Privilege, Power, Colonialism, and International Development – Part 1

Numa identifies as Bangladeshi-Austrian for the sake of convenience, and works in the field of International Development for which she sometimes gets paid a living wage. She has the ambition of engaging and encouraging wider dialogue on development from a dusty perspective and hopes that she can contribute to making the world less fail in one way or another. She is trying to blog regularly on but mostly has a very short attention span.

I grew up in a multicultural bubble where the idea of discrimination because of race, gender, class, ability, and sexuality was never discussed openly. It wasn’t until 2006-7, at university, where I started reading about privilege and oppression, that I discovered the tools to process my own experiences as a WOC. I realized that it wasn’t so much that my environment growing up had been free of racism or sexism, but that I had just  never been primed to recognize any -isms as such.

My immigrant parents were not equipped to help me deal with my experiences as an ethnic minority. They had grown up in a country where they were not the Other, and so subtle racism, or institutional racism didn’t really register with them. The only type of racism that they had learned to recognize, was the blatant “Get the fuck out of my country, you dirty brown foreigner” type of racism.

So I what I internalized was that discrimination was always blatant and happened out of ignorance, out of a lack of education. “Ignorance” was also code for “poor”, and for the longest time I genuinely believed this incredibly classist explanation. I really thought the only people who could be racist were uneducated, and thus, poor.

I realize now that this was a badly thought out, almost instinctive, coping mechanism where my class privilege was used as a form of protection against the forms of oppression I faced, namely racism. It was a bit like “Ha, I may be brown, but at least I’m not poor!” sort of thing, where oppressions are pitted against each other.

This kind of attitude also helped insulate me against the racism of my peers and immediate environment. As long as racism was only perpetuated by a group I never had to deal with, then the things that felt like racism invoked by my peers, were a different kind of creature. I was able to maintain the illusion of safety and lead a relatively untroubled existence.

Unfortunately for me, this meant that I once realized the actual pervasiveness of racism and other kinds of -isms, I found myself surrounded by people who had never had to think about any of these issues either. If it hadn’t been for the internet, I would have never have found the resources to help me make sense of my experiences with oppression and privilege.

By the time I started my postgraduate studies at the end of 2008, I was already well-versed in issues of discrimination. However, I had not yet thought about how oppression and privilege manifests itself within international development. When I started my degree, I was still naïvely under the impression that since the very concept of international development was about ensuring global economic and social justice, development theory and practice would be critical of all kinds of oppression. Like some kind of -ism free utopia…

But I was quite mistaken. At first, I thought that this omission was because this degree was very praxis focused so there was very little space for an exploration of privilege and oppression. However, even for a praxis focused course, it lacked any form of self-reflexiveness whatsoever. In none of my courses, did we ever explicitly question our own privileges as development practitioners and how that influences the work we do.

The assumptions we made about ourselves and the people we worked with were left unchecked. There are many examples that I can think of, but the one that struck me the most is the following:

When we were in Uganda on our field trip, some of my fellow students treated the children they met there like exotic accessories, taking pictures of them, cooing over how cute they were, and frankly being really creepy.   And their behaviour wasn’t called out by our tutors as problematic.

Not only was their behaviour disturbing because of the blatant exotification of brown bodies, but also because of the treatment of these children as objects for my classmates’ consumption. I’m pretty sure that none of my fellow students would have dared to behave as freely with unknown children in Western countries. Imagine being a tourist wandering around in Paris and picking up random toddlers on the street to take pictures of them! You’d definitely get into trouble, especially if the roles were reversed and a POC took pictures of white children.

I have pointed this out to some of my white friends, and while many were also horrified at this kind of behaviour, others offered some explanations. One close friend said that perhaps it was a matter of culture, since in Africa, people were just less proprietary over their children. Also, many children like having their pictures taken, they ask to have their picture taken, so what’s the problem! At the time I was unsure of how to respond, because maybe my friend had a point, but now I know better.

While perhaps the culture argument has some validity in the sense that in many non-white cultures, raising children does not fall under the sole purview of the parents and thus parents may be more relaxed about “adult other than parent”-child interaction, that doesn’t actually matter much because in this context parents were never asked about their views and that is the crux of the matter.

In many instances, consent to take pictures of young children was not sought from parents. Even if it is culturally acceptable to behave this way with kids you don’t know, you should definitely ask to make sure that the parents of those children actually do think it’s OK. And even if consent is given, there are still power dynamics at play that make consent very problematic.

In this specific context, my tutors, classmates, and I were economically and socially privileged in contrast to many of the Ugandans we met. While we had very little actual power over these people (as in, we weren’t in positions of authority), our privilege did give us a certain amount of power. For example, we were more closely linked to figures of authority and could potentially have wielded those connections to get what we wanted. This meant that, even though the chance was remote, not obliging to our wishes did come with a potential risk.

So I can easily imagine that there may have been times when the adults we interacted with found it easier to consent to something they may not necessarily have wanted to do but figured that the risk of not doing it outweighed their hesitation. That said, I don’t know how the children and their parents really felt, and I don’t want to speculate about their feelings, because that is their story to tell.

I know it’s a relatively small thing, and ultimately the children that had their pictures taken probably don’t care about it (because, surprise, surprise; foreigners with cameras are not the centre of their universe), but to me it’s an example of why international development is really messed up.  The attitudes of my classmates regarding taking photos of Ugandan children are not unique to them, but rather, an example of a wider underlying attitude towards the Other (where the West is the Self) that has its roots in colonial history and the rhetoric used to subjugate the “Native”.

What I find particularly worrying, is that development practitioners and organisations often hide under the emblem of economic and social justice, to avoid self reflexiveness. It’s like, “Oh, but we’re helping people, how could we possibly have issues with racism, sexism or any other kind of -ism.” As if working towards social justice makes you impervious to issues of privilege.

That is not to say that there is no self-reflexiveness whatsoever. I’m not the first to voice these concerns, and over the past 2 years or so, I’ve read a lot of papers and books that do engage in these issues. I’ve found postcolonial discourse to be particularly useful in addressing how othering works in development and am currently trying to work these concepts into my own understanding of international development and my role in it.


This is a guest post by Numa. Write to me here if you’re interested in guest blogging here.

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  1. As I said below, this is very astute. I get so annoyed at this touristic view of others.

    • The thing that got me here was that this *wasn’t* tourism. Even with a clear dichotomy between students and “natives”, even with a background of being students of international development — they behaved so appallingly. It’s more than just “touristy” behaviour, it was entitlement and privilege manifesting in manifold ways.

  2. that was a wonderfully provocative and eye-opening piece. thanks!

  3. Very articulate and thought-provoking essay!

  4. Right. They are expressing privilege and are wont to say, “Thank goodness I’m me, not them.”

  1. Privilege, Power, Colonialism, and International Development – Part 2 | Oi With The Poodles Already

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