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How to confront race and racism in international development

Written by Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou, Carmen Leon-Himmelstine


This year the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) celebrates its 60th birthday. On 1 October, Nigeria also celebrated its 60th birthday: as an independent nation. The timing is not simply coincidental or uncanny. ODI is as old as the official ending of the colonial project itself, but the official beginning of another one: the development project. ODI came into being to provide thought leadership to accompany Britain’s development project ambitions overseas, in precisely the same places Britain was in the process of granting independence to.

Our 60th anniversary provides a unique opportunity to interrogate ODI’s own past in the construction and advancement of the development project itself. Rather than signalling a break with the past, in many ways it represented a continuation of it, albeit in benevolent guise. Interrogating this past is vital if ODI and those invested in the production of knowledge in the ‘development sector’ are to break from it.

Much of the development project continues to be underpinned by attitudes, values and norms which are fundamentally racialised. The Black Lives Matter movement, and its explosion globally in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, has brought to the fore the systemic, structural and widespread nature of racial injustice, racial violence and racial inequality from which black people disproportionately suffer.

If ODI is to fully participate in the production of knowledge to shape a more just moral order on a global scale, based on the expansion of fundamental rights, more equity and more equality all round, then it needs to interrogate the colonial underpinnings of the development project itself, and its role in helping to sustain an unjust ‘post-colonial’ order.

The roots of development research

One only has to look at the roots of development research and practice to see just how colonial some of it is, and just how much it is underpinned by racist and racialising ideologies. Take the origins of ‘fieldwork’ itself. In the early 20th century, European anthropologists travelled to colonies to collect data that was used for imperial administration, to ‘manipulate and control the non-Western world’, as so aptly described by Diane Lewis. Colonial officials also pioneered ethnography in precisely the same places as genocidal violence was taking place, such as Australia. Anthropology as a discipline still struggles to extricate itself from its colonial past.

From the 19th century until decolonisation, earlier research by ODI into the origins of humanitarian action showed how colonies were used as ‘laboratories’ to test out different forms of this. For example, famine relief and cash assistance were provided to the needy, while health services were provided to indigenous populations to protect the colonial workforce from disease.

Deep critical reflection about the colonial project continues to be a taboo in the very countries that were once colonial powers. Author Paul Gilroy once referred to this as a state of long lasting ‘colonial melancholia’. Remembering the colonial past is the subject of serious political contestation. In France, a 2005 Memorial Law initially included provisions for colonial history to be taught and celebrated in French school textbooks as a good thing.

Mirroring critical voices in the Global South that continue to write and explore the effects of different forms of colonialism, as well as the racism and socioeconomic inequalities that persist within countries and globally today (see for example Boaventura Sousa Santos, Mahmood Mamdani, Davi Kopenawa), the Black Lives Matter movement has thrown the pandora’s box wide open.

It has created new spaces to interrogate the colonial project, the British Empire and its legacies, a cause which writers and broadcasters like Afua Hirsch and David Olusoga have been championing for a long time. There is an increasingly vigorous debate emerging about the so called ‘white gaze’ in development, but much work is needed to ensure this debate is not silenced too soon.

Racism in the international development sector

The aid sector has long been criticised for being deeply imbued by its colonial past and structural racism. This has enabled the ideology and practice of the powerful to be normalised in ways that systematically undervalued local knowledge and expertise. Today, it is still difficult to openly state that the international development sector is racist. This creates discomfort and reluctance among some researchers and practitioners to own the problem. For others, talking about race is still a taboo topic.

It is perhaps unsurprising that a fundamental critique of a sector on the grounds of racism would provoke such resistance. However, continuing to ignore the ubiquity of race and racism in the sector is not a choice we have.

If we really want to make progress as thought leaders on development and a host of other global challenges we face as a common humanity, we must grapple with the question of race.

Silence on the issue merely serves to entrench the problem.

We encourage all those genuinely interested in understanding and addressing the legacies of colonialism in their research and practice to do three things.

1. Educate ourselves about the past

This may be an uncomfortable but ultimately rewarding and insightful exercise. There are lots of resources out there which can help to better understand the colonial project and its developmental legacies. The Anti-Racist Educator is a great free resource, while Bond and Kings College London have also compiled useful lists that include blogs, articles, books, films, podcasts, etc.

Organisations working in development should also engage in active training on race and privilege. Understanding the past is also key to thinking differently and truly understanding the origins of development challenges that persist in the present such as HIV/AIDS, water and sanitation or gender and health inequalities.

2. Acknowledge our own positionality in the present

Recognising our own positions (where we stand within a racially structured political economy underpinned by its colonial past) can help us to avoid reproducing racist practices (even inadvertently) in our development research, while recognising the pernicious endurance of racist attitudes and approaches today.

It can also help researchers and practitioners to understand and value different traditions, ways of thinking and other approaches to co-create solutions with communities and research participants. This will also help to create genuine equal partnerships that recognise the knowledge and experience of colleagues from the Global South.

3. Look to the future

The planet faces challenges which require urgent and co-operative resolution. This cannot be delayed by the baggage of colonisation and racism. Research and policy convening needs to ensure that this baggage does not inhibit our progress towards just, inclusive, prosperous and sustainable societies, communities and nations.

Benchmarks and peer reviews must therefore demonstrate that cutting edge research and policy thinking is decolonised. Race cannot be lazily dismissed as an epiphenomenon. Equally, we need to understand race in the context of planetary problems including sustainability, collective prosperity and justice. A more granular understanding of the origins of racism and its negative impact on a better future is the only permanent way to end its relevance in behaviour, thought and action.

Although the origins of development research and practice are part of a structural system underpinned by racism and discrimination, researchers and practitioners can and should take actions to confront and dismantle old biases rooted in colonial thinking and practice.

A truly rebellious, truly global and diverse development sector is needed. Confronting racism and unequal power relations is everyone’s responsibility.

Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou is Chair of ODI’s Decolonising Development Taskforce, and Carmen Leon-Himmelstine is a Representative of the Decolonising Development Group.

To celebrate Black History Month in October, we will amplify those tackling the black racial injustices across the world. We will share learning, be allies and listen. Find out more by following us on Twitter.