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Opinion

Decolonising knowledge for development: making the road by walking

Published on 31 March 2022

Image of Peter Taylor
Peter Taylor

Director of Research

Image of Crystal Tremblay
Crystal Tremblay

University of Victoria

Almost one year ago, we wrote a blog for the IDS website sharing our personal views on the many ways in which countries are witnessing greater social divides driven by race, gender, class and financial inequities.  

Since then we have continued to engage in conversations around this issue and have participated in international dialogues that include the Covid Collective, an international network of practitioners working in development contexts; engagement and dialogue with Community-Based Research Canada; and through our work with the Victoria Forum, where we co-chair the “social divides” dialogue. As we have listened to a wide array of stories and reflections on the experience of decolonisation, we have tried to identify some of the key themes, tensions, and insights on the decolonisation of knowledge for development in the context of the Covid-19 era.  

Widening economic, racial and gender inequalities 

On 17 January 2022, two reports were released that further provide evidence of the gravity of the widening economic, racial and gender inequalities – within and between countries.  The first, published by the International Labour Organization, examines the impacts of the pandemic on employment trends, revealing an estimated 50 million jobs lost during this time, and pointing towards unequal labour market recovery.  At the same time a report by Oxfam showed that the wealth of the world’s ten richest men has doubled since the pandemic began.  This is no coincidence.  This ‘economic violence’ is perpetuated through structural policy and global capitalism that advantages the richest and most powerful people, mostly white men, and causes direct harm to the poorest, impacting women and girls and racialised groups most. 

We have also been struck though by how contentious these conversations can be. The term “decolonisation” is itself highly contested. For some individuals involved in global development efforts, decolonisation seems of less priority, or even a “non-issue” when the stakes are so high as people and the planet are faced with enormous challenges related to health, climate change and conflict. For others, decolonisation is at the centre of all debates about development and alternative futures, naming and tackling fundamental inequities and inequalities in societies, stressing the critical importance of bringing multiple perspectives and voices to bear on interpreting the nature of these challenges, and identifying potential ways to address them collectively in ways that tackle their root causes.  

We fall into the second camp, since we believe that many of the structural cracks and fissures in societies experienced today were formed, shaped and continue to be propagated, by colonial practices and mindsets. We were struck by the powerful words of Renzo Guinto (2019) and referenced these in our blog of last year: “Territorial colonialism may be long over, but the colonization of the mind, of culture, of domestic politics and of the economy continues and reparations are yet to be realized”. 

An urgent need to decolonise knowledge production

A wide range of interactions and engagements have continued to inspire and challenge our understanding, each bringing a perspective into the ways in which colonisation continues to oppress and undermine the full expression of humanity and associated freedoms. As we continue on this shared journey, we accept that to a large extent we are “making the road while walking”, a phrase used so memorably by the great, popular educators Myles Horton and Paolo Freire in the title of their 1990 book. We aim to situate ourselves with intentions of respect, humility, and gratitude in the ways we engage with and value the learnings that have been shared with us and potential ways we might benefit from this. In practice, this looks like deconstructing the dominant narratives and personal privileges embodied in our race, class, gender, etc. that shape the ways in which we understand the world and our subsequent values, behaviours, and attitudes. 

As part of our ongoing efforts to engage with this challenging issue, we have brought together some of the ideas we have encountered in an IDS Working Paper “Decolonising Knowledge for Development in the Covid Era”, published as part of the Covid Collective’s contribution to social science responses to the pandemic. As we prepared this, we acknowledged the knowledges, shared learning and significant contributions that shaped our thinking on these topics. We are also mindful that as authors, we ourselves are engaged in this endeavour. This is challenging because we are products of, and housed within, the hierarchies that have marginalised so many, and yet which we have successfully navigated in part because of our own privilege and subsequent opportunities for education and other social advantages. Locating ourselves here, although briefly, is an important component of Indigenous methodologies and our own decolonial efforts; it allows for the refusal of ‘objective’ Eurocentric ideologies which has a legacy of misrepresentation and exploitation.  

In the Working Paper, we seek to explore current, and emerging, framings of decolonising knowledge for development, with the intent of helping to understand better the importance of diverse voices, knowledges, and perspectives in an emerging agenda for development research. We offer conceptual ideas and practical lessons on how to engage with more diverse voices and perspectives in understanding and addressing the impacts of Covid-19. We pay particular attention to the centrality of Indigenous knowledge systems in decolonising knowledge for development, exploring potential ideas and approaches for shifting research mindsets and practices.  

What do ‘we’ need to do to decolonise knowledge for development?

We describe implications in the Working Paper for how we believe researchers can help decolonise knowledge for development. For example, we suggest approaches that can help researchers be intentional about valuing and including different knowledges and experience. We identify opportunities for researchers learning with others through research undertaken in ways that help to decolonise knowledge asymmetries. We also highlight the need for investing more resources to transform existing colonialities.  

Finally, we offer our personal reflections on what ‘we’ need to do if individuals and organisations are serious about taking on the challenge of decolonising knowledge for development, including: 

  • Ensuring solutions are shaped/created by those who experience the challenges being addressed if they are to succeed and be sustained. 
  • Establishing reflective spaces for inclusive processes, in which participants are aware of and interrogate their privilege and how they can use it to make change that disrupts inequalities. 
  • Checking and challenging policies and practices that discriminate. 
  • Finding connections and ways in which we belong with each other, as communities, on this shared journey. 
  • Appreciating that the benefits of decolonising knowledge are not obvious to everyone. Nor are they desired by those who believe they may “lose” status or privilege. Through sharing evidence and experience, demonstrate the value of decolonised knowledge for liberation and a more positive future for all. 
  • Building trust. Researchers who claim to work in participatory and inclusive ways need to be conscious of who is setting and controlling the research agenda, what kinds of power dynamics are at play, and be committed to ensuring that the expectations of participants, and the incredible gifts they make of time, energy, belief, and sometimes personal risk, are not taken lightly or squandered needlessly. 

We look forward to continuing this journey of learning and exploration with colleagues and collaborators and as we move further along the road, we welcome the opportunity to engage in further dialogue with others who share these interests and concerns. 

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