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Decolonising International Development

Asna Wajid

“Narratives are always immersed in history and are never innocent. Whether we can unmake development and perhaps even bid well to the Third World will equally depend on the social invention of new narratives, new ways of thinking and doing.” Arturo Escobar, 2011, p. 20

It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the colonial legacy attached to international development programmes, especially with the rise in foreign aid initiatives and conditional cash transfers. Many of these development interventions, upon closer evaluation, are shown to instil a degree of dependency which is in large part reminiscent of the policies implemented during the colonial era. The economies of colonised countries being orientated towards the outside, involving the outsourcing of resources, money and services (Ferraro, 2008), signals the beginning of dependency patterns which Western economies continue to thrive off of. This has undoubtedly set a precedent for a world economy where so-called ‘developing’ countries are conditioned by the development and expansion of ‘developed’ economies, to which their own is subjected (Dos Santos, 1971). It is at the point that these dependency patterns translate into policies under the guise of international development that accounts for the calls to decolonise the current system of development practices rooted in Western hegemony.

The World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and World Trade Organisation (WTO) as major players in the development scene have earned the reputation as the "unholy trinity" which indicates that perhaps it is time to question whose interests they are basing such policies on (Agnew, 2010). The Washington Consensus and Structural Adjustment Programmes as modern procedures of colonisation is reflected in how they have “proven (to be) singularly disastrous for the poor countries but provide huge interest payments to the rich” (Jahn, 2005, p. 177). The paternalism that accompanied colonial practices is mirrored in the paternalistic approaches to development that international organisations like the World Bank and IMF endorse (Ferraro, 2008). This makes it even more necessary to no longer view such organisations with the authority that they assume to otherwise reproduce patterns of exploitation in the ‘developing’ world.

Development in Reverse?

The recent report by the Global Financial Integrity (GFI) discovered that "the flow of money from rich countries pales in comparison to the flow that runs in the other direction". This may come as a surprise to those who have otherwise fallen for the aid narrative that the ‘developed’ world positively contributes to the left-behind, ‘underdeveloped’ Third World. However, as Jason Hickel rightly argues, "aid is effectively flowing in reverse" whereby poor countries are developing rich ones. Once again, it becomes clear that the same beneficiaries are in a position of profiting off of the exploitation of those who remain in a state of wounded subjugation. This reinforces the notion that there is a persistence of colonial logic looming over international development schemes.

The nuances of foreign aid are therefore a good place to start when it comes to questioning the extent to which international development remains neo-colonial in character. British aid to Botswana in 1960 to develop the diamond mining sector under the condition that the UK was paid back to develop their own jewellery sector (Price, 1984) supports the critical reflection that aid is used to solidify Western interests in ‘underdeveloped’ states, or, in other words, ‘developed’ countries “peddle in a cynical colonialism and call it aid”(Williams, 2017).

Abandoning Labels

To put terms like ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ in apostrophes is to, on some level, question what these truly mean and indicate. By highlighting the neo-colonial logic to international development practice, it becomes apparent that these terms do not solely function to distinguish between wealthier and poorer regions of the world. Instead, they serve an organisational purpose underpinned by asserting power dynamics whereby the former exercises superiority over the latter. The neo-colonial logic attached to mainstream development therefore questions the validity of separating the First and Third World as it is becoming apparent that they do not simply exist but are continuously made and mutually constituted (Escobar, 2011). This, by extension, leads to possibility of abandoning such labels that reinforce the existence of these “parallel worlds” (Lewis, 2014) which are otherwise very interconnected.

Development policies becoming mechanisms of control that are “just as pervasive and effective as their colonial counterparts” (Escobar, 2011) therefore forces one to make note the neo-colonial legacies that persist in the form of such policies. This invites the prospect of alternatives to development as a response to decolonising development discourse, one that is mindful of the historical trajectory of different countries and the overarching remnants of the colonial past.


Dos Santos, T., 1971. The Structure of Dependence. In: D. Hodges & K. Fann, eds. Readings in U.S. Imperialism.:Porter Sargent, pp. 225-236.

Ferraro, V., 2008. Dependency Theory: An Introduction. In: G. Secondi, ed. The Development Economics Reader.:Routledge, pp. 58-64.

Itimi, S., 2018. Is Foreign Aid a facilitator of Neo-Colonialism in Africa?. Journal of African Cultural Studies.

Jahn, B., 2005. Kant, Mill, and Illiberal Legacies in International Affairs. International Organization, 59(1), pp. 177-207.

Lewis, D., 2014. Heading South: Time to Abandon the ‘Parallel Worlds’ of International Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) and Domestic Third Sector Scholarship?. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, Volume 25, pp. 1132-1150.

Price, R., 1984. Neo-Colonialism and Ghana’s Economic Decline: A Critical Assessment. Canadian Journal of African Studies, 18(1), pp. 163-193


Asna Wajid is a Final Year Student at the University of Warwick, studying Politics and International Studies.

She is also the current Vice President of Warwick International Relations Society and an Undergraduate Research Assistant in the PAIS Department

Follow her @wajidasna