Exploring race, racism and international development

This post was contributed by Anna Marry, Communications Manager, London International Development Centre (LIDC) .  

Race, Racism and Development book cover

Race, racism and development book cover

Contesting what is often taken for granted in international development is important, but rare. That’s why I found this book launch for Race, racism and development very refreshing and different.It was also a truly intercollegiate event on a truly interdisciplinary topic.

On 29 January 2013 the London International Development Centre (LIDC), a consortium of the five Bloomsbury Colleges, and Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies organised a book launch  for Race, racism and development: Interrogating history, discourse and practice (Zed Books) by Dr Kalpana Wilson, Visiting Lecturer at Birkbeck and LSE Fellow in Gender Theory, Globalisation and Development. The event was hosted by the Institute of Education (IOE) and chaired by Dr Parvathi Rahman from the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at SOAS, with Firoze Manji, CODESRIA(Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa), as discussant.

Kalpana Wilson’s motif for writing the book was a silence she observed about race in international development discourse, what she called ‘the whiteness of development’ – white experts talking about what should be done. Rather than simply advocating measures to change the personnel of development institutions, Kalpana set out to examine questions of structural racism in development. She was interested in how ideas of race legitimise certain power relations, looking both at history (e.g. the anti-colonial movement in India) and the present, for instance the war on terror. Kalpana’s focus in writing the book was on how ideas get incorporated and transformed in public narratives of race. Recently we can observe what she refers to as the ‘racialisation of hunger’ – poverty and hunger are essentially associated with Asia and Africa, both with respect to material relations and representation.

Gender is important too. Not so long ago ‘Third World’ women were pictured as helpless and needing to be saved. Now that image has changed, they are finally seen as agents, but to the other extreme, as  entrepreneurial, hard-working and altruistic to the point of being superhuman. And yet the idea of political agency is still associated with the global North.

Firoze Manji, in his discussant’s comments, described development as a sophisticated euphemism that Kaplana deconstructs and links to other ‘forbidden’ words like racism and liberalism. There is no such thing as poverty, claimed Manji, only impoverishment, and this is what we call ‘development’ . ‘Development’ is in fact about exploiting the South, with NGOs playing the role of new colonisers. Kalpana also takes apart what Manji referred to as ‘the pornography of development’, portraying the developing world in a pessimistic, exaggerated way that is meant to shock. Manji argued that in a post-colonial, globalised world we are now experiencing a shift in defining who we are and who the ‘other’ is, but it is nevertheless useful to keep the colonial past fresh in our minds.

The lively discussion that followed raised issues about Marxism; the idea of the innocent, unspoilt South that needs to be saved; gender; the deserving and undeserving poor; the racialisation of corruption,; and the need to delegitimise the NGOs.

This event was different in a very refreshing way. It provided an open platform for examining and contesting what is often taken for granted in international development. It allowed radical ideas to be expressed and engaged with. I was talking to a SOAS student of Development Studies over a drink after the presentations, who said: “At SOAS we learn how to be critical of governments and international organisations. But this is new – that NGOs can also be a destructive power in international development.”

Whether that statement is true or not depends on one’s perspective, but one thing is certain – the event revealed a new dimension and a new way of thinking about international development. And that’s always a good thing.

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3 thoughts on “Exploring race, racism and international development

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