Is it Time to Abandon International Interventions and International Relations? A Response to Sabaratnam

This post is part of a symposium 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]

Megan MackenzieMegan Mackenzie is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her research is broadly- and humbly- aimed at reducing and, eventually ending war; it bridges feminist theory, critical security studies, and critical/post development studies. Megan has contributed research on topics including sexual violence in war, truth and reconciliation commissions, military culture, images and international relations, and women in combat.


When I was briefly living in Sierra Leone I was invited on a boat trip off the coast of Freetown with a range of women, including a translator at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a “high-ranking” official within the World Bank who was visiting for three days, a photographer, and a “low-ranking” UN staffer. At one point on the boat trip, we passed what is known as Kroo Bay or Kroo Town, one of the largest “slums” in central Freetown. The Nigerian World Bank official clucked her tongue, seemingly irritated, and said “things just don’t get better here – I don’t get it.” The rest of us sat in silence, including the local male boat driver, who may in fact have lived in the area. This woman was not asking why things “don’t get better,” what “better” might look like, or for responses from those of us in the boat – not least from the driver, who was silent the entire trip. She was making a declaration: “things just don’t get better”, period.

I’ve often thought back to this trip and wondered what this woman did for the rest of her three-day visit to Freetown and what other “poor” country she visited afterward. This small interaction remains a signal to me of two endemic features of both international intervention and international relations. First, it is easy to ask silly questions and draw simple conclusions when you are sitting in a boat looking into a community from the outside. In this story, we were a group of privileged women floating by Freetown. Similarly, I often think of the “discipline” of International Relations (IR) as this boat. IR scholars rely on the stability of “established” knowledge and approaches from which to ask questions and observe “the international.” Second, the encounter signalled the complex relationship between “interveners” and “locals.” The World Bank official was objectively the most powerful person in the boat. Her confidence was impressive, yet she asked no questions, stuck to her set research and work agenda, made many assumptions, and dismissed the local Sierra Leonean as an ignorant worker who should, and did, remain silent. When it comes to powerful IR scholars and approaches, I still can’t help but see the comparisons.


Meera Sabaratnam’s Decolonising Intervention: International Statebuilding in Mozambique calls out IR scholars for continually floating by “case” countries and concluding, with a “tsk, tsk”, that “interventions keep failing”. What is remarkable and inspiring about Sabaratnam’s contribution is the way she weaves several rich intellectual contributions together. First, she makes the case that existing work on international interventions (including critical, “edgy” work) conducts uninspired, repetitive, and theoretically light analyses that ignore the history of intervention and its roots in imperial, racist logics. Second, Sabaratnam speaks back to the discipline of IR by mapping out IR’s commitment to a) Eurocentrism, b) “core” approaches, c) a laughably generous reading of its own history. Sabaratnam argues that these features of IR limit the study not just of international interventions, but of – well, international relations. In other words, Sabaratnam reminds us of the ways that IR scholars remain fiercely committed to a discipline that is parochial, provincial, and often unhelpful in understanding global politics. In short, IR often doesn’t help us understand international relations. This echoes Ann Tickner infamous conclusion: “International Relations is neither international nor relational.”

With this foundation, Sabaratnam offers a decolonial methodology for studying international interventions and applies this to the case of Mozambique. Her decolonial methodology draws from feminist standpoint theory and the work of pan-African and decolonial scholars in order to move beyond tired liberal answers to the question “why do interventions fail?” These expected answers often include: “the intervention wasn’t implemented fully,” “gender wasn’t mainstreamed properly,” or “local partners weren’t committed enough.” In this sense, Sabaratnam’s book is criticizing intervention scholars for “floating by” and making confident conclusions about interventions, and inviting readers to consider how we might think about, and study interventions, on “the ground” (okay, even I’m getting annoyed at the boat metaphor…that’s the last one).

In sum, Sabaratnam’s book offers readers an excellent evaluation of both the racist/imperial roots of IR and international interventions and a tentative roadmap for moving beyond these limitations. To be clear, Sabaratnam is not merely offering a “critique” of IR and intervention literature in the first sections of the book. Instead she sends an intellectual spear right to the heart of the discipline by pointing to its dysfunctional history and to the ways current research it not just “limited”, but is wilfully and confidently dismissive, silencing, and oppressive. With this approach, Sabaratnam does not let IR and intervention scholars off the hook for simply “not fully engaging” or “missing” aspects of colonial history.

At the core of her analysis, Sabaratnam asks readers to move beyond the question of “why do interventions fail?” to consider “why do interventions continue to fail?” However, in many ways, the most impressive contribution the book makes (for me) is the way in which it asks readers to move beyond the question “why does IR fail to help us understand international relations?” to “why does IR continue to fail to help us understand international relations?”

Her answer to both sets of questions is quite similar and straight forward: both the “field” of IR and the practice of international intervention is rooted in colonial logics that depend on perpetual loser “subjects” and “failed states.” Similarly, Sabaratnam’s work draws attention to the curious ways that “failure” and “success” are used both in the study of International Relations and in the business and study of international interventions. Paradoxically, intervention scholars perpetually conclude that interventions “fail,” while intervening actors consistently hail the same interventions as a “success.” Sabaratnam points out that, in both instances, the conclusion about success or failure are completely devoid of insights from people who actually live through interventions.


In this regard, the book does an excellent job of mapping out what Eurocentrism is in international relations, and its impacts. This certainly isn’t the first critique of the racist and imperial roots of international relations (and Sabaratnam acknowledges the range or scholars who have made contributions here). However, what is unique is the book’s accessibility and clarity, particularly when it comes to defining Eurocentrism. Quite frankly, it is difficult to talk to Eurocentrists about Eurocentrism; Sabaratnam’s work is a tool in this regard. Building on Wallerstein’s work on Eurocentrism and its avatars, Sabaratnam outlines what could be adapted into a self-reflective “you might be a Eurocentrist if…” set of questions.

Sabaratnam’s book will inspire scholars and students. It addresses engages with several BIG theoretical questions, including: If IR and international interventions are rooted in colonial logics, can they indeed “change?” and; how can standpoint feminism and decolonial theory be woven together in ways that do not generalise “the subaltern” or erase women or black feminist contributions?

I would especially recommend the first two chapters as a teaching resource, including for a unit on international development or an introduction to international relations. The shift from Sabaratman’s scathing and effective critique of IR to her analysis of intervention and the development of a decolonial approach is bumpy at times. Early in the analysis she concludes: “Finding out that the progenitors of the discipline in the twentieth century were racist colonisers is important, but finding out that the contemporary aid regime operates on racialized hierarchies of entitlement presents a more timely opportunity for demanding change.” The intertwined critique of IR and intervention and the call for an “opportunity for demanding change” come into tension at various points in the analysis.

That said, given Sabaratnam’s commitment to radically rethinking international interventions, it was somewhat surprising to note the relative lack of engagement with post-development and critical development literature. After all, these scholars (Uma Kothari is a great example) have long argued both that the subaltern have been ignored in analyses of international development, and that the business of development benefits interveners far more than it ever benefits “targets.”  I also would have liked to see the categories of “interveners” and “targets” complicated more. African feminists have written about the ways that “target” women adapt, resist, and alter their activities to take advantage of aid funding and objectives in order to “negotiate between international norms and concrete local demands” (Kothari 2006, p. 204). Equally, in her work on colonial-administrators-turned-development-scholars, Kothari interrogates the assumption that all “interveners” have equal status, buy-in, and commitment to intervention logics and programs.

Sabaratnam’s effort to draw standpoint feminism and existing decolonial and Pan-Africanist work is encouraging, but (I think) it overlooks some important debates and bodies of work. Standpoint feminism provides the theoretical grounding for her claim that it is possible and necessary to study intervention from the perspective of “targets,” rather than simply from the perspective of interveners. She notes: “subaltern knowledges are not only distinctive but also analytically privileged perspectives on how power relations operate in society” and “the privilege of the subordinate position as a place from which to perceive or try to apprehend more of the ‘totality’ of social order in some sense.” However, although Sabaratnam mentions Collins’ description of being an “outsider” within, and includes references to Mohanty, the theoretical section does not substantially acknowledge what are substantive, and unreconciled debates within standpoint feminism, and between Black feminism, standpoint feminism, and decolonial scholarship.

If standpoint feminism is going to be used in concert with Pan-African perspectives, it would seem necessary to go into more detail about the relationship between Black feminism and standpoint feminism, and indeed the relationship between African feminisms and Western feminisms. Black feminists bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins were critical of the idea of a “sisterhood” and a white feminist standpoint theory that ignored the history of slavery, class, and race in its understanding of “oppression.” Also, there is tenuous relationship even between Black feminism and decolonial work. Black feminists and African feminists have warned about the potential to seek emancipation through an understanding of the subaltern subject that erases gender and the particular experiences of women.

In order to better understand how to navigate this theoretical terrain, it seems there would be no better source than Black and African feminists, who have long been writing about the subaltern, Black feminism, decolonial thought, and international intervention. Given the intellectual commitment and analytical focus of the book, I remain puzzled at the virtual absence of African feminism in this book. Where better to start than Maria Lugones’ “Towards a Decolonial Feminism,” where she concludes: “[it] is only when we perceive gender and race as intermeshed or fused that we actually see women of color?” African feminists have worked to put black women and their experiences at the centre of any analyses in order to explore the ways that “gender has been and continues to be deployed in (neo)colonizing ways”, as Xhercis Mendez puts it.

In her excellent “Notes Toward a Decolonial Feminist Methodology: Revisiting the Race/Gender Mix”, Mendez raises important questions that could push this discussion between standpoint feminism and decolonial work further. She asks: “What, if anything, does rethinking gender have to offer in terms of moving feminist and decolonial scholars towards more nuanced analyses of power?  More importantly, what are some necessary theoretical and methodological shifts for feminist and decolonial scholars politically invested in using gender to denounce oppressive and (neo)colonial relations of power?”

Mendez develops a decolonial feminist methodology and approach that moves beyond simply examining black women against black and white men, making the following powerful conclusion: “If feminists or feminisms, regardless of what kind, have a political investment in using gender to denounce oppressive relations of power and to move us towards anti-racist and decolonial struggle then it becomes important to take seriously the claims made by women of color who insist that the thinking on ‘gender’ has excluded our histories and bodies in the making of ‘Woman,’ and ultimately ‘Man’(kind).”

Similarly, although peacebuilding and intervention are certainly not the same, South African feminist Heidi Hudson’s work on a decolonial approach to peacebuilding is also quite compatible with Sabaratnam’s, in that it focuses on the value of studying the subaltern and “the everyday.” Hudson argues: “[a] sustainable and decolonising approach would be to focus on how women’s and men’s everyday lives are affected by the complex relationship between gendered capitalist and militarist processes and how men and women negotiate their lives through both.” Furthermore, Hudson draws on a number of other African feminists to further complicate the intervener/target binary to consider a) the ways that gender, race, and class impact power relations within these groups b) forms of resistance (particularly feminist resistance) taking place within both groups.

I have no doubt that most readers and Sabaratnam are well aware of these tensions and the value of African feminist scholarship. However, when it comes to engaging with standpoint feminism, Sabaratnam seems to primarily draw on the theory to make a point she has already rigorously made vis-à-vis decolonial scholarship: that the subaltern perspective matters. It remains somewhat unclear what exactly standpoint feminism adds to the theoretical framework and to the methodology. Standpoint, African, and Black feminists would likely all agree on the claim that women tend to have different experiences than men, and those experiences are worthy of analysis and investigation. Yet I was not sure if or what feminist questions were being asked in Decolonising Intervention. I’m not asking for a simplified, “where are the women” account, but I read through the chapters focused on Mozambique curious about, for example, the gendered history of land rights and how this might impact the farmers interviewed for the book, or the gendered history of microcredit and how this plays out in Mozambique.

Akhona Nkenkana argues that a decolonial feminist perspective “places the scholar in the midst of people in a historical, peopled, subjective/intersubjective understanding of the oppressing-resisting relation at the intersection of complex systems of oppression.” Methodologically, this approach draws specific attention not just to the “subaltern” as a group, but to the ways that gender, race, and class work together to shape power dynamics across and within “intervener” and “target” groups. This allows for a consideration of the ways that “targets” resist power relations. It also complicates the category of “intervener” and inspires questions about the varying experiences of, for example, local men and women who work for organizations like the World Bank and United Nations. Heidi Hudson argues that adding complexity to the ways that power is understood to operate within “target” and “intervener” populations also helps avoid an “African solutions to African problems” approach that makes generalisations about “locals” and “could lead [to] territorialisation or provincialisation.”

The conclusion Sabaratnam offers at the end of the book seemed relatively tentative. Sabaratnam offers hope that interventions can be “adapted” or salvaged; near the end of the book she concludes: “to decolonise intervention it is necessary to contemplate abandoning its central intellectual assumptions, its modes of operation and its political structures, in order to remake a terrain for solidaristic engagement and, where appropriate, postcolonial reparation.” This conclusion left me more than confused and raised the following question: if we “abandon the central intellectual assumptions” and “modes of operation” and “political structures” of international interventions, what is left?

It is a testament to the quality of the scholarship that it left me wanting to read more. In particular, I was left pondering the following questions: Is Decolonising Intervention encouraging a wholesale dismissal of intervention as a viable political tool, or calling for a “remaking of the terrain?” Can postcolonial reparations and solidaristic engagement be built into/ on top of/ within interventionist practices in a way that would not be inherently counter-productive? Is part of the act of decolonizing IR letting go of the discipline itself and simply studying the international without concern or attention to what the discipline is or isn’t doing?


7 thoughts on “Is it Time to Abandon International Interventions and International Relations? A Response to Sabaratnam

  1. Wars are now called “militarist processes” and “intervention”? How about letting go of the flowery, intellectually-egoistic, academic jargon and start speaking common sense about the failure of international law to become effective enough for stopping high-level corruption and criminal wars of aggression.


  2. I have not read the book but I have read Sabaratnam’s dissertation. I see a lot of problems with her way to “decolonize intervention”. She does not acknowledge non Western, particularly African, agency in intervention, and indeed never cites key African scholars that have written about intervention and peacekeeping from a perspective of reinforcing such agency, such as Kwesi Aning, Funmi Olonisakin, Adebajo Adekeye. As per her claim that it is possible and necessary to study intervention from the perspective of “targets,” she never cites the voices of such targets, particularly the Mozambican (I have not seen a single interview in her dissertation), nor cites works done with this approach (for instance Beatrice Pouligny’s book on peace operations seen from below). In the end, a critique of Eurocentrism that shows its own -centrism in the Western elite academia and is inspired by its intellectual fashions, rather than a genuinely new approach.

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

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  5. Your list of ‘African’ feminist writers? Xhercis Méndez – US university degrees and tenure. Not born or raised or living in Africa. Uma Kothari – UK university degrees and tenure. Not born or raised or living in Africa. Maria Lugones. US university degrees and tenure likewise. It’s not that complicated. The US and the UK have huge tax bases compared to any Sub Saharan African country as well as taxes over 35% of GDP to fund substantial university systems, pumping out academics producing scholarship in all academic fields including IR. I think there’s a category confusion in these discussions – between the way the ‘6 pack’ (race/ethnicity, class, sex/gender, sexuality, disability and age) structure power, status and wealth relations in and between societies in all times and places and the historical evolution of the institutions of the state and market as the main historical forces that have structured societies and those relations in the last 2000 years. 18th to 20th century state and market driven European imperialism and colonialism bring those two sides of the coin together but for a relatively short if decisive period in African history.
    No particular subject position is going to increase or decrease the probability of having superior insight into the relations between all subject positions. There is no reason any particular subject position, whether privileged or subaltern, along one of the axis of power, is going to improve insight into relations between all positions or improve insight into how they are structured over time by state and market forces. The quality of Marx’s insights into global capitalism and class relations, though influenced were not primarily determined by his class, race or gender or Shakespeare’s insight into the human condition. Similarly for Méndez, Kothari and Lugones not being of African upbringing, academic training or tenure does not preclude insight into those lines of social cleavage in Africa. The capacity of the human mind to empathise, self reflect, observe, analyse and create makes us all able to cross the boundaries of social distinction. The privilege of tax funded academic tenure is meant to be conducive to developing and using that capacity. That is made possible by a tax base and GDP/capita over $10,000 in a national economy large enough economy to fund universities. There is one such space in Sub Saharan Africa. I think it is no coincidence that the last of the African feminist writers you quote, Akhona Nkenkana has tenure, was trained and grew up in the most industrialised country in Sub Saharan Africa, with English as a national language and with the tax base to fund the best funded university system in SSA and the best paid, highest status careers. Scholarship is a tax funded industry with various degrees of commercialisation. British colonialism and imperialism established English as the dominant language of commerce and now of academia. The countries with the most taxes and private wealth to fund scholarship produce the most scholarship, including about Sub Saharan Africa and aid interventions with the attendant asymmetric power relations, and on the whole those with the least produce the least scholarship about themselves and other societies. That cannot be changed by wishing it was otherwise or pointing to the historic and present day injustices that have produced those inequalities. It requires sufficiently large tax base to fund the education sector from primary through to university.
    Scholarship provides is a weird mirror of the aid interventions it critiques for failing to meet its stated goals. It is strangely ahistorical to suggest that aid interventions could produce institutionalisation and industrialisation processes in SSA when aid never has anywhere else, with the exception of two countries with strong established pre-existing institutional and industrial practices – the Marshall plan to rebuild Japanese and German political economies after the WWII. Industrialisation and institutionalisation are the practices that have characterised ‘development’ in China, Japan, Europe and the Americas. In turn those practices have provided the tax base to fund scholarship. It is strange that such an ahistorical suggestion that aid might somehow play that role could come out of the academy. Why and how could ‘aid’, a tiny fraction of rich world taxes and international capital flows, could undo the historical consequences of the slave trade, of bifurcated colonial governance or the present day structures of the post-colonial political and economic world order? China, Korea and Japan have long histories of centralised multi-ethnic state institution building imposing mono-lingual bureaucracies that fit with the existing dominant world order defined by states and markets. Pre-colonial Africa, especially in the East, had polities that were very different. They provided the basis for what Mamdane analyses so carefully – the colonial invention of multi-lingual African ethnic subjects ruled by chiefs, themselves ruled by the mono-lingual citizens running colonial governments (English, French or Portuguese). Government of mono-ethnic subjects by chiefs in rural areas still survives today in much of Sub Saharan Africa alongside multi-ethnic citizenship for urban dwellers. This legacy, alongside the African armies and police forces upon which African states depend to maintain power, are the sovereign territory of African politics and politicians and remain little touched by the aid industry. The hubristic claims of the aid industry are for the benefit of the funders to whom the industry is accountable, that is rich world tax payers, ‘development’ and foreign ministries and CSR units in companies. It’s giving those hubristic claims too much credence to take them at face value rather than seeing them as instrumental. On the other hand dismissing the whole aid industry for this reason is also simplistic. Some simpler aid interventions than ‘state-building’ may achieve what they intend – roads, energy and sanitation infrastructure building for instance. Training customs officials and simplifying the tax system can and has produced dramatic increases in state revenues in Rwanda. Extraversion rents on aid interventions maybe ubiqutous in SSA, and put the lie to the idea of the ‘intervener’ as the dominant agent, but that simple and brilliant idea can hide the huge diversity of institutional and market functionality either side of one border – say between the DRC and Rwanda or Angola, or Ethiopia and Somalia, or Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The proportion of national income that comes from aid and tied loans is hugely variable, as is the extent to which any particular sector is dependent in any particular country. Mozambique does not stand for Africa, and one sector in Mozambique does not stand for all of them. There are huge differences in the level of aid dependence in the security, health, education, mining and agriculture sectors of Eritrea, Angola, Rwanda, Senegal and Nigeria and in all these countries tax resources can always be shifted by government decision independently of donors to security services. By contrast racism, xenophobia, classism, patriarchy, homophobia, ageism, disablism are attitudes that are not specific to any country or international relation and can be found and analysed everywhere.


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