Intervention, Protagonismo and the Complex Sociology of Difference: A Response to Sabaratnam

This post is part of a syposium on Meera Sabaratnam’s Decolonising Intervention. Meera’s original post, with links to the other contributions, is here. If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention! [Photo selection – LJ]

amyAmy Niang is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Her research is informed by a broad interest in the history of state formation, peace and conflict, and Africa’s international relations. Her work has been published in Alternatives, Politics, African Studies, Journal of Ritual Studies, African Economic History, Afrique contemporaine and many edited collections. Her forthcoming publications include “Rehistoricising the sovereignty principle with reference to Africa: stature, decline, and anxieties of a foundational norm”, in Zubairu Wai and Marta Iniguez de Heredia (eds.) Bringing Africa “Back In”: World Politics and Theories of Africa’s Nonfulfillment (Palgrave Macmillan).

A Methodology of Critique

In Decolonising Intervention, Meera Sabaratnam shows how putatively critical perspectives in the intervention literature are not immune to complacency, in part because of an obsession with the intellectual endeavour for its own sake, and their tendency to revisit “the genealogies, contradictions and trajectories of intellectual traditions associated with the West” (p.23) as the key object of intellectual concern. Such conceptualisations of intervention often paper over, if they don’t ignore or invisibilise people as targets of intervention.

Often justified by methodological rationales based on flawed assumptions, these accounts reproduce, intentionally or unintentionally, very bad habits. By doing so, they reinforce the status of Western agency “as the terrain – or ontology – of the political” (p.25). But one’s methodological choices are inseparable from one’s ontological commitments, and therefore one’s political and ideological outlook. Sabaratnam uses a multidimensional, decolonial approach, beginning and ending with ethnographic and empirical recalibrations that are attentive to the life-worlds of targets of intervention, a methodology often scorned in international relations scholarship for its lack of “objective” scientificity.


Mario Macilau, A Falha Humana (human failure), 2014


The political effects of ontological distance and the erasure of the presence of targets of intervention are obvious. Distance and differentiation confer to interveners a monopoly on the telos of knowledge, history and encounter. But targets of intervention are alert to donors’ complacency towards their own complicity in the corrupt politics of intervention. In the complex sociology of intervention, their attitude to intervention has to be understood, Sabaratnam suggests, as a rejection of enforced collectivity.

The various critical perspectives in the peacebuilding historiography – the governmentality perspective and the critical turn, amongst others – share a lack of attention to the target of intervention as a political subject. Whilst the subjecthood and agency of interveners are given considerable space and thickness in so far as their intentionality, purposefulness and moral depth are concerned, at the same time, that of the intervened is made existentially shallow.

Mozambique is an emblematic case of how global engagement can blur any distinction between the local and the global. Conceptually, the liberal/ local distinction frames a “dynamics of difference” (Anghie 1999) made all the more plausible by ahistorical accounts that deny “historical presence” to target societies (pp.39-41), and therefore the latter’s capacity to constitute themselves as political agents. Concretely, the dynamics of difference are the result of material disparities that breed chronic dependency. All of this is all too clear to targets of intervention:

the targets of aid in Mozambique, however, articulate, these primarily as political questions located in the materially unequal and asymmetric relations between interveners and target societies, within which the struggles for coherence, sovereignty and presence take place, alongside a quest for resources. This sense of the reality of intervention is a widespread and common sensibility that both describes and interprets its dynamics (p.75).

In fact, the dramatic shifts through which the Mozambican state has gone through in a fairly short period – from Portuguese colonisation that lasted until 1975 to the socialist experiment under Frelimo, from a deadly civil war between Frelimo and Renamo forces to a postwar liberal democratic transition – seem to attest to the power of policy as instrument of change.

At independence, Mozambique faced the mammoth task of building a state from scratch. That the population was 95% illiterate and that there were 80 trained doctors to service a population of 10 million people gives an idea of the magnitude of the post-colonial project. At independence, Frelimo thus sought to build a “new man”, that is “a scientifically, egalitarian, collectivist citizen [able to] cast off both imperialism and sorcery in building the future” (p.61).


Malangatana, Untitled (1970)

Civil war in the 1980s is believed to have claimed millions of lives and displaced millions more people. The Structural Adjustment Package of 1987 and related prescribed accountability mechanisms were designed to fundamentally restructure the Mozambican state by imposing privatisation and taxation reforms, consultant-led legislative reforms, currency policy, public austerity, and so forth, all of which effectively put an end to Frelimo’s socialist experiment. State institutions were mobilised to work towards a new financial management system capable of processing donor funds.

Mozambique was soon hailed as a “donor darling”, praised for its successful economic and political transformation and supported in its liberalisation and privatisation drive. But what had become one of Africa’s highest per capita aid flows was concomitant with gaping wealth disparities and the enrichment of Frelimo elites, in addition to rising repression of freedom of expression and impunity. A sharp decline in absolute poverty (1996-2004) by about 10% constituted a striking achievement for the post-Washington consensus epitomised by the World Bank’s “Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers” (PRSPs). In the early 2010s, donors’ attention shifted from state to non-state service providers.

Through these interventions, the dissipation of state capacity was paradoxically entrenched by the very mechanisms that were supposed to build it. Capacity-building (capacitaco) schemes occupy a peculiar and important status in intervention practice. More often than not, however, these exercises are not based on needs assessments, nor do they deliver actual, transferrable skills for the implementation of the various programmes they are supposed to support. They are primary outlets for channelling funds that just have to be spent, and they encourage pernicious habits amongst state employees (i.e. moonlighting, hunting for per diems).

Fragmentation abounds in the hyper-proliferation of programmes, projects, and plans of action spearheaded by hundreds, if not thousands of NGOs funded by bilateral and multilateral money. NGOs themselves generate layers of administrative, time and policy demands on state institutions, distracting them from pursuing any sustained national endeavour designed to respond to the country’s needs. These demands can take farcical proportions, to the point that a minister of health came to refer to himself as “minister of projects” (p.66), caught up in the parallel government of NGOs. Increasingly, the temporality of intervention is defined by a logic of “results” “effectiveness”, delivery reporting, funding cycles and so on. The time and resources of state agents are often mobilised to service the reporting and accounting practices of donor institutions, the endless surveys of monitoring and evaluation consultants, and more generally the bureaucratic requirements of a deeply fragmented field of action.


Mario Malangatana, Untitled (1967)

The weakening capacity of the Mozambican state was made all the more acute by its weakening human resources. Attractive jobs with NGOs and donors agencies have lured away staff, contributing to the haemorrhaging of public sector’s human capital. In fact, the very human security of the state is put at risk by the persistent turnover and the competing demands from NGOs, consultants and donor agencies. In the health sector in particular, the project-based model intervention breeds unstable working conditions and endangers the sector’s very viability. In the agricultural sector, examined in chapter five, while various kinds of training have helped refine existing techniques of sowing and weeding, these don’t address farmers’ most crucial need: access to technology and investments to help them improve yield and boost production. Where funds existed, they often were “too small, too constrained, and this case also too controlled by an unreliable state machinery” (p.92). By and large, production has declined over the years.

* * *

Once a state has been dismantled, its governing capacity dissipated and its credibility compromised, it becomes fairly easy, if not necessary, to justify why it should be (re)capacitated and rebuilt. Yet, Sabaratnam argues, statebuilding intervention has actually un-built the state “through fragmentation of its infrastructure, the draining of its human resources, the waste of efforts on capacity-building activities and the experiences of public services as better but fundamentally unreliable”  (p.60). Fragmentation inevitably occurs when state actors are pulled in different directions by competing demands and when strategies of production are diverted (pp.106-7). The fragmentation of resources is both systematic (across state institutions) and common to all public sectors, in addition to creating a contested political space that is not conducive to a long-term policy approach.

Such practices inevitably undermine government’s capacity to coordinate and control. Dependency is structured and multidimensional; it compels the state to function in a way that makes it answerable to donors and, in the same process, lose legitimacy in the eyes of its people. Nonetheless, Mozambican state attempts at recovering state control are salient in recent efforts to subvert dependency through  “increasing its sources of international aid, leveraging its natural resources and trying to create a fiscal base… [as] responses to the dysfunctional dynamics of statebuilding under conditions or pronounced structural aid dependence” (p.79).

It is not so much that beneficiaries are excluded from policy elaboration and implementation but rather that their subjecthood is erased both conceptually as “agents” and empirically as “political subjects”. Humanitarianism, in particular the kind that “rebuilds” states from conflict and collapse, becomes an acceptable response, in fact a necessary intrusion into their lives. However, despite donors’ best efforts to discipline targets of intervention into “beneficiaries” of western benevolence and to turn the contexts of intervention into non-global spaces, interveners are not always successful. If the benefits of intervention over the past twenty years are visible in greater access to basic services, particularly for rural Mozambicans, liberal intervention has not made post-conflict, post-colonial prosperity a tangible reality.

* * *

The quest for political presence by interveners is very much epitomised by the quest for protagonismo. Protagonismo is salient in donors’ competing ambitions for impact. Protagonismo amplifies the political presence of interveners and reaffirms the value of the latter over and above the capacity of targets of intervention to form a view of their own. The conceptualisation of protagonismo – and, by extension, the examination of other parameters of intervention identified in the book, namely disposability, entitlement and dependency – is (1) a crucial lens for deconstructing ontological narratives that serve as backdrop to both interveners’ justificatory discourses and International Relations scholars’ conservative critiques of intervention, and (2) an innovative way to unpack two unstable composites of intervention. The first is the perverse relationship between interveners that inevitably obtains under a dependency structure produced by weak institutional capacity, state fragmentation, and huge economic disparities across the North-South divide. Secondly, these parameters coalesce in creating a common-sense that privileges western life, knowledge and science, western comfort and points of view, and ultimately the pre-eminence of western humanity over all others. In other words, it entrenches the idea that the whole world should be the receptacle of western views and values. The decolonial perspective adopted throughout the book reassesses the effects of these parameters using the perspective of coloniality and the coloniality of power, particularly in the manner that they produce difference, and more fundamentally a bifurcated sense of whose humanity and therefore political presence is enhanced by a racially encoded ordering. Interveners, however, insist that intervention is not colonialism, for colonialism is naked violence; intervention is not empire either, for empire is a narcissistic project.


Carlo Deperu, Neo Narcissism (2014)

The book thus reassesses intervention for what it is: “a kind of space for actualising the identities of specific interveners and their world views, rather than working towards a common agenda set by the government of community” (p.80). A protagonismo reading shows that interveners and targets are political subjects animated by divergent pursuits for recognition and validation, but endowed with different capacities to get their ideas and values across. From a protagonismo perspective, therefore, intervention is a political and ethical field in which “[targets] are both symbolically necessary, and materially disposable to the perceived success of intervention” (p.108) in the sense of being mere appendage to donors’ quest for impact and for visible success over a logic of accumulation of capacity and resources in public investment. The sharpest expression of protagonismo as privilege is thus to define not just a register for thinking, speaking and framing others, but also the very way that targets of intervention are to think about, and value themselves. From the perspective of protagonismo, both intervention and the purpose of intervention are rendered epistemologically incoherent in this process.

* * *

How do conceptions of spaces of intervention as terra nullius enable their portrayal as at once non-global and as indispensable to an understanding of global knowledge? How do targets of intervention frame an understanding of the purpose of intervention and what forms of knowledge can/ do they develop? Is there space for alternative elaborations on precariousness, underdevelopment and dependency? If we are to make sense of these questions in ways that open useful lines of enquiry, one thing is at least clear to Sabaratnam: intervention discourses are not the place to start.

As an international order unto itself, intervention owes its enduring character as much to interveners and local politicians’ mutually shared benefits, as it is a function of unequal distribution of power and resources. The neologism cabritalismo (p.123) is a scheme that provides plenty grass to graze to greedy goats (politicians) but also resonates with a time when Mozambique was ruled by concessionary corporations with sovereign power. In this configuration, the language of good governance – fashioned into a term of standardised probity – has limited moral power. Sabaratnam turns to articulations of public morality embodied in the figure of Samora Machel and his time, and to practices such as uwavi and kupilikula – in other words, to the trajectory of local institutions and the associated symbols, rituals, and norms – as necessary lines of inquiry that help to explain the public legitimacy deficit. Uwavi is an occult knowledge that can be used by malefic forces that feed on human flesh while kupilikula is an antidotic practice that seeks to protect people from uwavi. Kupilikula can therefore be seen as a form of governance of the anxiety that grips people in times of moral disintegration. By grappling with the field of experience, Sabaratnam is able to bring the power of memorialisation, the dynamic relation between intervention and corruption, and the question of the accountability of donors to bear on an account that departs from several presuppositions of the intervention historiography.


Sabaratnam does not seek to reconcile a conceptual gap between the rhetorical and the racy but rather to show how moral pathways are recovered in the quest for political consciousness in the face of the disintegration of virtue. The language of uwavi thus constitutes an effective critique that “is primarily directed at the country’s political elites and public servants for enriching themselves through their access to power; yet it is also one in which international intervention is itself co-implicate as a historical cause, ongoing enabler and exemplar” (p.133).

Good governance commands quasi-consensus among the door community and it can be rightly seen as the most ambitious project of transformation, having mobilised most effectively a plethora of initiatives, agencies and frameworks over the past couple of decades. The good governance agenda becomes not only a mechanism for legitimate intrusion, but also a lever for social transformation, in other words an agenda to reform the recipient of intervention as an ethical subject. However, neither the discourse of accountability put forward by the Paris Declaration nor critical scholars’ scepticism towards the stealth advance of the liberal framework is able to fully capture the gradual but real formation of an “immanent critical consciousness” (p.133).

 * * *

The subordinate condition of the target of intervention is “epistemologically generative” of a knowledge process informed by attention to location, position, status, and the changing conditions of logics of intervention (p.50) – and therefore to Eurocentrism. Eurocentrism is a term often peddled by critics of mainstream scholarship in ways that lack specificity. Sabaratnam’s methodological proposition is distinctive in a very fundamental sense; it is a critique of Eurocentrism as “the tendency to mark the West as the proper of political analysis, with ‘other’ people and societies (i.e. targets of intervention) as analytically subordinate” (p.38). For Sabaratnam, Eurocentrism thus consists in prioritising the western subject as the most valuable, if not the only valuable, political subject. Sabaratnam’s decolonial approach is three-pronged. It articulates target societies’ historical presence, the political consciousness of targets of intervention and their material conditions. The decolonial perspective problematises “the idea that African lives are worth less than those of European settlers and to begin thinking about political economy on this basis” (p.46). It also allows rethinking strategies and processes that can be implicated in both ethically capturing and sensitively representing lived experience of violence, trauma, vulnerability and stigma. Decolonising Intervention does a convincing job of not only explaining how and why intervention fails, and keeps failing; it also critically examines the costs of repeated failures borne by targets of intervention. The decolonial outlook thus links colonial and imperial forms of dispossession to ongoing forms of dispossession that go beyond the denial of sovereignty under the governance of intervention.

Indifference to failures is further linked to deeper questions of being and becoming, and fundamentally to the capacity of targets of intervention to elucidate for themselves the parameters of their development, to apprehend the terms under which to deploy strategic social relationships, to articulate autonomous subjectivities in a modern and complex world. Sabaratnam revitalises a timely critique from the point of view of recipients of intervention by showing how the latter customise the various metaphors that endow external actor engagement with a particular rectitude. Two points can be drawn from the above. On the one hand, the critique of intervention has yielded seemingly distinct perspectives that, in reality, share a common analytical impulse. On the other, continuous neglect of the true conditions of intervention is an indubitable sign of the limited intellectual range of most critical perspectives on peacebuilding and intervention, most crucially in the way they persistently look past the fissures of the liberal project.

The fact that critiques of intervention often merely describe “improvements” in processes shows that there is great overlap between critiques of intervention and policy reform. This can be partly explained by the fact that scholars have to rely on policy practitioners for insights in the collection of research data, a dependency that can often lead to a feedback effect on academic research. Only those critics that are willing to examine the limits of practice are able to also get to grips with the fact that researchers may be implicated in the reproduction of ontological and epistemological containers whilst they reduce the space for sound critique and foreground an intellectual habit of framing “hierarchy, exclusion and presence” (p.38).


The time of intervention and the time of experience

 Sabaratnam reconceptualises intervention as a logic of capture, an attempt to change, to model target-societies and subjects, to constitute their subjectivity in the process. Interveners resolutely aspire to transform the disposition, for “peace”, “development”, and “progress” of their targets, while the latter anxiously endeavour to meet “targets” so as to secure desperately needed funds. But interveners are not willing to change either their outlook (liberal do-good) or their problematic location in the field of intervention. Interveners’ demand for target accountability is therefore not a portable wisdom.

The time of intervention is the time of plans and goals. It is the time of global targets, the time of measurable impact and short-term outcomes. It’s woven through catchy slogans and policy commitments to ending poverty and despondency. In all this, the time of the target of intervention does not count because s/he is disposable and his/her experience generally irrelevant. The impulse to prescribe improvement over the dismantling of a policy that keeps failing its mission mirrors precisely successive “reforms” of multilateral institutions of intervention, from “development with a human face” to PRSPs, from “ownership” and “partnership” to the Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals more recently.

The book’s political sympathy clearly goes to the target, the “beneficiary”, the “recipient” of intervention, not with the usual condescending attempt to “recover” their voice but to show how a sustained engagement with the historical presence, the political consciousness and the material realities of targets of intervention can yield strategic outcomes: primarily the value of uncanonical insights of subjects whose absence would otherwise give an incomplete account of the game of intervention.

Decolonising Intervention is a beautiful account written in a clear, jargon free language. Sabaratnam weaves her case historically, methodically, in sustained empirical sediments. She strategically exploits the gap between intentionality and reality, presence and subjecthood in order to show that intervention is not a field of technocratic jostling but rather a field of negotiation of values towards, and against, an ever-receding horizon of “public integrity”. Decolonising Intervention is also an invitation to reform intervention as a space of emancipation – to elaborate conditions that can ensure that the space of experience and the space of knowledge coalesce.


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