Episode 8: Anti-racism, critical reflexivity and international development in practice. Dr. Kamna Patel interviewed

About this episode:

Episode #8 of The Power Shift: Decolonising Development explores the processes of racialisation inherent in international development, with a focus on critical reflexivity and praxis.

Kamna Patel explores this from her personal and professional perspective of living and working in the UK, evidencing how politics of difference and processes of Othering have constructed the basis for international development practice.

Kamna speaks with quiet passion about how racism is ‘baked into’ the very idea of ‘development. She proposes critical reflexivity as a tool to enact anti-racism practices within the industry of international development, and advocates for enacting change through everyday actions which work towards changing the discourse surround anti-racism and decolonisation.

Episode 8: Full Transcript

The Power Shift: Decolonising Development

Episode 8

Anti-racism, critical reflexivity and international development in practice. Dr. Kamna Patel interviewed.

Kamna: [00:00:00] I think this is what it means to be reflexive. To understand the borders of my influence and power, the cost. And it’s a very real cost of pushing a vision, of pushing an idea ,of disrupting and acting still with credibility and respect for the bigger picture. I can’t dismantle development as much as I may or may not want to, but what steps can I take in service to a bigger vision of what is possible? And it’s the concepts and the theories that informs that bigger vision of what is possible.

Kate: Hello, I’m Kate Bird, and I’d like to [00:01:00] introduce today’s speaker, Kamna Patel. Kamna talks about the processes of racialisation and how it’s baked into the development industry, into what development is and how it’s conceived, and how it’s based on Othering.

She talks about colourism and allyship. Funding and development, racial hierarchies and power, critical reflexivity, and how to shift thinking on racism and what can happen to transform racism and how development is conceived and practiced. So listen on for more. 

Charmaine: Hi. Welcome everybody. My name’s Charmaine and welcome to the Power 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’m Charmaine McCauley, a body psychotherapist, Director of Kokoro and lead facilitator of the groundbreaking [00:02:00] training programme, ‘Racism in Real Time’. I’d like to introduce my co-host, professor Kate Bird, Director of the Development Hub. Over to you, Kate. 

Kate: Thanks Charmaine, and I’d like to introduce our speaker for today, Kamna Patel. Kamna is Associate Professor of Development Studies at University College London, and she works on race and racialisation, the development sector and, critical reflexivity and praxis and also, land and housing tenure in Southern cities. For the past 18 months, she’s been the principal advisor on race and diversity at the International NGO Christian Aid, shaping an anti-racist agenda and leading the efforts of the organisation to become anti-racist. For more on Kamna, see the show notes below this episode.

Charmaine: So welcome.

Kate: Back to you, Charmaine. 

Charmaine: Thank you Kate. Sorry about that. So welcome, welcome, Kamna. It’s such a pleasure to see you up close and in [00:03:00] person. I’ve heard a lot about you, mostly through Kate and then some of your reading, so thank you so much for showing up today. So I have three questions and the first question is, how has your work on racism and decolonisation stimulated any self-reflection or a change in your understanding of yourself and other people of colour, particularly in the British society? 

Kamna: Thank you Charmaine, and thank you Kate for inviting me to be a part of your podcast. It’s a real privilege to be here and a privilege to take the time to reflect on these questions because oftentimes I find that, in the day-to-day grind of things, there’s very little space to pause, reflect, zoom out, see the bigger picture, and then zoom back in again. And I think moments like this, like carefully curated spaces allow for that to happen. So I just want to thank you for inviting me and thank you for creating that space. So in response to your question about how has my work on [00:04:00] racism in particular, and I work more on race than I do on decolonisation, how has it stimulated self-reflection.

It’s like an endless whirling circle, that’s the best way that I can describe it. You know, when you press, when your computer screen is loading and you see that circle going round and round and round, it is my self-reflection that has led me to thinking about racism and processes of racialisation.

And that in turn has then led to deeper ways that I understand myself. So if I give you a little bit of context to that, maybe you can tell from my accent, maybe you can’t. So, I’m from London, I was born and raised in London. I am a Londoner and it’s meant that I grew up in the racial politics of London.

Charmaine: Mm-hmm. 

Kamna: And in the wider racial politics of British society. And, knowing some of your work, Charmaine, or having read a little bit about of your work, , the feeling that I want to pick up on is this feeling of being out of place, and that constant [00:05:00] rub, that comes from how I live my life and the rhythms of my life and the norms and the structures and the systems that are around me that I experience from, you know, from the beginning, from the beginning of my life, and how those racial politics have then played out in the places that I visit, the places that I know not to visit because they’re too intimidating. Not because I am small and prone to be intimidated, but because they’re designed to intimidate, they’re designed to make folks like me feel out of place. And so these feelings of out of place, I stumbled across the language to explain it and to understand it through my academic work, as a student, and then finally as an academic, as thinking about racial politics, as thinking about how race and space intertwine and are designed to make folks like me feel out of place and be out of place.

And so then it comes back full loop, [00:06:00] understanding the racial geographies of London or cities like London, understanding how that is coded into planning practices, how it’s coded into how we design our street scapes, how, it’s coded into the kinds of shops that appear on our high streets, places, languages that you hear and languages that you don’t hear that are marked as cosmopolitan in a place like London.

So I think of it as, the tube map is super helpful in this, the closer into Zone One you are, the more multilingualism is European languages. And the further out you zoom the different kinds of languages come into scope, come into play, and come into define neighborhoods and the characteristics of different neighborhoods of London.

So it’s this thinking, and it’s this learning about the languages of race that have allowed me to understand that these rhythms and these ruptures are fruitful cracks in the system to leverage change, to fill the space where I’m not [00:07:00] expected to be and to disrupt some of those dynamics of whiteness.

Charmaine: I love it, I love it. I love that last sentence. Um, fruitful cracks of, what did you say? 

Kamna: I think I said resistance or leverage to resistance, something like that. 

Charmaine: Yeah, I, whatever you said, I just thought, yeah, I really like the way that you’ve formulated that. And just moving on from that, my next question would be, if it’s possible, could you tell us more about what you think differs between how you perceive the majority world and the so-called development issues and how someone from the minority world sees them?

If anything, what I’m actually specifically talking about, which you kind of alluded to, was, I’m talking about here’s the White Gaze and how that interfaces or does not interface with exactly what you’re talking about. That would be lovely. Thank you. 

Kamna: So more and more recently I’ve been reading and my go-to, in case you couldn’t tell is, is to books, it’s to reading the [00:08:00] great works of others to understand my place, to understand how I’m placed. And so in diaspora studies and thinking about diaspora, there’s a lot of emphasis on hybridity, being in between places, being of here and there. And I think working through that has given me an innate understanding of Othering, and how processes of Othering takes place. And by Othering, I mean being made different and not just being made different, being made less than. And if I think about the development sector, its origins and the ways in which it’s practiced as an industry, development itself as a field of study, as a field of practice exists primarily and solely, I would say, through the cultural, economic, political, social creation of ‘us’ and ‘them’. It doesn’t exist without difference. It doesn’t exist without superiority and inferiority being mobilised [00:09:00] as a logic for intervention. So this way of seeing the world, this hybridness, this hybridity, this in betwixtness allows me to understand how those processes of difference are created, how those moments of rupture and that feeling out of place that I described previously, how those are designed and how those make an Other, how those make difference, how those make inferiority, and how that then in the bigger picture, reinforces this racialised hierarchy, which is really what we’re talking about, right? When it comes to race lens, we’re talking about this hierarchy and how to dislodge and disrupt the hierarchy.

Charmaine: Right, and so we’re talking about that there’s the lack of unity, the lack of belonging is also intertwixed with that, right? So how do we find our belonging when basically what you’re saying, within the world of development, we are supposed to be separated.

We are not [00:10:00] supposed to come together with a a particular research or a particular way that we want to construct the world or reconstruct the world, is what I’m hearing you say, yeah?

Kamna: Yeah, and I suppose maybe to development practitioners and folks that Kate knows and Kate herself perhaps, I’m not sure – what is development without difference? What is the basis for intervention? What is the logic that drives that? And I think that more recently we have this, we have discourses of global solidarity in global movements and so on. It’s hard to find the material evidence of that within the development sector as it’s currently constructed.

Charmaine: Yeah. 

Kamna: So it’s the materiality of it that would give weight to how do we demonstrate global solidarity if budgets are still decided in London, if head offices are still in London primarily, if expertise is located in London and only accessible primarily through English? [00:11:00] Then, you know, how do you evidence another form and another way of thinking and shifting notions of development to something that approximates a global shift?

Charmaine: Yeah, and given that, I think, um, I want to touch on, the evidence of how White Gaze then is implemented within the development sector. And this is from the paper that you wrote that I sort of just sculpted out for this particular question. And it says, in 2021, the British government cut aid spending from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5% of GDP, which in real terms, it’s $4 billion.

$4 billion. So we know that this has affected all budgets and research across the world, right? How has this personally affected you and your team in real terms, in terms of levels of anxiety, levels of stress, and [00:12:00] rather than getting the resources from externally to help you, it’s like the team I’m assuming perhaps you, you’ve had to use your own, um, resources.

In many ways, what Kate had said before, it’s almost self exploitation to fulfill the research product that, that’s really well designed. It does have the capability to come to fruition. But when the White Gaze decides that, no, this is not going to happen, what happens to you and your team, if you could speak to that, that would be great.

Kamna: Yeah. So that paper that you are quoting, Charmaine, I co-wrote it with a friend, a colleague, Ala’a Shehabi. And we draw on both of our experiences in writing that paper. The point that we really wanted to stress in it is that when money is cut, when money is headlines, and that’s what going from 0.7 to 0.5 did.

Who makes the cut and who doesn’t, which [00:13:00] bodies are disposable and dispensable? And I think that allows us to identify the performativity, and that’s what we talk about in the paper, the performativity of Southern bodies, of black and brown bodies. And for the purposes of how we talk about it in the paper, it didn’t matter if you were based in London or if you were based in Malawi on a project.

Trying to work on these GCRF funded (Global Research Challenges Fund) projects, which is funded by ODA money. It didn’t matter because your function in there was to show some kind of a legitimacy away from a White team, precisely perhaps, to combat this idea that there is a White Gaze problem. So to be that person that folks can point to and say, “No, look, look, we’re good, check.” And we can deny the check boxing of it all until the money is cut and when the money is cut, who gets cut from these projects in these programs and who is left to face the consequences of it? [00:14:00] And we saw that happening in 2021 when those cuts were made in the media aftermath of it, particularly within academia, because the folks that were most affected were our postdoctoral research fellows.

The folks that don’t have permanent academic contracts and primarily partners in the so-called Global South who had their funding cut or who had, projects terminated earlier than they would’ve otherwise had projects terminated. And in that, unless your university has deep pockets, and I’m very fortunate that mine has deep enough pockets to cushion that blow, but not everyone does. That people are losing their jobs because the development sector operates and when it intersects with higher education, operates in an environment of precarity, particularly for racialised minority people, for racialised and minoritised people. And you use the term global majority, so I’m going to sort of try to mirror your language so as to not [00:15:00] confuse folks, but when the global majority are not very well employed in UK universities, when they are disposable and dispensable, that’s what happens when aid money is cut. 

Charmaine: And so is there, can you give an example where that happened to somebody and how their lifestyle, you know, became very precarious and how did, and then if you are lacking the external resources, how then do you and everybody else, what resources can you draw on so to to mitigate that level of harm?

Kamna: So I think I want to speak in a little bit more general terms. When it comes to what happens when you are precariously employed. 

Charmaine: Yes. 

Kamna: The perpetual living in fear. 

Charmaine: Yes. 

Kamna: And not being able to plan your life. 

Charmaine: Yeah. Yes. 

Kamna: The effect that it might have on when you can have a child, [00:16:00] if you choose to have children, if you want, if that’s part of your life plans.

So much of our life can be determined by whether or not we can rely on income in a year or in two years time. So the, I can’t, I can’t, I struggle to articulate what the impact of precarity does to an individual because it’s so cutting. It’s so deep and it’s totally all encompassing. 

Charmaine: Mm-hmm.

Kamna: But I am also aware that in speaking into that space, I am not precariously employed.

Charmaine: Okay. 

Kamna: I have a permanent academic contract and speak with a degree of privilege on this topic. And I would dearly love, and maybe we can talk about this after the podcast, maybe you can have somebody on your podcast who is not in that position of privilege [00:17:00] so that they too can speak of their experience and also what it looks like to a precariously- employed person to see the opposite. To see folks in these permanent contracts that I’m privileged to have, make these decisions. What does that look and feel like from somewhere else? 

Charmaine: So have you ever had to personally cut somebody from the team. But I mean, so you don’t have to go through that, which is really quite fortunate then.

Kamna: Yes, yes. 

Charmaine: You know, wow. 

Kamna: I struggle if a colleague isn’t working very well and I have to tell them, please, can you try harder, you know, that’s the level of sort of engagement I have with people that I’ve line managed. So I’ve not had to do that, I’ve not had to do that, but I feel it. 

Charmaine: You feel it? Yes. 

Kamna: Yeah.

Charmaine: Because there’s an impact, right? 

Kamna: It’s an impact. And I see it in other sectors. I see it in other industries. I’m a woman of [00:18:00] colour in Britain. Right? I know many people who are precariously employed within my own family and have lived with that through my own positioning.

Charmaine: Well, thank you. Thank you for that. Kate, um, over to you. 

Kate: Yeah. Thank you. And Kamna, I’m really glad that you’ve talked through the issue of money and budgets and funding in the development sector and where the money sits and who controls the money and the impact that the way it flows through the sector has on people.

Because I think, I think it’s absolutely central because, you know, it’s how power is manifested. It’s one of the ways in which power is manifested through the sector. And moving on more generally to kind of think about development as a sector, I know you have a certain skepticism about the development sector as a sector as a whole.

Would you say you support its demise,[00:19:00] and if so, what do you think should be put in its place? Or what would you like to see evolve in its place? 

Kamna: That’s such a huge question, such a loaded question, which I’m sure is why you asked it. I suppose I would say, or I’d start my reflection, that it’s not a sector, it’s an industry.

Charmaine: Mm-hmm. 

Kamna: And if it’s an industry, that means we have a group of organisations that produce or supply goods and services. As an industry, it is regulated by the market forces of competition, survival, and capturing more market share. That’s the logic of the industry. It’s an industry with multiple competing actors.

Charmaine: Mm-hmm.

Kamna: That doesn’t have much coherence to it, but maybe we can come onto that. And so as an industry with all of those logics that are [00:20:00] occurring within it, I suppose I’m less interested in “does the industry exist or should the industry exist?” as I am with “does the industry cause harm? Are the impacts of its failures neutral or benign?”

And if we start to ask those questions and we strip out the moral legitimacy of the sector existing or the industry existing, and treat it as an industry, as with any other industry, those are the questions that we should be asking. And I would ask in turn, which practitioners, I’ll rule out academics for the moment because I know of people who are doing this, but which practitioners are looking for or even measuring failure?

Not to demise the industry, but as a genuine point of inquiry to understand what has failed [00:21:00] so that we can have that deeper, wider, more thoughtful conversation of “does the industry cause harm?” Since the nineties trapped in this performance-based, results-based management frameworks that that stem from new public management, we are constantly chasing results. And in academia we’d use the language of impact, right? We’d be constantly chasing what is our impact, what is our impact? And it doesn’t leave that room for what harm is caused by the sector. 

Charmaine: Yes. Yeah. 

Kamna: And we don’t, I don’t think we have sufficient, widespread, deep enough evidence, because we don’t collect it, to be able to meaningfully engage with that question. So I can’t answer the second part about what should replace it. And I think we are skipping several steps in between, and it also feeds into the circular logic [00:22:00] that is so much at the center of the concept of development and, or how, it’s been conceptualised, which is this idea that you identify a problem and then you solve the problem. And that’s, that’s it. You can’t have a problem for a problem set. You’ve got to then find the solution. And there’s this continuous problem-solving that I think actually negates the space for critical self-reflection and deep reflection and these kinds of industry-wide questions of what harm is caused fixated with problem-solving.

Kate: Thank you. 

Kamna: Sorry, Kate.

Kate: No, no. It’s a very thoughtful and thought-provoking answer. I’m going to have to go away and ponder about that. So yeah, I think moving on to my next question. I was very interested when I first met you to meet somebody with a research background who has the kind of [00:23:00] research credibility and the depth of knowledge of the literature and a passion for research working in a role in an international NGO which is, by its nature, in the world of practice. So I was really interested to see that you’d made that shift from an academic role into the world of practice supporting organisational change around anti-racism. And I wonder if you could tell our listeners more about what prompted you to make that particular move, because it is quite a bold one for an academic. And from your experience, you’re 18 months in now, sort of looking at what prompted you to make that move and what you were hoping to achieve and then looking back on the last 18 months I’d really be interested to hear your reflections on the sort of the highs and low of that experience.[00:24:00] 

Kamna: I feel like we could fill a whole podcast with that question.

Kate: I bet, I bet. Because I mean, I’m sure to begin with, there was a hell of a culture shock. 

Kamna: Oh, yes. Oh yeah. I mean, you’ve also done both. You’ve got your foot in both, so you can see it and you can feel it. And when I talk to some of my academic friends and sort of in preparation for returning to my substantive role as an academic and they ask, you know, what have you missed about academia? Is there anything that you’ve missed? And you know, I give the usual jokey response of, haha, you know, I don’t miss marking, but when I take the question seriously, when they want a serious answer, there are two things that I really, really have missed, and I hope all organisations can have more of. The first is some kind of notion of academic freedom.

Charmaine: Mm-hmm. 

Kamna: And in the academic context, it’s being able with thought, with care, with ethics, at your core, being able [00:25:00] to think, understand and say what you think. To speak freely. To speak freely with respect for others, of course. But to speak freely, I miss that. And the second thing that I miss is a healthy disrespect for authority.

There is a lot to be said for that. It’s entwined with notions of academic freedom. So yes, that’s been a massive, massive culture shift for me is getting used to understanding what it means to be in an organisation where academic freedom or a version of it doesn’t translate and where I don’t respect authority, I’m afraid. So it’s been a bit tough. It’s been a little bit tough. There are reasons for it to exist in some places, you know, like the military perhaps, but in other [00:26:00] places, less, less so, less so. But the reason, ultimately why, why I wanted to do this, and yes, it’s been a culture shock, is I suppose I’m not an academic full stop. I’m an academic that studies development. I’m interested, I’m in a development studies department. My interest has long been in this thing that we call development and how it materialises and what it does, including the harms that it caused, but what it does. And so as a development academic, I’ve always been interested in the application of concepts as well.

How are these concepts made real? It’s only in the world of application that concepts are given meaning. So poverty is an abstract thing. It’s an idea, but it’s made, it’s given meaning through its application. In real life, inequality is given meaning through its application or how inequality manifests is given meaning.

And so it’s the same with [00:27:00] anti-racism and racism and processes of racialisation. How do we take them as concepts and apply them to have a deep seated meaning in the development sector, a sector that is built on racialised difference and is sustained through racialised difference. So how can that discourse be made real for enough people?

And that’s, that was my main driver in trying to understand how can anti-racism be elevated from a concept to something that is felt. And I suppose some of it, why me in that sense, relates to something that I tell my students in the classroom. I always ask them because they, these are predominantly young people, super interested in wanting to change the world around them.

And that’s a beautiful thing to be harnessed and treasured and cared for and nurtured. And I always ask, [00:28:00] what is your skin in the game? 

And for me, my skin in the game is very much around race and racism. That’s my lever for change. That’s the effect that I feel. And Charmaine, you asked me earlier about feeling and affect in the body and I feel in my shoulders, and so it’s visceral. It’s visceral. Not only in terms of, you know, when you are faced with a racial slur or you are faced with a microaggression, it’s that clenching up. But also because of my training, because of how I’ve orientated myself to see and understand the world, it’s those processes of racialisation that occur.

 It’s the subtleness of those that also make my shoulders raise. And yeah, that’s it. And you just hold it right here. Hold it right here. So that’s, [00:29:00] that’s my skin in the game, and that’s what I wanted to change. That’s my thinking through where are my constituencies of power? What can I leverage to shift people, shift things for people who are to come?

And I feel like that’s me trying to pay my debt to those that came before me and allowed me to be an Associate Professor at a university. So this is my attempt to pay it forward in some way. Especially for those young folks of colour, especially women of colour, who are entering into this kind of a sector. Highs and lows, there are lots, there are lots, change processes are hard, and…

Charmaine: Can I, can I just jump in for a minute and just note something about skin tone and colourism, which I’m sure you know, and in this position of power that you are, have you noticed or been affected by, because you are a Brown woman [00:30:00] and the impact or, yeah, impact, I would say in meeting with people who are dark-skinned like me or even lighter skin tones than you, how have you had to kind of work with that internalised sense of colourism or shadeism or whatever you want to 

call 

Charmaine: that? Because I think, I know for me, when I’m teaching I do, I do recognise that and I think until I really recognise that and name that, I think it caused quite a bit of… Some issues were raised and until I recognised that, I couldn’t actually deal with the issues that were sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle. 

Kamna: Yeah. Yes. There are tremendous privileges that I navigate with. And colour is one of them. My accent is one of them. The fact that I can articulate my thoughts in a register of whiteness is absolutely one [00:31:00] of them. And it’s how I choose to use those. How do I leverage my privileges, fully in the understanding that I have the job that I have? And it also means that a Black woman does not. And so that means also that there are things that I can say, but also things that I can’t, and spaces that I need to create for especially Black women to hold that space and to speak in that space.

And the other aspect, or an additional aspect to colourism as someone who is originally from the Indian subcontinent is casteism. And the ways in which my caste identity – which is coded into my name – plays out in relations with colleagues who are based in India or who are part of the Indian diaspora and the ways in which I am, or I could be, associated with a particular [00:32:00] caste and religious fundamentalist narrative sweeping into at the moment from my family name, for anybody who understands Indian geography and politics, would recognise that it’s being coded from Gujarat State. And that is something else that I must be acutely aware of, of how I am placed in these debates and to disavow myself of being placed in those debates. I am super aware… Some of the ways in which that plays out means that I’m super attentive to how, Muslim voice is present and made present in discussions of India and Indian-ness and being Indian. And what my time here at Christian Aid has also given me far greater exposure to is Dalit politics, and Dalit [00:33:00] feminisms, and I am grateful to my colleagues for opening my eyes to that world, as well. I speak, I spend a lot of time articulating what is my position. And so that folks are clear on where it is exactly that I’m speaking from and into what political arenas I’m speaking to and balancing that. Also with model minority discourse. Because I speak as I speak, because I sound as I sound. It is something that means that there are just multiple trip wires and hazards. And so I walk slowly. I walk carefully. But I walk with an openness, I hope, that where I get it wrong, I’m corrected and I’m perfectly open to being corrected. And yeah, it’s, I think it’s an understanding that comes from years of learning how to self-reflect. And so some of the tools and techniques, specific tools and techniques I use is I, I [00:34:00] write, I write, I dive right… 

Charmaine: okay.

Kamna: And so in the moment I jot down all those ruptures, all those moments, all those things that could easily be brushed aside, all those reflections where someone didn’t speak because I was speaking. 

Charmaine: Yes, yes.

Kamna: And I think about what else could have been happening in that space, what other dynamics might I be contributing to so that I can change my behavior next time. 

Charmaine: It’s nice to hear that you are able to articulate that and I really appreciate the complexities from which, you’re speaking, from which, which I’m asking you to speak from because I also recognise that depending on the crowd or the event, how I will internally code switch to match the audience. And sometimes after having to, kind of, manipulate myself, I can feel the stress sometimes and sometimes when I don’t, when I misattune, and I think when I misattune badly, I’ve really misread the script, I’ve really misread the audience [00:35:00] and that uncomfortableness then that I have to go home and kind of live with, sort of like, I think that’s also what you’re saying is how can you be open to all the different complexities of who you are and what you represent. So thank you for addressing that, because I think that’s really important. And I think that’s in, in terms of decolonisation, I think that part that we talk about often gets missed out. That we too have a part to play in that. And how do we, like what you said, what’s your skin in this, what’s the risk involved in that.

Kamna: Yeah, and recognising the ways in which we can all be allies to someone. How does our allyship show up and how do we practice that and really live that? And so one of the areas that I’m working on internally thinking about hard, not quite settled on yet, in the sphere of development is, a queer understanding of development.

Charmaine: Wow. Yes. 

Kamna: As someone who is cis [00:36:00] heteronormative, it’s just, it’s opening my eyes to things that I haven’t thought about and I haven’t considered, but I need to learn. 

Charmaine: Yeah, I get it. I’m sort of sitting there on that, on that edge also too. Yeah, yeah. So thank you, I really appreciate you bringing that authentic self and how difficult it is to traverse things that are often maybe not seen if from, from the White Gaze. And if we only address the White gaze, we can often miss something that’s really important for people of colour. So I really appreciate how you’re, how you’re formulating and talking about that. 

Kamna: Thank you. 

Kate: Yeah, thank you. And something that is coming through as a theme running through the podcast series actually is the importance of self-reflection. And I’m really pleased that you expressed that and the kind of thoughtful and reflective way in which you talked about your own process and how [00:37:00] you kind of reflect on things in the moment and then you note them down and reflect on how you can change your behavior for next time. Because I think that’s a lesson for all of us, isn’t it? So, I mean, I think what’s interesting in this conversation for me is the degree of thoughtfulness that you’re bringing to your work. You’re not just running at it full tilt. You are obviously bringing your passion and your energy to it, but you are also bringing a great degree of thoughtfulness and reflectiveness into your work.

And I can imagine that that um, increases the power of the work that you do because I think you’re a voice to be listened to be because of the level of thought that you have, that you’re bringing to, certainly, this conversation. And I can imagine you bring the same level of thought to all the conversations that you have in your work in Christian Aid and elsewhere.

So, I mean, I think you probably bring that into your scholarly work as well, as [00:38:00] a reflexive practitioner and theoretician. And I wonder if you can talk to us about how you’ve drawn from both of your experiences as an academic and theoretician, and also your experience of the world of practice as a consultant and working with universities and the NGO sector and how you’ve brought that together in your practical work with Christian Aid? Because I imagine you’ve been drawing on tools from both of those different sets of experience. 

Kamna: Yeah, and not always successfully. I mean, this is a little bit of trial and error that goes on with, “okay, well that didn’t work, it worked in a university, it doesn’t work here.”

So there’s, yeah, there’s a lot of that switching around. I suppose for me, it’s… What I try to hold at the same time is the zooming in and the zooming out. And it can be a little bit discombobulating at times, [00:39:00] but it’s necessary. And I think for me, that’s the connection between practice and reflection and action and thinking.

All of these things come in a cycle. So in notions of racial justice and racial equity, the zooming in can mean, because I have to go with the conversations that are happening in my workplace as well as advancing them, so bearing in mind where the organisation’s at, some of those zooming in conversations end up being around faces around the table. Sort of the basics of representation and representational politics. But then when I’m zooming out, I can see that as fighting over the spoils of injustice. Putting more seats at the table in a fundamentally flawed structure and demanding on behalf of colleagues on behalf of people still to come, a greater share of those ill-gotten gains for racialised minorities. [00:40:00] And it’s hard work because also in that zooming out and thinking about how racial capitalism works, the exploitation of people of colour is necessary, is pivotal to the maintenance of the status quo. To the maintenance of our current economic systems and social structures of which development is also a maintenance of, or at least it has been, certainly since the nineties, so, if not the eighties, since this era of neoliberalism took hold.

So thinking about representation within a context of who is being represented, what interests are being represented, what ideas are being advanced within structures that are grossly unjust, becomes a really, really difficult and fraught exercise. And so there are moments where I find [00:41:00] myself thinking, stopping myself thinking too far into the future. Stopping myself from thinking too far about the ideal that can be built and coming back to what is possible and what is in my control to influence in the here and the now. Setting up the building blocks for what is to come. So, you know, there’s that old phrase, how do you eat an elephant one, one bite at a time, or something like that, so it’s coming back continuously to that kind of an image that the here and the now of practice might not be where I want it to go, but that is what I can influence and I have to let go of the rest.

I [00:42:00] don’t know if that makes sense, I don’t know if I’ve articulated that particularly well, um, but this is…

Kate: No, you have, you have. 

Kamna: I think this is what it means to be reflexive. To understand the borders of my influence and power, the cost. And it’s a very real cost of pushing a vision, of pushing an idea ,of disrupting , and acting still with credibility and respect for the bigger picture. I can’t dismantle development as much as I may or may not want to, but what steps can I take in service to a bigger vision of what is possible? And it’s the concepts and the theories that [00:43:00] informs that bigger vision of what is possible.

And for me, that goes back to great works of anti-colonialist movements of Pan-Africanism, of these global solidarities that occurred at, sort of, in the 1950s at least, obviously clearly before then as well. But predominantly in the 1950s when you’ve got conferences of Third World movements and non-alignment movements that are trying to forge a new way, a different path, that are anti-racist, that are anti-patriarchy. And trying to have the bites of the elephant in a way that is consistent with the lessons that have been learned from that era.[00:44:00] 

Kate: I am, I love the fact that you are, you’ve got this tension between a vision, a goal, somewhere that you absolutely can see tantalisingly just beyond the horizon. But you’re also aware that to get there, you have to work on the things that you can practically change and achieve in the day-to-day, right here, right now.

And that, that is quite powerful because if we focus solely on this end goal, we can feel completely disabled and look at the current situation and go, “well, it’s a bit hopeless and I’m not quite sure where to start”. And what Charmaine and I are wanting to achieve with this podcast, or one of the things we’re wanting to achieve, is actually to galvanise action and to encourage people that they can do something in their lives [00:45:00] today and tomorrow.

To contribute positively to progressive change. And I wonder what you would say to our listeners and viewers of one practical thing, if they were to do one thing, one practical thing, what would that one practical thing be to contribute to positive change?

Kamna: So I was thinking about this because you did share that point with me in advance. What one thing can people do to positively change and, in-action reflection if you like. Here’s an example of it. My response just now, it’s not that I think we should move slowly and only take one bite of the elephant. If we have an army, let’s eat the whole elephant and make change.

But with the constraints that I am within and the costs that I [00:46:00] am prepared to pay and to bear for doing this work, that is where I’ve landed. So there is something about galvanising movements and an army of people to make the change that has to happen and not turning to a figurehead or a single, single other person.

So in light of that, when I was thinking about one thing, I was reminded quite recently when, I think it might have been in one of the Tory party hustings, if I can take it to that place for a moment where one of, I think all the candidates were asked what they’re going to do to help the environment.

And I think they were still stuck on recycling , like, oh, we’re gonna recycle, and there was laughter, rightly so, I think in a lot of spaces, for that being such a woefully inadequate response to a climate emergency. You’re gonna recycle [00:47:00] while the world burns? You’re gonna recycle while we are knee deep and throat deep in flood water?

So what are we gonna do? What’s that one thing we do to support a decolonisation agenda? It can’t be one thing. It cannot be one thing. And there was some obvious things that I could say that I could list. Ooh, make time to read. Read more. Read Frantz Fanon. Read Walter Rodney. Read Priyamvada Gopa’s book, Insurgent Empires. Learn about British history. Learn about colonialism. But it’s so insufficient. We’re talking of undoing 500 years of systemic oppression and violence committed against the majority of the world. In the face of that, reading a [00:48:00] book, it just seems such a woefully inadequate response if we’re reading a book and talking to our friends and families and persuading them and changing the discourse.

Maybe, maybe that’s the fruitful ground. Maybe that’s the bit of advice, and what we are trying to do in that instance, in that one thing, is to change the discourse. Progress the discourse, so that nobody faints or throws their toys out the pram when we talk about reparations, including financial reparations.

That’s the one thing, but I don’t think that’s one thing. I think that’s like a million things, but that’s where we want to get to. We want everyone to progress the discourse so it becomes normalised. And when someone says the equivalence of recycling in the face of the decolonisation agenda, we can also say, “no, [00:49:00] that’s not enough, it’s woefully inadequate.”

Kate: So almost you are challenging people to help shift the medium point, the medium point being, you know, what the average person in the street thinks about anti-racism, decolonisation. You’re saying, “everyone needs to read, inform themselves, talk to their friends and families to shift that debate, to shift the idea of what’s acceptable to a completely different place.

So you’re actually almost asking everyone to become an activist. Go out there and become an activist, inform yourselves, and then be an activist. 

Kamna: Yes. If that’s what it means to be an activist. 

Kate: Pretty much. Yeah, pretty much. Well, I think that’s great. I think that’s a really strong point on which, on which to finish.

So, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ve loved what you’ve said. It’s been really thoughtful and really challenging. And I hope [00:50:00] that we can continue the conversation both outside the podcast and maybe invite you back again to get a next, another bite, and hear more about the work that you’ve been doing on, anti-racism in the development sector, the development industry, and perhaps how we shift and change that industry, one brick at a time.

So goodbye from me, and… 

Charmaine: And goodbye from me, Charmaine. 

Kamna: And thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure. 

Kate: Thank you very much. 

Charmaine: Yeah, thank you so much.

This weeks guest:

Dr. Kamna Patel, Associate Professor of Development Studies at University College London

Kamna Patel is an Associate Professor of Development Studies at University College London with a research focus on race and racialisation and the development sector, critical reflexivity and praxis, and land and housing tenure in southern cities. For the past 18 months, she has been Principal Advisor on Race and Diversity at the INGO Christian Aid shaping an anti-racist agenda and leading the efforts of the organisation to become anti-racist. With a scholar identity as a reflexive practitioner, Kamna is committed to cycles of theorisation, research and practice in her work having directly engaged with different parts of the sector including universities, INGOs/NGOs and development consultancy over nearly 20 years. 

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