Development work, imperialism and depoliticisation

Can development/human rights/humanitarian work (“Development Work”) today be analogised to past forms of imperialism?

It was thought that while the answer is yes, we must also consider how Development Work programmes make an impact and why people continue to look to them for “solutions”. In addition, credit must be given to how individuals (both beneficiaries and Development Work practitioners) try to consider their constraints and work within them. It was further noted that the outcomes of such projects are often quite different from what practitioners expect or plan. For example, there have been examples of unexpected outcomes from women’s empowerment work such as women using the tools provided to them to reinforce relations of power that practitioners would have thought were disempowering to women. Women, however, were able to subvert or use such systems in a way that helped them navigate through the complexities and constraints of their daily lives. It was therefore concluded that while Development Work today may be analogised to past forms of imperialism, the key question here was how this played out in reality and in what ways both beneficiaries and practioners used this knowledge.

Are there alternative ways to think about future social imaginaries in order to acknowledge our own complicit-ness in the creation of the problems in the first place. Is there perhaps a way to unpack the histories of these issues?  It was noted how the life histories of individuals and regions have been used to make the case that “this individual is a suffering body and we need to intervene in order to ensure they do not go down a particular trajectory”. All complicit-ness in that person’s suffering has been erased. Instead, creating an incomplete understanding of what has given rise to the many forms of political, economic, and social violence both in the Global North and Global South. One example that was drawn upon was that of anti-human trafficking efforts – an issue that has become cause celebre of politicians and celebrities alike in recent times. As outlined in a recent talk by Dr Bridget Anderson, and Julia O’Connell Davidson, people of all different politics and interests can all get behind anti-human trafficking efforts. This is because those concepts have been so thoroughly depoliticised and decontextualised that they have been turned into moral questions. Any political and structural context has been removed and the issue of human trafficking has been presented as a problem of solely of individual morality, a simple fairy tale about victims, perpetrators and rescuers, about innocence and evil. It is this sort of talk that should bother us. It was pointed out that this way of framing the issue overlooks the many ways in which the Global North often impose serious, harsh, lethal restrictions on individuals which are, in fact, contributing to/causing human trafficking. It allows people to forget forms of violence sanctioned by the Global North (both in the present and historically). Arturo Escobar, a scholar in the anthropology of development, urges us to stop thinking about a better future for ourselves and others in terms of needs and to rather start thinking about how people relate to their environment in different ways (Escobar 1992). We need to first examine where idea of need and necessity come from, how is it that we came to terms like “third world”. It could be said that they are all historically and politically situated and thus must be acknowledged as such.

In Sally Engle Merry – “Transnational Human Rights and Local Activism: Mapping the Middle,” American Anthropologist 2006, 108(1): 38-51, she poses the following questions:

  • Is human rights law simply a strategic weapon used by powerful groups to legitimate their power grabs?
  • Is it a form of neo-imperialism by which the West claims to save the savage peoples of the rest of the world while actually pursuing its own interests?
  • Is it increasing global cultural homogeneity by introducing a discourse of social justice based on rights rather than reconciliation or responsibility foregrounding individuals at the expense of communities?
  • To what extent does it provide an emancipatory tool for vulnerable people such as women, racial minorities, or indigenous people?
  • To what extent does it contribute to diminishing oppressive control that community leaders or the state exercise over the marginalised and the poor?
  • Does it promote social equality, the rule of law, and protecting against the ravages of the market?
  • Does it help women contest the structures of patriarchy that govern their lives? (Merry 2006: 39).

By Nishma Jethwa and Helena Zeweri

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