The Leverhulme Centre for the Study of Value (LCSV)

This centre has explored 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.

Using a range of theoretical perspectives, methodological approaches and field experiences, we investigated how calculative rationality, accounting ‘devices’, notional values and value framings were, and still are, increasingly incorporating ever more entities into socially articulated markets and spaces. We identified the effects these processes have on the wellbeing of people and the non-human environment. 

The project was led by Professor Sarah Bracking, in collaboration with Professor Philip Woodhouse (Director of LCSV), Co-Investigator Professor Sian Sullivan, Research Associates Dr Aurora Fredriksen and Dr Elisa Greco, and an international team of collaborating researchers and post-graduate students based at The University of Manchester, Birkbeck, The University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa and The University of Virginia, United States.

The project began in 2012, generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust

Research Themes

Under the umbrella project Human, non-human and environmental values: an impossible frontier? we have carried out research under five separate themes, concerned with the ways people and the non-human world are valued in the humanitarian, development, environmental and agricultural fields.

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 considered the calculation and performance of value in several key areas of development policy and intervention. These included: South African case studies of Black Economic Empowerment and infrastructural development as illustrative cases of private sector development; and also research exploring the UK Department of International Development’s ’ assessment of ‘value for money’ in its development and humanitarian funding in the public sector. In each of these cases, particular attention was given to how the concept of value is produced and framed by particular impact measurement technologies and how this ‘value’ related to social and economic harm, care, and change.

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

During the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban in 2011, The Green Climate Fund (GCF) was established, 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 were in the early processes of establishment when the LCSV began, and presented an opportunity to explore how value in climate finance would be made. The GCF is now 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 is still not well understood – and was less so back in 2012 -  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 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 examined 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 or undermine economic opportunities for others, and yet the context of expendable people is not well understood.

This project examined 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 was supported by an empirical case study of people living with HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe, which explored how the value – or lack thereof – of  people effectively risked conferring on them an allowable death.

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

Efforts to make the value of non-human nature legible in cost-benefit decisions regarding economic development are a significant concern in environmental management for conservation. 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 ’internalised’ in terms of equivalent and apparently commensurable monetary representations. These efforts 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 explored these processes through the particular cases 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 abstraction of species from the eco-systemic fabric in which they are embedded, and for the foreclosure of non-marketised motivations for valuing non-human nature.

Two cognate case studies analysed how non-human nature is being incorporated into monetary valuation practices by means of formal property arrangements and particular efficiency and rationality assumptions. The first engaged with recent reframing of conservation endeavour in north-west Namibia in terms of Payments for Ecosystem Services. A particular focus is how value is being calculated and assigned to this particular conservation landscape, and the implications this has for use- and intrinsic values for these same natures as well as for different customary value and tenure practices. The second case study involved a comparative investigation of the way that conservation banking and biodiversity offsetting policies and practices are being conceptualised and enacted 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 a contestation of what constitutes agricultural development. They also mean 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.

Over-arching Conclusions

(see ‘Valuing Development, Environment and Conservation: Creating Values that Matter’ (eds: S. Bracking, A Fredriksen, S. Sullivan and P. Woodhouse) Routledge 2019.

Examples of valuation systems being newly proposed, assembled and deployed are increasingly encountered in the fields of development, environment and conservation. The valuation practices of different cases range widely in form – from the formalised financial instruments of carbon markets, to the fluid qualitative assessments performing ‘value for money’ at UK DfID, to the many more or less explicit economic valuation systems in between. However, one feature is strikingly common: these newly economic systems are often not working in the smooth, self-contained way imagined by both proponents and opponents of establishing the relative worth of things through economic valuations. This indicates limitations to economic valuation of development, environment and conservation. We identify these limits in terms of commensurability, measurement, resistance and contestation through political power struggles.

Limits of commensurability

Economic valuation can be seen in terms of ‘pacifying’ the thing which is to be commodified - such as habitats or species - or in terms of viewing the same thing as commensurate in different places and context, such as water. Limitations are illustrated by the efforts to make different gases commensurable in order to underpin the UNFCCC conversion factors used to transform diverse types of emissions into tonnes of carbon equivalent. While initially a successful concept, efforts to extend it across sites, factories, mines, forests and so forth to enable trade, showed it lacked the degree of measurability and trust required to uphold a market.

Limits of measurement and measurability

Limits to commensurability outlined above are in part an outcome of the limits to measurement and measurability. Our case studies show an inherent vitality of people and things that makes it difficult for them to be drawn into domains of measurement demanded by formal economic valuation. Such efforts to calculate economic worth are thus constantly and iteratively experimented, never really working, but never really failing either, often requiring new calculations whose representation of worth are continually negotiated and contested.

As a consequence, instead of measurement creating certainty, precision and predictability, there is tendency towards a multiplicity of competing techniques of measurement and valuation, as different users of calculative devices vie for ownership of a generalisable and dominant calculative device. The act of measurement has thus become an end in itself and in the context of the global political economy, the successful launch of an index, measurement system, algorithm or equation can lead to opportunities for authority, expertism and, ultimately, profit. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our case studies have shown that despite numerous limits encountered, efforts to assign worth through economic valuation have not been abandoned but seem to encourage ever more iterations of economic values and economising practices.

Resistance and power

At the level of our case studies, however, the various processes of valuation share a governance feature, in that they all change the mode or technology of power in use such that they depoliticise a particular issue by rendering its logic and calculability into an exclusively technical question. In other words, valuation processes tend to frame an issue in such a way that explicit political contestation, which could be expressed in argument and discussion, is removed from the context. If this ‘rendering technical’ serves to mask the exercise of power, then a more explicitly political discussion of values while not preventing the exercise of power, will make it more transparent who is doing what to whom. The question is then whether such transparency may, in turn, improve the technical and calculative quality of processes and devices within valuation assemblages.

Key Publications

Valuing Development, Environment and Conservation: Creating Values that Matter’ (eds: S. Bracking, A Fredriksen, S. Sullivan and P. Woodhouse) was published by Routledge in 2019. It will be available in paperback (ISBN 9780367665005) from 30 September 2020.

Journal articles

Bracking, S. (2015) Performativity in the Green Economy: how far does climate finance create a fictive economy? Third World Quarterly, 36, 11.

Bracking, S. (2015). The anti-politics of the Green Climate Fund: what is left to negotiate? in Temper L., and Gilbertson T., (eds). Refocusing resistance to climate justice: COPing in, COPing out and beyond Paris, EJOLT report no. 23, 2015, pages 34-41

Bracking, S. (2019) Financialisation, climate finance and the calculative challenges of managing environmental changeAntipode: a radical journal of geography. 51 (3) : 709-729

Bracking, S (2019) Black economic empowerment policy in eThekwini, Durban, South Africa: economic justice, economic fraud and 'leaving money on the table' ,  Review of African Political Economy.   46, 161, p. 415-441.   

Bracking, S (2019) Financialization and the Environmental Frontier. In:Mader, P., Mertens, D. & van der Zwan, N. (Eds) The Routledge International Handbook of Financialization.  London: Routledge, p. 213-223 

Carver, L. and Sullivan, S. 2017 How economic contexts shape calculations of yield in biodiversity offsetting. Conservation Biology 31(5): 1053–1065.

Fredriksen, A. (2019) Valuing Species: The Continuities between Non-Market and Market Valuations in Biodiversity Conservation. Valuation Studies 5 (1), 39-59.

Peters, R. and Woodhouse, P (2019) Reform and Regression: Discourses of Water Reallocation in Mpumalanga, South Africa. Water Alternatives  12(3): 853-868.

Sullivan, S. 2016 Nature is being renamed ‘natural capital’ – but is it really the planet that will profit? The Conversation 13 September 2016

Sullivan, S. 2016 Beyond the money shot; or how framing nature matters? Locating Green at Wildscreen. Journal of Environmental Communications 10(6): 749-762, Special issue entitled ‘Spectacular Environmentalisms/Environments’.

Sullivan, S. 2017 What’s ontology got to do with it? On nature and knowledge in a political ecology of ‘the green economy’. Journal of Political Ecology 24: 217-242,

Sullivan, S. 2017 Natural capital, fairytales and ideology. Invited Review Essay, Development and Change 48(2): 397-423.

Sullivan, S. 2017 Noting some effects of fabricating ‘nature’ as ‘natural capital’. The Ecological Citizen 1(1): 65-73.

Sullivan, S. and Hannis, M. 2017 ‘Mathematics maybe, but not money‘: on balance sheets, numbers and nature in ecological accounting. Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal 30(7): 1459-1480

Sullivan, S. 2017 The disvalues of alienated capitalist natures. Invited commentary on Kay, K. and Kenney-Lazar, M. 2017 Value in capitalist nature: an emerging framework. Dialogues in Human Geography 7(3) 310–313.

Sullivan, S. 2018 Making nature investable: from legibility to leverageability in fabricating ‘nature’ as ‘natural capital’. Science and Technology Studies 31(3): 47-76.

Woodhouse, P and Muller, M (2017) Water Governance – an historical perspective on current debates. World Development 92:225–241

LCSV Working Paper Series

The outputs from this project and the five research areas listed above have been collated in an LCSV Working Paper Series.

Please note: this working paper series has now been discontinued and archived, meaning no more papers will be published in the series and that users should refer directly to the paper’s authors for further information on specific papers

13/2015 – Calculating Social Value: a critical analysis of how social value is constructed, understood and utilised within public sector value for money decision making – Rachael Morgan 

12/2015 – Local politics of land and the restructuring of rice farming areas: a comparative study of Tanzania and Uganda – Elisa Greco

11/2015 – Measuring the value of what? An ethnographic account of the transformation of ‘Nature’ under the DEFRA biodiversity offsetting metric – Louise Carver

10/2015 – Assembling the value in carbon forestry: Practices of assemblage, overflows and counter-performativities in Ugandan carbon forestry – Adrian Nel

09/2015 – Climate’s value, prices and crises: Geopolitical limits to financialization’s ecological fix – Patrick Bond

08/2015 – Value of rent? A discussion of the research protocol from a political economic perspective – Elisa Greco

07/2014 – Assembling value(s): What a focus on the distributed agency of assemblages can contribute to the study of value – Aurora Fredriksen

06/2014 – Leonardo’s sailors: A review of the economic analysis of wildlife trade – Alejandro Nadal and Francisco Aguayo

05/2014 – Nets and frames, losses and gains: Value struggles in engagements with biodiversity offsetting policy in England – Sian Sullivan and Mike Hannis

04/2014 – Rough and polished: A case study of the diamond pricing and valuation system – Sarah Bracking and Khadiija Sharife

03/2014 – The nature capital myth: or will accounting save the world? Preliminary thoughts on nature, finance and values – Sian Sullivan

02/2014 – A conceptual map for the study of value: An initial mapping of concepts for the project ‘Human, non-human and environmental value systems: an impossible frontier?’ – Aurora Fredriksen, Saarah Bracking, Elisa Greco, James J Igoe, Rachael Morgan and Sian Sullivan

01/2014 – Initial research designs: ‘Human, non-human and environmental value systems: an impossible frontier?’ – Sarah Bracking, Dan Brockington, Patrick Bond, Bram Büscher, James J Igoe, Sian Sullivan, Philip Woodhouse 


Bruun, J. A. (2017) Governing Climate Finance: Paradigms, Participation and Power in the Green Climate Fund. PhD Thesis University of Manchester.

Carver, L. (2017) Assembling the value of nature: A performative analysis of English biodiversity offsetting and the DEFRA pilot study. PhD Thesis, Birkbeck, University of London.

Machingura, F (2016) Allowable Death and the valuation of human life: A study of people living with HIV and AIDS in Zimbabwe. PhD Thesis, University of Manchester.

Watt, R. (2017) The Moral Economy of Carbon Offsetting: Ethics, Power and the Search for Legitimacy in a New Market. PhD Thesis University of Manchester.