Center for Social Entrepreneurship

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Racism in International Development

by Meghan Colwell ’16

International Development is a topic of frequent discussion at a globally-minded place like Middlebury
College. Many faculty members have taken it on as a subject of critique; others teach development economics and practice, regardless of their views on the field. Some students interested in global power structures, humanitarianism, colonial history, service, or justice consider international development a possible line of work for after Middlebury; yet those same students may harbor qualms about working in a field laden with neocolonial overtones, one governed more often by political motivations and economism than by an uncompromising and honest concern for human life.

During Tuesday’s “Racism in International Development” panel, three guest speakers shared their perspectives as academics, practitioners, and entrepreneurs on how racism informs development theory and practice.

Professor Emma Crewe of University College London SOAS began by holding up an intersectional lens to racism in the development sphere. As an academic conducting ethnographic research on        INGO projects in East Asia and East       Africa, she observed the infantilizing, feminizing, and devaluing language that (largely white) European practitioners (mostly male) used to describe local cooking techniques and technologies that women employed in their homes. Crewe commented, for example, that words like, “traditional”–which the aid workers used to describe a chimney that women had in fact only recently innovated–relegate (black and brown) women, their work, and their lives to the status of primitive. They become the problems to be fixed, the practices to be improved upon. “Knowledge is power,” is University College London’s motto. Yet, knowledge, Crewe noted, does not always give you power. As a development consultant, too, Crewe witnessed racism play out in such interacitions as hiring decisions. British and American development organizations too often hire white Americans and Britons to do work that could otherwise be done by members of the communities where development projects are being implemented; these organizations justify such decisions with language that hardly masks real racial bias. Crew cited managers who have said that local people–local professionals–are disorganized, unmotivated, unable to handle the analytical rigor of the work–though of course it’s “nothing racial.” Hierarchies of gender, knowledge, nationality, and ultimately, race, shape development work and the decisions that critically affect people’s lives in developing countries.

Connor Shapiro ’03, founder and CEO of St. Boniface Haiti Foundation, offered his thoughts on why the development field so easily writes off the people it aims to help. He described the healthcare desert that exists on Haiti’s southern peninsula. St. Boniface is the only quality health care facility on the southern part of the island. While the organization provides healthcare to thousands of people and has even expanded its services over time, it faces funding and infrastructures limitations that donors (individuals, foundations, NGOs, government aid agencies) explain away by appealing to “cost effectiveness” or “project sustainability.” Port-au-Prince, as Shapiro pointed out, is less than two hours from Miami by plane. There is no credible reason why infrastructure and supplies should not make it to Haiti, nor would well-off Americans accept such limitations on our own health care. In our world, some lives simply do not matter as much as others, Shapiro asserted. In Haiti’s case, black lives do not matter to funders in the same way that their ideas and dollars do.

William Michael Cunningham, founder of Creative Investment Research, affirmed this analysis with a bang and took it even further: “Economics does not work for people of color.” With its system of values, economics doesn’t actually work for anyone. Cunningham, himself an economist by training, challenged the assumptions of classical economics and even questioned its effectiveness as a tool for understanding human life and behavior. Within a discipline as old–and as powerful–as economics is today, there needs to be more innovation. Cunningham presented his own analysis of GDP’s inefficacy as an indicator: while global GDP comparisons, for example, put the U.S. and Europe “on top” in terms of wealth, Africa and Antarctica house the majority of the world’s natural resource wealth. The countries in the Global South also have immense human resources and potential. Indeed, these countries produce a significant portion of the manufactured goods and parts that ultimately make it to “rich-world” consumer markets. This output, resource wealth, and even cultural capital is not considered or valued equally within the framework of contemporary economics. Cunningham is a proponent of crowdfunding as a means of circumventing barriers to just resource allocation such as racism. By democratizing and diversifying financial flows, he believes that people can challenge big banks, the IMF, USAID, and other hegemons of global resource governance.

These three talks sparked audience questions that shaped a rich conversation after the panel. In what other ways are brown bodies fetishized and devalued in international development? Can we use the tools of economics to produce just knowledge, or do we need entirely new tools? How can we encourage interdisciplinary development work, and would such an approach address some of the problems mentioned today? There was a sense that students and other community members would take these questions and thoughts with them into their work, scholarship, and personal lives.

International development work is necessary today because colonialism disrupted organic social structures, destabilized societies, altered psyches, and established extractive economies that persist today. These legacies perpetuate global power differentials and pauperize millions of people. While, optimistically, empathy and a shared sense of humanity drive both Middlebury students and others to work in international development, we must acknowledge, in classes and in conversation, that colonialism itself was a project based on racism. In a field that sometimes obscures difficult realities with technocratic language, donor-dependence, and good intentions, our guests revealed the ways in which racism still pervades efforts to address the very problems that racism created.

Racism in International Development, a panel on Tuesday, February 21st, was designed and co-sponsored by the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs; the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity; and the Center for Creativity, Innovation, and Social Entrepreneurship.

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