Decolonising Development Research: Why it is urgently needed and what steps must be taken

by Aram Ziai

The endeavour of ‘decolonising’ is very much on vogue (not only, but also) in recent discussions and debates in academia and Higher Education. But what does this claim practically and tangibly entail for academia generally and development research and development studies specifically? In this blog, I want to  briefly outline what I see as eurocentric or even colonial structures in development studies in terms of its knowledge basis and its knowledge production before pointing to possible ways of decolonising development research.

The knowledge of development studies: eurocentric and colonial structures

If we heed Chakrabarty‘s call for ‘provincialising Europe’ we should examine the eurocentrism of supposedly universal concepts in our discipline and even the coloniality of our knowledge in the discipline, as argued by Bhambra amongst othersBased on postcolonial and especially post-development critiques, I can identify six deeply Eurocentric and colonial structures in the knowledge of development studies.

Naturalization and the universal scale: The experiences and historical changes of Western European societies (including European settler colonies elsewhere) are interpreted as manifestations of a universal process of change which takes place sooner or later in all societies. This assumes a universal scale of social evolution or progress or ‘development’. And this scale is based on a methodological nationalism, with nation-states usually being the units of analysis. This allows for the myth of isolated success stories of industrialization and Enlightenment, denying entangled histories, the crucial role of a capitalist world system and the massive transfer of wealth during colonialism.

Othering and the problematization of deviance: The naturalization of one‘s own society leads to the problematization of others and to the dichotomy of developed self vs. underdeveloped other. This structure is a continuation of the colonial world view (civilised self vs. savage/barbarian/uncivilised other) and is based on a ‘transformation of geocultural differences into historical stages’ and an attribution of norm and deviance which is still visible in ‘development’ studies‘ creation of abnormalities to be treated and reformed It assumes there are social, economic and political problems in the ‘underdeveloped’ South while the knowledge for their solution can be found in the ‘developed’ North.

Promise of ‘development’ as geopolitical instrument: since its conception the idea of ‘developing the underdeveloped’ functioned to legitimize a capitalist world order in the historical context of cold war and decolonisation and the threat of socialist revolutions through the promise of win-win solutions and future affluence in order to maintain a colonial division of labour and the access to resources and markets in the South (Alcalde 1987: 223, Rahnema 1997: 379).

Hierarchization of knowledges: Until today, development studies is usually based on the hierarchization of knowledges (and their related cosmologies and values), separating universal, objective scientific knowledge originating in the West from other, non-Western knowledge systems denigrated as superstition or religion. This legitimates the attribution of problem-solving knowledge to the West (or institutions based on the type of knowledge which has become hegemonic in the West during modernity) (Apffel-Marglin/Marglin 1990, Nandy 1988, Santos 2014).

Depoliticization of inequality: While ‘development’ provides a frame for interpreting and dealing with the problem of socio-economic inequality, it usually constructs the problem in a way so that it is amenable to technical solution (transfer of money, knowledge or technology) and ignoring exploitation, conflicts of interest and relations of power of the global, national or local levels. The political dimension of inequality is ignored and solutions to the problems are conceived of usually with the existing capitalist system, looking for ways to help the poor without hurting the rich (Ferguson 1994, Li 2007).

Masculinism: the knowledge of development studies is centered around rationality, productivity and mastery over nature – qualities that are traditionally attributed to men. Historically, those not conforming to the ideal of the white middle-class man were constructed as emotional, irrational, unproductive, as closer to nature or as being part of nature and therefore they could be exploited at will and needed to be guided and educated: women, children and natives. Their knowledge was specifically fought against by modern science (Mies/Shiva 1993, McClintock 1995, Federici 2004).

These structures in the knowledge of development studies enable different types of patronizing or violent actions towards people in social contexts defined as ‘underdeveloped’. The literature on development-induced displacement agrees that each year at least 10 mio. people lose their livelihood because of projects of ‘development’.

The knowledge production of development studies: academic imperialism

Yet even beyond the level of the content of knowledge, the knowledge production in development studies is still shaped by colonialism. In colonialism, knowledge was produced by white men acting as explorers and researchers in areas whose own production of knowledge was disavowed (see above).

In a classical work of development theory, a renowned theorist (a white man, coincidentally) remarked: “Rather oddly, in retrospect, most of those who began theorizing about underdeveloped countries were citizens of the developed countries.” This is mirrored until today in the textbooks and the curricula of development studies, which are still predominantly dealing with the works of Western theorists (and some non-Western theorists) writing about how to achieve societies in the image of the West, i.e. modern, secular, liberal, productive and democratic societes – although the tide may be beginning to turn these days But not only in the textbooks and the mindset, also in the very institutions and personnel, the continuities between colonial administration and development studies are clearly visible

If we think about the ‘right to research’ today, we have to acknowledge that it is certainly not exclusively bound to a specific skin colour, but neither is it entirely free of inequalities and connotations derived from the era of colonialism. If we ask the questions “who does research on whom?”, “who benefits from this research?” and “who is used as an object of knowledge production?”, we realize that in the context of development studies the era of colonialism until today has effects on current patterns: usually persons in the South supply the data (as interviewees or ‚native informants‘), while persons from the North supply the theory and make a career on the information they gathered from the others, even being addressed as experts for the region they have visited for a few months

Thus ‘academic imperialism’ can be seen also on the level of knowledge production in the form of knowledge extractivism, and it is not surprising that Smith, from the perspective of indigenous peoples, arrives at a damning verdict: “research has been a process that exploits indigenous peoples, their culture, their knowledge, and their resources”.

Decolonising development research

So what can we, as privileged researchers in the North, do about it if we still want to work as researchers in the field of global inequality and its amelioration?

First of all, reflect the above questions and derive principles and guidelines for our research from them. The Charter of Decolonial Research Ethics suggests that research questions and the publication of research results should be exclusively decided upon not by the researcher, but by decolonial social movements in the South. This is laudable, but abandons the researcher‘s independence and assumes that these movements speak with one voice, neglecting possible internal conflicts or relations of power. Further, this high standard is at times difficult to reconcile with the requirements of knowledge production in academia.

However, there are three basic principles for the process of academic knowledge production can be taken serious by all researchers:

Giving credit: we can counter academic imperialism by specifically acknowledging contributions of Southern researchers in the literature, or of Southern co-producers of knowledge (as interviewees, informants or otherwise), or of Southern concepts and knowledge systems in general.

Giving back: all those who spent a part of their valuable time with the researcher providing information or answering questions or supporting them in practical ways and thus made it possible in the first place have the right to get to know the results of the research. This needs to happen in a form and language which is easily accessible to them.

Giving space: Any time we do research, write a paper or give a public talk, we can ask ourselves: does this have to be done by me or could it equally be done by someone else less privileged, by more marginalised persons, maybe by someone located in the South?

Concerning the content of the knowledge production, it seems to me the following fields promise interesting pathways:

Geopolitics of development knowledge: Whose knowledge is seen as relevant concerning solutions to pressing global problems concerning inequality, climate, social justice? Why are we making distinctions between global and local knowledges? Why are Development Studies concerned with poverty only in certain parts of the world? How do the politics of academic knowledge production and publication (high-ranked journals, pay walls) contribute to maintaining epistemic asymmetries?

Comparisons across the colonial divide: What are the similarities and differences of development aid in the South and social assistance in the North and of protests against development projects in the South and infrastructure projects in the North?

Other knowledges: How can Non-Western concepts and cosmologies contribute to a pluriversal idea of positive social change? How can we maintain a universal concept of rights without suppressing cultural differences?

A central idea of poststructuralism is that structures are in fact unstable and have to be reproduced continuously. This would mean that the structures of knowledge production in development studies can in fact be changed if we do our research otherwise. And that is an encouraging thought.

This post is based on a presentation held for the COST Research Network „Decolonising Development“

Aram Ziai teaches at the University of Kassel.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Alcalde, Javier Gonzalo 1987: The Idea of Third World Development: Emerging Perspectives in the United States and Britain, 1900–1950. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Apffel-Marglin, Frédérique/Marglin, Stephen (eds.) 1990: Dominating Knowledge: Development, Culture and Resistance. Oxford: Clarendon.

Federici, Silvia 2004: Caliban and the Witch. Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Brooklyn: Autonomedia.

Ferguson, James 1994: The Anti-politics Machine: ‘Development’, Depoliticization and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Li, Tania Murray 2007: The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

McClintock, Anne 1995: Imperial Leather. Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. London: Routledge.

Mies, Maria/Shiva, Vandana 1993: Ecofeminism. London: Zed Books.

Nandy, Ashis 1992: Traditions, Tyranny, and Utopias. Essays in the Politics of Awareness. Delhi, Oxford University Press.

Rahnema, Majid 1997: Towards Post-development: Searching for Signposts, a New Language and New Paradigms. In: Rahnema, Majid with Victoria Bawtree (eds.) The Post-Development Reader. London: Zed Books, 377–403.

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa 2014: Epistemologies of the South. Justice against Epistemicide. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Ziai, Aram 2016: Development Discourse and Global History. From Colonialism to the Sustainable Development Goals, London: Routledge.