Of Privileged Viewpoints and Representation of Subordinated Experiences: A Response to Sabaratnam

This guest post, from Marta Iñiguez de Heredia, is part of our symposium on Meera Sabaratnam’s Decolonising Intervention. Meera’s opening post is here.  If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention! [Photo selection – LJ]

person_boxMarta Iñiguez de Heredia is a Marie-Sklodowska Curie Fellow at the Institute Barcelonaof International Studies. She holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She has taught at the University of Cambridge, the LSE, Rouen Business School, Deakin University and La Trobe University.  Her research concentrates on the historical sociology of peacebuilding processes, with a focus on the relationship between order, violence, state-making and resistance, and on Africa in particular. She draws on historical sociology, critical Africanist and practice literatures, as well as on extensive fieldwork. Current research is focused on EU’s peacebuilding policies, the militarisation of peacebuilding and political transitions through the emergence of African social movements.

In his opening chapter of The Invention of Africa, V.Y. Mudimbe states that a very basic question animating the book is “to what extent can one speak of an African knowledge, and in what sense?” (p.88) By unearthing what he calls African gnosis (“structured, common, and conventional knowledge”), Mudimbe seeks to explore the conditions of the possibility of knowing Africa otherwise; that is, outside the colonial library, that body of knowledge that keeps negating all that Africa is by constructing it as the ultimate other of Europe. What Mudimbe incisively captures is the politics of knowledge whereby, as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o puts it, “how we view ourselves, our environment even, is very much dependent on where we stand in relationship to imperialism in its colonial and neo-colonial stages.”

Decolonising Intervention theorises intervention from the perspective of relations of race and empire. Through the case of Mozambique, the global colonial structure of power is revealed not just in how interveners put in place programmes that debilitate state institutions, go to waste, or do not address actual material needs, but also in how the literature has theorised intervention so far. The “habit” of disregarding the historicity and politics of subjects and of thinking from the West is directly linked to how hierarchies of being and having are reproduced. Decolonising Intervention not only helps us looking at intervention in critical, decolonial ways, it also makes a crucial contribution to taking IR out of its colonial, Eurocentric origins and turning it into a critical tool for social change. This is all the more compelling due to the rich and nuanced theoretical framework it uses, by the detailed, impressive and thorough empirical research it draws upon, and by the refreshing writing style that makes the pages flow.

The book begins with a problem that needed to be urgently addressed. For a long time, critical peace and conflict literature had been making claims about the imperial nature of peacebuilding interventions but without really challenging some of their deep seated racism. Many of these works, as Meera had already denounced, were themselves complicit in reifying Eurocentrism and colonial difference. As Meera states, this was “not a methodological accident but emblematic of diverse forms of intellectual Eurocentrism within scholarly research” (p. 6). Hence, the problem addressed by Decolonising Intervention is much larger than just the epistemological basis and the politics of intervention. The problem is how IR as a discipline relates to the structure of power and coloniality that reproduces oppression and privilege.

The book therefore succeeds at its aim of bringing out the “broader political significance of interventions” (p. 5). This applies to the level of actual implementation and its representation and study in academic research, giving guidance to both practitioners and scholars “to reject the assumed ways in which global humanity is intellectually ordered into a hierarchy of “advanced” and “backward” groups, along lines produced by historic systems of colonial exploitation and dispossession. (p. 7). This goes to the heart of IR’s material and epistemological basis.

Needless to say, I would really encourage everyone to read the book thoroughly. I would therefore like to finish my review here. However I have been tasked with writing a review in a blog that advocates the “relentless criticism of all existing conditions.” In that spirit, what follows is an attempt to raise a number of issues, notwithstanding that Decolonising Intervention is a rich, deep, informative and necessary book. In particular, I would like to focus on one aspect of the theoretical framework, which is the relationship between what it means to think with the targets of intervention and to assert their historical presence. My concerns reflect theoretically on the absences of important African scholars, and empirically on the thin contextualisation of Mozambican politics.

African Scholarship Overlooked

One of the book’s central claims is that drawing on the experience of targets of intervention gives us access to political, epistemological and material truths about interventions. In order to do this, Meera constructs a three-layered theoretical framework that is comprised of anti-colonial thinkers including Cabral, Césaire, Du Bois and Fanon; standpoint feminist epistemology/ies; and the concept of coloniality of power. The framework is well constructed, robust and eye-opening. It is also amenable to decolonial theory, drawing on black, Latino and women scholars. This choice of theorists is perfectly fine for its academic purpose. But, as Meera claims, one has to look deeper to unearth the academic conventions and practices that maintain a hierarchy of voices, actors and presences. The absence of African theorists, except Cabral, and in particular, the absence of African feminist standpoint theorists, sits at odds with its own methodological suggestions about the recovery of the historical presence, the political consciousness of subjects and their material conditions. These absences create a sort of hierarchy of voices in the book where those that offer the bigger picture and the abstract thought mostly come from outside the continent.

This is a very controversial point and I would not like to be misunderstood, so let me be clear. Firstly, it is obvious that part of thinking about African subjects’ historical presence is to think in pan-Africanist terms, not just from the continent but also from the whole of the diaspora, constructed out of specific experiences of slavery and abduction so ingrained for the political thought of anti-colonial thinkers worldwide. African thought makes no sense without taking account of these broader diasporic and panafricanist connections. Secondly, as Meera says, Fanon, Césaire, Du Bois and Cabral were all part and parcel of an anti-colonial movement that spurred independence across the African continent. Contemporary African thought cannot be understood without this legacy, Fanon’s in particular. Thirdly, Fanon and Du Bois even went and lived in Africa, and Fanon participated directly in the Algerian revolution. Finally, they do provide good guidance for analysing the political significance of interventions in how they theorised the experience of colonisation and racism.

Yet none of these rationales on its own makes a strong enough justification for diminishing African thinkers’ presence. For instance, Césaire’s work is tied to that of Leopold Senghor. The Négritude movement that they co-founded was crucial for developing Fanon’s work. The movement was given much echo thanks to the founding of the journal Presence Africaine by Senegalese Alioune Diop. Their thought reflects the ideas that made the intellectual basis of the anti-colonial movement and as such, can also be found in the work of many African intellectuals and activists at the time, not least the so-called founding fathers of independence like Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and Ahmed Sékou Touré. Cheik Anta Diop, one of the most acclaimed African historians, placed “[t]he restoration of African Historical Consciousness” as the number one priority to develop Black Africa’s economic basis. This was for him both a historical and a political argument. He not only wanted to demonstrate the historical basis for the need to unite as African peoples but also to claim that “[c]ollective historical consciousness is one of man’s chief means of survival and a source of creation” and necessary to achieve political, economic and psychic autonomy. Fast-forwarding a bit, V.Y. Mudimbe has made almost exact claims to those made in the book about the relationship between forms of knowledge, material distribution and power production.


There is also an absence of African voices in the umbrella theoretical framework the book proposes to understand the broader structure of power in world politics. In the book, what Cabral, Césaire, Du Bois and Fanon propose is ultimately “read through the concept of coloniality” (p. 47). The relation between the two is at first sight enlightening but it raises a number of questions: How do these form a whole from which “to affirm a collective subject that has been previously negated, denied or ignored but which can share truths about the nature of oppression?” (p. 53). If decolonising strategies are an appropriate response to the problems of Eurocentrism in research and provide a more philosophically robust platform for thinking about global order, what is the “coloniality of power” adding to this already robust framework? Why do we need such a concept to “think differently about intervention”? Alternatively, is the coloniality of power, as exposed by Quijano, Mignolo and Grosfoguel, the ultimate framework that elucidates that “[w]hen we think about statebuilding interventions as structured by and through a contemporary global colonial matrix of power […] it becomes relatively obvious why, as a project, it would not work in producing or contributing to the production of autonomous and coherent self-governing political entities” (p. 137)? If so, what are Cabral et al. adding to the concept of coloniality? Or, put otherwise, what are these anti-colonial thinkers offering that the concept of coloniality is not? Ultimately, Quijano, Mignolo and Grosfoguel very much premise their work on the need to recover such historical presence, political consciousness and material conditions in their work. So, while it is argued in the conclusion that the book has contributed to expand the coloniality of power in methodological, historiographical and epistemological ways, how is this so, specifically? Finally, to come back to the initial point, if, again, the coloniality of power is the ultimate umbrella framework, isn’t this creating a hierarchy of voices in which some give us the big picture, others do the methodological work, while yet others can speak but only to tell us their experience of oppression? Does this not clash with the claim about the privileged insight of thinking with subjects from their histories, consciousness and experiences?

This last point becomes even more puzzling when in the section about standpoint feminism we find no African women. If Third-World/Southern women provide the most distinctive viewpoint on systemic violence, and we need to be wary of essentialising women’s and, in general, all experiences (p. 28, 52), then why not draw from those writers directly? Why are most of the scholars this section draws on white Northerners (e.g. Dorothy Smith, Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, Nancy Hartsock)? Meera is trying to construct, almost chronologically, the main tenets of standpoint theory. However, in so doing, she is missing important insights from African feminists and in fact, disregarding the reasons Meera herself is arguing for turning to standpoint feminism to think “with” rather than “for” “targets.”


People like Amina Mama, Pinkie Mekgwe and Oyeronke Oyewumi, for instance, argue that African women experience distinctive circumstances and violence and that the ways of knowing and overturning such experience requires knowledge of African languages and culture. We can take up Molara Ogundipe-Leslie’s own question: “what is the specific condition of the women in Africa?” She argues that African women’s condition (which is to be studied with account of the particularities of women’s own class and origin in historical perspective) is defined by the endurance of colonial realities and the global socio-economic structures of oppression represented in what she calls “the six mountains on her back”: colonialism, tradition, poverty and ignorance, man, race and herself (due to her negative self-image). For Ogundipe-Leslie, the African feminist approach brings theory and action together to claim not just this distinctive experience and its understanding but also women as necessary subjects in society’s reconstruction. This can be seen as a blow to interventions in that the problems that they address require challenging the fundamental structures of society, from tradition and custom to scientific knowledge and capitalism.

Thinking with African female scholars could have much enhanced the point about political consciousness and reflexivity (p. 44). Women were very critical of the project of independence for embracing forms of oppression that did not guarantee the real independence of women. Prominently, the Négritude movement portrayed an idealised pure and fragile picture of black women that simultaneously constructed men as the necessary saviours of all that an independent, pure Africa meant. In fact, for African women decolonisation was ultimately a male-hijacked experience, in that the men who took over simply left much of the infrastructure of colonialism in place by embracing the modernity of the state and the capitalist system. Many of those who had participated in the Négritude and pan-Africanist movements were “conservative” when it came to the women question. Considering how African feminist scholars have theorised patriarchal oppression at the juncture of global processes such as intervention could have contributed to the richness and coherence of a framework that highlights how interventions reify structures of oppression, of which patriarchy is paramount.

Thin Contextualisation of Mozambique’s Conflict and Politics

Despite these absences, when we come to the empirical section we are well acquainted to think critically about intervention. The three empirical chapters are an impressive work of field and archival research. They are rich in gathering the testimonies of a variety of relevant actors, especially those at the “target” end of the intervention, as well as data and analysis from Mozambican sources. Each chapter fulfils its purpose of illuminating the processes whereby interventions dispose of targets, place interveners as the protagonists of reconstruction and reform, create relations of dependency, and reproduce relations of inequality through arbitrary allocations of entitlement. In chapter 4, I was fascinated to read about how the draining of skills and qualified labour at the heart of state administration actually works. In chapter 5, the detailing of issues around the harvesting and storage of sesame was revealing, as was the powerful account of the politics of dispossession through development programmes that work on the surface, only to create further dependency and impoverishment. Chapter 6 was phenomenal in exploring how Mozambicans expressed their deep and embedded consciousness against corruption and their experiences of predation, lack of solidarity, and breaking of collective goals, through collective constructions of Xiconhoca, cabritismo, the use of uwavi and the memories of Samora Machel.


A 1979 cartoon of Xiconhoca, a FRELIMO propaganda character. Translation: “He’s a saboteur of the national economy, he has no class consciousness, he’s a dead weight in the office, to summarise, he’s a Xiconhoca”.

Meera warns us of a possible limitation of the book because of she draws primarily on privileged voices in Mozambique (p. 54). However, I did not observe this problem; what I missed was greater attention to the politics of Mozambique itself, in ways that would have allowed for a greater disaggregation of experiences within society. This is most noticeable in the thin contextualisation of the war. The book’s starting point is the series of interventions that developed after the war in Mozambique. However, the book does not really explain the war. On chapter 3, there is an amazing summary of a very complex process of rebuilding the state at independence, but no details on the war (only a brief passing sentence, p. 61; then again really briefly in the context of the tempo de fome on p. 87). In chapter 5, the historical experience of the peasantry, taking a “long view of intervention” necessarily involves paying some brief attention to the context of war (p. 105-106). We do not need to know the morbid details, but it would have been good to outline the two projects that confronted Mozambique at the time of independence, why it was FRELIMO that took the upper hand and how has the war affected the political consciousness of subordinate Mozambicans. This is particularly necessary since, as the book tells us, policy makers and some scholars alike have constructed an ahistorical account of the conflict. It also creates a series of related problems in the contextualisation of empirical research in the upcoming chapters.

When we come to chapter 5 on Intervention and the Peasantry (esp. 86-87) it seems that unearthing the historical presence and political consciousness of peasants would have entailed acknowledging that peasants were deemed to be critical as they have been traditionally RENAMO supporters and critical of the government. Nampula has been one area where RENAMO has been strong and it even held its headquarters for sometime in the late 2000s. I do not claim that the chapter on peasants is flawed because of this issue, but I am saying that it would have been much stronger if either the chapter had been researched from a province traditionally supportive of FRELIMO, or if the book had taken account of this issue and given us more about Mozambique’s own politics, independently (if such thing exists) of interventions.

Also in chapter 5, the associationist culture of Mozambicans is only suggested by the sarcastic response from one interviewee (note 14, p. 95). The book is (rightly) focused on the practices and consequences of rural development programmes. We are shown how these programmes are short-termist, they do not address the real needs in terms of actual physical technology and infrastructure, and they are furthered based on capitalist modes of production that create dependency and more dispossession. Yet the point about associationism is important because it is precisely this associationist culture that has allowed Mozambicans, and African peasants in general, to survive capitalism and the pitfalls of aid and reform programmes. I would have also liked to know more about peasants’ own struggles for land reform. This is taken up in the section on the peasant movement (pp. 100-103), but it is primarily crafted in terms of peasants and donor relations. The risk is the portrayal of a historical presence and a political consciousness only in terms of the relation with donors and interveners, thus reifying a binary vision of the politics of intervention, which the book set out to challenge.


Decolonising Intervention tells us that experience and presence both material and symbolic are linked together. The task of decolonising intervention thus entails not just drawing on those who experience racism and empire through statebuilding programmes, it requires asserting their presence in historical, material and politically conscious ways. But, as much academic work has already theorised, this presence has to be asserted in a particular manner. It cannot just play the role of the informant. It cannot be accounted from the perspective of colonial difference. It cannot be objectified. Decolonising Intervention is very attentive to how such presence is brought in and theorised, but has also created some absences. I have highlighted the need to give more presence to Africa’s own scholarship and to deeply contextualise the politics of subjects, to understand their consciousness through their wide spectrum of experiences of dispossession, racism and empire. Otherwise we risk, as Mudimbe and Wa Thiong’o put it in particularly sharp ways, giving voice to Africans only in their subordinated, victimised condition. Although the risk is there, Decolonising Intervention does not do that. Meera’s book is to be celebrated and will soon become a reference for thinking decolonially in IR.



2 thoughts on “Of Privileged Viewpoints and Representation of Subordinated Experiences: A Response to Sabaratnam

  1. Pingback: Decolonising Intervention: A Symposium | The Disorder Of Things

  2. Pingback: On Situatedness, Knowledges and Absences: A Response to the Symposium on Decolonising Intervention | The Disorder Of Things

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