(Un)learning EU development policy through post-colonial lenses

By Jan Orbie

When reading the fresh manuscript of the special issue of Global Affairs on ‘Development and International Partnerships in the EU’s external relations’, with the request to write the conclusions, I was confronted with mixed feelings. The contributions written and edited by distinguished colleagues obviously show how much the field of EU development studies has advanced conceptually and empirically.

However, it quickly became clear that many articles display what I have come to despise in much of my own previous writings: blindness for post-colonial perspectives. A quick glance at reference lists suggests limited engagement with key authors who have worked on the colonial state of Europe and with tenors in post-colonial studies.

Closer reading partly confirms how some of the problematic biases of EU foreign aid literature continue to be reproduced. Summarizing, I detect seven shortcomings:

  1. First, the primary interest in EU actorness: Sophisticated analyses of how the EU manifests itself as a development actor – in terms of competences, policy coherence, coordination, Europeanization, and most recently the ‘Team Europe’ approach – overshadow wider questions on substance and impact. Implicitly, it appears that the EU should remain or become a more powerful agent in development. This obsession with actorness echoes the EU’s motto that it is ‘collectively the biggest donor’ of aid in the world.
  2. Second, and more substantively, debates are still dominated by a misleading ‘values versus interests’ framing: EU development policy is mainly viewed as oscillating between ‘good’ (i.e. development-friendly) and ‘bad’ (i.e. interest-based) motives. Scholars are mainly concerned if and how EU development instruments, not least its vast budgets, are hijacked by foreign and security, migration, commercial and energy agendas that are considered to be less normative than pure development goals. By focusing on the false dichotomy between EU values versus interests, it is easily overlooked how these are interwoven into the very same colonial structure.
  3. Third, this coincides with an idealization of previously pure development policy: For instance, a common narrative reads that the EU was once development-friendly – in the 2000s when it showed leadership on the international aid effectiveness agenda, or in the 1970s when the first Lomé Convention appeared as the best model of a New International Economic Order. Today, so the narrative goes, this normative approach has become instrumentalized by uglier agendas. However, as post-development scholars have underlined, the mainstream development agenda tends to continuously recycle old wine into new bottles without fundamentally challenging its colonial roots.
  4. Fourth, indeed, colonial continuities are often minimized. To be sure, the colonial roots of EU foreign aid are usually recognized. However, these are then located within the distant past of member state colonization, while the deep-rooted coloniality of EU development policy and its far-reaching implications until today tend to be underestimated. There is much more attention for so-called changes and evolutions in development parlance than for continuities in underlying colonial paradigms. Implicitly, these tendencies endorse the ‘historical amnesia’ amongst policymakers and observers on the colonial drivers behind European integration and the ‘Virgin Birth myth’ that the EU was conceived in the 1950s as a neutral actor and free from member states’ colonization.
  5. Fifth, the silence on real impact. The ‘dependent’ variables of many studies stays firmly within the boundaries and institutions of the EU itself. What development policy entails for supposed beneficiaries often falls outside the scope of research. There is surprisingly little detailed analysis of actual impacts on the lives of people and groups in the Global South. Understandably, such effects are difficult to determine and one cannot criticize the EU studies discipline for analyzing Europe. Nonetheless, a too exclusive focus on European institutions risks reproducing the fallacies of development policy evaluations that are mainly concerned with procedural effectiveness.
  6. Sixth, when impact is actually considered, this is typically conceived from a traditional ‘developmentalist’ frame. The uncontested assumption remains that the ‘development’ of ‘developing’ countries should be advanced through ‘our’ aid. While this pitfall has partly been recognized by using the concept of ‘international partnerships’ instead of development cooperation – and in line with EU discourse since the Von der Leyen Commission – there is a real risk that ‘partnership’ is simply synonymous with development aid (or cooperation). Also, it is not always recognized that the equal partnership discourse already goes back to the 1970s. Again, this illustrates how new fashions in development terminology and the appearance of newness can obfuscate colonial continuities.
  7. Seventh, the exclusion of voices from the global South. This already appears from limited interest in real impact, as stated above. Furthermore, reference lists contain few sources from scholars located within the so-called partner countries. There is also a tendency to suffusing a vernacular flavour to research findings by referring to ‘the field’ or ‘the ground’ while in fact most of the interviewees are European diplomats and practitioners. Meanwhile, interest in African agency in EU-Africa relations and what the ‘good life’ means for people and communities outside the EU remains rather sparse. Finally, if ‘global South’ is taken seriously, also ‘internal subaltern’ within Europe should be studied.

To be fair, problematizing such tendencies and provincializing EU studies is much easier than engaging with marginalized voices and reconstructing knowledge in ways that are less Eurocentric – to use the threefold decentring framework of Fisher-Onar and Nicolaïdis. In my conclusions I briefly suggest some ways in which reconstructing might go, such as the possibility of ethical retreat, the idea of postcolonial cosmopolitanism, the scenario of the EU as an anti-system mediator, and the utopian view of the PlEUriverse which reconsiders the good life also within Europe.

Importantly, the Global Affairs special issue does contain some indications towards a post-colonial research agenda. In their introduction, the editors Sebastian Steingass, Maurizio Carbone and Pascaline Winand stress that EU development policy ‘is based on colonial and post-colonial continuity, which explains the long-standing foreign policy relationship with Africa’. Based on original historical evidence, Dimier debunks the caricature of a development-friendly EEC during the 1970s by examining a theatrical play where former European Commission officials amplify their colonial attitude towards Africa. Saltnes and Steingass show how the EU fails to achieve the ‘minimum conditions’ of partnership in recent relations with the ACP. Haastrup et al argue that such a partnership of equals ‘remains elusive’. They castigate the EU’s historical amnesia, emphasize the importance of African agency, and illustrate the ‘coloniality of power’ in Africa-EU relations. By using the concept of ‘ontological (in)security’, their analysis transcends the values-versus-interests divide. Langan and Price research the concrete experiences of people who are active in the poultry sector in Ghana and how they perceive the consequences of ‘premature trade liberalization’ under Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) for migration flows. Ayuso and Gratius question the ‘linear’ view on development and Winand mentions the problematic notion of ‘graduation’ as if developing countries could become more mature and climb on the ladder of civilization. Many contributions point to critical evolutions in EU development policies, such as Hadfield and Lightfoot’s critique of private sector involvement in EU aid through leveraging and blending activities between the EU and private financing.

However, here is much more scope for more fruitful and less Eurocentric analysis that truly embraces post-colonial insights. Post-colonialism cannot merely be the ‘latest fad’ in academic scholarship and ‘just another view’ that one may or may not decide to ‘do’ when researching EU foreign aid policy. Because when the deeply rooted colonial and Eurocentric nature of development policy is ignored, this has the (unintended) impact of solidifying and reinforcing the colonial paradigm.

Crucially, this implies that there also much to ‘unlearn’ for people like me who are trained within mainstream EU foreign policy studies. Only then will EU development studies be able to ‘graduate’ and be reconstructed into something more transformative.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the EADI Debating Development Blog or the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes.

Jan Orbie is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science at Ghent University in Belgium, where he is a member of the Ghent Institute for International and European Studies (GIES), the Ghent Centre for Global Studies (GCGS), the Human Rights Research Network (HRRN) and the Faculty Learning Network on Decolonization. He teaches EU politics and his research mostly concerns the external relations of the European Union from normative perspectives.

Image: PegHunter under a Creative Commons Licence on Flickr




2 Replies to “(Un)learning EU development policy through post-colonial lenses”

  1. The European Union as a Development Actor Working Group is keen to explore how it can play a role in the ‘unlearning’ Jan calls for. We are very keen to hear ideas from the EADI Community.

    1. Thank you Simon, that is great! Happy to think about this and looking forward to other ideas from the EADI Community.

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