Tag Archives Decolonization

Grappling with unease – together: collective reflections on Migration Studies and Colonialism by Mayblin and Turner

How can scholars tackle the legacy of colonialism in migration studies? Last year, a small group of critical development studies scholars at ISS sought to reflect on this challenge by collectively reading and discussing the book Migration Studies and Colonialism that explores exactly this issue. In this article, we share our observations and discuss two things that we consider vital in meaningful discussions on the  topic: the need to move beyond simplistic notions of European colonialism and the importance of meaningful engagement with scholars from the ‘Global South’.

Photo Credit: Authors.

While it is difficult to make generalizing claims about the broad field of migration studies that attracts scholars from various disciplines, one can confidently state that we have not yet adequately addressed the colonial legacies that continue to colour research and discussions on migration. It is in light of this that a group of scholars from the ISS got together in November last year to discuss a book that critically explores the issue. We hoped that in discussing colonial histories and migration studies, we could better understand our collective unease with the way in which we may reproduce colonialist harms through our work.

The book we discussed, ‘Migration Studies and Colonialism’ by Lucy Mayblin and Joe Turner (2021), is written as an intervention that is meant to place colonialism and its critique at the centre of discussions in migration studies. Moving beyond a critique of migration studies, the authors echo the call for action to dismantle the field’s contribution to the reproduction of coloniality – one that has been growing louder thanks to contributions by migration scholars engaging with postcolonial and decolonial thought.[1]

Instead of reviewing the book,[2] we chose to highlight our collective reflections on the unease many of us face in trying to engage with decolonial ideals, aspirations, and/or commitments as early-career researchers working on highly polarizing topics. Most of us identify as women of colour who come from the so-called ‘Global South’; we research migration, child sex tourism, or humanitarian intervention within academic institutional structures in the Global North. Coming from these diverse backgrounds, we offer input for the discussion on how to grapple with colonial legacies at the university and beyond through deep, collective, and horizontally organized reading, which is important in itself as a counter-current against fast academia.

These are our insights stemming from our discussions:


  1. We need to acknowledge non-European experiences and legacies of colonialism

 Mayblin and Turner argue in their book that colonial histories should be central to understanding migration praxis. They warn against what they call “sanctioned ignorance of histories of colonialism”, which leaves scholars and practitioners with theories that are inadequate in explaining the present state of migration regimes and moreover normalize the use of dehumanizing terms (such as ‘illegals’) that appear to be objective rather than historically and culturally emergent (p.3).

As they attempt to frame their discussions[3]  in a global manner, the authors rely on intellectual legacies from the Americas (North and South) and engagement with scholars from Asian and African traditions (p.4). They acknowledge that as ‘white’ academics working in British higher education institutions, they write from particular perspectives that may result in readers spotting limitations and omissions.

And we did. In our discussions, the tension between appreciating the thematic discussion of colonial histories and the wide brush used to portray international migration studies was consistently present. As we delved into each chapter, we found that the telling of specific colonial histories still placed Europe at the centre of the discussion. One participant for instance remarked during our conversation about Chapter 3 that “[the authors] make a solid case for why race and colonialism are intertwined with and shape migration. I do, however, feel the perspective adopted is still Eurocentric. It’s important to note that colonialism is not only European.”

We concluded that by emphasizing their critique of Eurocentrism reproduced through coloniality, the book showcased not only a tendency to limit and equate colonialism to Europe but also a limited take on Europe as a monolith. Another participant observed, “One Europe – as if there is one Europe, one type of colonialism, no differentiation.”

While we acknowledged the inclusion of geographical contexts and topics that are not commonly discussed in the historicizing of colonialism and migration, such as the mentioning of former colonized nations in the construction of international refugee regimes (Ch. 5), Mayblin and Turner’s focus on Europe’s colonial history reinforces a lack of acknowledgement of non-European experiences and legacies of colonialism.

To offer a more balanced picture, we feel the need to highlight topics important to the diverse contexts we come from or work with. These include South-South migration, indentured labour, and transnational solidarities that were instrumental in the independence of many formerly colonized nations. Otherwise, by limiting ourselves to a critique on a seemingly monolithic Europe and its (lasting) systems of categorization, the ‘Global South’ continues to be present as an ‘object’ in the retelling of the colonial histories (Quijano 2007). Interestingly, this discussion forced participants to reflect on our roles and commitment as researchers to actively unlearn and challenge the ‘subject-object’ relations between the ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ prevalent in knowledge production. By centring colonial histories within migration studies, both the authors and the readers should reflect on their positionality, roles, and choices in the retelling of histories.


  1. We need to be transparent about our inclusion of ‘voices from the Global South’

 Mayblin and Turner acknowledge that literatures problematizing mainstream migration studies exist but are often still inaccessible or unaccounted for, partly due to structural inequalities within higher academic institutions. They write on pages 4 and 5: “This book seeks to showcase some of this work for people who research migration yet never encounter such perspectives… Our aim is not that you cite this book, but that in the future you cite some of the scholars discussed within it.”

We followed their sound advice. The references to perspectives, approaches, and concepts developed mainly by scholars from the Global South required the reading group participants to read and reflect beyond what was presented in the book. For example, in Chapter 5, Mayblin and Turner’s critical discussion on forced migration brought readers’ attention to Vergara-Figueroa’s (2018) elaboration to the notion of ‘deracination’. While the concept of ‘deracination’ has been widely adopted by scholars and activists in the Latin American and the Caribbean contexts, particularly in Colombia in relation to land dispossession, forced migration, violence, and rupture of communal ties caused by the prolonged armed conflict, it was still unfamiliar to most of the participants.

As an Ecuadorian researcher who was very familiar with the Colombian context was able discuss ‘deracination’ in more detail, the collective reading evolved into a space where thought processes and conversations moved from Mayblin and Turner to concepts and ideas developed in particular localities and historical contexts and their potential applicability elsewhere to reflections by participants on their own identities, voices, and research.  Reflecting on these discussions, one participant said: “I’m not doing research at the moment, but this book and discussion has made me more aware about my own internalized Eurocentric ideas, being more conscious about the spaces I am in and realize how we represent ‘the Global South’.”

However, one question remained after completing the collective reading: how did Mayblin and Turner choose what to include and exclude in the book? While the referencing of scholars from the Global South is important and welcomed by group participants, there is a lack of explanation on how they chose whose work to include.

In addition, Mayblin and Turner’s choice to reference these scholars as opposed to inviting them to contribute directly through an edited volume is also worth noting. While they state early on that they hope the book will lead migration researchers to reference some of the work they included, these decisions still positioned them as gatekeepers of knowledge production. Being more transparent about these choices would have allowed more open accountability towards the power hierarchies in knowledge production that they are critical of.


A way forward: the value of collective reading and reflections

We (try to) engage with ‘decoloniality’ and the responsibility to acknowledge the legacies of colonialism in our research to different degrees and in different ways. Most participants are used to applying a critical and historical lens towards the themes raised in the book but are less certain about taking up the responsibility of ‘doing decoloniality’. One participant for example stated that “I often encounter this question [of centring colonialism] in my field when working on development aid. I think we are aware of many of the problems mentioned, such as the topic of race, inequality, etc., but we don’t necessarily know what to do.”

This tension between recognizing ‘problems’ and feeling unsure of what to do and how to position ourselves as researchers from diverse backgrounds is at the heart of our ambivalence and unease when engaging with the book. This tension is also recognized by Mayblin and Turner, who decided against calling their book “Decolonizing Migration Studies”. Instead, they positioned it more broadly to support decolonization agendas within academic institutions. But as we show, tension, ambivalence, and unease can drive critical reflection and prompt change in practice.

While we did not start or end with a common commitment to decolonizing knowledges, there was a general agreement among us, as one participant stated, “… to actively participate and also to allow yourself to listen with discomfort.” Grappling with unease was the starting point for our collective reflections, and we left with concrete clues for conscious historicization and contextualization to avoid the broad brushstrokes that overlook other experiences and legacies.

[1] E.g. Mains et al. 2013; Achiumi 2019; Samaddar 2020; Fiddien-Qasmiyeh 2020

[2] For reviews, see e.g. Favell 2021; Stallone 2022

[3] Mayblin and Turner’s historizing of colonialism provides the starting point to their discussion of migration studies and the thematic exploration of modernity and development (Chapter 2), race and racism (Chapter 3), state sovereignty and citizenship (Chapter 4), asylum seekers and refugee regimes (Chapter 5), national and border security (Chapter 6), and gender and sexuality (Chapter 7).

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Mahardhika Sjamsoe’oed Sadjad is an interdisciplinary scholar in the field of international development and migration. Her research focuses on discursive and affective constructions of identities and belonging in The Netherlands, Indonesia, and broader region of Southeast Asia.


Zeynep Kaşlı is Assistant Professor in Migration and Development at ISS, affiliated with the Governance, Law and Social Justice Research Group. Her research interests include mobility, citizenship, borders, transnationalism, power and sovereignty with regional expertise in Turkey, Middle East and Europe.


Nanneke Winters is an assistant professor in Migration and Development at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her research interests include im/mobility, migrant trajectories, and translocal livelihoods in Central America and beyond.



Haya Alfarra is a PhD researcher at ISS-EUR. Her research explores the role of diaspora as non-traditional humanitarian actors in protracted humanitarian situations, looking specifically at the role of Palestinian-German diaspora in humanitarian responses in the Gaza Strip, occupied Palestinian territory.





Mausumi Chetia is a PhD researcher at ISS-EUR. She researches on meanings of home and lived human (in)securities in context of disaster-related displacements in India. Her research is part of the Erasmus Initiative called Vital Cities and Citizens (VCC), under the theme of Resilient Cities.





Xander Creed is a PhD researcher at the ISS. Their work explores migration and asylum governance with a particular focus on the human dimension of (im)mobility, for instance through the lens of human security and feminisms.




Vanessa Ntinu is the Jr. Executive Manager of the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Governance of Migration and Diversity. She is interested in notions surrounding race, anti-Blackness, diversity, and migration laws and institutions.





Gabriela Villacis Izquierdo is a Ph.D researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam in the field of development and humanitarian studies. Her current research is based in Colombia and focuses on the contributions of feminism(s) to humanitarian governance, with an emphasis on the potential of collective action and humanitarian advocacy.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

On the Racist Humanism of Climate Action

Mainstream climate change mitigation and adaptation policies are imbued with neocolonial discursive constructions of the “other”. Understanding how such constructions work has important implications for how we think about emancipatory and socially-just responses to the climate crisis.

In her 2016 “Edward Said Lecture”, Naomi Klein made the case that “othering” is intimately linked to the production of the climate crisis. Borrowing from Said’s Orientalism, Klein defines othering as the “disregarding, essentialising, [and] denuding the humanity of another culture, people or geographical region”. She argues that this is much needed for justifying the sacrifice zones necessary for fossil fuel exploitation, and for refusing to protect climate refugees.

In these ways, othering permits letting off the hook the neoliberal and neocolonial structures of domination that are largely responsible for climate injustice.

Constructing people as not-fully-human, not part of “us”, or as threats—internal enemies, foreign agents, terrorists, obstacles to development, and the like—is a common strategy for legitimising repression against those who resist extractivism and dispossession. Indeed, compartmentalising populations into those who need protection and support, and those who can be sacrificed for the sake of the “greater good”, is what theorists from Michel Foucault to Achille Mbembe saw as the fundamental function of racism, originating in European colonialism. Similarly, Frantz Fanon defined racism as a global hierarchy based on the “line of the human”, which created a distinction between the zone of being (the human) and the zone of not being (the sub- or non-human).

At the same time, the workings and reach of othering go beyond what Naomi Klein suggests. Discursive constructions of populations or territories as “other” are also mobilised to include them within the reach of government action and control. This is typically the case with populations or territories that are constructed as “in need of improving” that, as anthropologist Tania Murray Li has shown, have long underpinned colonial and development interventions. These constructions are no less racist and colonial than those justifying the “need to sacrifice”, yet they are intermeshed with a humanitarian or humanist “will to improve” the other, a reactivation of the imperial discourse of the “white man’s burden”.

Image 1. Mural dedicated to Edward Said, Palestine, 2016. Unknown author. Source. Wikimedia Commons

Climate Action and Othering

We claim that this ambivalent mobilisation of othering—oscillating between improvement and sacrifice—also characterises mainstream responses to the climate crisis, imbuing them with a neo-colonial and, at heart, racist ethos. Policies for mitigating climatic changes, adapting to them, or governing climate-induced migration, require prior discursive work to frame targeted populations or territories as problematic or deficient, through narratives that stress vulnerability, underdevelopment, and victimhood. At the same time, these interventions are associated with effects of dispossession, environmental destruction and the production of surplus populations and sacrifice zones, and must therefore rely on othering to justify letting such populations die.

Mitigation and green extractivism

Think of climate change mitigation, and its purported goal of shifting away from fossil fuels by aggressively expanding industrial-scale renewable energies and electric automobility. Environmental movements and researchers have demonstrated abundantly that this strategy is problematic. They denounced the dispossession effects of “transition mineral” extraction and large hydropower projects, and the “land grabbing” associated with wind and solar energy generation and biofuel plantations. Such industrial-scale solutions follow a “green extractivist” logic that aims to appropriate as much resources, energy and profits as fast as possible from a territory, irrespective of the social and ecological impacts. As such, they produce dispossession and sacrifice outcomes similar to those of fossil fuel extraction (and don’t fare a lot better in terms of CO2 emissions, as Alexander Dunlap has shown).

Compared to the old, “grey” extractivism of dirty coal and oil, such projects are cast as necessary not only for the improvement of otherwise “underdeveloped” territories and peoples, but also for saving the planet from catastrophic climate change—as research by activist and writer Daniel Voskoboynik demonstrates in the case of lithium. The more urgent and necessary the improvement, the more acceptable the sacrifice, and the more “selfish and irrational” the resistance.

Adaptation and vulnerability

Climate change adaptation is another case in point. While emanating from ostensibly disinterested concerns with the adverse effects of climatic changes upon “vulnerable” groups, it draws upon and reinforces images of the other as both in danger and potentially dangerous. This manifests itself in adaptation policy documents—for instance, by the EU—which construct Africa as a climatic “heart of darkness” of unruly environments, failed institutions, and backwards populations, ready to flood European borders with unwanted migrants.

This type of representations depoliticise vulnerability. They separate it from colonial histories and previous rounds of capitalist dispossession and neoliberal restructuring that created or exacerbated people’s “lack of adaptive capacities” in the first place; and obfuscate the historical responsibility of colonial states and capitalists in the global North for generating the majority of greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, adaptation interventions seek to make “target” populations responsible for managing the adverse effects of climatic changes, receiving limited assistance (in the form of debt and corporate investments) conditional on their willingness to go along with a pre-packaged plan.

The “improvement” of populations and territories targeted by adaptation programmes has no room for redressing development-induced dispossession; rather, it is expected to work through the dispossession itself. As Markus Taylor shows in the case of adaptation policies in Mongolia and South Asia, urbanization and proletarianization of rural populations, which result in poverty, indebtedness and loss of access to their means of production and livelihood, are framed by the institutions like the World Bank precisely as a way of reducing small farmers’ vulnerability to climate change, while also freeing up rural space for more mechanised and capital-intensive agriculture.

Climate-Induced Migration

Discursive constructions of the climate migrant exemplify how the two forms of othering (to “sacrifice” and to “improve”) are deployed in overlapping and contradictory ways. A common way in which othering operates in this context involves the separation between “good” and “bad” migrants. For instance, Andrew Telford has shown how EU and US policy reports on climate-induced migration often represent Muslim and African migrant populations as threats, as racialised others with a potential for radicalization and terrorism.

At the opposite end of the “migrant-as-threat” trope stands the image of climate migrants as victims, which is apparently benign but nonetheless problematic. Victimisation involves representing those vulnerable to the effects of climatic change as powerless and resource-less. This disempowers communities by obscuring the adaptation strategies they already practice. At the same time, it bolsters neo-colonial imaginaries of a silenced other with no agency who, driven by desperation, “easily becomes the unpredictable, wild ‘other’ that threatens ‘us’”—in the words of geographer Kate Manzo.

Image 2. Global Climate Strike in Melbourne, Australia. September 2019. Credit: John Englart. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Othering and the Adaptation of Capital

Despite their stated aim to mitigate and adapt to disastrous climatic changes, mainstream climate policies are explicitly envisioned as avenues for furthering capital accumulation.

This is obvious in the case of industrial-scale renewables, dominated by transnational energy corporations seeking to expand their markets and diversify their production. But it also applies to the increasingly privatised and financialised business of adaptation, presented as creating opportunities for profit-making and rent extraction. For instance, a report released in September 2019 by the Global Commission on Adaptation—a private-public partnership led by the UN, World Bank and Gates Foundation—calculated that “investing $1.8 trillion globally” in climate change adaption until 2030 “could generate $7.1 trillion in total net benefits”.

What’s more, climate policies are motivated by a geostrategic concern with security. This points to a continuation of the post-WWII “development project”, which was motivated by the threat that newly decolonised populations might turn to communism or Third World anti-imperialism. While the political coordinates have changed, “climate-related development” functions to a large extent as a way of containing the “excess freedom” of surplus populations: stopping them from becoming unruly, or migrating to rich countries (in larger numbers than capital needs).

Taken together, the current choreography of policies and interventions that make up the “climate action” framework can be seen as a way to preserve global capitalist class power in the face of the ongoing climate catastrophe. Othering in this sense is central to the “post-political” governmentality of climate change, a key tenet of which is, for Erik Swyngedouw, “the perceived inevitability of capitalism and a market economy as the basic organizational structure of the social and economic order, for which there is no alternative.”


A central implication of all this is that plans for radical socio-ecological transformation—including Just Transition or Green New Deal frameworks—should not reproduce a colonial logic whereby peripheries (primarily) in the global South are treated as pools for resource grabbing and carbon dumping, or as sites for salvation-type interventions that dismiss frontline community action and priorities. As climate justice activists advocate, there can be no decarbonisation without decolonization.

Challenging the neocolonial and neoliberal government of climate change entails affirming the ability of the subaltern to “speak”: recognising and reasserting the “pluriversality” of “non-Western” socio-environmental knowledges and praxes should be foundational to climate justice. We must be mindful, however, that—as the Aymara theorist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui has argued—there is more to decolonization than discursive emancipation.

Recognising ontological multiplicity must go hand in hand with the critique of material power asymmetries and global unequal (ecological) relations. Decolonizing means, primarily, giving back the land to indigenous communities and reasserting the sovereignty of formerly colonized peoples, including access to and control over natural resources and other means of production and reproduction—as part of globally connected struggles attacking the material and ideological bases of racial-patriarchal capitalism and imperialism.

This blog was originally published in Undisciplined Environments, and is based on a longer, open access article published in the journal Political Geography. The article first appeared on Bliss on 13 October 2021.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

Diego Andreucci is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Juan de la Cierva Social and Political Sciences Department at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.



Christos Zografos is a Ramón y Cajal Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

Positioning Academia | Decolonizing academic minds: reflecting on what academics are getting wrong (and right) by Ton Dietz

When Linda Johnson and I shared responsibilities for the Prince Claus Chair in Development and Equity, we had many discussions that were close to the leading topic of the ongoing Africa Knows! Conference for which I am co-responsible, ‘It is time to decolonize minds’. In a recent email message to all conference participants, David Ehrhardt, Marieke van Winden and I shared some preliminary thoughts about lessons learned so far. I reflect on them here.

Through this series we are celebrating the legacy of Linda Johnson, former Executive Secretary of the ISS who retired in December last year. Having served the ISS in various capacities, Linda was also one of the founding editors of Bliss. She spearheaded many institutional partnerships, promoted collaboration, and organised numerous events, always unified in the theme of bringing people in conversation with each other across divides. This blog series about academics in the big world of politics, policy, and practice recognises and appreciates Linda’s contribution to the vitality of the ISS.

“Of course Africa knows. What a self-evident title for a conference. Why did they select this title?” Those remarks have often been made since the African Studies Centre in Leiden, and its many partners, including the ISS, started the preparations for what was meant to be a three-day conference about knowledge development in Africa, and that has become a three-month virtual meeting place between 8 December 2020 and 24 February 2021 (see www.africaknows.eu). But the conference title is ‘Africa Knows!’, with an exclamation mark.

When research, higher education, and education in general are being discussed, the focus in the past has often been on problems, on lack of quality, on a brain drain, on Africa lagging behind. With the exclamation mark, the conference organizers want to show that the focus will be on the many positive developments in Africa’s knowledge sector and the need to ‘decolonize’ our minds if we (Africans and Europeans alike) think and talk about Africa.

Africa Knows! is also a wink at earlier conferences that the African Studies Centre organized (together with the Netherlands African Business Council) in 2012 and 2014: ‘Africa Works!’, also with that exclamation mark. That title was meant as a counterpoint to the book ‘Africa Works’ (Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz, with as its subtitle ‘Disorder as Political Instrument’, 1999) and an emphasis on problems and disasters that so often dominated debates in the 1980s and 1990s. Things are different now; we only need to see it with different eyes, with decolonized eyes.  So let me focus in this blog on the core issue of the conference Africa Knows!: how to decolonize minds.

‘Decolonization’ has elicited a wide range of responses from those conference participants that have attended the conference online thus far. For some, the issue was, and still is, regarded as odd so many decades after most African countries have become politically independent (and some parts of Africa, such as Ethiopia, have never been colonized). Others feel that the impact of colonialism and its institutions should not be overemphasized (it was said to be “just a scratch on the surface of the long history of Africa”), or that it is being regarded as “having taken place too long ago”, or that it takes away the agency (and blame) from African leaders for their policy mistakes and behaviour after independence and places blame on ‘the past’, or on ‘colonials’.

At the same time, many participants said that, even without ever having experienced colonial overlords, colonial mindsets can be influential and long lasting, and many conference participants are convinced that ‘decolonizing (academic) minds’ really is an issue, both for Africans and for Europeans – including from countries that have never been colonizers, or have not been engaged in slavery or supporting ‘Apartheid’. Moreover, it was also raised as an issue for Asians and Americans. So let us try to summarize some of the mindset issues that have been discussed during the Africa Knows! sessions that took place in December 2020.

First of all, we discussed colonial mindsets and practices in academia. We tried to become more aware of the implicit and explicit biases we hold and how they affect our attempts to decolonize our academic practices. The following were cited as some of the main issues we face in academia:

  • Framing the relationship between partners as ‘capacity development’, ‘training’, or ‘helping out’ rather than collaboration. Hierarchies are produced in academia by claiming that partners, particularly those in the Global North, collaborate with those in the Global South in the name of ‘capacity development’, for example.
  • Preferring leadership in research consortia and in project evaluations to be taken by partners from outside Africa. This is linked to the above hierarchization of partnerships that results in the undermining of the agency and capacity of African institutes forming part of research consortia.
  • Preferring to publish in non-African journals and with non-African publishers. This is done seemingly for the sake of ‘high-quality science’, but diminishes opportunities for African journals to rise to prominence.
  • Dependence on ideas, and funding from outside Africa, so evident in many publications about Africa, where indigenous knowledge hardly plays a role, where relevant African ideas are ignored, and where ‘who pays, decides’, so often seems to determine the hierarchies in knowledge production and use.
  • Disregarding scholarly work not written in English (or French). Some journals even refuse to incorporate other languages in the bibliography.
  • Prioritising (first) authorship of non-African scholars in publications. All too often, first authorship is given to the senior, Western scientist rather than to the author(s) who did most of the work.
  • Publishing about Africa without taking note of African contributions in the same field of related fields. Just check out bibliographies of papers you have recently reviewed, and you will see for yourself.
  • Publishing in journals for which others have to pay (behind paywalls). Open access will make a large difference to scholars in Africa and many other places.

We also discussed ways in which mindsets and practices in academia are already being decolonized. Our main conclusion is that we have some way to go in view of the problems listed above. Here are some of the main things we have done or can do to help decolonize academia:

  • Co-create research and innovation in teams with equals.
  • Make use of indigenous institutional strength and experiences, and don’t rely on people and funds from elsewhere.
  • Encourage African leadership in research teams and in project evaluations.
  • Encourage Africans to be first author in cases of joint research.
  • Be aware of available local contributions to studies about African affairs, and use it in teaching and in publications.
  • Make sure that libraries about Africa contain many publications published in Africa itself.
  • Encourage students and authors in African Studies to include many references from Africa.
  • Ensure that all partners contribute financially to research projects, conferences, publications, and other forms of collaboration.
  • Encourage teaching, conversations, and publications in other languages than English, and promote bridging the language divides.
  • Highlight indigenous/endogenous ideas and practices.
  • In teaching about Africa, include more pre-colonial history and more knowledge from and about marginal areas.
  • In African Studies, give recognition to the importance of North Africa and its linkages with Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Put more emphasis on Africa’s linkages in past and present with Asia and Latin America, and within Africa.
  • In encouraging ‘African’ contributions, do not judge ‘Africans’ by their skin colour.

Although our discussions were focused on Africa, we anticipate that similar issues are faced in other contexts in the Global South. Intensified discussions are needed to ensure that no-one gets left behind, particularly as the current global COVID-19 pandemic continues.

About the author:

Ton Dietz (African Studies Centre Leiden, and former vice-chair of the Prince Claus Curatorium, with Linda Johnson as its secretary).

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Fighting racism and decolonizing humanitarian studies: toward mindful scholarship

Addressing racism and decolonizing humanitarian studies is urgent, and as scholars we need to step up our efforts. Partnerships between scholars and conflict-affected communities are as unequal as ever, and the disparities between humanitarian studies in the global North and global South remain large. Dorothea Hilhorst here introduces the importance of localization in humanitarian studies that will be discussed in an upcoming workshop on 20 August, highlighting the need for equal partnerships and meaningful participation, as well as continuous debate to move beyond quick fixes in addressing structural and persistent inequalities.

Scholars taking notes during a lecture
Credit: IHSA

Triggered by recent renewed attention to racism and worldwide protests urging change, the lid placed on racism in the humanitarian aid sector has been blown off. Last year’s international meeting of ALNAP concluded that inequality and discrimination in the humanitarian aid sector are a reality, and threatens its core foundation, namely the principle of humanity that views all people in equal terms. Recent weeks have seen many excellent blogs about racism in the sector and how resorting to arguments centring on capacities often obscure racist practices.

Yet racism in humanitarian studies is rarely mentioned. As scholars, we are ready to lay bare the fault lines in the humanitarian sector, but what about our own practices? It is time to address racism and decolonize humanitarian studies, too!

Turning our gaze inward

Anthony Giddens spoke of the double hermeneutic between social science and society, which co-shape each other’s understanding of the world and adopt each other’s vocabulary. In the relatively small and applied community of humanitarian studies, the double hermeneutic between academia and the field is more than discursive. Humanitarian studies can be seen to mimic many of the characteristics of its subject of research. Problems with humanitarian action are thus likely reproduced in the scholarly community that focuses on humanitarianism.

Racism-related problems with humanitarian studies can be grouped in two clusters:

First, the organization of humanitarian studies leads to a field dominated by scholars from the Global North. While scholars critically follow attempts of the sector to localize aid in an attempt to reduce racism through increasing ownership of aid processes, humanitarian studies itself may be criticized for being centred in the Global North. Adjacent domains of disaster studies and refugee studies[i] have faced similar critiques.

Research and educational institutes are mainly found in the global North, and rarely in the Global South where most humanitarian crises occur. The picture is less skewed with regards to disasters related to natural hazards, where we find many leading institutes in the Global South. However, faculties and courses dealing with humanitarianism in the Global South are scarce (see the global directory of the International Humanitarian Studies Associations for exceptions). Reasons include the dire lack of attention to higher education in donor programmes focusing on conflict-affected countries, making it almost impossible to find funding for such programmes[ii]. In 2016, at the World Humanitarian Summit, participants drafted a set of ethical commitments called for, among other things, more space for scholars and communities from crisis-affected countries (IHSA, 2016). Three years later, signatories admitted to a lack of progress which they largely attributed to structural disincentives for collaboration in their universities.

Moreover, relations between northern and southern institutions rarely attain the nature of equal partnership[iii]. The best many southern universities can usually hope for is to become a poorly paid partner that has no say in the agenda of the research and whose role is limited to data gathering. The possibility of co-authoring may not even be mentioned. I have followed closely how a gender and development institute in DRC, built around four women PhD holders, could easily find work as a sub-contractor for research, but once they developed their own agenda and proposals, donors were not interested and preferred to rely on Northern NGOs or UN agencies.

The picture becomes even direr when we take into account ethics dumping, when risks are offloaded on local researchers. Many universities in the north have adopted restrictive measures and don’t allow researchers to work in ‘red zones’. These researchers then rely on remote research and use local researchers to collect the data. One scholar told me at a conference how frustrated he was that his university did not allow him to enter a conflict area. He took residence at the border where he could regularly meet his research assistants, who gathered his data at their own risk. His frustration concerned his own impossibility to engage with the research, not the fate of these assistants! He had not considered involving the researchers in the analysis or inviting them as co-authors.

Second, methodologies and the ethics of relating to the research participants whose lives we study are problematic. Humanitarian studies is seen to be extractive, blighted by 1) a culture of direct data gathering through fieldwork and interviews at the expense of secondary data, leading to overly bothering crisis-affected communities with research; 2) a lack of feedback opportunities to communities, who see researchers come and go to obtain data and rarely, if ever, hear from them again; and 3) the assumption that participatory methods are not possible in conflict-affected areas because it is feared that social tensions will be reproduced in the research process. It is also assumed that people facing precarity and risks may have no interest in deep participation in research.

Deep participation does not mean quick and dirty participation in data gathering, such as participation in focus-group discussions where researchers can quickly move in and out of the lives of communities. Meaningful interactive research involves partners and participants as much as possible in every stage of the research[iv]. There have, however, been positive examples of participatory research in crisis-affected areas[v], and it is time that we build on these experiences and advance this work.

Thus, racism and decolonization debates have implications for methodology. Pailey critically noted that ‘the problem with the 21st-century “scholarly decolonial turn” is that it remains largely detached from the day-to-day dilemmas of people in formerly colonised spaces and places’. Similarly, Tilley[vi] argued that decolonization means ‘doing research differently’ – equally and collaboratively.

Of course, there are also reasons for caution with participatory methods that may be more pronounced in humanitarian crises. First, social realities are, in many ways, influenced by (governance) processes happening elsewhere, beyond immediate observation. Second, participatory methods may be prone to identifying outcomes that reflect the biases of the research facilitators (facipulator effects) and/or political elites participating in the process. Third, participatory processes risk feeding into existing tensions and creating harm. Research in crisis-affected areas may entail more risks and tends to be more politicized compared with other research.

It is therefore important to build on positive experiences while maintaining a critical dialogue on the possibilities of participatory research in humanitarian studies. As scholars, we need to work hard to break down the disincentives, to work towards equal partnerships, and to develop more participatory methodologies that treat conflict-affected communities as competent and reflexive agents that can participate in all aspects of the research process.

The environments of humanitarian studies are highly politicized and complex, and there are no quick fixes for our collaborations and methodologies. Thus, while stepping up our efforts, we also need to rely on the core of the academe: continuous debate and critically reflection on how we can enhance partnership for ethical research in humanitarian studies.

Inspired? Join the IHSA/NCSH webinar on Thursday 20 August, 11-12 CET.

This blog was written at the start of a 5-year research programme on humanitarian governance, aiming to decolonize humanitarian studies. The project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, project 884139.

[i] Sukarieh, M., & Tannock, S. (2019). Subcontracting Academia: Alienation, Exploitation and Disillusionment in the UK Overseas Syrian Refugee Research Industry. Antipode, 51(2), 664–680.

[ii] In 2016, at the World Humanitarian Summit, participants drafted a set of ethical commitments that called for, among other things, more space for scholars and communities from crisis-affected countries (IHSA, 2016). Three years later, signatories admitted to a lack of progress, which they largely attributed to structural disincentives for collaboration in their universities.

[iii] Cronin-Furman, K., & Lake, M. (2018). Ethics Abroad: Fieldwork in Fragile and Violent Contexts. PS – Political Science and Politics, 51(3), 607–614. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096518000379

[iv] Voorst, R. van and D. Hilhorst (2018) ‘Key Points of Interactive Research: An Ethnographic Approach to Risk’. In A. Olofsson and Jens O. Zinn Researching Risk and Uncertainty. Methodologies, Methods and Research Strategies. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, pp 53-77

[v] Haar, G. van der, Heijmans, A., & Hilhorst, D. (2013). Interactive research and the construction of knowledge in conflict-affected settings. Disasters, 37(SUPPL.1), 20–35. https://doi.org/10.1111/disa.12010

[vi] Tilley, L. (2017). Resisting Piratic Method by Doing Research Otherwise. Sociology, 51(1), 27–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038516656992

About the author:

Dorothea HilhorstDorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.

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