed to address the perceived weaknesses of Southern governments and ‘fix’ perceived inadequacies that would inhibit the successful incorporation of these national economies to global markets. Another part of this story, however, is the rise of processes like benchmarking, tendering, auditing, the development of performance indicators and logframes within development agencies and the appeal to the broader technologies of managerialism to produce efficiency gains. This kind of ‘Results Based Management’ (RBM) was first trialled sporadically across the UN system and the World Bank Group in the 1990s as part of an effort to improve accountability (World Bank 2011; UNDG 2011). However, it was not really until after the launch of the MDG’s in 2000 that global interest converged around improving systems for collecting data on implementation/progress towards the goals. This was regarded as an even more urgent task in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis and the corresponding rise in nationalism(s), austerity and insular political mandates that posed a direct threat to ongoing multilaterial efforts and donor funding. Our document search suggests that a systemic review of RBM coincided with the financial crisis, and in the wake of this, resources were directed towards harmonizing and cascading the language of RBM throughout the UN’s funds and specialised agencies (UNDG 2011). As a part of this recalibration, there was – and remains – a growing emphasis on nurturing projects that are ‘SMART’. That is: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic/Relevant and Time-bound. As such, when the global platform for Partnership for the SDG’s was launched (a registry listing civil society commitments vis-à-vis the 17 goals), following the 2012 Rio +20 conference, one of the new requirements for civil society organisations making voluntary commitments to the goals was that they align themselves with SMART deliverables.

As this shift to neo-liberal managerialism has waxed internationally, the grassroots twinning networks that blossomed around the turn of the millennium have waned in influence. The avowed benefits of auditing, performance indicators and SMART goals are described in terms of improved monitoring and evaluation, including better calculating progress, demonstrating ‘impact’ to donors and flagging ailing projects. Although presented as ‘apolitical’, these changes are reflective and enabling of a neo-liberal logic that privileges competition, marketisation and quantifiable outcomes (Harvey 2007; Colas 2005). The consequence of this, Hulme (2007) and Harvey (2007) convincingly argue, is that the increased focus on things we can measure has often led to a reduced interest in goals that are harder to quantify such as human rights and protection, intercultural understanding, participation and democracy. This critical insight takes on a particular relevance with respect to the relationship between twinning and development since the desire to produce a tidy, timely audit trail occludes the generative possibilities seen with more open-ended, politicised and/or community-centred approaches that have dominated this landscape historically. Unable – and perhaps just as unwilling – to adapt their approach to twinning and development for a more technocratic ‘fit’, the aforementioned twinning associations and networks have found increasingly few platforms and opportunities to advance their more holistic agenda for development. As of 2022, UKOWLA has become inactive and the APPG “Connecting Communities” is no more. BUILD retains its Commonwealth observer status but no longer has the power of the zeitgeist to help push its agenda. Even the comparably well-resourced Sister Cities International has made relatively little recent inroads in the development space. Whilst SCI’s Sister Cities Network for Sustainable Development does appear in the United Nations Partnership for SDG’s platform, it appears to fall foul of SMART auditing requirements and has therefore logged no recent activity.

In sum, this phase of activity has been dominated by the rise of a very particular mode of twinning that links professional counterparts for time-limited and goal-oriented peer-to-peer learning experiences. Although these relationships are ostensibly apolitical and focussed on building up human resources and producing gains in bureaucratic capacity, they reflect two unspoken but manifestly political aspirations. The first is the desire to produce efficient, timely, quantifiable results. In this regard twinning is figured as a tool or device with a neoliberal managerial logic at its core. The second is the objective of transferring knowledge, skills and ‘best practice’ from Northern to Southern offices and personnel. Fundamentally, this reinforces existing global hierarchies by implying that the institutional cultures, processes and practices patterned by the Global North offer not just possible, but preferable trajectories for other states to follow.

Discussion and conclusion

Our genealogy has unpacked and illuminated the historical circumstances and politico-economic conditions under which the discourses of twinning and sustainable development have previously converged. We identified three key phases of activity during which twinning and development have been brought together, albeit in different ways. The first phase broadly encompasses the 1970s and 1980s, during which two parallel approaches to twinning and development emerged. A top-down pathway driven by municipal and national leaders active within the UTO was mirrored by a more grassroots approach that promoted twinning or ‘linking’ as an expression of international solidarity, anti-imperialism and, fundamentally, as a place to explore alternatives to the dominant development paradigm. A second key phase of activity began in the mid 1990s, stretching to roughly 2005, and was characterised as a period during which twinning and development initiatives converged around the orienting discourse of Sustainable Development. During this phase, many of the aforementioned ‘grassroots’, twinning and linking actors came together under the banner of SD, extending their networks and launching new initiatives to propel themselves into the wider IO ecosystem. The third and last phase of activity can be traced back to 2010 and is still ongoing. This final convergence of twinning and development has been characterised by a shift from the more long-term holistic agendas of grassroots twinning actors to the pursuit of more ‘precise’, technical goals by IOs. As such, is it increasingly common to see IOs put twinning to work as a ‘novel’ methodology for peer-to-peer learning between institutions. These interventions are generally time-bound, depoliticised and developed with quantifiable targets in mind. Our genealogy suggests that this approach to twinning is an outcrop or extension of concerns around good governance in the 1990s and is thus connected with the ascendance of neoliberal managerialism across the development sector.

As we suggested at the outset, one of the main benefits of the genealogical approach adopted in this paper is that it makes it possible to denaturalise and historicise current practice. Specifically, by tracing the lineage of twinning and development we have been able to emplot the range of political events, discursive shifts and contingencies that have brought us to the present juncture. As we have shown, the intertwined histories of twinning and development have been shaped directly and indirectly by some of the major global political events of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: from decolonisation and the Cold War to ‘the unipolar moment’ around the turn of the new Millennium and the fallout from the 2007/2008 global financial crisis. Perhaps even more important than the events themselves however, has been the emergence of crucial orienting discourses or master frames that have variously opened up or closed down the pathways and potentialities for twinning and development practice to come together. From our study, we can see this most clearly with the discourses of Sustainable Development, Good Governance and the precepts of Neo-liberal Managerialism. Whilst the SD discourse was reasonably inclusive and therefore compatible with open-ended and holistic visions of twinning and linking practice, the requirements of benchmarking, tendering, auditing linked to the rise of Results Based Management have been hard if not impossible to meet in a conventional twinning/linking arrangement and have led, ultimately, to more holistic approaches being increasingly sidelined by IOs working within the development space.

Our study reaffirms the validity and usefulness of genealogy as an investigative method and highlights the constitutive power of discourse. It demonstrates that by problematising current practice around twinning in development, it is possible to demonstrate how, over time, twinning has been gradually blunted and depoliticised as it has been turned into a tool for development. Our genealogical exercise also revealed some of the alternative ideals, principles and trajectories linking twinning and development that have informed past actions but are not reflected in current practice. Most notably, this includes the socialist, solidarist and anti-colonial ideals that characterised some of the earliest ‘grassroots’ links in the 1970s. Excavating these kinds of examples makes it possible to envision and possibly even recover options for twinning and development that are distinct from the depoliticised and technocratic model that currently dominates within the IO ecosystem and the teleological development paradigm in which we currently operate.

While our paper has identified three phases of convergence, and while there has been a gradual shift towards the ‘technocratisation’ of twinning, the story of the phenomenon is not yet complete. The post-COVID world is riven with instability and uncertainty, with myriad political and social movements once again competing for space and searching for allyship in a multipolar world. The beauty of genealogy is that it pries open the door of history to show that there are – and always have been – alternatives to the status quo. It also reminds us, crucially, that the status quo rests on a series of uneasy compromises, accommodations and exclusions.