On Situatedness, Knowledges and Absences: A Response to the Symposium on Decolonising Intervention

The final post in our symposium on Decolonising Intervention. A massive thanks to Lee for organising and editing; errors in this final part are mine.  If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention. The earlier posts can be seen here: my introduction, Marta’s response, Lee’s response, Amy’s response and Megan’s response. The whole book is available for free Open Access download here.

My sincere thanks to all the contributors to this symposium for reading the book and responding with such thoughtfulness, seriousness and robustness. I respect them all enormously as scholars and have learned a great deal from their own work – a learning process which continues through this symposium as well. Moreover, the space for deep reading, critical feedback, intellectual argument and reflection is something that the structures of the neoliberal academy increasingly accumulate against; my pleasure and gratitude is deepened by the knowledge that the contributors have all actively managed to hold the door open in spite of this.

My response to their contributions will principally focus on the questions they raise and points of contestation. However, I was happy to see that the basic argument and conclusion of the book – that intervention is intimately structured by relations of colonial difference – is one with which they appear to agree and find compelling as an explanation for the continuation of failure. A primary hope of mine in writing this up was that one could not read this book and look at intervention in post-conflict or ‘fragile’ states, and its various ‘implementation problems’, without this understanding in mind. Having done this work, I find it now very difficult to read assessments of post-conflict state-building or development practice that continue to reproduce various forms of technocratic fantasy about how exactly it is that institutions, polities and economies are ‘built’ or ‘improved’.

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This conclusion and the analysis supporting it has been reached through an engagement with the experiences and perspectives of intervention’s targets in Mozambique. Thus, the book is also concerned with how we study what we study in the field of International Relations – specifically how we cultivate what Niang deftly describes as the ‘value of uncanonical insights of subjects whose absence would otherwise give an incomplete account of the game of intervention’. The contributors had different reactions to this proposition and the way it was taken forward in the book, which I will look at below. Notwithstanding the challenges and complexities of this, I feel that if we are to practice a scholarship which is both more ‘scientific’ and more democratic, this kind of epistemic and methodological re-positioning of scholars vis-à-vis structures of power is absolutely critical.

Now, then, to the authors’ more specific queries. I contemplated responding to them thematically – but on further reflection, I felt I would do less violence to the questions raised by treating the issues they raise in turn individually. I will add as a general disclaimer that my aim in the book was to try to keep it focused and readable, so excluded or heavily condensed various debates and issues. Nonetheless, some of these are picked up by the authors and I welcome the opportunity to elaborate on these issues here.

African Scholarship, African Feminists and history in Mozambique

Iñiguez-de-Heredia’s response is encouraging in terms of the book’s message and methods but draws attention to three perceived absences – of more African scholarship, of African feminist thought and the historical contextualisation in Mozambique.

As she notes, the book’s conceptual and methodological moorings are in anti-colonial/panafricanist thinkers, standpoint feminist epistemologies and, in the conclusion, the idea of the coloniality of power. However, she argues that, nothwithstanding the inclusion of Cabral, there is a relative absence of African scholarship in the theoretical framing in comparison to the diasporic panafricanist presence (Du Bois, Césaire, Fanon). Specifically she cites Senghor, Alouine Diop, Cheik Anta Diop, Nkrumah, Nyerere and Sékou Touré as African intellectual figures who might have been present.

I am sympathetic to the issue given the wider erasures of African thought in the academy. I would pose, however, some thoughts against this proposition within the context of this book. On the one hand, one might argue that the thinkers she identifies as missing are themselves also in important ways diasporic panafricanists given their own intellectual biographies and political trajectories. If this is the case then the objection seems more quantitative rather than qualitative in nature – there are not enough people cited with this broad profile. Iñiguez-de-Heredia argues that the points around history could have been made with Cheik Anta Diop and Mudimbe rather than Césaire and Fanon. It certainly could; although this would have not reflected my own intellectual journey in anti-colonial thought. In general, I have not sought to think with/through ‘Africa’ as a category.


Moreover, whilst there are not so many of the classic canon of African political theorists in the book, there are nonetheless a wide range of contemporary Mozambican scholars and intellectuals whose insights inform the analysis of intervention. In response to the idea that this sets up a ‘hierarchy’ in terms of the ways in which perspectives are engaged, I am not sure that this is the case. The wider book makes the point that situatedness is a guiding principle for thinking about knowledge. The concept of the ‘coloniality of power’ is used as a heuristic device that ties them together, but it is not more important, at least for me, in the book than the concepts of protagonismo or dependency which explain intimate relations in a structural way.

However, if one were to make additionally a qualitative claim re. the African thinkers that she cites – that there is something conceptually distinctive about their collective body of thought because they are also continental Africans – then that is a rather different proposition. I don’t think an examination of e.g. the work of Senghor, Nkrumah and Nyerere together would establish a deep set of commonalities amongst them. Moreover, I would then argue against including a number of these thinkers on this basis since I don’t think they contribute to the kind of materialist, situated epistemology that I see in the work of the thinkers that I did incorporate – Du Bois, Césaire, Fanon and Cabral. In fact, Senghor’s conception of Négritude would for example precisely run against this approach (as is noted in the African feminist critique of Négritude’s conservatism). Treating African thinkers seriously as thinkers must mean both critically appreciating those differences and distinctions and also not including them only to re-establish a wider presence.

My sense  of wanting to treat this scholarship seriously is also why, whilst I recognise the point, I did not deal with African feminist scholarship in any great detail, an absence also noted by Mackenzie in her intervention. I am not as familiar with much of this scholarship, and I look forward to learning more about it, thanks to these recommendations. A deeper engagement with questions of gender and their embeddedness within relations of intervention might, however, have altered the research design from the outset – it certainly would have changed the character of the field research, the choice of sectors perhaps and aspects of the method. I deal with the implications of this at more length in response to Mackenzie below.

Whilst this might have been interesting, the use in the book of feminist scholarship on the philosophy of science was only to make an argument about the relationship between situatedness and knowledge. The book is not (and does not claim to be) an intervention into feminist scholarship per se. In this sense, I chose to treat feminist scholarship as good scholarship, with a useful insight for wider thinking on oppression and knowledge.

I very much appreciated Iñiguez-de-Heredia’s comments about the empirical chapters and note that she would have liked more historical detail. The history of Mozambique is indeed fascinating, and I have written a chapter on this available here which came out of the previous research but was not included as part of the book.  With regard to the specific comment regarding the choice of Nampula as opposed to a more pro-Frelimo province, Nampula remains the most populous part of the country and the space for many agricultural interventions – I did not feel I could only concentrate the research in the south overall. With more time (and money! and a book focused more on agriculture!) it might have been interesting to conduct interviews in Gaza (heavily Frelimo and better funded) and Tete (more Anglicised, and integrated into regional economies) as well.

Situatedness, Analysis and Critique

Jones’ response is similarly encouraging regarding the beginning and end of the book, although he is less convinced by the middle. Overall the issues raised are generated by a much more profound philosophical difference between us on the question of epistemological situatedness as a possible starting point for research. With this in mind, I will deal with the issues in more detail as they appear in his response – the way in which the analysis is constructed, the use of standpoint epistemology, the questions raised by social differentiation within Mozambique, the question of colonial difference in light of the role of ‘Southern’ donors such as China, and the question of donor motivations. I also feel compelled to respond to his footnote with a footnote on the agency of targets since it speaks to the wider philosophical distinctions between our approaches.

Jones argues that neither the de-colonial sensibility nor standpoint epistemology furnish an ‘adequate theory of the state’ or an ‘articulated framework’ for studying intervention. Yet this is the point of doing ‘grounded’ and/or ‘situated’ research of social phenomena – the method prioritises gathering data, analyses and responses from the context as a means to reconstructing a grounded and distinctive understanding of (in this case) the state, the political economy of intervention in agriculture, and the politics of anti-corruption. This is necessitated by the idea that things look different from different perspectives. Coming at the case with a pre-fixed / pre-built theory of the state would hollow out the need to engage hermeneutically with targets as knowers. More importantly, it would heavily limit what could be apprehended through the research process since so many insights / reflections might be disregarded as ‘irrelevant’ to the established framework.

This is not to accept that the approach taken in the book is inadequate – nor indeed that the book lacks ‘theory’. The interpretation that emerges of the state as being ‘unbuilt’ through intervention nonetheless has deep analytic significance insofar as it is able to map a chasm between the political rhetoric and the collective experiences of intervention. It does so systematically, in a way which works with the concrete details and mechanisms of this historical unbuilding outwards to its wider structural drivers. Moreover, ‘theoretically’-informed heuristics (e.g. dependency) are also part of the immanent critical consciousness of those explaining and interpreting intervention amongst themselves. These bring together a worldly but situated account of intervention.

It is a pity then that Jones does not engage with the various layers of argument made around standpoint epistemology and its relationship to research strategies and categories (p.47-54 in the book). This speaks to his concern that it may be inappropriate to treat Mozambique as a collective subject of experience of intervention because of the potential for elite capture. Jones also worries that this establishes a ‘dichotomy’ between interveners and targets which flattens out internal inequalities and different positions vis-à-vis these categories. Yet, this question is discussed extensively on pages 52-54. It is a classic problem for any social theory or indeed social movement wanting to discuss an internally-differentiated collective subject, and one taken up extensively in feminist discussions around the collective subject ‘women’. In this part of the argument I put forward Sandoval’s idea of ‘tactical subjectivity’ as the basis for expressing particular kinds of collectivity at different times, particularly where that subject has been effectively negated. I argue that ‘Mozambique’ as a collective subject has experienced this negation within the field of international studies but that a meaningful account of collective experience can indeed be formulated. I further note in the book the methodological triangulation put in place to deal with the problem of elite capture of the narrative.

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They are robbers. ‘Poverty is not in the land, it is in the head’: President Armando Guebuza. Poverty is in the head of the rulers!

For what it is worth, in my view the book does not itself heavily turn on ossifying ‘Mozambique’ as a singular entity; rather I hope that its set-up allows an appreciation both of collective experience and of internal differentiation (as Iñiguez-de-Heredia and Niang note).  I do not think the book reproduces what Jones represents as a ‘dichotomy’ between targets and interveners of a ‘pre-given’ type (as critiqued in the hybridity literature), but I think the book shows that intervention materially structures relations in such a way that one’s positioning within the system has significant consequences, as laid out in the analysis (and in line with Autesserre’s conception of the ‘local’). Thus, there is something important in common with regard to intervention even between the very highest Mozambican minister and the poorest farmer when it comes to relations with subjects that position themselves as ‘donors’, and this is what the book is about.

But, perhaps we have to accept a more fundamental difference here, and this is over the old question – the underlying possibility of the national state as a vehicle for something that constitutes a potential site of collective democratic liberation in a post-colonial environment (e.g. Chatterjee 1993). In Mozambique, the history of the nation-state is deeply entangled with the politics of liberation from colonial rule (only one generation ago), the nationalisation of colonial resources, and grand if often failed social experiments in democracy, collective production and governance. In this context, although many of these experiments did not work and produced significant suffering, post-colonial nationhood still has a kind of agential structure, political significance and potentiality – as a possibility for a site of democracy and accountability, and particularly so in the face of global structures of governance and extraction that seek to continuously unpick it. I might mischievously note that this is not dissimilar to some of the Lexit arguments, although the context is importantly different. Jones however seems to suggest that the hierarchical character of Mozambican society means that the idea of a common pattern of experience structuring intervention does not make sense.

Coming onto the question of elites, for Jones they are primarily – perhaps only – predatory actors, seeking to capture resources and institutions for themselves, and who could appropriate any reparations to be made by the West. I do not ignore the question of elite predation in the book – indeed, although Jones does not represent this in his response, virtually the whole of chapter 6 is about Mozambicans discussing the problems of predation, greed and corruption in public life amongst their own political elites as well as outsiders. Yet, I argue that they do so precisely as groups with common hermeneutics of corruption and public integrity that shed light onto the wider dynamics of intervention within capitalist re-ordering of the state. Indeed, it is these common hermeneutics that are the most potent sources of critique, in part because they also call into being a national collectivity at these key moments. This in turn demonstrates the emptiness of the donor discourse of corruption as contained by ‘good governance’.

Crucially, it is also a hermeneutic engagement that re-humanises the plane of critique by treating people as not only ‘agents’ but ‘subjects’ of politics. Treating elites as only predatory actors without subjectivity, reflexivity or a framework of intelligibility for their actions limits our understanding of the political logics and significance of predation. Moreover, it continues and deepens the alienation of political science from its own subject matter. This might be justified by the view that it is the job of scholarship to ruthlessly critique everything all the time – indeed this is on the masthead of this blog. And yet, under conditions where the actual practice of this critique reproduces forms of political erasure which actually end up reinforcing the existing structural topographies of power, this is not always the most appropriate disposition.  Or, at least, it is not my disposition. This does not mean ‘romanticising’ subjects of analysis, I don’t think, but it does involve ‘humanising’ them by seeing them as reflexive, material beings embedded within webs of meaning. By only superimposing ‘our’ own (superior) meanings onto ‘their’ behaviour (recognising that to some extent this is inevitable in the act of authorship), we lose a lot of the critical and democratic potential within scholarship.[1]

To move onto the uses and limits of the ‘coloniality of power’ and ‘relations of colonial difference’ within the conclusion, Jones suggests that because e.g. China can act in exploitative ways in other poorer countries, that the ‘coloniality of power’ is too crude an instrument for comprehending intervention. This is prefaced by a comment in which Jones claims that I call for the West to behave “more like Southern donors” (p.144). This is a misreading; I don’t actually make the call for the West to behave more like Southern donors but to “seeing themselves more like Southern donors” (p.144, emphasis added) in order to reckon with relations of colonial difference. This is a consequential difference, which is around the question of co-operation under the ethos of mutual benefit rather than philanthropic benefit – a question of limited, defined projects rather than the more systematic attempt to manage the parameters of ‘national’ development. This is not incompatible with the insight that China, India, Brazil and other donors may well engage in extractive relations as part of that co-operation. But the political parameters of engagement begin from a more egalitarian point of departure, and one which is in principle more amenable to the making of political choices.

Actually, I would suggest that in this ambivalent setting ‘relations of colonial difference’ is a useful structural concept that also allows an assessment of the ways in which ‘Southern’ governments and states engage with each other beyond the stated parameters of engagement. The concepts of protagonismo, entitlement, disposability and dependency might also be investigated here. Marx famously argued that capital was not a thing but a relation; analogously I would argue that coloniality is not a property of particular countries but a relation structuring modernity. The logics of this relation are not reducible to capital alone but are also constituted by a hierarchical understanding of humanity which is historically the basis for the operation of capitalist relations. In this sense, colonial relations can be found throughout the modern world, within territorial spaces in North America or China as well as between ‘the West’ and ‘Africa’ as widely understood. In treating the analytic of colonial difference as structural and relational, then, the question of donor motivation or good faith is not made central to thinking about the ways in which the practices unfold (as Hameiri notes in his comments on the book). In a sense, that is the next conversation: in bringing these findings back to the audiences in whose name intervention is practiced (Western taxpayers, for example) the question of motivation and outcome must be re-examined.

Intervention and the Complex Sociology of Difference

A response to Niang’s insightful commentary on the book starts in a different place, and will be a little shorter. I was both moved and deeply struck by this sympathetic and close reading, which I felt captured so many of my aspirations for how the book would be read and understood; in fact it went well above and beyond these. Niang’s account however does not pose specific questions about absences or assumptions in the way that the other contributors to this forum do. Her reading instead chooses to walk alongside the book’s aims and objectives, retrieving, relating and re-working its insights in ways that have disclosed it in new ways to me, and which actually further the analysis and argument. Reading this account has been extraordinarily valuable, gratifying and humbling. In responding, then, I wanted to reflect on just a couple of thoughts that come more sharply into focus for me when reading Niang’s commentary.

One such thought was provoked by the juxtaposition of Malangatana’s painting with the commentary about the fragmentation of the state produced by intervention practice – and this is thanks also to Lee Jones’ wonderfully thoughtful image curation! In light of the discussions in chapter 6 about the voraciousness and greed underpinning the politics of corruption, that image of the figure/state/body politic being pulled in different directions, chewed and eaten up through the logics of intervention crystallises the idea of that relationship between the centrifugal dynamics and the seemingly insatiable logics at work. I really appreciate the ways in which Niang carefully reconstructs the unorthodox sociological imaginations which are at work here amongst the perspectives of Mozambicans in the book; particularly the ways in which ‘uncanonical insights’ disclose new forms of understanding.

Reflecting on this juxtaposition further, and on the value of such insights, it occurs to me more clearly that there is an aesthetics of explanation which we do not always fully appreciate as a means for understanding; this is a theme I have picked up in a very preliminary way elsewhere and which I would like to think about more in future. But I suppose it is also immanent in some of the ways in which ‘alternatives’ emerged in my thinking within the scope of writing the book. The protagonismo concept is an interesting case in point which Niang’s comments also highlight. Not only have I found it impossible to translate adequately into English, but I think it is also fundamentally difficult to translate it into the conventional vocabularies of political sociology. In explaining it to English audiences it makes sense to treat it as an analogy – we understand that plays and films have ‘protagonists’ and so we think analogically about the ways in which donors’ dispositions might mirror this. But we can alternatively think of it not as a testable proposition for specific actors (as suggested by Jones’ query about whether this is really what donor motivations are), but as a way of totally reframing how we see intervention as a field for political action i.e. as a space for unevenly-empowered subjects to self-actualise through relations of cognition and recognition. As Niang notes, understanding it thus substantially overturns both public and scholarly understandings of the stakes of intervention.

Roads Not Travelled

Mackenzie’s response is also generous and thoughtful and probes a number of specific paths not taken in the analysis. In particular, these are around the absence of the post-development literature, the absence of debates between standpoint theory, Black feminism and African feminism, the lack of specific engagement with women’s experiences in Mozambique and the ultimate question, fittingly, of whether either international intervention or International Relations can be ‘salvaged’.

With regard to the post-development literature, Mackenzie is right to note its absence and its sympathy with the broad arguments; some of this literature, e.g. Mosse, is footnoted but there is some great work such as that by Kothari which is not. I suppose it is a symptom of my own ‘disciplining’ in International Relations that I focused most intently on the literatures that have explored this question within the specific subfield. I also share Mackenzie’s sense that most of the work in IR ‘floats by’ its cases without a more serious engagement with the grounded realities. However, a longer, more deliberately interdisciplinary book might have had multiple literature assessments and critiques; this may be something we need to think about more widely in terms of our expectations for interdisciplinarity and how work can effectively straddle different conversations in different sub-fields.

In the preparation of the manuscript, I ended up heavily redacting a longer section on standpoint theory which, amongst other things, explored in more detail the debates between standpoint theorist and Black feminists (although also omitted African feminists). I was writing about it in detail, partly in anticipation of some of the critiques that Jones’ response highlighted – about the difficulty of achieving a standpoint under conditions in which privileged or elite groups have the ever-present potential to capture the space of an apparently collective identity to further entrench their own positions. This corresponds to the problematisation of ‘sisterhood’ by Black feminists to which Mackenzie refers. We might indeed maintain the critique to think about hierarchies of sexuality, class, ability and so on which can also potentially be repressed by categories of ‘Blackness’ or ‘womanness’. I had to make a choice about how to focus the analysis and did so in a way which principally highlighted the relations between interveners and targets.

The point is however a material one. To reflect on the practices of the book, there was in the research an engagement with the experiences of Mozambican women – specifically women farmers, rural residents, health workers, government workers and so on. In the book however they are not (except once I think) explicitly marked out as women, nor were the conversations we had designed to elicit reflections on gender positioning as part of the discussion. That said, a number of the interviews ended up discussing aspects of the relative absence/presence of women and their experiences, and I did not make these part of the write-up. In this sense gender is less present in the analysis than questions of class and wealth in the book. As noted already in the response to Iñiguez-de-Heredia, the book does not explicitly define itself as asking feminist questions as such.

If these questions had been included, however, it may have opened up some further complexities and ambiguities with regard to intervention practice. On the one hand, as Mackenzie notes, gender is often used in ‘neocolonizing ways’, i.e. it can be something which is instrumentalised by interveners in ways that demonstrate the shortcomings of target societies and impel the acceptance of various interventions. As the briefest of historical notes, Mozambicans have had widespread and regular public messaging around the empowerment of women from the time of the liberation struggle. On the other hand, intervention ambiguously empowers various women through providing forms of paid employment and opportunity from which they are more conventionally deterred. Even in doing this, however, within the context of the kinds of political economy and social relations cultivated through intervention, the ability of women to accumulate effectively such as to create conditions for more autonomy remains precarious for both middle-class urban residents and poorer rural women. In this sense, including these narratives in the book would indeed have been productive, and encouraging of a more holistic approach to questions of collectivity, reparation and struggle, but one not, perhaps, contradictory to the central findings about the landscape of intervention.

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Equal to whom?

Finally, Mackenzie asks whether indeed there is scope to ‘salvage’ intervention in light of the analysis, in response to a conclusion which advocates remaking the terrain for engagement. The conclusion of the book also offers a set of recommendations for a set of limited, immediate steps which might mitigate the worst aspects of intervention in the short term. I agree with Mackenzie that this opens up far more questions than are answered – and perhaps with another few months to write I might have written a much longer conclusion. My sense is, inspired also by the thinking of Olivia Rutazibwa, that Western publics and donors might be better off engaging in a form of ‘ethical retreat’ from intervention’s most relentless kinds of social engineering and self-regarding insertion into the functioning of poorer states. Rather, if people as humans are determined to create a more just world, the focus should be on dismantling the wider structures producing ongoing impoverishment (e.g. international trade, investment, tax, intellectual property, migration and other regimes) for which Western governments often bear a very direct responsibility. Other forms of assistance might be provided on a basis of a solidarity rooted in working on agendas defined by the other partner (whoever that party is going to be), trust and the ability to let go of the reins (and the results). All of this needs to be grounded in an ethics of humility informed by historical acknowledgement and accounting for the structural depredations produced by colonial and imperial relations, but without foregrounding the assuaging of guilt and shame.


I want to close by reiterating my gratitude to the symposium contributors – it has been an immense privilege to have their comments and to have the opportunity to think with them about these questions.

[1] My footnote for Jones’ footnote then; the book does not engage with Hameiri’s latest work (2017), which was not out when I wrote it and, with which I was delighted to engage in this joint book launch that we did at the University of Queensland last year. Provoked by Jones’ footnote to re-read Hameiri’s “otherwise excellent” 2010 book for this post, I agree that my comment in the book – that it ‘systematically ignored’ the targets of intervention – is a little too strong – political leaders in PNG, the Solomon Islands and Cambodia do indeed emerge in the narrative and show some agency at critical points. I would however specify the argument by saying that the analysis is still largely concentrated on a form of limited tactical agency at the local level rather than the engagement with political subjectivity that I am attempting in this book. In that sense, these analyses can help in a limited way with ‘decolonising’ our understanding by moving away from a depiction of local actors as wholly passive; however, they do not move onto contemplating local subjects as ‘knowers’ of intervention.

2 thoughts on “On Situatedness, Knowledges and Absences: A Response to the Symposium on Decolonising Intervention

  1. Siblings

    Can someone send me Meera Sabaratnam’s email address.

    Also, can someone tell me if ‘Decolonising Intervention’ is a book; if so, where do I get it.

    Regards Claudine Boothe Tel# 0207 613 0979 M] 07776 030 502



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