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‘Half Measures Will Not Decolonise International Development’

Genuine anti-racist internationalism calls for much greater radicalism, writes Sunit Bagree

A mural of George Floyd in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Brian Inganga/AP/Alamy

Half Measures Will Not Decolonise International Development

Genuine anti-racist internationalism calls for much greater radicalism, writes Sunit Bagree

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The murder of George Floyd three years ago today did not only unleash protests denouncing police brutality against black people – and impunity for these crimes – around the world. It also sparked or renewed discussions about historical and contemporary racism in many sectors, including international development, in which academics and advocates, among others, weighed in.

In the UK, the mainstream decolonising development discourse is not without any merit. It recognises some aspects of how racism impacts on the sector, for example, the discrimination faced by black and other ethnic minority people in relation to staff recruitment, promotion and renumeration, the demeaning way in which people in the Global South are often portrayed in the fundraising communications of organisations based in the Global North and the continued marginalisation of local civil society organisations in international funding mechanisms. 

However, two fundamental elements are completely missing.

First, it is essential to tackle the root causes of poverty and other injustices. Second, challenging powerful actors must be at the heart of efforts to create change. 

As Kojo Karam argues, many of the global economic rules forged in the post-1945 era of decolonisation – including those relating to corporate investment, debt and tax – were actually neo-colonial, and these rules largely persist to this day. Decolonising development requires focusing on overhauling these and other unjust global economic rules.

Instead, many in civil society in the UK are fixated on the amount of foreign aid that the British Government provides. Aside from the misleading language associated with aid and the damage caused by some aid, this ignores the reality that even good quality aid is not very important for development. In other words, while the Government’s cuts to foreign aid are wrong, some perspective is sorely needed. 

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In addition to addressing global economic rules, it is necessary to act on broader development issues – such as climate justice, democracy, peace and migrant justice – in meaningful ways.

Yet too many in the development sector in the UK are silent on the Government funding numerous fossil fuel projects overseas, supporting at least three dozen authoritarian regimes globally, permitting the sale of arms to countries (like Israel and Saudi Arabia) accused of war crimes, and attempting to overturn established protections for refugees. At best, these unscrupulous manoeuvres exacerbate poverty and devastate wellbeing; at worst they kill vulnerable people.

What makes this silence particularly problematic is that explicitly challenging the powerful is central to transformative change. And decolonising development requires transformative change to be the goal.

Although incremental change may be what is achieved in a given case, aiming for incremental change is a betrayal of the world’s excluded and oppressed people. Instead, the priority has to be developing equitable alliances with such people (and groups that legitimately represent them) and working together in solidarity for collective liberation

This is not new. As Priyamvada Gopal illustrates, British critics of Empire were inspired by anti-colonial resistance in the Caribbean, Africa and South Asia, which led radicals in the UK to intensify their dissent and build solidarity with colonised people across the Empire.

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But today, far too many of those working for development in UK civil society are removed from social movements, both those rooted in the Global South (such as the Indian Dilli Chalo farmers’ protest and the Iranian Woman, Life, Freedom campaign) and those active worldwide (including Black Lives Matter as well as others such as Fridays For Future).

Of course, the two issues are inextricably connected. Elites in both the Global North and South are responsible for creating and perpetuating poverty and other injustices – and they will not dramatically alter course unless they are forced to. 

Such an analysis can be uncomfortable for many in civil society in the UK (and other countries of the Global North) to digest, let alone act upon. But if these individuals were among the poorest and most marginalised human beings on the planet, would they not want more privileged people to engage with what really matters and be bold in holding the powerful to account?

While discussions around decolonising international development predate the murder of George Floyd, his killing and subsequent events injected fresh energy into these exchanges. However, the nature of this increased attention is of enormous consequence. By narrowing the scope of debate and freezing out critical voices, superficial initiatives to decolonise development can do more harm than good. 

Decolonising development is not something to flirt with. Those who speak of it but then disregard the root causes of injustices and decline to challenge power are simply failing the anti-racism cause.

Sunit Bagree is communications manager in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex and a member of Global Justice Now’s council

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