D+C Development and Cooperation | Postcolonial perspectives must be taken seriously

Power relations that were shaped by colonial powers still mark international cooperation. This has been criticised again and again, but only to little effect. For matters to improve, institutions must not only reckon with the past, but mainstream such reckoning in their operations.

Criticism of development cooperation from postcolonial and post-development perspectives has been expressed for decades, but it has not made much of a difference. If you compare the analyses included in „The Development Dictionary“, a book published in 1992, with those in its sequel of 2019, you will get the impression that power relations that are marked by colonialism have hardly changed.
Those who criticise imbalances in cooperation are often told that they certainly have a point, but that their reasoning is too abstract and too far removed from day-to-day operations. Attempts to bridge those divides have been made for many years. Legitimate criticism from postcolonial and post-development perspectives must be taken seriously.
An important goal of development cooperation is to reduce inequalities and fight marginalisation. Accordingly, elements of discrimination in cooperation are not acceptable. We are convinced that it is indeed necessary to move beyond ideas of development that are rooted in colonial times. Aram Ziai and Julia Schöneberg have recently raised this demand in D+C/E+Z (see Focus section of D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2020/09). In our eyes, they are right. At the same time, we acknowledge that a strong global network, which can facilitate solidarity and the sharing of knowledge, is needed for an equitable and environmentally sustainable future.

Permanent critical discourse

Inequality marks both the structures and the procedures of global cooperation. It must be reduced. For that to happen, historically grown power relations must be deconstructed in critical discourse. As postcolonial studies have shown, colonial thinking still facilitates economic exploitation. It also enables geo-strategically motivated interventions in conflicts and leads to the suppression of non-Eurocentric knowledge.

To drive change, organisations must therefore engage in recurring reassessments of these matters. It is crucially important that this must happen in global networks in which voices from the global south are not only present, but indeed heard. The newly forged networks of the Global Tapestry of Alternatives, the Global Partnership Network or the EU COST Action Decolonising Development may provide good examples in the next few years.

Institutional racism is a core element of unequal power relations. It must be tackled head on. Reoccurring anti-racism training makes sense, for example. In Germany, the Akademie für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (academy for international cooperation), the independent association glokal and other organisations run voluntary workshops.

Exchange and cooperation in partnership

Critically assessing global power relations is not enough. It must lead to structural change. The motto „think globally, act locally“ deserves more attention in development cooperation. Sending white experts to places of which they have a poorer understanding of cultural, social and political dynamics than local people is often problematic. Instead, a system should be established that is geared to cooperate on projects organised by the people concerned themselves. Such projects could benefit from the knowledge and the aspirations of activists from grassroots organisations.

Approaches of this kind are being taken in civilian conflict transformation, for example. Peace Brigades International is a civil-­society organisation that promotes peace and human rights. It supports human-rights defenders in crisis regions, ensuring international attention, whilst also respecting the principle of non-interference. This international organisation only becomes involved in a project when local partners ask it to do so. Moreover, that project must fit Peace Brigades’ own guidelines.

All too often, international cooperation takes place in a murky context in which neither the legal framework nor the precise jurisdiction of agencies is spelled out clearly. Transparency and accountability must be prioritised more. For practical purposes, this means that an information infrastructure is needed that gives people easy access to data pertaining to a project. Moreover, accountability mechanisms should ensure justice across borders. The World Bank Inspection Panel is a good example. Though it has been accused of not being entirely barrier free, it has certainly heard the voices of people concerned and contributed to more sensitive project designs and project operations.

Living well within planetary boundaries

In our time of climate crisis, postcolonial perspectives tell us that the world economy must be transformed in an equitable and sustainable way. It does not make sense to continue assessing the success of a country or a region by relying on indicators that do not take into account earth’s limited resources. Further growth based on resource extraction is not acceptable. We should take the „planetary boundaries“ by the Stockholm Resilience Center as a reference point. Its research shows that the international community has already begun to breach critical limits, especially with regard to biodiversity and biochemical cycles.

Generally speaking, the global north has exceeded its resource budget due to centuries of colonialism and industrialisation. Concepts for an equitable global economy are needed in view of the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few and the dramatic imbalances between the global north and the global south.

Good practices for transcending economies built on excess and focusing on social welfare and environmental health exist all over the world. One example is the Buen Vivir principle, a pluralistic notion of a good life shared in diversity (see Philipp Altmann in Focus section of D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2020/09). Buen Vivir is based on the values, experiences and practices of indigenous communities in Latin America, especially in Ecuador and Bolivia. Both countries have enshrined it in their constitutions, which spell out rights for nature as well as a fundamental right to water, for example. The dogma of economic growth must be challenged. We need models of economic activity and living together that fit local contexts. Establishing alternative economic models should be a priority of development cooperation too.

In sum, it is high time to institutionalise a critical discourse reflecting one’s own mode of operation. That kind of discourse will ultimately allow us to make use of the insights from postcolonial and post-­development studies for practical purposes.

Myriell Fußer is Research Fellow at the Institute for Sociology and Center for Peace and Conflict Studies of Philipps-University Marburg.

Adrian Schlegel is affiliated with the M.A. Global Studies Programme of Jawaharlal Nehru University, University of Pretoria and Humboldt Universität zu Berlin.

Tanja Matheis is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Organic Agricultural Sciences of the University of Kassel.

Julia Fritzsche studies Global Sustainability Science at the University of Utrecht.

Florian Vitello works as a journalist and digital consultant for non-profits. He is the founder of Good News Magazine and MediaMundo.world.

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Source: D+C Development and Cooperation, Engagement Global, Myriell Fußer, Adrian Schlegel, Tanja Matheis, Julia Fritzsche, Florian Vitello, 02 June 2021