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Eyob Balcha Gebremariam

May 25th, 2021

Reflections from teaching African Development using decolonial perspectives at LSE

5 comments | 171 shares

Estimated reading time: 16 minutes

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam

May 25th, 2021

Reflections from teaching African Development using decolonial perspectives at LSE

5 comments | 171 shares

Estimated reading time: 16 minutes

For Africa Day, LSE Fellow in the Department of International Development and Course Convenor for the African Development (DV418) course, Dr Eyob Balcha Gebremariam reflects on teaching using decolonial perspectives. Eyob is also the winner of the LSE SU Inspirational Teacher Award in 2021.

The use of decolonial perspectives in the designing and teaching development studies is a marginal academic practice. Decolonial perspectives remain pretty negligible, especially in courses that broadly cover development management, development policy, African Political Economy, African development or African Studies. Indeed, one of the starting points of decolonial perspectives is questioning the mainstream thinking, practice, knowledge framework and ideology of development. The idea, practice and theory of development is inherently a colonial project which was initially pursued and practised through individuals who were assigned as colonial administrators. At least recognising this historical fact can be a good starting point.

I taught African Development at the International Development department in the Lent term of 2021. I used decolonial perspectives to design and deliver the course, which helped my students and me approach African development at least in three unique ways. I want to share my reflections in the spirit of celebrating this year’s Africa Day (25 May 2021). I also write this reflection as a way of showing gratitude for my students for nominating me to win the LSE SU Inspirational Teacher Award in 2021.

The “Imagined Africa” vs the “Real Africa”

First, we started the course by making both analytical and empirical distinctions between the “imagined Africa” and the “real Africa”. The “imagined Africa” is a product of centuries-old construction of the continent as a “dark”, “uncivilised”, “savage” place through the accounts of non-African philosophers, “explorers”, and colonisers. Later on, once the idea of “development” become one of the most dominant “post-second world war” engagements of the West, Africa remained at the centre primarily because of its imagined features.

Mainstream academia, most importantly, development theory, thinking and practice imagine Africa predominantly by emphasising poverty, destitution and backwardness. For economists, Africa is linked with investment risk, corruption and “permanent crisis”; for geographers, Africa presents a pristine nature, virgin land, safaris and game resorts; for historians, Africa is divided into pre-colonial, colonial & post-colonial periods. For political scientists, Africa presents mouth-watering case studies of civil wars, failed states, post-election violence, neopatrimonialism and despotic dictators; for Anthropologists, Africa has primordial tribes, traditional and simple societies, and for the good-hearted humanitarians, Africa is associated with aid, donation, vulnerability and a perpetual cycle of crisis.

The imagined Africa has a vital role beyond the academic world. The tarnished image of Africa serves the purpose of magnifying the glamorous image of the West. In his influential work, On the Postcolony Achille Mbembe argues:

“…Africa as an idea, a concept, has historically served and continues to serve as a polemical argument for the West’s desperate desire to assert its difference from the rest of the world. …Africa still constitutes one of the metaphors through which the West represents the origin of its own norms, develops a self-image, and integrates this image into the set of signifiers asserting what is supposed to be its identity. And Africa … is not simply part of its imaginary signification; it is one of those significations.”

Before I gave the first lecture, I asked my students to submit an optional assignment of a maximum of 500 words response to the following two questions: “how do you understand African Development?” and “why are you interested in studying African Development?”. It was not surprising that most of my students know more about the poverty, destitution and troubles of African countries usually captured through very low GDP. Most of the responses also include personal ambitions to change the dire conditions in the continent positively.

Readings, lectures and seminar debates and discussions in the first two weeks helped us discern the prevalence of the imagined depiction of Africa in mainstream academia, media and public discourse. We emphasised that being aware of the distinction between the imagined and real Africa does not mean being oblivious to actual problems on the ground. It is instead to be conscious of the power of institutionalised discourses and practices that have normalised Africa as a continent that needs to be fixed. For example, I asked my students why does the Department of International Development at LSE have a course only on “African Development” but not on any other geographical region of the world. What does this tell us?  Does this mean other regions of the world do not need development? I think answering this question can open several lines of debate and reflection.

Modernity and Coloniality: two sides of a coin.

Second, our course emphasised that the notion of development is a continuation of the West’s centuries-old civilising and modernising mission. The narratives and discourses of modernity and development are often painted as rosy aspirations such as progress, civilisation, rationality, salvation and liberalism. However, if we examine experiences and narratives of societies that encountered the West through its modernising and civilising mission, the tone will change completely. We will start to talk about the authoritarian role of the empire and colonialism, domination, exploitation and dehumanisation. Hence, we cannot study modernity and development without talking about coloniality. As Walter Mignolo argues, coloniality is the darker side of western modernity. We can locate the experiences of societies across every part of the world, from North America, the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, Asia and Australia, that can tell us their respective versions of coloniality of the same historical experience depicted in the West as civilisation, modernity and development.

The notions of development in general and African development, in particular, are also significantly shaped by a Eurocentric and hegemonic knowledge framework. Manifestations of the Eurocentric knowledge framework include the high regard for Wester norms, values, historical experiences, ontologies and epistemologies and efforts of universalising these Western notions as global standards. These centuries-old practices have created hierarchies between the West and non-Western regions and countries, used to justify the developed/developing countries, the global north/south divide and also to create and sustain the racial/ethnic hierarchy.

A decolonial perspective enabled us to make a distinction between colonialism, colonisation and coloniality. As argued by Ndlovu-Gatsheni, colonisation is space and time-bounded, and it refers to the conquest, subordination and administration of a place. Colonialism is “a power structure that subverts, destroys, reinvents, appropriates, and replaces anything it deems an obstacle to the agenda of colonial domination and exploitation.” Coloniality, in its turn, refers to “the trans-historic expansion of colonial domination and its replication in contemporary times.”

We approached modernity and coloniality as two sides of a coin. There cannot be modernity and development without coloniality. In other words, the mainstream knowledge, theory, idea and practice of development is inherently colonial because it thrives on revealing and consolidating one set of Western knowledge, histories and ideas whilst concealing and trivialising non-western knowledges, histories, experiences and values.

Our decolonial approach to the study of African development heavily benefited from the works of Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni on Epistemic Freedom; Robtel Neajai Pailey on De-Centring the ‘White Gaze’ of Development; Uma Kothari From Colonialism to Development; and Boaventura de Sousa Santos Sociology of Absences. Analytical insights derived from these scholars were the main pillars of examining continental development frameworks, States in Africa, the debate on the democracy-development nexus, and specific sectors such as education, agriculture, social policy and digitalisation. Most importantly, we used two analytical frameworks that remained at the centre of our lectures, seminars, debates and discussions.

The two analytical frameworks we used: “the three forms of empire” and “sociology of absences”

Throughout the course, two analytical frameworks stood out as the most useful decolonial perspectives of studying African Development. The first analytical framework is based on Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s argument about the “three empires and three trajectories of decolonisation”. The forms of empire are physical empire, commercial-non-territorial military empire, and metaphysical empire. The respective decolonisation for each type of empire is political, economic and epistemic decolonisation, respectively.

The first form of empire, the physical empire, was dismantled, at least in its most common form, during the liberation movements in Africa that culminated in the 1960s. However, building on the success of political decolonisation remained elusive because the “colonial matrix of power” continued dominating Africa through the second and third forms of empire.

The second form of empire is a commercial-non-territorial-military empire. This type of empire is powerfully dominating African countries socio-economic spheres in multiple ways. Front bearers of this type of empire include the international financial and trade institutions (WB, IMF and WTO), multinational corporations, the aid industry complex and philanthropies. These actors determine, shape and influence socio-economic policies and decision-making processes almost in every African country. The second form of empire enabled colonialism to remain dominant and adaptive after the end of the physical empire. Manifestations of the commercial-non-territorial-military empire are witnessed during the structural adjustment programs and conditionalities of the 1980s and 90s. Currently, the commercial-non-territorial-military empire operates through a network of powerful global actors that target Africa for their economic and political purposes in the name of development. These include the AFD (France), DFID, USAID, the EU, China, the Gates Foundation and technology giants such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Tesla. These actors are actively shaping policies and decisions in several sectors across the continent, including mining, oil, agriculture, health, population, social policy (mainly social protection), education and digital technologies. One logical explanation why Africa lost $836 billion between 2000 and 2015 through illicit financial flows is the power and operations of the commercial-non-territorial-military empire. In the present context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the refusal of the EU, UK and USA to waive the intellectual property rights of the vaccines was one of the real-time examples that demonstrated the power of the commercial-non-territorial military empire.

One of the vital contributions of applying the commercial-non-territorial military empire is the room it creates to identify new actors operating within the “colonial matrix of power”. Hence, our decolonial perspective is not fixated on old-school colonial powers such as Britain and France. But it also recognises emerging actors that are dominating Africa’s socio-economic and political landscape through their military bases in the continent (Russia, China, Saudi Arabia), through their large-scale land acquisitions and also digital technology interventions.

The third form of empire, the metaphysical empire, is perhaps the most enduring and powerful form of empire but hardly captured by mainstream development thinking. South African scholar Lwazi Lushaba argues that colonialism could not sustain itself only by relying on violence. Colonialism required inculcating specific ideas that serve its objectives in the colonised minds so that the system that sustains its dominance is reproduced continuously. The metaphysical empire thrives by “submitting the colonised world to European memory”. In doing so, the cultures, languages, values, traditions, knowledges and histories of the non-Western world are eradicated, trivialised or forced to become obsolete.

In our study of the education sector, we examined how the English and French languages became the medium of instruction, knowledge generation and research in many African countries. In many African countries, the majority of the population use different languages as their mother tongue language. Nevertheless, English and French language are regarded as manifestations of advancement, modernity and development. Hence, education institutions from the early childhood level to the universities prioritise these foreign languages at the expense of local languages. As a result, the ‘educated elites’ of most African societies are alienated from the majority of the society they aspire to or are supposed to serve.

The study of metaphysical empire also enabled us to examine how colonialism operates without colonisation that happens through physical subjugation. By studying the Ethiopian case, we examined how Ethiopia – the only African country that defeated a European colonial power and remained independent but fell to the powers and domination of the West through the metaphysical empire. The work of Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes on Native Colonialism and Emnet Tadesse Woldegiorgis on Decolonising a higher education system which was never colonised helped us to dig deeper on the Ethiopian case.

Sociology of Absences

The other key analytical view we used in our course was Santos’s work on the Sociology of Absences. Santos’s articulation about how the hegemonic knowledge framework operates helped us to debunk Eurocentric ideas and to examine the logics through which it maintains dominance. Santos’s sociology of absences argues that “what does not exist is actively produced as a non-existent, that is, as a non-credible alternative to what exists.” Arguments in mainstream academia that portray themselves as the only way of knowing or theories that implicitly or explicitly argue that there is no alternative way of pursuing progress and change inadvertently create the possible alternative as non-existent or non-credible. Until recently, neoliberalism was imposed on African countries as the only way of achieving positive change and progress within societies.

Sociology of absences identified five monocultures through which the hegemonic knowledge framework sustains its dominance and produces non-existence. As an alternative, it also provides five ecologies that would allow us to challenge hegemonic knowledge frameworks. For example, the fifth monoculture promotes capitalist productivity and efficiency. Any system of production that deviates from capitalist logic and principles of the market is considered invaluable and non-existence is produced as non-productiveness. The alternative ecologies of productivities, on the other hand, promote solidarity economies, co-operatives and self-managed businesses that may not prioritise the principles of market efficiency.

We specifically examined this logic in our study of the agriculture sector and land value in many African societies. The Western logic and market-oriented principle consider land as a commodity and a property that can be owned, bought and sold by an individual. On the contrary, we also examined how invaluable land is in many African societies whose value could not be measured in a monetary sense. Indeed, in many African societies, individuals cannot claim land ownership because it belongs to “the living, the dead and the unborn”. Failure to recognise these differences may cause more damage. This explains why the people of Madagascar went to the streets furiously in 2008 and toppled the government that leased half of the island to Daewoo, a South Korean firm, for 99 years. Land connects the ancestors to the current and future generations, which is beyond any transactional value generated on the market. A logic of efficiency and productivity can hardly capture the value that land has among many African societies.

In conclusion

The learning experience was for everyone in our virtual class, both for the Africans and the non-Africans. Being white, Asian or African was neither a privilege nor a disadvantage for acquiring decolonial perspectives and applying them in our academic inquiries. As argued by Ramon Grosfoguel, epistemic location does not necessarily reflect the social location. This is why I disagree with people who equate decolonising academia with the diversification of the reading list. Scholars from diverse socio-economic, cultural, geographic and gender background may speak from the perspectives of the hegemonic western knowledge framework. Whilst a diversified reading list for our courses is a virtuous goal in itself, it will not achieve the decolonial agenda unless we are actively promoting diversity at the epistemic level.

Finally, the course enabled us to learn from everyone’s self-reflection about several topics such as our knowledge about Africa, development, history and knowledge. I was lucky to facilitate all five weekly seminars where students make presentations based on each week’s seminar question, debate on some of the concepts, exchange their personal stories, apply some complex ideas into the realworld context, and share the change trajectories in their thought processes. We also had a second optional essay of answering how the course helped them think about African development differently. Most of my students responded quite frankly how the course helped them see perspectives they were not aware of, unthink or rethink some of the theories and ideas they learned before.

I genuinely hope that these reflections can be a good starting point for my fellow academics at my department, the LSE and other universities to consider decolonial perspectives in their course designing and teaching.


The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

About the author

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam

Dr Eyob Balcha Gebremariam (@BalchaEyob) is LSE Fellow in the Department of International Development at LSE. He is the Course Convenor for the African Development (DV418) course in the 2020 - 2021 academic year. His research interests include: Politics of Development, Urban Politics, African Political Economy, Citizenship, Young people in politics, Youth Employment, Horizontal Inequalities, and Regional Integration in Africa.

Posted In: Decolonising Development | Teaching


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