The Limits of Decolonising Intervention: 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!


Postcolonial/ decolonial research seems to be entering into what might be called a “second generation”, moving past early, de-constructive critiques of the IR discipline as racist and colonial, and into showing the “value added” of a decolonial approach in studying concrete problems in international politics. Decolonising Intervention is an important contribution to this effort.

Sabaratnam’s basic argument is quite straightforward. Like many critical scholars of intervention, she documents multiple failures of Western statebuilding interventions (SBIs) to resolve the problems they (allegedly) seek to address. Unlike them, however, she attributes these recurrent failures – persistent, despite widespread acknowledgement, even among interveners, and within a gargantuan “lessons learned” literature – to the “colonial” structure of global politics. Put simply: Western donors feel superior to the targets of intervention, and so simply cannot learn from their mistakes. They are obsessed with their own starring role (protagonismo), making them congenitally incapable of deferring to their targets’ concerns, ideas, knowledge or demands. They garner the lion’s share of donor funds, scarcely caring if interventions work or not, implicitly seeing targets’ time and resources as “disposable”. Dependent recipients have little choice but to engage, or lose what resources are offered.

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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. Continue reading

Decolonising Intervention: A Symposium

The Disorder of Things‘ own founding contributor, Meera Sabaratnam, has published her first book: Decolonising Intervention: International Statebuilding in Mozambique, with Rowman and Littlefield International. We are delighted to host a symposium on the book, starting with Meera’s opening post, and to be followed over the next week or so by reviews from Marta Iñiguez de Heredia, Lee Jones, Amy Niang and Megan Mackenzie, and a final response from the author. If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention! The book is available as an Open Access free PDF download here. -LJ

Update: posts by Marta, Lee, Amy, Megan and Meera are now available. The whole symposium is available here.


Cover of the book Decolonising Intervention, which features the former Governor's house on Ilha de Moçambique, now a museum, plus a rusting colonial lamp-post

Things look different depending on where you stand.

This is a simple proposition, but one which, if pursued a little further, deeply challenges dominant approaches to social science, many of which are premised on ignoring or denying the partial character of the social-scientific gaze.

I don’t disagree with the ambition per se of attempting to open up our own understanding of a phenomenon through deep and wide-ranging research; indeed this is what I love about being a scholar. Furthermore, just because things look different depending on where you stand, does not mean you cannot learn more about something, or learn to understand it better. I do not reject the possibility of a better and wider understanding just because points of departure are always partial.

Yet, the first step for studying complex social phenomena must be a recognition of and a grappling with this proposition.

Beyond this, various feminist, anti-colonial and Marxist thinkers have advanced a further proposition: that power relations can be better understood when you look at them ‘from below’, i.e. from the perspective of the disempowered parties.

This stems from the idea that relations of power put different cognitive demands on people by virtue of that relationship.

Grizelda cartoon

Patricia Hill Collins for example points out that domestic labourers must acquire an intimacy both with the ways of thinking of their employers/masters, and with their own sense of how to navigate and survive in this system.

And W.E.B. Du Bois famously drew attention to what many continue to call ‘double consciousness’ – that is, the idea that African-Americans had to apprehend and negotiate the racist negations of mainstream American society, whilst simultaneously cultivating a distinctive intellectual tradition rooted in historical and contemporary attempts at flourishing.

If they are right, then scholars engaging with relations of power from any field of study – and particularly in the field of ‘political science’ – should be especially interested in the perspectives and experiences of the relatively disempowered as a point of departure for analysis. Continue reading

‘This House Believes Britain Should Be Ashamed of Churchill’

Below is a slightly expanded text of a ten-minute speech I gave at the Oxford Union for the proposition ‘This House Believes Britain Should Be Ashamed of Churchill’. The bits in square brackets are things I didn’t have time to say, or hadn’t thought of saying at the time, or reflections on what happened later. Shoulda coulda woulda: that’s what blogs are for. 

In April 2016, Boris Johnson (while still mayor of London) wrote a curious article for the Sun. The article was timed to coincide with a visit to the UK by President Obama, who was widely expected to appeal to the British people to vote to remain in the European Union in the upcoming referendum. As a leading spokesperson for the Leave campaign, Boris wanted to pre-empt Obama. He tried to do this by invoking Churchill in two ways. First, he drew attention to one of Obama’s first acts upon entering the Oval Office, when he returned a bust of Churchill to the British embassy in Washington. Speculating on why Obama might have done this, he suggested—with more than a hint of Trumpian Birtherism—that this might have been ‘a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire—of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.’ See, Obama’s grandfather had been arrested and tortured for his alleged participation in the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya, which began during Churchill’s postwar premiership. Having tried to discredit Obama by reminding us of his dislike for Churchill and the British empire, Boris then invoked Churchill in a more positive vein as a symbol of the struggle against dictatorship in Europe who might similarly inspire the efforts of Leavers in their own struggle against the dictatorship of the European Union. In this strange little article and its intersecting oppositions—Boris v. Barack, Leave v. Remain, Churchill v. the empire—we have all the ingredients that might explain why this House, in 2018, is being asked to consider whether to express shame in a long dead British Prime Minister.

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Decolonising International Relations – some Pedagogical Reflections

This is a guest post by Maïa Pal and Doerthe Rosenow, Senior Lecturers in International Relations, Department of Social Sciences at Oxford Brookes University.  Maïa is working on a co-edited volume for Routledge on The Extraterritoriality of Law: History, Theory, Politics and on a monograph for Cambridge University Press on Jurisdictional Accumulation: An Early Modern History of Law, Empires, and Capital. She is also an editor for the journal Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory. Doerthe has recently published the book Un-making Environmental Activism: Beyond Modern/Colonial Binaries in the GMO Controversy and a series of articles about critique and its limits. 


On 22 February 2018, Dr Meera Sabaratnam, Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at SOAS appeared on the BBC Radio4 Today programme [2.53 onwards] to discuss ‘What is decolonisation?’ and what it means to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. She faced David Aaronovitch, columnist at the Times, who complained about the problem with the word ‘decolonise’, stating it was ‘not the job of university studies to decolonise or recolonise’. Instead, he suggested, universities should ‘think critically’ and not look ‘like a political project’ that imposes a particular view on students. In other words, Aaronovitch claims that a university education should – and can – consist in a neutral, open, apolitical transfer of knowledge from the teacher to the student, and definitely not the other way round. He is shocked at ‘this business of’ students participating in the elaboration of curricula – no pun apparently intended, but Aaronovitch is obviously a natural. His sentiment is amplified by the current 9K fee system because if students are paying so much, they should expect to get a service delivered exclusively by teachers.

The underlying scandal here is that Aaronovitch is actually complaining about teachers whom he thinks are asking students to do their jobs for them – in spite of Sabaratnam reminding him in her introduction that most of university teachers and other professional staff are currently on strike to defend their pensions from being made dependent on the fluctuations of the stock market, which could result in a 25% pay cut. So behind a poorly constructed and intentionally naïve critique of decolonial education as a political project (which surely Aaronovitch himself does not believe in, since he must be well versed in debates about the objectivity and/or neutrality of epistemology stretching back to ancient philosophies, Western and non-Western) is the old conservative refrain of counter-establishment or radical projects being the product of lazy lefties, in this case teachers skiving by getting students to write their syllabi. Continue reading

“The Ecological Indian” and the History of Environmental Ideas

A guest post from Philip Conway, a PhD candidate in the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University. His thesis is titled “The Historical Ontology of Environment: From the Unity of Nature to the Birth of Geopolitics.” He blogs at Circling Squares and micro-blogs @PhilipRConway.


Cosmological questioning

‘But what about indigenous cosmologies?’ This kind of question is becoming more and more common in debates in International Relations, human geography and other fields. Whether articulated in terms of decolonisation, worlding, ontology, lifeways, cosmopolitics or pluriversality (other terminologies are available), there is a strong and growing conviction that making space for modes of collective existence beyond, besides and despite the hegemonic naturalism of the West is a pressing intellectual and political priority.

Indeed, this is a question that I am asked (and ask myself) on a regular basis. However, it is a more conceptually, ethically and politically complicated question than it may first appear. This essay explores some of these complications in relation to the research project that I am currently embarked upon – namely, a history of how ‘environment’ became a conceptual commonplace of Euro-American scientific, literary and political conversation by around about 1910.

The project investigates how this everyday expression – ‘environment’ – came to be taken for granted and, more to the point, what this tells us about the ways in which we think (or don’t think) about ourselves, the world around us and, in short, how our conceptions contrive to carve things up (and stitch them back together).

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A New Language for a New World

This is the first comment, following Laust’s opening post, by Erik Ringmar. Erik is Lecturer in Political Science in the Department of Political Science at Lund University. He works on topics such as international history, international relations, cultural sociology, and social theory.

The other posts for this forum are available here.


The basic insight that drives the argument presented in this book is that we need a new way of thinking about international politics which does not privilege European experiences and the idea of a sovereign state. This is required since we need to be able to talk about other parts of the world, about European history before the rise of the state, and about a future in which the state no longer will be with us. World history, simply put, is not about the state, and it really isn’t the case that der Gang Gottes in der Welt daß der Staat ist. And people who claim that this is the case — not only Hegel, but all philosophers of history from Adam Ferguson to Walt Whitman Rostow — are simply mistaken. Compare the recently fashionable idea of a “failed state.” To identify a state as having failed is to identify it as not living up to a European standard. It is like saying that a woman is a “failed man.”

Laust Schouenborg‘s suggestion is to dispense with state-talk in favor of a discussion of political functions. We should stop talking about what political entities are and focus instead on what they do. Perhaps we could think of this as a move from ontology to practice. We are in Durkheimian territory, in other words, or Talcott Parsonian. The state, says Schouenborg, can be disaggregated into four functions having to do with 1) legitimacy and membership; 2) conflict regulation; 3) trade, and 4) governance.

Since all polities of whichever kind they may be fulfill these basic functions, this, not the state, should be our focus. Instead of a state-centered vocabulary which only allows us to talk sensibly only about Europe, a function-centered vocabulary allows us to talk sensibly about all of world history and everyone everywhere.  This taxonomy provides a “basic grid,” says Schouenborg, which is neutral between historical and geographical contexts. “So, my general argument in this book is not only that four functional categories can be used to capture social institutions throughout history. I also argue that we should discard the main alternative conceptual framework in the form of the state and the attendant stage models.” Continue reading