Episode 7: The dark side of ‘development’ and ‘progress’.

About this episode:

In Episode #7 of The Power Shift: Decolonising Development, Dr Eyob Balcha Gebremariam, scholar activist specialising in decolonial African development, joins Kate Bird and Charmaine McCauley to discuss the politics of knowledge production, Eurocentrism, the metaphysical Empire and pluriversality. Eyob leaves listeners an important message about epistemic diversity and the power of acknowledging multiple histories and the dark underside of civilisation and development.

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam is an Ethiopian scholar-activist. His areas of research, teaching and activism are the politics of knowledge production in, on and about Africa, decolonial knowledge production, African political economy, and the politics of development. Eyob has a doctoral degree in Development Policy and Management from the University of Manchester. He is a Research Associate at the Perivoli Africa Research Centre (PARC) at the University of Bristol and an adjunct professor of African Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), John Hopkins University. He was a Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he convened and taught postgraduate courses on African Development and African Political Economy. Eyob received the 2022 Thandika Mkandawire Prize for Outstanding Scholarship in African Political Economy.

Episode 7: Full Transcript

The Power Shift: Decolonising Development

Episode 7

The dark side of ‘development’ and ‘progress’. Dr Eyob Balcha Gebremariam interviewed.

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: [00:00:00] Perhaps just to put it simply, I’ll just refer to the speech by Josep Borrell, the current EU top diplomat. The speech that he gave in October, where he clearly said that Europe is a garden and the rest of the world, it is a jungle. So this black and white categorisation, this is what Eurocentricism is all about. Considering positioning yourself as the most high, the most advanced, the most preferable, the most appreciated.

And to have that kind of superiority complex, that’s what racism is all about, right? To focus on distinctions, differences, and upholding some values at the expense of other values, other people’s perspectives, historical experiences. 

Kate Bird: Hello. [00:01:00] I’m Professor Kate Bird, and I’d like to introduce this episode of the ‘Power Shift: Decolonising Development’. In this episode, Eyob talks about Eurocentrism and racism and how exploitation, genocide, linguicide, epistemicide and subjugation have gone alongside not only colonisation, but also the processes of development and so-called civilisation.

He says we should be ready to listen to and really understand what people have experienced as the dark side of these so-called processes of development and civilisation. And he suggests that an important practical step that we can all take in in terms of supporting decolonisation is mental decolonisation and acknowledging this dark side.

Listen on for more.

Charmaine McCaulay: Good afternoon Kate and Eyob and listeners out there and viewers. Welcome to ‘The Power [00:02:00] Shift: Decolonising Development’, the podcast series seeking to bring together thinkers, practitioners and activists to share ideas, inspire change, and identify tools for practical action. I am Charmaine McCaulay, a body psychotherapist, uh, Director of Kokoro Therapy and lead facilitator of the groundbreaking training program, ‘Racism in Real Time’. 

 I would like to introduce my co-host, Professor Kate Bird, Director of the Development Hub. 

As a Black psychotherapist and a White development professional, we’re using our lived experiences and professional skills to frame the way we approach the topic of decolonisation over you. Over to you, Kate. 

Kate Bird: Thanks Charmaine. So, I’d like to introduce today’s guest, Eyob. Eyob is an Ethiopian, uh, scholar activist and we’ve invited him here today because very [00:03:00] early on in the process of thinking about this podcast, I came across a blog that he had written and it really struck me.

It really resonated with me and I found it quite a challenging read, but it kind of covered all the bases. It covered all the things that I felt I ought to know more about. So I reached out to him and invited him to join us here and very luckily for us, he said yes. So Eyob works on the politics of knowledge production in and about Africa.

He works on decolonial knowledge production, African political economy, and the politics of development. In 2022, earlier this year, he won the Thandika Mkandawire Prize for Outstanding Scholarship in African Political Economy. And he is also won prizes as the best, the best lecturer. So he’s a bit of an all rounder.

Um, and I know he’s got a blog coming out very soon, which takes forwards his discussion, and I’m hoping that he’ll maybe [00:04:00] tell you a little bit more about that. But details about it will be in the show notes below this episode anyway. So Charmaine, I’m gonna pass back to you for our first question.

Charmaine McCaulay: Thank you. Thank you. Eyob, what is your personal and professional history that has led you to work on decolonising development?

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: Thank you. Thank you Chairmane and Kate for inviting me. I hope I will contribute to the ideas that you want to put forward in hosting this podcast and platform. So thank you for inviting me. Uh, with regard to my personal and professional history, let’s say, I’m an Ethiopian, I was born in raised in Ethiopia, uh, and studied sociology for my bachelor degree, sociology in social anthropology, and did my masters at the Institute of Social Studies in the Hague and it was primarily at that stage, I took one [00:05:00] course, called Advanced Sociology, where we read these decolonial materials. It was in 2008 September. And I was quite fascinated by all the ideas that I was exposed to.

And these were things that I’ve never studied in my bachelor degree when I did my sociology. But most of the things that I did great in that course remained just in that course. And for the remaining of that master’s program, another master’s program that I did in African studies at Leiden University. None of those issues really featured, and it was quite a challenge.

And I, I had some professors, especially when I was doing my MPhil programme at Leiden, who were considered, uh, he’s a specialist in West Africa, he’s a specialist in, [00:06:00] in this part of the continent or in Country X or countrywide. Just because, oh, he or she has written a couple of papers on a particular topic and I had some professors who put some kind of.. Who, who draw just a straight line on the whiteboard I remember in one class and put the Netherlands at one end of that line saying that this is where the Netherlands is in terms of democracy and this is where other African countries are, you know, just very linear thinking and it was quite challenging to sit in that kind of process, but it was, I, I, I read some concerns and questions, but it didn’t go anywhere. And then I did my PhD, I think University of Manchester, and there was not any room for me to incorporate all these ideas.

I was [00:07:00] part of some reading groups as the Humanities faculty, but it just came in very much on the margin of it. And even after joining the LSE as a fellow to teach African Development or African Political Economy, there was no room to bring in this idea that the one that I’m teaching at the moment or the one that I’m putting forward at the moment. 

But I kept on reading and trying to challenge some of the mainstream thinking, but it was primarily after the Black Lives Matter movement and when I was given the opportunity to convene course in African Development that I said, this is a time, this is the movement where I can bring all those things in ideas that I’ve been exposed to for the last 12 years into a classroom and design the course and teach it in a way that would be more significant and radical. 

And luckily it went really well and the blog that Kate was referring to was written as a way of showing gratitude for my [00:08:00] students who really enjoyed the course. And it helped me to kind of, to further develop my thinking. Yeah, that’s both my personal and professional history in a nutshell. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Great. Thank you. Thank you, thank you. Over you, Kate.

Kate Bird: Well, I just think that’s really interesting Eyob, because I can see how that, that happens within academia and also within the development sector. Things often told that actually that’s not legitimate, that’s not a legitimate area of study. And kind of, told to get back in your box.

So, I think it’s interesting that you, uh, you’ve burst the box open and you’ve built a new box and put a new stamp on it. I’d like to ask about what you think links the Othering of racism in the Global North. So what links that kind of Othering that underpins racism in the Global North and the Eurocentric [00:09:00] worldview with how Africa is imagined or constructed in people’s minds and how development in Africa is framed? Because I see a link in my mind, but I’d be interested to hear about your thinking on this.

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: Yeah. Perhaps just to put it much more simply, uh, and sort of talking about some historical thinkings and ideas from the Enlightenment period, I’ll just refer to the speech by Josep Borrell, you know, the current EU top diplomat. The speech that he gave in October, where he clearly said that Europe is a garden and the rest of the world, it is a jungle. So this black and white categorisation, this is what Eurocentricism is all about. Considering positioning yourself [00:10:00] as the most high, the most advanced, the most preferable, the most appreciated.

And to have that kind of superiority complex, that’s what racism is all about, right? To focus on distinctions, differences, and upholding some values at the expense of other values, other people’s perspectives, historical experiences. So that jungle and garden categorisation is, is not just simply a speech by particular person.

It is informed by all those so-called big thinkers of the Enlightenment period, starting from René Descartes or Hegel, who specifically says Africa doesn’t have any history, or doesn’t have any role to play in this world. And if you move forward and come to the period of colonisation where Africa was presented as a savage, [00:11:00] as an empty and a dark place. 

So, Africa is, especially in the mainstream academy and also in development studies, there’s some kind of imagined and constructed Africa that people can easily relate to because of these kinds of well thought out and really established lines of thinking. So the Othering stems from this kind of position, a very universalistic, a very uh, dominant and of course, very abusive way of thinking about other people, particularly about Africans based on their skin color, based on the history that they have, based on the different social processes that they pass. This is, for me, the underpinning perspective that informs racism, that informs Eurocentrism.[00:12:00] 

Charmaine McCaulay: I really like what you’re talking about and as a body psychotherapist, you know, I come across how internalised oppression, internalised racism actually shows up viscerally in my client’s body.

Right? So it’s not just a mind concept, the whole way of walking, the whole way of being. I’d like to ask you, if you can tell us a bit more about how internalised colonialism, metaphysical Empire actually shows up, not just in the mind as a construct, but also if you’re aware of how it actually shows up and forms a physical body and that kind of racial wounding, if you like.

How does that maybe show up in maybe some of your students? And what do you do with that when it’s presented that way?

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: I should say that I’m not that much of an expert of specifically the cycle level analysis that 

Charmaine McCaulay: Yeah. 

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: You are referring to, but I can [00:13:00] definitely speak about the metaphysical empire and how it invade, how it invades people’s mind. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Yeah. 

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: And how it shapes and, kind of, controls the way that people think. And it was, particularly used as a mechanism of humiliating people during colonisation.

The Kenyan scholar, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, refers to his personal experience of growing up in colonial Kenya, how they were somehow punished in their schools for speaking their local language in schools. And what he was saying in that, uh, decolonised thing, the mind book is like anyone who found speaking their local dialect other than English would be required to [00:14:00] wear, to wear, a tablet here saying, I’m a donkey, I’m a stupid, because they speak in their local dialect, and that’s how English was imposed into those children’s mind. So referring to, we can expand it further, how those kinds of young kids were even considered, or somehow so-called empowered to be a police on each other, like a colonial police. Because by the end of the day, so when you find someone speaking the local language, you’ll pass that tag.

So that will happen throughout the day and at the end of the day, everybody will be pointing, this is who give me this. They will come out and they’ll be punished. This is what, how the method, the kind of, nowadays people consider English, speaking English, as a way of being so-called [00:15:00] developed or advanced or educated.

All these kinds of things that we have at the moment, these kinds of mentality, this kind of orientation is a result of an outcome of colonial design, a design that intended to invade people’s mind, and you let them from their cultural psychosocial orientation, which would certainly kind of shape the worldview.

The worldview was designed to be controlled by the colonialist, so I’m not particularly, well informed to give a comment about the body perspective. But I can definitely see that this kind of, the, the mental colonisation can definitely have an impact on how people value their skin colour, how people value their hairstyle, how people value their cultural attire or different parts of their body, [00:16:00] because a same type of body is considered quite dominant or quite acceptable at the expense of others. Sorry, Kate. 

Kate Bird: Well, also, Eyob, I, um, I think if you alienate someone from their oral culture, you are alienating them from their history. In a lot of countries that I’ve worked in in the past, stories are told and, uh, cultural heritage is transmitted orally and if by imposing English as effectively the language of education and effectively the, the first language.

Because, people become more and more distant from their mother tongue if they’re being fully educated in English. They become more articulate, potentially, in English than they are in their mother tongue. Then they, [00:17:00] then they lose their links, not just with their past, but with their present.

Because they aren’t able to interact in their mother tongue in the way that the people who are less educated can, because the less educated still have their mother tongue. So you get, I think some very strange things going on where education is seen as taking place in English.

English is the language of the elites. It’s the language of the intelligentsia. Um, mother tongue is backward and therefore my culture is backward. And, and I, I don’t know, I think you get whole load of internalised, quite unpleasant, internalised things going on with that. So that’s one comment that I wanted to make and also another comment is based on some research that took place in India where teachers knew the surname of children and therefore the caste of children. Um, the children from lower caste groups performed [00:18:00] worse in school academically because of the judgments that were being made by the teachers.

And when the children were tested for their cortisol levels, you can do a saliva test that tests for the stress hormones. Their stress hormones were much higher. So the children who were from outcaste or low caste groups performed worse educationally and had higher stress levels. So in terms of what Charmaine’s talking about, about the embodiment, if you experience stress on a day-to-day level that affects your health, it affects your ability to think cause it affects your ability to relate to your cognitive brain. So I, I’m, I’m seeing connections between what you are saying and some of the stuff that I’ve read elsewhere and I think it’s very interesting. But that’s enough from me. 

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: Exactly. 

Kate Bird: Charmaine, back to you. Cause I think the next question’s yours. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Yeah. I’ve got something slightly different, I’m gonna veer off of this ,and I wanna kind of shift the focus a little bit. We’re talking about what the BIPOC folks [00:19:00] are missing.

What are the White folks missing when we, and I’m putting myself in the Black and Brown folks, what are the White folks missing? When they cannot hear our stories, when they cannot be part and be participating in that worldview, what do you think they are going to be missing?

And I think, and their sense of belonging. Could you kind of speak to that? 

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: Yes. 

Charmaine McCaulay: But it’s not, what I saying, it’s not just a one-sided story. 

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: Mm-hmm. 

Charmaine McCaulay: That we’re not the only ones, I think Whites also lose out. 

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: Yeah. I think we should also be very conscious of not homogenising everything that comes from the West.

Charmaine McCaulay: Yes, yes. I agree. 

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: Cause there’s the difference between like, for instance, European power and Eurocentric power. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Yes, yes. 

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: What we are primarily referring to, at least what I’m primarily referring to is Eurocentric approach that is quite hegemonic, even [00:20:00] within geographic, within the geography of Europe or within the epistemic atmosphere, ecosystem, of Europe because that does not mean that it represents every aspect of Europe, but we’re we’re talking about the one, the most dominant hegemonic, and universalising. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Yes. 

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: Orientation of a particular set of knowledge. So, such kinds of knowledge frameworks tend to, kind of, even reward ignorance. The more ignorant that you are, the more Eurocentric thinking or practice that you have, the more ignor…ignorant that you’ll be for other ways of knowing, for other ways of being, for other ways of interacting, for other ways of understanding your social and natural environment. So people will definitely lose because they cannot really comprehend everything from a [00:21:00] very narrow perspective.

And what some people call the pluriversality because what we were really more focused on is a universal. Something is only one. Knowledge is singular. Knowledge. Knowledge. And we talk about the universe or universality of something. But knowledge is multiple. Knowledge is multi, that’s what Santos talks about.

The ecology of knowledge in English. Knowledge is grammatically wrong if you say knowledges. But we should definitely think about knowledges and the pluriversality where we can design alternative ways of doing. Most of the crisis that we are facing at this moment are outcomes of, or perpetrated by, this modernist thinking, and we are still trying to solve the problem with the same line of thinking and orientation.

Charmaine McCaulay: Yes. 

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: Which is considered usually, [00:22:00] like, losing the ground, right? It’s what people really consider being crazy, right? So the alternative ways of doing things can definitely give us a new way of understanding the environment, understanding social relations and other people’s orientation in perspective.

Charmaine McCaulay: Thank you. Thank you. Kate.

Thank you, very much for talking about that. I really appreciate how you are talking about knowledge. I think that part really struck me that yes, I’m from the English world basically, and it never occurred to me to think of the word knowledge as a singular, but yeah, so thank you for that when knowledges, yeah, it doesn’t quite work does it in the English vernacular, but thank you.

I appreciate that. Kate. 

Kate Bird: Yeah. Just building on what Eyob was saying. I think one of the things that White people miss out on, if we don’t decolonise and decolonise the way we think, is we miss out on [00:23:00] excellence. We miss out on a lot of excellence. 

We’re following, as Eyob said, this kind of little narrow path and we can’t see off that narrow path. So we’re missing what, what can be brought in by everyone else. Uh, and I think that’s highly problematic. So in terms of excellence, we’re missing out on excellence. A lot of excellence that is being just, kind of told to shut up. You know, shut up and go and go and do that somewhere else. Because what we are doing here is we’re doing stuff led by us. We are framing the debate. We’re setting the question, we’re saying what the worldview is and you need to fit in with that.

And I think the reality is much messier than that. And it’s much more pluralistic. 

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: Yes. 

Kate Bird: And if we don’t have our teams, our work teams, our organisations, our international organisations, and also just the way we do business globally, I mean, business very broadly in intellectual business, uh, trade everything, if it doesn’t incorporate those multiple views [00:24:00] and those multiple talents, then we’re going to live a much narrower and much poorer life. That’s my perspective. 

So, I think we’ve nearly come to the end. It’s been a gallop through a set of ideas and I know we could carry on talking for hours, and I’d very much like to but I’m gonna pass back to Eyob to identify, if you can, the one thing that our listeners and viewers, could and should change tomorrow to contribute positively to the decol agenda.

How can our listeners and viewers support progressive positive change, which shifts the power balance, and moves things forwards in a better way.

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: That’s a challenging question. 

Charmaine McCaulay: No pressure. No pressure.

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: Probably just one thing, perspective can be also [00:25:00] a challenge by itself or something that may need to be, also unpacked. However, I would say that the key aspect of, from my understanding, the key aspect of the decolonial orientational perspective is at the epistemic level.

What I mean by epistemic is in terms of the ways that we know, or the way that we acquire knowledge. People usually tend to confuse diversity with decolonisation, which is just a very cosmetic level change. I don’t have any problem with diversity. However, I’m more concerned about epistemic diversity.

With epistemic diversity, for me is the most essential element [00:26:00] of the decolonial movement, the decolonial orientation. We cannot claim that we contribute something positive to society if we continue to play a role for Eurocentrism to sustain itself in different shape and form. The revolving door of Eurocentrism usually appears to remain at the center because we continue to just simply introduce cosmetic changes to things and just call it, this is what decolonising is.

It has already become a fashion or the buzzword, so is that people can even establish a clear, but what we are talking about is we should be ready to [00:27:00] listen to the historical experiences, the negative experiences, the most traumatic experiences that people have passed through for generations.

Of what we call civilisation, development, progress, movement for human rights, democracy, or whatever we call. The underside of all these kind of glorious concepts or ideas that we have at present time is of exploitation, of genocide, linguicide, epistemicide and subjugation. 

Unless we are ready to challenge ourselves, to expose ourselves to what is happening on the other side of this so-called very glorious history of [00:28:00] human progress and development that particularly emphasises the social, historical experience of just one segment of the world population, and projecting it to all parts of the world, is where the problem is.

We should be able to see from the perspective of the Native Americans, the native Australians, or Indians or Africans or rather the native people of Latin America. For them it was not civilisation, for them, it was not the expansion of democracy, for most African countries or Latin American countries.

It was a process of just a continuing process of subjugation and, even to some extent, pure genocide. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Mm-hmm. 

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: So we should be ready to challenge ourselves. And it may not happen in one single way, [00:29:00] but I think, uh, everyone can do and contribute to their own mental decolonisation. Right. Like the thing I said, memories of ourselves also come through our minds.

Kate Bird: Thank you very much. That’s quite a challenging agenda you’ve just laid out there because I think 

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: You’re asking for it, you’re asking challenging questions. 

Kate Bird: Yeah. Just to kind of recap what I’ve taken from what you’ve said, just to paraphrase it and I’m kind of checking in with you that I’ve got this right, is that our listeners and viewers should challenge themselves.

The first thing they should do is challenge themselves and acknowledge the dark side of colonialism. 

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: Colonialism already has a dark side, but the dark side of so-called development and civilisation. 

Kate Bird: Yeah. 

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: Probably colonialism is an easy thing to identify the dark side, but what was called development, what has [00:30:00] been called civilization, what has been called progress over the past 500 years or so-called Industrial Revolution, that multiple in Europe are very proud about. 

How did it happen? Who was exploited? Who was dispossessed? Who paid the price in sweat, blood and tears? So, both those histories are real human histories that still remain at the center of our present reality.

Kate Bird: Yeah. I think a very simple first step, though, in the UK – in particular – is to acknowledge the dark side of colonialism before we even start thinking about the dark side of development and progress. But I’m not disagreeing with you at all. I agree that this needs to be looked at. But our curriculum in schools doesn’t even teach properly about [00:31:00] colonialism. I was completely ignorant until I started to read around and began to inform myself because it’s just not taught. And, you talk about erasure and how people are erased.

And how their way of thinking is erased. And you’re challenging people to acknowledge that and recognise it and see the importance of that. So in a way it’s to kind of bring the balance back up, to change the balance in terms of how we’re looking at the world. Is that right?

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: To some extent, yes. I don’t know whether balancing is or a good way of phrasing it. 

Kate Bird: No?

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: Cause yeah. 

Kate Bird: I’m just thinking that at the moment, all the power is on one side. We, white people in the Global North. 

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: Yeah. 

Kate Bird: We set the agenda, so I’m thinking about balance in that sense. Shifting the power from people like me. 

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: Yes. But we should be also conscious of the fact that people benefit politically, [00:32:00] economically, psychologically, from all this erasure, from this exploitation, genocide or whatever that we speak about, people benefit. So it’s, of course, a power issue. It won’t be an easy thing to do. People will definitely have to pay. Conceding power is not an easy thing, right, it’s the resource. Maintaining this system serves as one political instrument of maintaining power.

But what we are also contributing to most people, probably unconsciously, is for the continuation of this very unjust and very painful process to happen. But we should also be conscious of this is a resource, it’s an instrument of maintaining power and domination, right? Economic resource, economic power, and political power.[00:33:00] 

Kate Bird: Yeah. So, it’s going to be painful. It, it’s going, it’s going to hurt. There will be winners and losers. It’s a political process. 

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: Exactly. 

Kate Bird: And you are a scholar activist leading the way, and setting out the landscape and I’m very much looking forward to your new blog that’s coming out. The show notes below this episode provide a link so that our listeners and viewers can read more about what you have to say. 

So Eyob, thank you once again for contributing to this podcast series and contributing to a very challenging conversation, which I hope people will go away and think about because the practical action from this episode is to think deeply and to acknowledge that change is going to involve winners and losers, and people need to prepare themselves for that, I think. 

Thank you very much. 

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam: Great. Thank you, Kate. Thank you, Charmaine. 

Charmaine McCaulay: Thank you.[00:34:00]

This weeks guest:

Eyob Balcha Gebremariam is an Ethiopian scholar-activist.

If you’re interested to find out more about Eyob’s work, take a look here:

Recommended links/reading

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