Development Work as Another Form of Imperial Intervention?

Jule Lenzen | November 20, 2017


The Western World seems to be notorious in the way it constantly tries to ‘help’ so-called ‘under-developed countries’. Often, I can’t help thinking that this way of behaving is simply an echo of colonial motifs and imperialist ideas, still at work in our world today.
Therefore I ask: Is it right to send so-called development work to these countries in question? Is it not a way of internalizing the idea of a superior West? But on the other hand, is the West, exactly through its colonial intervention in those very countries it now sends development aid to, not responsible for the state these countries are in? Should it therefore not be held accountable for its actions in the past?

My main concern in this is the idea of development work as just another form of imperialist intervention. Nnaemeka clarifies this notion in connection to the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) and the many development projects from the Western World, which have often brought more harm than help: “The resistance from Africans is not necessarily against the termination of the practice; rather, it is against the strategies and methods (particularly their imperialistic underpinnings) used to bring about this desirable goal.” (Nnaemeka 29) El Saadawi underlines this in saying: “Imperialism changes its methods and colours but it maintains its basic patriarchal, class, and capitalist philosophy.” (El Saadawi 23) Consequently, colonial patterns of thinking still persist in today’s worldview, and seemingly especially in the field of development work.

Some people might draw from this insight that sending development work is wrong, and therefore should be abandoned. However, simply ceasing to send development work to the countries in question would be the wrong conclusion to be drawn from this problematic situation. After all, it is agreed that every human being should have their basic human rights fulfilled. So what would be the right way to go about this, knowing what Nnaemeka and El Saadawi have highlighted above?

One answer to this is: Change from within a culture is essential. Imposed help often ends, as Nnaemeka puts it in her essay in connection to FGM, in misunderstandings. Often it is cultural outsiders who offer this so-called help – without making the effort of truly getting behind the problem at hand or properly understanding it: “The problem with this circumcision business is that many Westerners who plunge into it do so thoughtlessly. It is not sufficient to read about female circumcision, then quit your job, set up shop and raise tons of money “to save young girls from being mutilated.” […] At any rate, a noble, thoughtless cause is a dangerous oxymoron.” (Nnaemeka 38) Cultures have to change from within and be willing to make this change. If we want to help in the form of development work, the imperialist notion behind it should disappear: Nnaemeka formulates how this could work on an equal level quiet clearly: “To combat female circumcision, we must first diagnose the problem; and to do that effectively, we must ask questions (lots of questions); we must have a sense of history; we must have the humility to learn (not to teach); we must have the capacity to listen (not to preach).” (Nnaemeka 38) The willingness to make a change in the first place of the country in question is a prerequisite to this.

It is evident that there are a lot more problems involved in the question of development work than those highlighted above. However, it can be concluded that the intention behind sending development aid is crucial to its long-term success. What is more, the challenge of being a cultural outsider, and therefore to fully immerse oneself into a culture, makes it difficult to get to the roots of a problem one is trying to tackle. And herein lies the central problem that I face when thinking about these issues: How to get around the Western viewpoint – how to help without making presumptions about others, and without imposing unwanted and presumptuous help from above.

About Jule

Jule Lenzen is currently studying the MSc in Literature and Modernity at the University of Edinburgh. She holds a B.A. from the University of Bonn in English and Celtic Studies. Her research interests are postcolonial and feminist studies, and she wrote her Bachelor thesis on women’s writing in Uganda.

Article edited by Dhanya Baird and Lucy Hargrave.

Works Cited

Nnaemeka, Obioma. “African Women, Colonial Discourses, and Imperialist Interventions: Female Circumcision as Impetus.” Female Circumcision and the Politics of Knowledge: African Women in Imperialist Discourses, edited by Obioma Nnaemeka, Praeger Publishers, 2005, pp. 27-45.

El Saadawi, Nawal. “Imperialism and Sex in Africa.” Female Circumcision and the Politics of Knowledge: African Women in Imperialist Discourses, edited by Obioma Nnaemeka, Praeger Publishers, 2005, pp. 21-26.

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