New book addresses issues of domination inherent in development

A new book by York Environmental Studies Professor Ilan Kapoor illustrates how efforts to assist "developing" countries can actually be seen as continuing the forms of domination characteristic of colonialism – and presents a new way forward by mapping the alternative possibilities of a “transformatory postcolonial politics”.

A launch for the book The Postcolonial Politics of Development will take place from 5 to 7pm on Thursday, Sept. 25 in Room 105, Founders College Senior Common, on York’s Keele campus.

Left: Ilan Kapoor

The Postcolonial Politics of Development’s analysis is grounded in postcolonial studies. A relatively new field, postcolonial studies focuses on analyzing both older and more contemporary forms of colonialism – where a nation, organization or socio-cultural system intervenes to dominate the social, economic and political structures of other countries or communities. Postcolonialism’s aim is to understand how this kind of domination is asserted – and, conversely, resisted.

Kapoor takes this powerful critical lens and applies it to development studies. The resulting analysis highlights troubling implications in policy initiatives common to development projects. Even in seemingly innocuous arenas such as governance and human/gender rights, development initiatives may be accompanied by preconceived notions of culture and power that can actually serve to disenfranchise the people the projects aim to support – a process known as neocolonialism.

“Noble gestures such as giving foreign aid or promoting participation and democracy frequently mask our institutional biases and economic and geopolitical interest, while silencing the subaltern or ‘marginalized groups’ on whose behalf we purportedly work,” says Kapoor.

“For example, participation projects in the Global South, while being marketed as ‘benevolent’ and ‘progressive,’ can manipulate and coerce community consensus, most often to suit and benefit Western donor interests, for instance to get community approval for the import of Western biotechnologies,” says Kapoor.

This analysis raises fundamental questions about how positive change can be supported without silencing those on whose behalf the work is purportedly done. But after showing how development practitioners and western intellectuals may consciously or unconsciously participate in these processes of domination, Kapoor proactively shifts the focus of his analysis. Having used postcolonialism’s understanding of domination to illuminate the problems with current development practices, he then uses its understanding of resistance to lay the groundwork for a more transformatory approach.

For Kapoor, this approach is grounded in what he calls “a radical ethical and political self-reflexivity”. Through this process, development practitioners, policy-makers and institutions can become much more alert to their activities and the largely explicit or subtle forms of domination often inherent to development work.

“One concrete step in this direction would be for development organizations to better listen and respond to marginalized communities, for example by learning from them about “indigenous” technologies or community forestry, rather than always trying to teach them or impose on them. So seldom do we see knowledge flow from South to North,” says Kapoor.

Kapoor also highlights the economic and cultural politics that marginalized groups are themselves engaging in. His book focuses, for instance, on female workers in export processing zones (EPZs) who use portions of their meagre wages to set up women’s centres and re-training programs so they can both fight gender discrimination at work and move out of the EPZs to make better lives. “They are using capitalism to resist capitalism; they are re-writing both capitalism’s and development’s script,” says Kapoor.

Embedding this kind of “transformatory postcolonial politics” in development, argues Kapoor, can help open up avenues for genuinely democratic dialogue and exchange, while at the same time bringing attention to marginalized groups’ agency in their own development.

Kapoor’s research and teaching focus on critical development studies, postcolonial/cultural theory, participation and democracy, and environmental politics. He has worked with several development organizations, including the Canadian International Development AgencyThe Postcolonial Politics of Development is the first in a new series from Routledge about postcolonial politics.