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How to do development differently, diasporically

Written by Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie


This year marks ODI’s 60th anniversary, and the dramas of 2020 certainly qualify it as a year for reflection. A global pandemic, a worldwide resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, a re-merger of Britain’s autonomous aid agency back into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Black History Month, marked in October in the UK, provide a fitting backdrop to reflect on international development efforts in the post-colonial era.

I make three points here. First, introspection is needed from everyone engaged in development efforts in recent years. We are all implicated in a process that has seen more continuity than change. Second, structural barriers impede Africans, including diasporic Africans, from participating in mainstream development processes. This lack of diversity has far-reaching negative implications. Third, bridging the development-diaspora dichotomy means imagining new possibilities. It means doing development differently, in part by connecting diasporas, wherever they are, in a symbiotic process of global development that reverses 400 years of slavery and its racist legacy.

Underdevelopment is systemic – and calls for collective introspection

In 1957, Kwame Nkrumah led Ghana to independence, the first sub-Saharan African country to achieve independence from colonial rule. Despite Nkrumah’s radical, Marxist, anti-imperialist stance, the Trinidadian scholar and pan-African activist, C L R James, pointed to his failure to transform the state from being a vehicle for British imperialist exploitation to one that conceives and implements “plans for economic development [that] are part of a deep philosophical concept of what the mass of African people need.”

Subsequent independence-era leaders – regardless of their stated ideological posturing – have similarly struggled to transform the states they inherited into vehicles for the mass emancipation of their citizens. This is hardly surprising, given how systemic underdevelopment is. Rather than pointing the finger at one set of development actors, it will be more profitable to engage in collective introspection and reflection to find ways of doing things differently for better results.

International development as a closed shop

For the last 30 years, I have been a practitioner in the development field. I started on the periphery of what we consider “mainstream” international development. As an African living in the UK, I was part of an underground movement of diasporas supporting development in their countries of origin.

However, this African agency through diasporas, migration and development was hidden. The media and mainstream international NGOs promoted an image of international development targeted at Africa as still the “White Man’s Burden” to be borne primarily by progressive white liberals. In response to this oversight, I co-founded the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD) in 1994, with a mission to expand and enhance African diasporas’ contributions to Africa’s development.

AFFORD confronted many of the prevailing assumptions embedded within the development industry at the time. In the first Department for International Development (DFID) White Paper of 1997 (PDF), DFID made a welcome, though surprising, commitment to “seek to build on the skills and talents of migrants and other members of ethnic minorities within the UK to promote the development of their countries of origin.”

However, when I publicly challenged the then Secretary of State, Claire Short, on the lack of progress in fulfilling this commitment at a conference in Birmingham in 1999, Ms Short retorted that ethnic minorities were even less interested in international development than their white counterparts. At the same time, AFFORD worked with many young Africans in the UK who were passionate about Africa’s development and wanted to make a career in the field, but faced barriers to entry.

AFFORD itself faced institutional barriers that hampered its mission. For instance, DFID rejected a research funding application because we couldn’t be trusted as a diaspora organisation to be objective about diasporas’ engagement in development.

As Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou and Carmen Leon-Himmelstine point out, the industry undervalues local knowledge and contextual understanding. Yet the structural traps that valorize some forms of knowledge and denigrate or ignore others remain entrenched.

Connecting development and diaspora

The scholar Alfred Zack-Williams noted in 1995 that although development and diaspora are separate concerns (subscription required), both have much to gain from cross-fertilisation: “Thus diasporic studies which is situated within the tradition of cultural studies, tends to be de-linked from political economy, thus running the risk of a descent into its cultural relativism. Similarly, development studies, with its emphasis on political economy divorced from cultural studies, run the risk of economic reductionism.”

We need interdisciplinary diversity that combines various strands of development studies and cultural studies (embracing race) to equip us. The killing of George Floyd in May 2020 generated a wealth of reflection and insight that reminded us of the deep roots of systemic racism in the United States, all the way back to the Atlantic Slave Trade and plantation slavery. Analytical tools familiar to development studies and political economists, such as institutions, path dependency, and complexity science, help us understand how injustice and inequality have become so entrenched in the US and hard to dislodge.

Yes, “history matters”, as path dependendistas would remind us. In the outpouring of reflection in the wake of Floyd’s killing, the University of West Indies (UWI) Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, wrote an article connecting Minneapolis, where Floyd died, Martin Luther King Jr, and Marcus Mosiah Garvey. In the process, he situated the killing within the broader historical context of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the role of the Caribbean in that horrific story.

The piece ignited my imagination: what if Beckles had added another M, Mandela’s, to the article and thus connected Floyd’s killing back to Africa, from where the slaves came, the backdrop to the White Supremacist ideology used to justify the brutal trade, and which apartheid-era White Supremacist South Africans updated for their dire purposes?

Linking development studies and race or cultural studies can be both instructive and productive. As Zack-Williams suggests, neither nostalgia nor wistfulness has a place in our quest to reverse centuries of subjugation and injustice. There’s no golden era to hark back to. Today, we have the added complexities of the environment and climate change, gender equality, and inequality to integrate into the brave new world we must imagine.

Linking development studies and race or cultural studies can be both instructive and productive.

The Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, appears to agree with Zack-Williams. She recently noted that the "Black Lives Matter movement has reinforced in us the need to examine who we are and how we have gotten where we are." She points to the need increase Caribbean cultural confidence to maximise the power of creative imagination. Africa, like the Caribbean, needs a dose of cultural confidence. It is hopeful there are forward-leaning leaders in both regions ready to connect the dots.

Ghana is on the same page. It has taken the lead to connect the African diaspora with its quest for inclusive development through its homecoming outreach efforts. These predate the latest upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement, but now have new urgency and impetus.

We must link this newfound interest among Africa’s diverse diaspora populations to reconnect with their ancestry to a bold vision for a new, more inclusive and environmentally responsible development.

We must attract investment in ventures that can create green jobs; embrace governance systems that support inclusive growth; and critique deeply embedded assumptions that are no longer questioned.

We need to imagine new ways to embrace far-flung African diasporas as integral to the African story. Yes, this means “doing development differently, diasporically.”

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.