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November 27th, 2017

Decolonising Development Studies

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Editor

November 27th, 2017

Decolonising Development Studies

0 comments | 3 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Tin Hinane El Kadi explores the debates and questions around decolonising development studies.

Global calls for decolonisation in higher education have spread over recent years. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign has called for statues of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes to be torn down at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and the University of Oxford in the UK. This decolonisation initiative has moved beyond requesting the removal of colonial symbols from university campuses, to demanding that universities recognise the structural and epistemological legacy of colonialism in academic curricula and take steps to correct them.

Students carry banners citing their demands, while mostly asserting the demand for free and decolonized education at a FMF protest. Photo credit: Thakira Desai (http://bit.ly/2Abg1gC)

As part of decolonisation efforts in the field of development studies, the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Sussex hosted a one day workshop on November 11, 2017 addressing the structural, theoretical and institutional implications of recognising the coloniality of international development as currently conceived and practiced. Participants to the workshop were divided into groups according to the following sub-themes: Decolonial Teaching Tools, Embodiment, Activism, Power, Research Collaborations and Knowledge Production, Decolonising Economies, Decolonising Development Practice, Re-envisioning ‘Development Studies’, and Development as Resistance. Here are some of the main themes discussed during the workshop:

Decolonising Development Studies and the need to move beyond colonial assumptions

The opening panel highlighted the problematic relationship between ‘developers’ and those who are ‘to be developed’ currently present in North – South relations. Decolonising Development Studies requires a reassessment of shared assumptions about how the world functions. Assumptions constructed during colonial times regarding racial and civilisational hierarchies still inform much of the rational about the world and determine what is worth studying. In this vein, development studies remains a colonised field full of homogenisation, simplifications and misrepresentations. These tendencies underplay the importance of different historical trajectories, sociocultural settings and political realities and legitimise externally generated ‘one size fits all’ polices that fail to adequately acknowledge the importance of context.

Aid funding in research in international development: aid for whom?

Commentators at the workshop questioned whether OECD aid money spent on research seeking to tackle poverty in the global South was actually designed in the interests of developing countries. The recent Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), a five-year fund worth 1.5 billion pounds announced by the UK government, was mentioned as a case in point. The GCRF aims to support research to tackle global challenges and to ensure that UK research takes a leading role in addressing the problems faced by developing countries. Academics present at the workshop described the GCRF as an explicit re-direction of government spending on ‘international development’ away from the department of International Development (DFID) to the department of Business Innovation and Science (BIS). This change, they argued, represented an effective dispersal of spending on development, designed to allow the government to remain committed to the principle spending 0.7 per cent while still channelling funds to local researchers, university departments and research centres, in a context of austerity and budget cuts in higher education in the UK. A related point highlighted by workshop participants was the difficulty faced by UK-based researchers to redistribute funds to colleagues based in institutions in developing countries because of bureaucratic constraints

Knowledge produced by developing countries remains marginalised

International Development curricula tend to prioritise the knowledge produced by authors based in high-income countries. A recent study indicates a sharp decline in the number of publications by Africa-based scholars in top African journals; African Affairs (AA) and the Journal of Modern African Studies (JMAS) over a 21-year period (1993-2013). The authors demonstrate that while article submissions from Africa-based scholars have increased, acceptance rates have decreased considerably. The marginalisation of other perspectives and the dismissal of work produced by scholars in developing countries hinders intellectual rigour and distorts our understanding of processes of capitalist transformation and social development. As one of the attendees questioned, would we find it acceptable if scholarly knowledge on women’s conditions and gender inequality were produced almost entirely by men? To what extent would this influence the kinds of perspectives presented? If we accept the link between positionality and perspectives, it is critical to diversify the sources of knowledge disseminated in the development literature.

Addressing inequality in research and knowledge production in Development Studies requires tackling broader inequalities in the global economy.

A question that kept coming up during the workshop was whether it was possible to decolonise development studies in the age of the neoliberal global economy. Commentators argued that knowledge dissemination is a function of wealth and power and therefore decolonising development studies would require decolonising broader unequal structures in the global economy and empowering academic institutions in the Global South. These processes are unlikely to occur in our current age of neoliberalism. However, this does not mean that efforts to decolonise development studies are useless. Academics in privileged positions in Northern-based institutions can work at promoting more diversity in curricula by taking a few steps. These include citing authors based in developing countries and acknowledging their contributions to the field, actively disseminating and engaging with readings produced by scholars outside  rich countries and promoting more diverse editorial boards in development journals. Moreover, it is critical for universities and research institutes in the global North to reconsider incentive structures regarding recruitment and promotion. These structures currently serve to valorise publications in journals and presentations at conferences based in the North while dismissing those based in the South.

This blog is inspired by discussions and debates during the opening panel, the Research Collaboration and Knowledge Production Group and the Closing Panel at Decolonising Development Studies Workshop organised by the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Sussex on November 11, 2017.


Tin Hinane El Kadi is a recent LSE graduate and research assistant on the Citing Africa project.

The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog, the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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