Global Development Institute Blog

By Dr Louisa Hann

On Thursday, 30th May 2024, the Development Studies Association (DSA) hosted a webinar exploring the critical need to decolonise Development Studies and tackle the epistemic inequities that govern a Eurocentric research landscape. The discussion also addressed the role of the Africa Charter for Transformative Research Collaboration in achieving such aims – a framework designed to advance Africa-centred scholarship and epistemologies within the global production of scientific knowledge.

Chaired by GDI’s Head, Professor Sam Hickey, the panel comprised of Professor Isabella Aboderin (University of Bristol), Dr Divine Fuh (University of Cape Town), Professor Puleng Segalo (University of South Africa), and Professor Peter Taylor (Institute of Development Studies).

The conversation that emerged during the hour-long session – which you can view on the DSA’s YouTube channel – was dynamic and wide-ranging, raising a multitude of questions for further scrutiny and discussion.


Confronting the colonial legacies of Development Studies

The emergence of Development Studies is enmeshed within colonial contexts. While the discipline’s history is heterogeneous and contestable – something examined at length in A Radical History of Development Studies (2019), edited by GDI’s Professor Uma Kothari – many institutions and key thinkers responsible for its establishment proffered paternalistic attitudes towards those it claimed to benefit.

Adopting a variously termed ‘Western’ or ‘White’ gaze, scholars conceptualised development in terms of economic growth and the need to replicate northern industrialisation processes and forms of governance. GDI, for example, started life as the Department of Overseas Administrative Studies, instructing officials from newly independent states how to govern effectively. Such institutions posited epistemologies and lifeways of the Global North as superior to those of the Global South, offering tools with which to ‘fix’ poverty and misfortune, while ignoring the north’s role in colonial dispossession.

Fortunately, Development Studies has continued to evolve over the decades, with Global North scholars and institutions increasingly willing to critique the foundations upon which their knowledge, beliefs, and orthodoxies were assembled – including violent colonial systems and principles. However, at a broader societal level, many of the ideological and material structures that facilitated colonial rule remain intact, imposing capitalist imperatives on our institutions in ways that reward so-called ‘business as usual’.

As Professor Segalo and Dr Fuh emphasised in their opening remarks to the webinar, the task of decolonising Development Studies demands that we reckon with our place in the capitalist system. A commodified academy inevitably asks workers to reproduce injustices. The challenge for scholars committed to equality and emancipation is to continue critiquing and contesting the status quo from within their institutions.

For Dr Fuh, such a challenge requires recognition of our interdependence, especially as we weather such ‘an important moment in the history of humanity’. In the context of accelerating climate change and heightening geopolitical tensions, cross-institutional cooperation and solidarity have never been more urgent.

Regarding climate breakdown, Professor Segalo probed: ‘What do we miss when we assume knowledge can be produced in only one part of the world?’ A recent ‘hot list’ of 1,000 influential climate scholars published by Reuters represents a strong case in point, featuring only 111 Global South scholars, 88 of whom are from China. Given Global North states are primarily responsible for our warming world (while avoiding some of its worst effects), how can we expect such knowledge producers to sufficiently attend to the interests and experiences of those on the frontline of climate breakdown?

All webinar discussants underscored that scholars must think beyond what Professor Aboderin termed the ‘monochrome knowledge production’ of Western institutions if they want to tackle some of the world’s more urgent challenges head-on. As the world wakes up to the value of Indigenous knowledges in climate protection and mitigation research, for example, embracing an ethic of interdependence will ensure relationships between Global North institutions and Indigenous knowledge producers are ethical, reparative, and free from tokenism.


Universalist approaches to knowledge production

One of the key questions to emerge during the webinar surrounded the tension between universalist and localised modes of knowledge production. On the one hand, as Professor Taylor noted, Development Studies scholars have increasingly adopted and advanced the notion of the ‘pluriverse’ in recent years, which describes an ecosystem of political ontologies and alternative epistemologies that encompass and extend far beyond Western modes of thought.

Pluriversality allows once overlooked or suppressed theories and practices to develop alongside more hegemonic academic traditions. As Dr Fuh explained, the blooming of alternative epistemologies is not intended to shrink our horizons but to enrich the sphere of knowledge production for all.

Of course, recognising diversity and difference across different scholarly contexts does not mean shutting ourselves off to the politics and possibilities of universality. We are, after all, united in solidaristic desires for a fairer, liveable planet. A philosophy that recognises shared goals helps us avoid atomistic lines of enquiry that beget competitive and capitalistic modes of thought. To put it another way, opening our minds to multiple universalisms, to relay Dr Fuh’s comments, helps us ‘strive towards dignified cohabitation’.

Professor Aboderin offered further specifics on how to achieve this ideal by highlighting the need to focus on structural change and, by extension, the less visible asymmetries that currently burden the research landscape. As well as paying close attention to how rewards are disseminated, who controls research projects, and the political valences of shared authorship, we must persistently critique the capitalistic imperatives that variously advantage and disadvantage different groups both inside and outside the academy.


The predominance of colonially imposed languages

Another recurring theme to emerge throughout the webinar was the role of colonially imposed languages – most notably English – in scientific research and publication processes. As Professor Segalo noted, language is not neutral in social or political terms. As well as delimiting participation and conversation in academic spaces, reliance on Western languages serves to maintain dominant power structures and deprives us of a richer and more diverse scholarly landscape. Decolonising Development Studies therefore requires a shift in how publishers, institutions, and scholars (especially those in positions of power) approach the use of different languages.


The origins and goals of the Africa Charter

So, what role does the Africa Charter play in shifting the balance of power in Development Studies? As Professor Aboderin explained, the document emerged from a long-established tradition of post-and decolonial scholarship intent on shifting inequities in collaborative research. Over 100 institutions and counting have already signed up to the charter’s principles for transformative research collaboration, which include:

  • De-centring the Global North’s epistemological hegemony, making space for the generation and consideration of alternative epistemologies from Africa. As part of this effort, collaborative research should carefully examine and acknowledge all collaborators’ theoretical positions.
  • Centre African languages throughout the process of knowledge production, especially when conducting research focused on the continent.
  • Address Africa’s strategic interests that are not accounted for in dominant global development agendas, many of which conceptualise the continent as ‘deficient’ and impose myopic ‘solutions’ that foreclose fruitful fields of inquiry.
  • Facilitate funding opportunities that strengthen Africa-led research, offering longer-term and sustained support.
  • Redress power imbalances within collaborative research projects, prioritising leadership by African partners and ensuring division of labour doesn’t perpetuate historical inequities (e.g., ensuring African partners are not consigned to data collection).

Of course, reaching such goals will require work, effort, and persistence. So, how will we measure progress? Professor Aboderin explained that none of us yet knows the answer given the charter is still so young. Coming up with effective solutions will require collective engagement and experimentation.

For Professor Taylor, at least part of the answer lies in assessing how funds are used and distributed. As he explained during the webinar, funding bodies are often very risk-averse, constructing elaborate risk management and due diligence procedures devised to secure ‘value for money’. As well as discouraging intellectual adventurousness, such mechanisms favour established scholars who have proved their ability to secure funding and deliver ‘research excellence’. The charter acknowledges the need to break these circular funding structures, encouraging institutions and academics to understand the critical need for riskier and more daring approaches to knowledge production in a moment of profound global uncertainty.

Photo by Lucas George Wendt on Unsplash

Note:  This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.

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