EN · FR · DE
 

Interview with Professor Eunice N. Sahle: "Moving Beyond the Language of ‘Help’"

In an interview conducted by Moses März (AfricAvenir) in Berlin, Prof. Eunice N. Sahle speaks about the 'development aid' regime and historical and present injustices in the global system.

Moses März: Your lecture in Berlin suggested that its approach to issues of coloniality was informed by a critical justice approach. What does this approach entail?

Professor Eunice N. Sahle: In thinking through how to frame injustices that emerged out of the colonial moment and those that have occurred in the era of informal imperialism and remedies to address them, my entry point from a moral philosophical perspective is debates concerning the concept of justice and ethical responsibilities. For a while my work has focused on the epistemic, economic, political and gendered injustices that underpin the arena of international development knowledge production.

For instance in terms of epistemic injustice, development discourses tend to portray development strategies, especially foreign aid, as acts of virtue and help to the global South. Such an approach fails to illuminate how, for example, our common and shared violent history, as the philosopher Thomas Pogge argues in various works, has contributed to poverty and other issues that are considered in these discourses as markers of underdevelopment.

If we are to rethink foreign aid, as AfricAvenir is suggesting and as we discussed in the dialogue forum and the workshop today, we need to move beyond the language of ‘help’ to think of moral obligations to justice if we are serious about addressing historical and contemporary injustices not just in Africa but elsewhere in the world.

MM: In your lecture you also suggested that there is continuation between colonial power structures and post-colonial power structures. From your perspective are NGOs and other members of civil society also playing part in the reproduction of coloniality?

ENS: They are key actors in that process, yes, but we have to be careful that we don’t generalize because there are NGOs in the West as well as in Africa involved in emancipatory projects. In the case of Germany for instance, from what I have read and encountered during my visit to Berlin, I consider the underlying philosophy and practices of AfricAvenir as extremely important in the ongoing struggles for decolonization and emancipation especially in the realm of decolonial knowledge production.

The same argument applies to civil society groups such as Tanzania Gender Networking Programme in Dar es Salaam, a feminist-decolonial organization that has for years done excellent emancipatory work under very difficult circumstances. Nonetheless and returning to the core of your question, many scholars and social activists consider some civil society groups as the new missionaries or as Professor Wisdom Tettey, a colleague of mine from Ghana put it in 2007, as “politicians in waiting.”

From their point of view, some civil society groups are currently doing the work that the missionary used to do using the language of ‘developing Africa’ instead of ‘civilizing’. In this sense they are much implicated in practices of contemporary coloniality. Thus, the new missionary label is legitimate but at the same time there is need to move beyond generality and highlight in specific terms the role of civil society groups in given historical contexts and what critics generally consider as their contradictory role in contemporary Africa. 

One example along these lines will suffice here. I am sure as a scholar of global affairs with an interest in political and economic processes in Africa you have heard of the much lamented decline of African states. I think that there is an argument to be made that some local and international NGOs are performing the traditional functions of the state in the current conjuncture for instance in the health sector and education sector etc. All what I am suggested is that just as scholars use their best critical frameworks in their studies of African state forms, the world system, and many other themes, the same approach should apply to the study of civil society organizations as scholars such as Eboe Hutchful, Mahmood Mamdani and Issa Shivji have done in their work.

MM: The debate around German development cooperation is increasingly dominated by the argument that the encouragement of private businesses must be considered as key to economic growth in Africa. Would you agree with that point of view?

ENS: Leading scholars such as Susan Strange have argued that since the late 1970s the world political structure has seen the rise of private authority and a deepening of the structural power of large firms. These developments have greatly influenced political and economic developments both nationally and globally. In terms of development discourse, private-sector led development is the dominant view although in the context of the ongoing global economic crisis we are increasingly hearing calls for private-public partnership as the way forward in economic development even in the global North.

The recent bailouts of major banks and large firms by leading metropolitan states are a good example of such a trend. I would like to mention that the call for private sector dominance in development strategies is not just being promoted in German development circles. It is a core idea in the approach to development by African states as reflected in their New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) framework.

MM: Could one argue that development aid is currently playing the same geopolitical role that it was initially intended to play at the beginning of the Cold War era? In your lecture you mentioned the connection of security and development.

ENS: Yes. This strategy of linking development with security was there in the era of the Cold War and it is yet again a core strategy in the post 9/11 world. This development is leading to the militarization of the continent and of course easy availability of arms. The irony of this trend is that it is occurring at the same time when global and local elites are promoting the discourse of human security through agendas such as the Millennium Development Goals. At any rate going back to the question of development aid, we need to keep in mind that most of development aid is in the form of ‘tied aid’, meaning that it is not free money.

Countries receiving aid usually have to pay back this money with very high interest rates. In addition to that, most of the aid that metropolitan states extend to African countries flows back to the very same state. For example, when German companies are given contracts as part of a development project most of the money that is spent comes back to Germany.

In the Canadian case the same dynamic applies. The notion of ‘aid’ contributes to the idea that foreign aid practices of metropolitan states are solely geared to ‘helping’ poor and these days ‘ungovernable’ Africa. In the process the power dynamics and national interest considerations underpinning the development aid international industry are erased in such a depoliticized perspective which is similar to the civilizing mission discourse of the colonial epoch.

MM: Do you see any difference in the role China plays as an actor in African economic development?

ENS: No, it's the same sort of strategy. From my perspective, it is simply not possible to talk or think about development aid in neutral terms. Of course the discourses used to legitimize China’s role in Africa depart from those of metropolitan states in significant ways. China-Africa solidarity in an unjust world system - a sort of a renewal of the 1955 Bandung spirit - a ‘win-win’ situation for China and Africa, are some examples of the language that pepper these discourses.

While it is important not to dismiss the value of South-South cooperation and solidarity, it is crucial to approach the role of China in contemporary Africa and its neo-imperial strategies in conjunction with other actors such the extensive extractive practices of Canadian mining firms critically.

MM: What do you consider to be important sights and processes of struggle and emancipation on the continent and globally?

ENS: For almost a decade now, the World Social Forum process has provided an important space – locally, nationally and globally - for social movements to share and imagine alternatives to oppressive social, political and economic practices. A range of social movements in Africa have been involved in this process and were a strong presence at the bi-annual World Social Forum in Nairobi in 2007.

I am sure they will continue to do so in the upcoming meeting in February 2011 in Dakar, Senegal. At any rate the idea embraced by participants of the World Social Forum process that “another world is possible” or to entertain the notion that “other worlds are (Already) possible” as the seminal scholar Arturo Escobar has stated opens up discursive and political spaces embodied with emancipatory hope.

In the continent and focusing on a particular social formation, the ongoing struggles to decolonize and consolidate democratic constitutional orders in places such as Kenya offers hopeful signals as far as struggles for emancipation are concerned. The new and first democratic constitution in Kenya that was adopted in August 2010 provides a new hope for Kenyans to re-imagine their social, political and economic worlds.

For example, they are celebrating and highlighting their political agency in the making of the constitution. Close to fifty years after the end of British settler colonialism they have a right to self rule and this right was achieved through a bottom-up process. The phrase that has been invoked a lot in my discussions with friends and colleagues during my visits and participations in constitution dialogues in Kenya is that this time around “we were consulted” and thus a strong sense of ownership of the constitution is evident. Finally, I think that critical dialogues between social activists, intellectuals, artists and others from the global South and North such as the ones organized by AfricAvenir are important sights of emancipation.

MM: Lastly, what thinkers have influenced you?

ENS: There is no doubt that the poetry of the Kenyan scholar Professor Micere Githae Mugo is a source of great inspiration. Overall, many years ago her work and way of engaging with the world opened a window for me to start thinking historically and sociologically about socio-political processes in Africa and elsewhere. I continue to learn from the intellectual labor of other scholars such as Frantz Fanon, W.E. Dubois, Anibal Quijano, James Tully, Toni Morrison and Arturo Escobar and from various scholar-activists in Africa and other parts of the world.

Note: Moses März is affiliated with AfricAvenir. Professor Eunice N. Sahle teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The dialogue began in Berlin on October 20 and continued in December.

back to top