International development institutions continue to frame poverty (the absence of wealth generation) as if it was not the product or outcome of processes that have enriched some (in the Global North) and impoverished others (in the Global South). ‘Poverty’ has for too long been “normalised” as ‘the problem’ characteristic of would-be ‘underdeveloped’ countries, to be solved by scholars and practitioners, invariably based in the Global North. This ignores how such poverty, in part, has and continues to be produced by unequal and exploitative power relationships between and within countries, that are themselves products of a colonial past.
There is a long tradition of scholarship that highlights how Europe became wealthy at the expense of the places that it colonised (eg. Walter Rodney’s ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’). Not only did wealth distribution in former settler colonies (Australia, Canada, Latin America and South Africa) primarily benefit European settlers at the expense of indigenous and colonised people, but economic ‘development’ (the generation of wealth) in many non-settler colonies was limited to the extraction of resources for the benefit of the colonising country, often using forced labour.
Recently, Indian economist Utsa Pattnaik calculated that British colonial rule led to the plunder of almost $45 trillion from India between 1765 to 1938, based on nearly two centuries of precise tax and trade data, which revealed how Indians paid income taxes which paid for economic development and the foundations of the welfare state in the UK. However, in recognition of these challenges, the International Development field has faced repeated calls for its ‘decolonisation’ both of its underlying theories and current practices in order to break with the logics of the colonial project that preceded it.
These calls are for a truly justice-centred approach to rebuilding relationships between north-south, in which ‘aid’ is redefined as reparations rather than charity. The Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, is one of many voices calling for a transformation reparation-centred justice approach to aid. This alternative vision of what aid could be, focuses first on the structures that have produced and continue to produce inequalities in the world, and a justice agenda based on deliberate actions aimed at addressing them.
This ODI bites episode takes a closer look at the reparations debate today, and showcases the voices of its most ardent advocates. It reflects on the meaning and significance of reparations in current debates about the future of aid and international development. It asks how these debates can help us reshape the sector and rethink the way we conduct research within it in ways that place reparations at the centre. While reparations can and has been conceptualised in monetary terms, this episode wants to go further. It will reflect on the practical steps that can be taken and the core concepts dear to the development field like justice and poverty, in ways that begin to grapple with the enduring legacies of colonialism. Its purpose is to contribute to thinking about how we can achieve global justice across and within countries, from a decolonised perspective.
Gurminder K Bhambra
Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies, University of Sussex
Research Fellow, ODI