Reflections on Decolonising Knowledge for Development: An invitation to a conversation

By Peter Taylor

A moment to reflect

Anniversaries are times to celebrate, and also opportunities to reflect on the past, the present, and the future. As we enter 2024 and see EADI’s 50th anniversary coming into view, we are taking a moment for reflection amidst what is increasingly viewed as a time of crisis in development and in Development Studies itself, particularly in regard to coloniality and how it manifests today in multiple ways. These are not new reflections, and they have featured in many other conversations and blogs, including within EADI.

In fact, EADI occupies a special position as it brings together a diverse array of organisations, people, histories and perspectives. Its members bring a wealth of different influences and experiences of coloniality, located within the context of Europe which, itself, continues to evolve and change. EADI represents an incredibly valuable resource of knowledge and experience to help inform and shape collective thinking around processes and approaches that can support decolonisation without reproducing it in yet new ways.

Decolonising knowledge and questions for reflection

In Development Studies, alongside many other debates on development and coloniality, interest has grown around intellectual ‘decolonisation’ or decolonising knowledge. This seeks to shift teaching and research in ways that ensure different knowledges and experiences from around the world are acknowledged and integrated, whilst also paying attention to addressing racial and social hierarchies. Within these debates, inequalities and asymmetries loom large, including knowledge asymmetries. It is now widely accepted that there is no such thing as a single homogenous voice which can represent ‘the local perspective’ or ‘the global South’. Individuals, groups, social classes, etc. in the global South have their own, often conflicting, aims and agendas which can contribute to new forms of decolonisation or hierarchy. Further asymmetries are seen in the global North, including within the context of “Europe”.

With its normative agenda, Development Studies is interested in the generation and use of knowledge not simply for its own sake but as a means of offering concrete approaches that can contribute to wider political change towards a more equitable and sustainable world. Drawing on the notion of a “Pluriverse”, the co-existence of different development debates is important to acknowledge and welcome, since each can inform the other to identify potential areas for practical action on decolonising knowledge. Indeed these debates and discourses can offer ideas and insights to EADI members, who in turn will generate further valuable learning based on their own inquiries, analyses, practices and experience, providing lessons that can be shared more widely.

A group of EADI members has been reflecting on these issues, and together have written a “reflection piece” which seeks to help EADI consider the implications of decolonising knowledge for development. The aim is to open a conversation and promote exchange of knowledges and experiences from across the EADI membership, and potentially beyond. The reflection piece draws on four guiding questions that were first suggested by Peter Taylor and Crystal Tremblay in an earlier EADI blog:

  1. What, and whose, knowledge is valued, counted, and integrated into development processes?
  2. How do we go about decolonising knowledge asymmetries – learning through research and teaching, and as researchers and educators?
  3. What kinds of investment are needed to promote learning and change?
  4. What is ‘our’ role in needed transformations, as individuals, as organisations, as institutions?

An invitation to engage and co-create

Our reflection paper raises many questions and issues, but also offers examples of work and engagement that EADI is already undertaking. We hope you will enjoy reading it and find it interesting. But it is important to question also whether past and recent efforts and actions are sufficient, and if are they joined up enough. As already noted, this is a moment of opportunity for EADI and its members to promote such conversations in ways that build trust, question one’s own biases and assumptions, and inquire reflectively into the established processes, policies, practices and forms of leadership. There is of course no “magic bullet” in the quest towards decolonisation, and indeed decolonising knowledge is an on-going, boundless, and likely perpetual process. As we ask in our paper, what does EADI still need to do if serious about taking on the challenge of decolonising knowledge for development? Does EADI have an advocacy and mobilisation role in this regard, without feeding into yet another agenda being pushed by the global North which forces global South partners to jump through yet more hoops and adjust their actions and language once again? If we do take actions, and make progress along the lines laid out in our paper, what will our world look like as a result?

These are big challenges, and many ideas to explore. The approach and intent here is to be invitational. Progress is being made with thanks due to all those within and outside EADI who are stimulating and calling for the journey to continue. EADI has the opportunity to do more, particularly with its 50th anniversary presenting the chance to create spaces where reflection and debate can occur. EADI aims to offer a supportive community and to establish a safe space to have these discussions which admittedly are often quite challenging and uncomfortable.

We are also exploring several other strands of activity.

  • forming an EADI task group to help convene these conversations within the association and also involving other partners as appropriate – including from the global South. This may include some webinars around key aspects of the conversation, and perhaps also an event as part of EADI’s 50th anniversary activities.
  • inviting EADI members and other collaborators (including from the global South) to submit short “stories” of actions they have been involved in that have intentionally sought to address power imbalances in knowledge processes (why, what they did, what happened, what was learned, and how does this link to our emerging framings around decolonising knowledge?)
  • Producing blogs and considering publishing an edited compendium of stories in 2025.

We therefore welcome your own insights and ideas in response to our own reflections. What do you feel about the ideas and potential actions we have shared here and in our reflection piece? What suggestions, evidence, insights, and concrete proposals would you like to bring to this conversation? We invite you to participate in this exploratory dialogue, soon with more information about how you can share ideas, stories and lessons learned about this important topic, and to help shape EADI’s thinking and practice as a community. We will be sharing more updates in due course, and in the meantime we look forward to hearing your views!

Peter Taylor is  Director of Research at the Institute of Development Studies, Brighton, UK

Image: Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

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.

One Reply to “Reflections on Decolonising Knowledge for Development: An invitation to a conversation”

  1. Idea: interested in unpacking terminology, especially dichotomies that echo the colonial distinction between traditional/modern, primitive/civilised, community/society, etc. ; particularly in the way development defines progress, success and failure.

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