Global Development Institute Blog

Dr Judith Krauss, Lecturer in Development Pedagogy, Global Development Institute

“Rhodes must fall”, decolonising knowledge, decolonising the curriculum, decolonising the university: against the backdrop of these ever-growing debates in the higher education sector, there is an urgent need to consider what decolonising development might mean. Given the extensive and far-reaching issues involved, the below is not meant as an exhaustive answer, but an initial attempt to reflect on some key questions. Thoughts very welcome!


What is decolonising?

As with many terms used in academia, the meaning of ‘decolonising’ is contested and varied. In development studies, different strands of literature and thought, such as post-development approaches, post-colonial critiques and critical or radical perspectives (e.g. Escobar, 1992; Kothari, 2005; Langdon, 2013; Rivera Cusicanqui, 2012) address issues of decoloniality. Fundamentally, for many authors, it means questioning and unpacking how colonial and hegemonic structures of power continue to produce contemporary inequalities, and reflecting on how these highly unequal structures can be addressed.

In efforts to decolonise knowledge and the curriculum, this has often meant paying attention to voices that have long been excluded or marginalised, such as those from the global South, voices of people of colour (from global North and South), women and indigenous people, among many others. However, scholars (e.g. Noxolo, 2017) have also pointed out the risk that incorporating marginalised voices can become a fig leaf and cop-out, leaving unchanged most unequal, excluding and marginalising structures within academia and higher education. Thus, including marginalised perspectives can only be the first step towards more profound change.


Decolonising what and how?

The idea of development is just as contested as the matter of what decolonising means. One way of thinking about decolonising development may involve exploring alternatives to dominant understandings of development, i.e. changing what is meant and understood by development. This may include developing alternatives to the structures governing public life in the global North and global South, shifting away from following either the hegemonic capitalist, market-driven paradigm or the common model of North-to-South development interventions.

Even if we narrow down the focus from ‘decolonising development’ to decolonising development studies, a multitude of understandings and approaches remain. Recent publications on decolonising academia and universities (e.g. de Sousa Santos, 2018; Bhambra, Nişancıoğlu and Gebrial, 2018) discuss a range of issues from institutionalising deep, cognitive justice in academia, via decolonising knowledge in research, pedagogy and curricula, to diversifying academic staff. These questions and priorities could all be equally relevant for, and applied to, development studies.

In terms of decolonising development research, numerous questions arise around the provenance and dominance of hegemonic knowledge, theories and methods. For instance, we need to consider the degree to which research methods also in development are able to foster non-hegemonic knowledge production, for example through including marginalised voices and perspectives. Equally, the majority of articles in many eminent development journals emanate from global North institutions, draw on theories that are devised in and/or use methods and processes of knowledge production developed in the global North (e.g. Connell, 2013). This is compounded by search engines such as Web of Knowledge being selective in terms of which journals and sources of knowledge they include.

In terms of decolonising development teaching, the most obvious points to consider are the composition of the teaching staff, the kinds of knowledge taught, and the pedagogical methods employed. Beyond questions around the diversity of teaching staff in terms of gender, race, class, disciplinary, geographical and cultural backgrounds, there are issues around what kinds of knowledge are being privileged. Works referenced in class and on reading lists can favour hegemonic knowledge in terms of content and perspective, and the where and how of production and publication. Finally, most teaching setups expect unidirectional sharing of knowledge and information from (often Northern) teacher to (Southern and Northern) students, rather than employing pedagogical approaches that favour exchange and collaboration.

In summary, it appears that both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of decolonising development studies can be answered in a multitude of ways depending on institutional understandings, foci and preferences.


Decolonising by whom and for whom?

An increasing number of academic institutions working on development in Europe are now discussing issues around decolonising. A session organised by the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI) at the Development Studies Association in Manchester in June 2018 emphasised the many reasons for and facets of decolonising given development studies’ abiding colonial legacy. In a roundtable discussion, Uma Kothari (Global Development Institute), Nivi Manchanda (Queen’s University London) and Olivia Rutazibwa (University of Portsmouth) and EADI President Henning Melber outlined some of the problems emanating from the ongoing centrality of western ideas and practices in development studies.

In terms of those who would benefit, all involved in and affected by the research and teaching of development studies institutions stand to benefit from a genuine discussion of these issues and processes. A critical review of research methods and theories may enable non-hegemonic viewpoints, approaches and voices to enter the conversation. It is necessary for students to be encouraged to challenge conventional wisdom arrived at by a select group of people at select institutions, and to question how they can use their own insights to construct innovative and collaborative solutions for the future. If we can help today’s student generation change to what degree 21st-century structures, academic and otherwise, suffer from power asymmetries and hegemonic blinkers, that may be the discipline’s greatest possible contribution to decolonising development, and the world.



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