Decolonising Gender and Development: a personal reflection

Published on 21 November 2017

IDS Student Ya Gan reflects on the Sussex Development Lecture by Andrea Cornwall on ‘Decolonising Gender and Development’.

Video: Decolonising Gender and Development – full lecture

Having written my undergraduate dissertation on the evolution of feminist ideas in Development, I didn’t expect to learn a lot of new things from the Sussex Development Lecture by Andrea – but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It turns out that issues around colonialism have slipped under my radar in my studies of gender and development, which seemed puzzling at first, but actually became part of the story in the end. I find this story really fascinating, and would like to share it with everyone.

The colonial lens

Once we go beyond the ahistorical understanding of Development as this “post-WWII project”, said Professor Cornwall, and see it through the lens of all the structural and epistemological forms of colonialism, we can see how the ways in which development agencies have interfered in people’s everyday lives in directly or indirectly the same way the British Empire did. One very obvious example is the continuous framing of women as “object(s) of rescue” and “vulnerable, virtuous victims” with no agency. Thinking about the numerous faces of women we have seen on the covers of annual reports of NGOs and International Organisations that depict nothing but their hopelessness, it is not hard to understand this point.

Moreover, in many cultures across the globe, such as the Native American Indians and the Hindu religion, there are more than two genders. There have been a whole range of expressions that described plural forms of gender. Why have they disappeared or – at least – been marginalised? Andrea argued that, the gender binary, heteronormativity, even the very idea of nuclear households, are colonial imports, intruding on local cultural norms with colonial Christian ideas about sex. Projects with such assumptions can still be found easily in Development today, such as the ones concerned only about domestic education, and the common use of households as units of analysis (and hence ignorance of intra-household differences). This is true not just for agents in the global North, but also the donors and scholarship in the global South, as part of the inter-relationship.

The 3E approach

So, what is needed to decolonise gender and development? According to Andrea, it is “a renewed focus on the processes of unlearning and critical consciousness building that makes the injuries of the colonial patriarchal and heteronormativity visible, and recognition of those who are marginalised because of it”. More specifically, she proposed a “3E” approach we can use to rethink gender and development: Empowerment, Emplacement, and Encroachment.

Empowerment might have become a meaningless buzzword, but it can still be useful for thinking about how those subordinated and marginalised along the lines of gender can redefine their lives instead of being disciplined by development agencies’ narratives and interventions.

Emplacement can be useful in directing our attention to the lived experiences of people in their context (rather than seeing people as statistics) and taking a historical view on these contexts, understanding how colonialism has influenced people’s ways of thinking and knowing.

Finally, the idea of Encroachment sheds lights on how development agencies and discourses have continued the colonial practices and encroached people’s integrity by imposing patriarchal and heteronormative assumptions.

All these three concepts taken together allow us to specify the power relations in decolonisation of gender and development, and provide a roadmap for alliance building as well as political mobilisation.


So how exactly can we, people who identify as development thinkers and practitioners, contribute to this process of decolonisation? The answer is reflexivity. Andrea did not use this word explicitly, but that’s how I understood it. She said “It’s not enough talking about ‘others’ and ‘their empowerment’ without realizing our own roles in the encroachment on their lives”. We need to not only be reflexive towards our own knowledge and assumption, but also towards the institutions we are in or interact with – what kind of knowledge do we value more? When we use the words “fluffy”, “hard data” and “rigour”, what are we assuming about gender, power and humanity? Are we seeing people as people or numbers that can be counted? For changes to happen, resources need to be re-allocated, movements need to be built, and ideas need to be challenged.

After Andrea’s lecture, I was not just surprised by my own ignorance, but also how the huge impact of colonial history on gender and development was never pointed out to me clearly and repeatedly as other ideas in development were. Now thinking about it, perhaps this is not such a big surprise given the nature of the subjects I was studying for my undergraduate degree (Politics and Economics) as well as the education I’ve had growing up in China up until high school. It did cover colonialism, but did not prompt us to think about the ways in which it has shaped our contemporary world. Moreover, the way in which development studies is taught and learned currently– with major educational institutions, intellectuals and the production of knowledge predominantly in the global North rather than the places where they are actually influencing people’s lives. It is perhaps even easier to understand how I had not before come across what was covered in this lecture. This is precisely the reason why this lecture series on ‘Decolonising Development’ is so important.

Continuing the conversation

Last but by no means least, many fantastically relevant and fascinating questions were raised in the discussion that followed, including whether the concept of “feminism” also carries with itself a colonial baggage, how academia should be decolonised, how we can go beyond the identities of gender and focus directly on power in social issues to form political movements, how China’s involvement in international development can be understood through the lens of colonialism, and many more. It was a fantastic lecture and a lively discussion, which I know will, and should, continue.


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