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Decolonizing development – a dog chasing its tail?

Decolonizing development – a dog chasing its tail?

Hello and welcome to my first post! Or should I call it a decolonization rant?

Honestly, I have a problem with all these new ideologies sweeping across the West, or as Themrise Khan says, this ‘need to “decolonize” virtually everything – from aid, to political structures, to thought.’ If you have ever read Orwell’s 1984 or about either Stalin or Mao’s times, there would be no need for me to say more, but if you have not, the time is nigh.

I come from a developing country, and I have lived most of my life in such countries. The ones that need fixing by the development industry, this way or the other. We lag behind the West in almost everything, knowledge, technology, culture, thought, belief – you name it, except for natural resources, human and material, and often geostrategic locations. And everything would be just fine if we would only accept to improve, become more like them, just not quite the same, while also being ourselves—the Catch-22.

You can blame my late coming to the show on the actual power politics because development is all about power, and the analysis of power is key to contemporary development discourse. Or we can jointly blame it on Russian propaganda because, quite honestly, it is highly likely responsible for hacking either my brain or this post.

Alternatively, you can blame China if you believe its government oppresses its people, unlike France, for example. Who said Yellow Vests? And believe it ‘without a reasonable doubt’ without ever being anywhere near China, other than your local Chinese restaurant, and knowing nothing about it, except for the healthy supply of Western media’s unbiased coverage, Jackie Chan movies, and cheap stuff. But, hey, in China there’s no freedom of the press, which is best illustrated in the response of one of my former British professors, when I asked about ‘alternative reporting,’ including from Chinese and Russian media, “you can’t put RT and CGTN in the same sentence with objectivity.” Case closed!

And if you sincerely believe that Western solutions would end all the injustice through humanitarian interventions to install a Western-style democracy, as seen in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. First, they come and bomb your country and your home to rubble, and then they offer you reconstruction credit that your grandchildren will not be able to repay. Ask the three AIL-ing countries mentioned above. But, wait, China is now colonizing Africa by building infrastructure connecting the continent (the basic requirement for real development)! And Russia is hacking American elections, and spreading Wikileaks propaganda that it is actually Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Is this the same ‘communist’ China, you may ask, which in 30 years has contributed to 70 percent of global poverty reduction by lifting almost 800 million of its people out of extreme poverty? A lofty goal that Western 60-year-old development experiment has reportedly missed wholesale and instead exacerbated the problems it purported to solve. Please don’t trust me on this but go and check the World Bank’s reports, but can we trust the World Bank, the father of the original development.

Maybe you will get the irony and secretly agree with me, or perhaps you will unconsciously label me this or the other, all based on where you are within the global power system, or in the politically correct lingo, how successfully ‘decolonized’ you are. But, what is there to decolonize, I ask you, in the words of Tanzil Chowdhury, if you are both the judge and the jury?

How you interpret these lines dear reader, will depend on the political assumptions, categories, and language you use to understand and construct the world. Right here, in the realm of language and ideas, the great divide lies—the struggle between the oppressed and the oppressors. Media, communications, and knowledge production, including the very concept and practice of development, are all part of the same system. Quick research on the ownership of the mainstream media in the West should give you a clue.

The digital sphere is no different. Or, to paraphrase Clausewitz, the power struggle in cyberspace, in my understanding, and Michael Kwet would agree, is the continuation of politics by digital means. Knowledge is power, and ‘dominant knowledge closes off spaces for the articulation of alternative knowledge forms.’ Think GMAT – not the graduate admissions exam, but Google, Microsoft, Apple, Tesla.

One of my main struggles in writing this post (even though it is a course requirement) was deciding whether to be politically correct or take a different approach to the issue of decolonization, following the ‘Western hegemonic thought’ narrative. Firstly, I am not a part of the Western hegemony in any way, except for part of my education. In our ‘common colonial heritage’ equation, I am on the side of the colonized. I am white, even though I am not Western, and I am from the South, even though I am not a ‘person of color,’ even though White is also a color, and in many countries, for example, China, light-skinned people are admired. But that’s China again, you may say, and that’s racism and white privilege, and all that newspeak.

So, where am I in this whole debate? Suppose I ignore the fact that we are having this debate in the first place instead of doing something concrete about any of the fundamental issues that development is supposed to address. I think I am one of the voices from the South that the ‘decolonization’ movement claims to fight for. Therefore, I am here to voice the thoughts from the other side of the ideological divide, which may conflict with those of our readers or even other members of my group.

To me, this conflict is perhaps both inevitable and welcome. If any of my ideas make you question your ability to listen to a different point of view, you are practicing what you preach. You may as well be on your way to decolonizing your Western hegemonic thoughts because that’s what your prestigious media and academia told you.

Now, it is appropriate for me to thank my colleague Viktor for his earlier post on this blog, Everything Is About Power Relations, for inspiring me to focus on specific issues. And, finally, the latest Aidnography post for helping me find the echo of my own thoughts spoken by La Mehdood, Why I Left Development – Or Rather, Why Development Left Me.

In my next post, I will share my thoughts on power politics and digital colonization and how my initial awe turned into disappointment with the official ‘development industry’ after experiencing it firsthand.

Stay tuned!


  1. Paul Denys

    Just as people aren’t one dimensional, the same goes for countries, organizations and companies. It is possible to be the oppressor and the oppressed, even simultaneously, as all it requires is that you are in a position of power vis a vis somebody and dependence in relation to another. In many interactions we are many things at once, a liberator and colonizer. Both privileged and oppressed. Is it wise to expect perfection from imperfect people, organizations and states?

    1. Magdalena Bokun

      Hi Paul, and thank you for your comment.

      I agree that people, organizations, countries, etc., are all multidimensional. No question about that. It is also possible, as you say, to be “the oppressor and the oppressed, even simultaneously, as all it requires is that you are in a position of power vis a vis somebody and dependence in relation to another.” Where I am not sure is the question, “Is it wise to expect perfection from imperfect people, organizations and states?” Unsure, because nowhere in my post, or in my mind, did I say I expected ‘perfection,’ simply because I don’t believe perfection is possible, even though people often strive for it.

      My issue with ‘decolonizing development’ is that development as a concept and practice is a form of neo-colonialism. Or, as Ndlovu-Gatsheni puts it, “There is a white gaze embedded in development itself. My point is that we cannot run away from the race question. Race […] has been the organizing principle of the hierarchization of people, hierarchization of knowledge, and constructions of power structures.” And race here is, precisely, White Western, which has created the Three-world model to enable the development project.

      I understand the Western quest to ‘decolonize’ as hijacking the conversation, without doing anything to solve the problem they have created themselves or accepting that other people are their human equals – and need not ‘to be developed’ according to the Western models.

  2. Malin

    Hi there and thank you for this very important yet so amusing post.

    Firstly, I appreciate your thought of line throughout the blogpost. “But, what is there to decolonize, I ask you, in the words of Tanzil Chowdhury, if you are both the judge and the jury?”. After five years of studying human rights from a postcolonial perspective in a Western context I am confused as of what I believe myself and what I have just learned to repeat. Don’t get me wrong, I highly respect the postcolonial perspective and the whole idea of decolonialisation and my academic work lives by it, but you shine light to very important issues with the Western “decolonisation movement” I need to remind myself of such as the valid point of you interpreting the “Western quest to ‘decolonize’ as hijacking the conversation”.

    Second, after years of reading academia, how refreshing it is to broaden my view with someone’s thoughts mixed up with some random memes and irony. I LOL:ed at the “russian hackers did it” and I found your post the more intriguing and amusing with the teasing attitude to it without for that matter taking away any of the seriousness in the matter you raised. Thanks for a refreshing blog post, not following the conventional presentation of decolonisation (the conventional “self-critical Western way” which would be exactly what I would write and post about).

    All the best, Malin

  3. Rhonda

    Hi Magdalena, I enjoyed this very interesting and thought-provoking post.
    It does appear that developing countries lack all the essentials except for, as you’ve mentioned, ‘natural resources, human and material, and often geostrategic locations’. It definitely seems that there are no signs of closing the gap between the developed nations and the undeveloped nations. I also thought you brought up a great point about the way in which some countries are being made to face the process of dismantling to be re-mantled in order to achieve Western-style democracy, then only to face what appear to be aid in reverse. A system which definitely uses poorer nations to further develop richer countries, as they benefit significantly economical after offering huge reconstruction loans. It’s basically a two-front attack, which ensures that struggling nations are left with no chance of rising up.
    Whilst during colonialism western powers enriched themselves by heavily exhausting the resources from colonies, it appears that the cycle is continuing, as they are now enriching themselves through propagandic development industries run by governments of the rich world.

    1. Magdalena Bokun

      Dear Rhonda,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment on my post.
      Indeed, what is happening behind the cloak of ‘development’ is ‘colonialism in new clothes’ or neo-colonialism as it is better known. What many people, especially in the West, including those in the development industry (both academia and practitioners) don’t know, because that truth has been carefully obscured by the official ‘development narrative’ is the brutal truth that colonialism never ended. The best proof of this is the fact that, instead of former colonial powers paying reparations to the colonies, the former colonies are paying back ‘debt.’ That in itself is atrocious if you ask me, but how many of our virtuous media and academic heads question this? This is why, for me, all Western talk about ‘decolonization’ is hijacking the conversation so that the real issue, the root of the problem is never brought to the table.

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