Demise of Development and the Future of Anti-Colonialism: A New Narrative?

[Image credit: Walter Rodney, political activist and author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, assassinated in 1980]

Jason Hickel, an LSE anthropologist, recently published a piece on the ‘death of development’. He argues that the lofty claims of eradicating poverty and making trade fair are stillborn good intentions, as they neglect the structures of poverty and ‘architecture of exploitation’. Yet, this critique goes beyond a lament,

‘We would do well to grasp the opportunity it provides to evolve new narratives and new visions, speaking to the public about the imperative of justice, and uniting people in opposition to an economic system that impoverishes and degrades. We dare not allow the development industry to stand in for the political struggle that this moment demands’

Reading Hickel’s piece one could be forgiven for seeing the influence of Pikettyism (chartered growth in global inequality), and a host of anti-colonial thinking from Frantz Fanon to Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, and Walter Rodney (pictured above). Hickel also briefly contextualizes ‘de-development’ and ‘over-development’, offering didactic examples of Costa Rica and Cuba as spaces of efficient living, without the ills patronage of Western development. De-development receives little attention, however, it points toward a debate that acknowledges the disparity of global wealth, and the present, existential threat of anthropological climate change. Also supporting the demise of development is the crisis of confidence in Western polities of funding development and relief; this trend is undoubtedly fueled by the humming minority of populist right-wing groups in western countries with foothold political power (think US, UK, France, Netherlands, and Greece).

How does this all come together under the possibility of a new anti-colonial narrative? Hickel argues, that we may have reached a threshold where development as Western salvation for Africa and the ‘undeveloped world’ is no longer viable, and as such new tools and institutions are needed against a now global political struggle for freedom from exploitation and empire. In the 1950s, the era of independence for many once African colonies, the post-colonial emerged, both in terms of politics, culture, literature, and history. Some post-colonial substance was more specifically anti-colonial in that discourse and action was radical and Marxist. Since then, according to Hickel, countries of the Global South have been cradled through Western economic development, and have become indebted annually to the tune of $600 million. Global inequality is being replicated as the “successes” of development pop-ups throughout Africa. In many ‘rising Africa’ countries rural poverty leads to mass urbanization and real estate development in dense urban areas impoverishes and escalates homelessness. Charles Ledford_LagosIf neo-liberal structures combining finance and politics represent the advent of new empire since the end of the Cold War, as many, including David Harvey and Hardt and Negri suggest, then is the anti-colonial narrative and political struggle now an instrument of necessity? [Right- image credit: Charles Ledford, urban poverty in Lagos, Nigeria (2010).]

Simmons and Dei distinguish ‘anti-colonialism’ as a more pointed and aggressive narrative that looks beyond the full cast of actors party to post-colonialism and independence, and towards the ‘bad guys’. But how productive is this justice and accountability-heavy approach? Advocates of and participants in global social movements, such as those seen in the last few years, argue, yes, anti-colonialism can and should be part of the debate and logic of action. But as Hickel indirectly demonstrates are we not then conflating global social justice and inequality in the post-colonial space? Is the plight of the homeless man, or the evictees in London empathically or strategically connectable with comrades in Lagos, Cairo, or Cape Town?

The historical implications of anti-colonialism, thanks to the work of Frantz Fanon, are that violent struggle is necessary, in responding to the violence of the colonial power. Taking back what was stolen, liberating the people, was certainly contextualized by his experiences and perceptions derived from colonial Algeria, but how how is this logic relevant today? Given the global scale of complicity in inequality, de-development, certainly seems more attractive than armed struggle. Revolutionizing economics is imperative. Reconsidering debates about reparations might also lead to economic and political justice. Yet, the promise of such is not apparent without global change in economic and financial systems. Anti-colonialist claims for reparations have been widely debated and demanded, but rarely paid. Fanon, as quoted in the recent documentary Concerning Violenceclaimed that

From all these continents, under whose eyes Europe today raises up her tower of opulence, there has flowed out for centuries toward that same Europe diamonds and oil, silk and cotton, wood and exotic products. Europe is literally the creation of the third world. The wealth which smothers her is that which was stolen from the under-developed peoples…. So when we hear the head of a European state declare with his hand on his heart that he must come to the aid of the poor under-developed peoples, we do not tremble with gratitude. Quite the contrary; we say to ourselves: ‘It’s a just reparation which will be paid to us.’

From the documentary Concerning Violence

Alternatives to the current notions of development range from greater consultation to the recommendations made by some of the above authors (de-development of the West, reparations). Questions remain: does the anti-colonial narrative offer something productive and unifying in the struggle against neo-liberal empire and global inequality, whilst still effecting change in Africa? Can global change in economic systems and promoting justice for the ‘wretched of the earth’, through political movements create impact on a scale that reaches those furthest from the institutions of power? Is such political action, under the banner and narrative of anti-colonialism, an alternative to the struggles of development?

Further reading:

Duncan Green, ‘Why we should be worried by the World Bank shoveling $36bn to “financial intermediaries”,’ From Poverty to Power (2015). 

Hamza Hamouchene, ‘A new Fanonian moment? the legacy of Frantz Fanon,’ Pambazuka Press (2015).

Marcus Power, ‘Anti-racism, deconstruction and “over-development”,’ Progress in Development Studies (2006). 

Upcoming event at SOAS: Whatever happened to the developmental state? April 27th 2015.


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