Why a firm postcolonial stance is fundamental for the future of ‘development’ NGO work

by Julia Schöneberg

Recently, I participated in a NGO workshop, where a large group of German NGO project officers and representatives met to discuss trends and challenges of the sector. One of these was ‘Postcolonialism’ (as a noun). The ‘new trend’ was assigned the guiding question of ‘How the ideal Postcolonialism-sensitive development cooperation would look like?’.

Of course I know it is unfair to lump all development and aid workers in the same box. Many are very critical both of their own role and work as well as with regard to the way it impacts on others. Many think through and reflect on how their organisation’s well meaning efforts to build equality, might in turn create new inequalities. And of course I also know that quite often NGO workers feel torn between the way they would like to plan their actions, and the way it is imposed by their own donors and funding guidelines.

I left the meeting with a feeling of discomfort and unease. And with the danger of homogenizing and being aware that this may only have been a non-representative snapshot, I believe the experience still confirms that there is a fundamental box-headedness (a term coined by Vanessa Andreotti) in the way many Western European NGO practitioners come to think about and understand ‘development’. This box-headedness is in the firm belief that a) ‘development’ is universally and  normatively good and desirable, b) that ‘development’ can be directed through intervention and c) that there is expertise in the North that is desperately wanted elsewhere. Almost 30 years ago N’Dione at al.  described ‘development culture’ as encompassing an ‘economic conception of time, the cult of statistics and competition between individuals, the commodification of people and goods, the compartmentalization of life.’ The same principles still seem to hold true in the way most ‘development’ programmes and project are designed and pursued. Truly and sincerely confronting the values underlying ‘development’ promotion is a somewhat existential question for Northern NGO work. What implication does it have for their legitimacy if a), b) and c) were not as true as assumed?

The fundamental critique formulated by post-/decolonial scholarship and activism is certainly not a ‘trend’ that the ‘development’ sector can follow and eventually tick-box like gender, empowerment, participation and sustainability before. Rather, postcolonial critique goes to the core. It demands exploration and analysis of the roots of global and structural inequalities, oppressions, extractions, discriminations, marginalisations and silences, and its historical causations. ‘Development’, on the other hand, is a more than questionable concept, an amoeba-like term that lacks any real meaning and over and over again has made false promises.

One participant said: “We can’t spend endless time on reflecting ourselves. If we keep doing that, we won’t have time to do our actual work – projects.” But what is the *actual* work of ‘development’ NGOs based in the Global North? Let’s assume – at least this is what I grasped from the discussions at the meeting – it is meaning to do well, and wanting to contribute to a better if not good life for all on this planet.

The Agenda 2030, according to which many NGOs now align their work programme, claims to be “Transforming our World”. It resolves to “free the human race from the tyranny of poverty”, thereby making it sound as if poverty is a dark force that has come upon humankind and for whose emergence no one bears any responsibility. The SDGs might have set the promises high: universal literacy, health care and social protection, physical, social and mental well-being, and much more. But just like any ‘development’ interventions, programmes and projects of past decades, they fail going to the root of poverty: structural inequalities, political and economic power divides, distributive injustice. In the words of Gurminder K. Bhambra, professor of postcolonial studies at the University of Sussex, the “inextricable combination of the rhetoric of modernity (progress, development, growth) and the logic of coloniality (poverty, misery, inequality), has to be central to any discussion of contemporary global inequalities and the historical basis of their emergence”.

Reflecting one’s own role, power and privilege, especially but not only with regard to the historical basis and the colonial continuities of ‘development’, is not a futile exercise and not the last step, but inevitably the first in the desire of wanting to contribute to a more just world. As someone who is privileged, well-educated and white – in fact the typical Western European aid worker – some of the questions could be the following:

  • What are my/our (white) privileges and how can we use them sensitively and productively? How do we perpetuate and reproduce racist stereotypes and assumptions?
  • What about structural and intersectional discrimination in my own society?
  • How is *my* country doing in terms of the imperial modes of living? How does this contribute to poverty elsewhere?
  • As part of civil society, do we need to go elsewhere to prompt and promote positive change, or should we rather start ‘at home’?
  • And with regard to project work: What is the *real* added benefit I have to offer to others? Why is my presence or intervention needed in a context that is not my own? Does my/our intervention change anything at the root of inequalities, or does it merely maintain a status quo, if at all?

Coming back to the initial workshop question of ‘How the ideal Postcolonialism-sensitive development cooperation would look like?’, the answer can only be that neither do we  need a redefinition of ‘development’, nor some add-on tokenistic sensitivity. Taking postcolonial critique seriously must mean to guide actions by the desire for global justice, and no longer by ‘development’.

Julia Schöneberg is a post-doctoral researcher in the DFG-funded project ‘Theorizing Post-Development’ at University of Kassel, Germany. She is the co-founder of convivialthinking.org.