Episode 2 – The Power Shift: Decolonising Development with Prof Kate Bird

About this episode:

In this episode Charmaine McCaulay, lead facilitator of the ground-breaking training programme ‘Racism in Real Time‘ interviews Prof Kate Bird, Senior Research Associate with ODI and Director of The Development Hub. This episode explores what in Kate’s background made her want to work on decolonisation and her hopes for the podcast series.

Kate explores the legitimacy of an elite white woman, with position power, engaging in decolonisation and discusses the extractive nature of much of the research conducted in the majority world. Kate explains why she thinks that ideas matter (and taking action is even more important). Finally, Charmaine and Kate comment on how some in the media have described engaging in decolonisation as ‘woke’ and how this can encourage people to see it as a ‘new front’ in the culture wars. They discuss how this encourages people to ‘take sides’ and to fight and disagree rather than focus their attention on finding ways to move forwards constructively.

Episode 2: Full Transcript

The Power Shift: Decolonising Development

Episode 2

Introducing The Power Shift: Decolonising Development. Kate Bird in conversation.

Kate Bird: [00:00:00] Hello, I’m Professor Kate Bird and I’d like to introduce our second episode of The Power Shift: Decolonising Development. This episode is where Charmaine McCauley interviews me and the episode explores a number of different themes. 

One is the legitimacy of a White Northern woman with the privilege and power, including position.

That I have to engage in debates around decolonisation. It also touches on my fears about engaging in this debate. It explores why I wanted to learn about decolonisation. And how that desire grew as a result of the work that I do. And how during the pandemic, the way that I related to the res researchers I work with in the majority world changed and that meant that I needed to change too. 

So it was that awareness that has led me to working on [00:01:00] decolonisation and specifically on this podcast. The podcast episode also describes, how there’s a relationship between the work that I do, which involves in-depth qualitative interviews with ordinary people in low and lower middle income countries, and wanting to contribute to progressive change.

It describes what I consider to be some aspects of brokenness in the development sector. And I provide an example of extractive research how research is done and the research findings aren’t properly fed back to national governments or the communities in which the research took place, or even to the individuals who participated in the research.

It explains why I think ideas matter and how ideas inform the decisions we make and therefore the actions we take. 

It also outlines my hopes for the podcast, which [00:02:00] is to weave together conversations with activists, practitioners, and thinkers, and identify, not just ideas, an agenda for progressive change.

The episode also raises, the identification of the decolonised agenda as woke and how this identification is being used to create a polemic in which battle lines are drawn and people are invited to take opposing views. And I outline why I find this rather depressing, uh, and completely counter to my objectives, which are to focus on how we can together create practical change in the world.

So now over to the episode itself. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Hi Kate. I’m 

Kate Bird: Hi Charmaine. 

Charmaine McCaulay: It’s so good to be here with you. Um, anyway, this is kind of exciting. I just wanna ask you a few questions. 

Kate Bird: Yeah. Okay. 

Charmaine McCaulay: So my first one is can you talk a little bit about your past and [00:03:00] what has drawn you to do this work?

Kate Bird: Well, that’s a big question. Yeah. Um, okay. So in terms of my past, I was born in South Africa. My mom is a White South African. Her dad was from an Anglocised Afrikaner family who went out there on one of the very first ships in the 17th century. And her mum, uh, was born in what was Tanganyika. From an Irish family.

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: and my dad was a missionary. So I’m very much the product of colonialism. And we left when I was four and I grew up in multicultural multiethnic Southeast London. So I’ve grown up with the kind of multi-layered identity of a White South African. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm.

Kate Bird: Growing up as a vicar’s daughter in Southeast London. Um, With a mixed group of friends. And I later went and lived in Bahrain. So I’ve got the experience of being an expatriate, a British expatriate 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm.[00:04:00] 

Kate Bird: I’ve worked in international development for years and have all the experiences from working on international teams and the two-way learning experience of working with people from around the world.

And I suppose also something that’s relevant is that as an adult, I discovered that my father’s father, so my grandfather was mixed race. So that if we were living in the times of slavery, I would’ve been a slave. And I just, I don’t know. I think, I think these things make you think 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm.

Kate Bird: So I’ve been thinking about identity and how identity shifts 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: I suppose also, you know, George Floyd’s death, the Black Lives Matter movement, sitting on my own in my little garden study, working with teams in Zimbabwe and Cambodia during lockdown and not being able to work in the way that I’d always worked before just made me think how does this work and how can we make it work better?

So it [00:05:00] made me think about power and privilege and about my position in the sector. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Okay, great. Thank you. 

I really like that you’re mixed race. 

So, can you name an instant or a situation where your reality of the work that you were doing were at odds with the people who would be reaping their rewards of your work.

Kate Bird: Yeah. So I work on chronic poverty. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: and how the very poorest people are able to move out of poverty. And I work on gender. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: and equity and I work on bottom up growth. In doing that work, I go and interview policy makers at the national level, but the work that I love the most 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: is going down to the community level and talking to what I call real people. So I go and talk to real people 

Charmaine McCaulay: Yeah. 

Kate Bird: Who are living real lives. And I talk to them about their day-to-day reality. And I [00:06:00] talk about how their life has changed since they were very small children. And I talk about all the things that have created those changes. So if I’m talking to business people, obviously I’ll talk, you know, how their business is doing and how their business has changed. But quite often the work that I’m doing is talking to people actually just about the details of their lives. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: and how life events have improved their wellbeing or pushed them further into poverty. I suppose I get very involved in, the stories that people tell me. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Yeah. 

Kate Bird: And, and it makes me feel very passionate about wanting to contribute to positive change. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: So that, that’s, I suppose, a big example of that kind of broken brokenness in the system. 

Charmaine McCaulay: So have you ever had to share that brokenness with the people that you’re talking about, that they’re not, you know, they’ve entered into something and I would assume that you’ve gone in there and they’ve assumed, I suppose, that they’re gonna be reaping some kind of benefit, some kind of rewards. I mean, they’ve been telling [00:07:00] you their, their stories and deep stories, right?

Kate Bird: Yeah, they are. 

Charmaine McCaulay: And they’ve been really honest and there’s something that they would want back. And yet you’re saying you’re gonna have to save them. I’m sorry. But what you, what I had promised, what I thought you were gonna get back isn’t What’s there been response to something like that? 

Kate Bird: Well, I suppose something that I have to say is that I often go to communities only one time I go in, 

Charmaine McCaulay: Oh. 

Kate Bird: And I collect data.

Charmaine McCaulay: Okay. 

Kate Bird: Uh, I don’t often get the chance to go back. I love going back. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Yes. 

Kate Bird: Um, and I love having that opportunity, but rarely is that opportunity funded. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm.

Kate Bird: So I very rarely get the chance to go back and that’s a problem. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: I try to be honest to the people that I speak to because I think that without that basic honesty, the work that I do is based on a lie. So upfront I will tell them how the system works. I will say, I’m coming in here to do these interviews. I cannot promise that any change will happen in your life. What I’m going to try to do is tell a story to the [00:08:00] policymakers. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: with my work that I hope will shift policy in a positive way, and that changing policy, I hope will change things here in your community. But I can’t promise. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: So I try to identify the limitations of the work that I do and express that clearly and honestly to them. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm. Quite grim, really. 

So I have one more que, two more questions actually. We have had numerous conversations now about the possibilities of having have various key players in the development world come and talk. What are some of your fears and anxieties that you’ve had to push through in order for this podcast series to be successful? 

Kate Bird: Yeah, well, I think before I can even hope for the podcast series to be successful, there are some fears and anxieties that I have to push through to even be here doing the podcast series.

Charmaine McCaulay: Yeah. 

Kate Bird: So one of my fears is that I will be taken [00:09:00] off at the knees, um, that I am engaging in a debate or, a a a process which is quite polemical. The people are taking positions. And I suppose I’m concerned that whatever I say 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: is gonna be seen by some people as being wrong. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Yeah. 

Kate Bird: And, and I’m going to be attacked. I’m gonna be attacked on social media. I could be attacked in my professional world, I could be seen as being foolish, as being wrong. Um.. 

Charmaine McCaulay: So can we, when you say attacked in your professional world, can you give a, maybe a fantasy or an imagination? What, what, what would that attack look like or feel like for you? When you say that, what does that mean? 

Kate Bird: Oh, I could be snubbed. I could be, I could not get my next contract. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: I could have angry emails from people, I could get, uh, challenged on LinkedIn? I don’t know. I don’t, I don’t know what it could include. I just know that I’m a bit anxious about it.

And then there’s something which [00:10:00] is, um, perhaps a little bit, a little bit deeper and a little bit less about me, me, me. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: And that is, uh, what is my legitimacy? 

Charmaine McCaulay: Yes. 

Kate Bird: Engaging in this debate at all as, uh, a White Norther n woman who has a great deal of privilege and I suppose position power and, and I say White because I present as White people know me as White. So even though I have a, um, a mixed ethnic background, that’s not something that most people know about me. And it’s not something that most people get to know unless we have a deep conversation about our families and our histories. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Okay. Thank you. We were also talking about your concept about how what we think and how we think shapes our behaviors and it frames what we do. Can you kind of talk a little bit more about, about your concept of the thinking that that frames what we’re going to do? 

Kate Bird: Yeah. I think that thoughts are important. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: I mean, that’s what I work, I’m a, [00:11:00] I’m a researcher, so 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: so I would, wouldn’t I? But I think that ideas matter.

Charmaine McCaulay: Yes. 

Kate Bird: And I think that ideas matter because, um, they frame action. So for me, the way we think, the way we look at the world, we look at the world through a perceptual filter. So our per perceptual filter, is formed by our experience, by what we read, by what we view, by the conversations that we have, by the experiences we have in life.

And all of those contribute to our perceptual filter, which is then how we filter the world, how we filter that, our world, our life’s experience, how we, the lens that we look at the world through, um, and, and, and what we accept to be real, and what we think is fantasy or untrue. So how we think influences what we accept to be knowledge and true 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: and then it informs our action. So those, how we view the world and our ideas influence the decisions we make and [00:12:00] the action that we take. So I think that this podcast matters. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: Because I hope that we’re going to have a constructive conversation. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Yes. 

Kate Bird: That is going to bring together people who are practitioners, activists, and thinkers to weave together a new conversation about the decolonisation of development.

And in doing that, we are going to put new ideas on the table and old ideas, bring them together and identify an agenda for action. So I’m very keen for this not to just be about abstract thought, but for it to translate into practical action for progressive change. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Okay. Great. Well, that actually just leads right into my, the next question. You sent me, um, the headlines today of what the, about what the Daily Mail did, and I wanna know, what was your gut primary reaction to the headlines that decolonisation is ‘woke’ , and that its from the ideological hard left? 

Kate Bird: Yeah. So the, the Daily Mail [00:13:00] seems to be doing a bit of a campaign on this. They seem to be publishing an article every day at the moment.

And, uh, I came across this because there was a Daily Mail left on the table in a cafe I went to. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Yeah. 

Kate Bird: So I picked it up. I don’t physically see a newspaper very often anymore, so I picked it up. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Yeah. 

Kate Bird: And, and looked at the headline and thought, oh my goodness, I’ve got to read this. And I had to keep on putting it down because it made me so filled with rage. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Um, so I mean, I’ve been thinking about it since. Why did I get so angry? What was I angry about? 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: And I think, I think what made me feel angry was that the Daily Mail was stoking the fires of a polemic debate in which they were encouraging people to take positions. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: In a fight. They were saying, okay, these are the battle lines in the culture war. Where do you stand? 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm.

Kate Bird: So it was positioning this as part of the culture war. It was seeing us as being woke. It was [00:14:00] seeing us. Um, 

Charmaine McCaulay: What does woke even really mean? 

Kate Bird: Um, 

Charmaine McCaulay: Help me understand. 

Kate Bird: Well, it’s very othering, isn’t it?

Charmaine McCaulay: Yeah. 

Kate Bird: As somebody who’s woke as somebody who thinks differently to them. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Oh, okay then. 

Kate Bird: Um, I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s used by some commentators as radical thinking. I don’t know. I don’t know. Dunno. Okay. A lot of, a lot of what I think seems to be woke, but, um, whatever.

Charmaine McCaulay: Yeah. Okay. Um, . 

Kate Bird: So I felt that it was very othering and it was othering me. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm.

Kate Bird: And it was othering you. Yeah. It was othering people of color. It was othering everyone who is engaged in, um, the pushing forwards of a decolonizing agenda. Um, and I don’t know, I just, I just feel that that’s really unnecessary.

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: And I feel that turning this into a battle is, is ugly and unpleasant. And I know that’s the business model of the Daily Mail. But, I just thought it was really depressing, but it made me very angry. 

Yeah. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Okay. [00:15:00] Alright, well thank you. 

So I would really like to thank Kate. You’re such a lively discussionist, if there is such a thing as that? And I really like your concepts and, and how you articulate what you’ve done and I’m really looking forward to really working with you and to experience decolonisation from your point of view because I’m somewhat of an outsider, so I really want to work with you on this and I think it’s really gonna be good.

Kate Bird: Thank you Charmaine. I think you’re very much an insider on the anti-racist uh, movement in the UK, and why I wanted to work with you on this is because you do bring a different angle, but I think it’s an angle that enriches our perspective and it enriches it from the position where we actually need to engage in personal change if we are to create change out there in the world.

So, and I think it’s, I think. Really useful to have conversations with people who have a different professional background. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Kate Bird: and a different, uh, perspective. Cause I think [00:16:00] that’s very enriching and I’m really excited about working on this podcast with you too. I think it’s gonna be a blast. 

Charmaine McCaulay: We’re so good together. Peace out. Love ya. We’re keeping that in. 

Kate Bird: Okay. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Okay. 

This weeks guest:

Prof Kate Bird, Senior Research Associate with ODI and Director of The Development Hub

Kate is the Director of The Development Hub, Professor of Practice at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Surrey, Senior Research Associate with ODI and Associate with the Chronic Poverty Advisory Network. She brings over 25 years of experience to her work designing and leading multidisciplinary research, training and advisory work.

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