Debating Colonial Legacies of Development Studies

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12 Jul 2018

“The biggest myth about development is the superiority of the West”, claimed Olivia U. Rutazibwa during the debate, “we urgently need to demythologize development.” This pinpoints one of the core arguments of the engaged debate among panellists and participants of the EADI-organised roundtable during the British Development Studies Association (DSA) Conference held in Manchester, 27-29 June 2018.

As the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI) we are conscious that debates around “development” remain too often confined to Western realms. We are therefore self-critically reflecting on the assumed or claimed universality of Western frameworks. With Olivia U. Rutazibwa (University of Portsmouth), Nivi Manchanda (Queens University London) and Uma Kothari (University of Manchester), leading thinkers of the field, who are not afraid to take a vocal stand in debates around decolonising development, followed our invitation and contributed to a lively and engaged debate that continued well after the session.

Henning Melber (EADI/Nordic Africa Institute) opened the session by stressing EADI’s awareness of prevalent “hegemonic tunnel visions that are too often abusing the power of definition.” Through its activities as an association EADI seeks to set important counterpoints. He stated that - like identities- knowledges can only be understood in their plurality, which is one of the challenges scholars of development studies must counter.

“The idea of development is based on colonialist assumptions that some people and some places are less developed than others”, said Uma Kothari in her intervention and emphasized the significance of history and of “understanding the past as continuing to shape contemporary persistent and growing inequalities.” She stressed that negligence to deal with colonial historical legacies simply prevents us from adequately addressing these inequalities. Kothari argued that new kinds of solidaristic principles are needed in order to work towards greater equity. She imagined that “substantive solidarity is likely to be found amid the mundane rhythms of everyday life rather than in the mission statement of a global charity.” Consequently, “besides acknowledging the past one way forward may be found in everyday forms of conviviality and solidarity.”

Nivi Manchanda gave insights from an International Relations perspective arguing that prevalent theories trying to explain “the world” neglect analyses of “how this world came to be, who the people inhabiting this world are and of the violences and injustices towards those in the Global South on an everyday basis”, meaning that colonial genealogies of contemporary politics are continuously erased and silenced. In illustrating the point that hegemonic discourses create particular types of knowledge, she gave the disturbing example of American-produced textbooks for Afghan schools, using bullets and Kalashnikovs as counting tools. She fundamentally called for the imperative to question our own assumptions about knowledge production and the role of “us” as producers of knowledge- “Are we really producing knowledge about the Other?”

Taking as a starting point the assumption that a lot of the international aid and development thinking and practices are continued expressions of coloniality, Olivia U. Rutazibwa talked about practical implications of this for doing development research and teaching. She called for a form of decoloniality not as merely theoretical criticism, but as a concrete strategy to demythologize the way we think, teach and practice development. She urged us to question “How do we see the world? Where do we start the story of development?” Do we start with the Truman speech in 1949, or do we look at the history of colonial interventions? To what extent does development research perpetuate a colonial system? Rutazibwa asserted that we “need to move away from the desire to find one or unitary alternative answers.”

Watch the whole debate here.

For EADI resources on the topic please see our Youtube channel on “Decolonising Development” featuring talks by scholars from diverse backgrounds giving their perspectives on these pressing issues. We warmly invite all to join the debates, several of which are led within the EADI Working Group on “Post- and Decolonial Perspectives on Development”  

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