What a COST Action Network on ‘Decolonising Development’ can (and cannot) achieve

by Julia Schöneberg and Juan Telleria.

Not least since vocal anti-racism protests of the Black Lives Matter and the Rhodes Must Fall movements, the call for decolonization has become widely popular. A broad variety of actions, events and initiatives have made claims of ‘decolonizing’ – be it curricula, disciplines or institutions. Others highlight the necessity to decolonise mindsets, not least in struggling against global inequality. Yet, what a process of decolonizing entails remains fuzzy.

Indeed, in the past other demands and movements for justice, equity and inclusion once deemed as radical, such as feminist and women’s rights struggles, have been co-opted and tamed by the mainstream, as Uma Kothari and Parvati Raghuram cautioned in their recent talk in Working Group 1. Sara Ahmed has highlighted the same danger by deconstructing so-called diversity work in institutions (of Higher Education) that in practice are often turning out as lip service not fundamentally challenging structures that maintain exclusions, but rather maintaining and silencing them. In bringing a fundamentally material dimension to the debate, Tuck and Yang have asserted that decolonization is not a metaphor, but must be a process conditional on the repatriation of land.

In setting out to collaborate in a network under the COST umbrella we are well aware of these dangers. After all, due to COST requirements our group of collaborators consists of highly educated scholars and academics, benefiting from many privileges, and all based in institutions of the global North. Let us first reflect on the dangers and contradictions that daunt a COST action committed with decolonisation.

We believe that our COST Action network on “Decolonising Development” can be fruitful and of added value for the debate, discussion and action on decolonising in our very situated environments – without watering down or silencing its emancipatory and radical claims. However, as Leon Moosavi explains, an endeavour like this requires first that we make a more deliberate effort at self-scrutinizing the ethnocentrism and other limitations and contradictions within our own project. After all, ‘decolonising’ does not only happen elsewhere: there is much to be done on our doorsteps, in the way we teach, convey and produce knowledge, and in our institutions and organisations. A self-critical process should make explicit our manifold privileges and the way they could take us to ‘reinscribe coloniality’ in ‘development’ rather than to decolonise it. Such a process would make us aware that in some moments, spaces and debates, our best contribution could be to listen, learn and decolonise our own minds, practices and institutions – rather than to speak from our privileged platform.

Only after such a self-scrutinizing effort we will be able to properly face the two imperatives that we find of utmost importance. First, the need to be vocally anti-racist. Anti-racist practice must be at the heart of any engagement with ‘decolonising’. As the members of the Management Committee have unanimously agreed in the Understanding of Shared Values, ‘decolonising development’ and academia more generally is not a purely academic or theoretical activity but a site of activism with political and social relevance. Especially given that the EU is the largest global donor of development assistance, we seek to collectively and critically contest Europe’s colonial past and the ways it shapes the many racists presents. Second, the need to un-develop the North. A practice of ‘decolonising development’ must first and foremost acknowledge that the accumulation of riches of one part of the world is directly connected to the impoverishment of the larger part of the world. The implications of colonialism and coloniality continue to shape relations among countries, peoples and communities until today. Effects and consequences of the imperial modes of living, with its violent extractions, wasteful abundance and externalising of costs through time and space continue to maintain and even deepen injustices and inequality. We believe that ‘decolonising development’ must mean to work ‘at home’, essentially to un-develop the North: confronting patterns of neo-colonialism and imperial modes of production and consumption, failing democracy and social inequalities in COST member countries and beyond, and fundamentally scrutinize the ways we live, consume and relate, – and how this impacts elsewhere.

Starting from this anti-racist and critical position, our DecolDEV COST action understands that ‘development’ is fundamentally entangled with coloniality and colonization. While the term and discourse has been used and appropriated for a variety of different agendas making claims to a normative and positive common good; highly political, historical and mostly binary and paternalistic underpinnings of its discourse and practice have been silenced. ‘Development’, despite many tweaks and adjustments, remains a false promise and perpetuates colonial notions of domination, dependence and superiority. According to mainstream development logics, the global North continues to claim the standard setting for the only desirable, universally applicable way to lead a ‘good life’. To uproot, de- and reconstruct this perpetual colonial continuity, the Action has set as its goal to work towards a resetting and diversification of structures, institutions and spaces in which knowledge about and for ‘development’ is produced, shared, contested and put into practice. In engaging in research, teaching and practicing of ‘development’ there are a number of contentious questions we want to raise and which will be the focus points of collaboration in our three Working Groups:

In terms of ‘development’ research, we will scrutinize the geopolitics of ‘development’ knowledge and ask whose knowledge is seen as relevant concerning solutions to pressing global problems. Why are we at all making the distinction between local and global knowledges? And why are Development Studies still concerned with poverty only in certain parts of the world? What can we learn from Non-Western concepts, epistemologies, even ontologies?

In the area of ‘development’ teaching it seems urgent to unveil how (development studies) curricula and teaching remains dominated by Eurocentric perspectives and narratives. What does ‘decolonising’ practically mean in Western institutions of Higher Education and beyond tokenistic diversification of syllabi? Most importantly, how can we integrate the question of positionality in teaching without resorting to paralysis or deterministic conceptions of identity?

With regard to ‘development’ practice, we will fundamentally contest the asymmetry of ‘development’ cooperation and aid, its measurements, quantifications and indicators. How can ‘development’ cooperation overcome paternalism and trusteeship? Can we imagine alternative concepts of wellbeing, overcoming the obsessive concentration with monetary wealth and growth, while acknowledging legitimate demands for more material equality?

Throughout the text we purposely used the Present Continuous to make clear that, in our understanding, ‘decolonising’ can only ever be a process, not an event. We are sure that, if we properly understand the complexity inherent to decoloniality, our network can learn from, and contribute to, this process. On the contrary, we believe that it cannot aspire to end coloniality, since that attitude would probably take us to reinscribe coloniality in more subtle and entrenched terms. For that reason, we wish all of us in the network much courage and persistence, self-reflexivity, and the sensibility to know when there is time to act, to speak, to listen, to leave. Our goals are ambitious, but if we take our responsibility as European scholars seriously, they are not optional.

Julia Schöneberg (University of Kassel) and Juan Telleria (University of the Basque Country – Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea UPV/EHU) are co-leading the COST Action network.

The views expressed are those of the authors.

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