What does progressive, decolonised economics look like in practice?

4 April 2022

Last week, we had the second in the instalment of Bond’s Future Dialogues series, Equitable Economics: Reimagining sustainable development.

International development economists Dr Priya Lukka and Dr Surbhi Kesar both shared their reflections on how and why the global economic order needed to be challenged and dismantled, particularly if we are to address the colonial roots of “development”, and the role INGO can play in this process. 

Here are their main arguments.

Taking a right-based approach to economics 

Currently, financial interventions by NGOs come in the form of micro-credit or some form of basic income. If we were to instead take an approach where people had the right to the surplus or wealth that's produced by a country’s economy, this could help us move away from providing “aid” toward a system of reparations. 

A right-based approach would also acknowledge the fact that various structures of power based on race, caste, and gender exist in the countries NGOs work in and a right-based approach is a sensible way to address this. 

Is redistributive justice the way forwards?

Development interventions remain limited and are about providing the bare minimum to people, who are being excluded from the growth process. Redistribution justice could address this because it doesn’t just come in the form of social protection policies that push people just above levels of poverty. Instead, it’s about redistributing access to resources and created profits and wealth.

For example, if we take an intervention that is focused on creating jobs. We need to move beyond the idea of getting people just the minimum wage and the de facto minimum standard of living. Instead, we need a shift toward people having the right to receive what they have receive an adequate return on their contribution.

Community-based development

Many NGO interventions, take a top-down approach, or when engagement with the community begins there are already a set of ideals of what development should look like. Often, these ideals don’t focus on indigenous development or development of the global South so they can become economies on their own term, instead of aberrations of higher income countries. 

When we're talking about community-based development, we are also talking about decentralisation and democratisation.

For example, in the State of Kerala in India there have been many interesting examples of community-based initiatives of how production is organised and how profits are redistributed – cooperatives play an incredibly important role. 

Reparations need to be part of the solution

Colonialism and transatlantic slavery have resulted in many forms of damage, economic, ecological, societal, political and psychological and the concepts of reparations are firmly based on the idea of trying to repair this damage.

Reparations are usually presented as a pay-check, but the reality is reparation movements do not solely call for cash compensation. They focus on a much more holistic form of justice, viewing the inequalities of the global economy as rooted in colonialism, and they recognise that the people impacted by inequality will continue to do so if extreme poverty and extreme wealth exist. Power and burden exist alongside privilege. Activists are calling for compensation when it comes to addressing inequalities and is asking for a commitment to break the enduring exploitation of colonialism through reimagining the World Order. 

We need a fresh way of looking at issues of poverty and how the legacies of colonialism can be best tackled by bringing people together in recognition of past crimes to draft policies. These policies must prevent past crimes from happening again and articulate a belief in our shared humanity.

NGO’s need to move from a market-led approach towards applying a decolonising approach 

The international development sector has adopted a market-led approach and invested in the idea of growth trickling down and solving poverty. But we need to question whether the sector has in fact been perpetuating systems of power through how programmes are designed. Are they being designed by people who are from the same background, the same class, race and ability?

People in low-income countries are still picking up the pieces of exploitation and paying debts to countries that have taken resources from them. A refusal to acknowledge this historical debt and do something about it makes it very hard for those countries to finance their public and infrastructure, and manage any kind of aspirations towards climate adaptation. White supremacy has historically been the organising logic of the economy, but today it just looks a bit freer, a little bit more democratic. 

Applying a decolonial lens to the colonial economic order means moving away from “aid” and considering arguments around reparations. This has now received formal recognition in the formation of an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Afrikan Reparations, here in the UK.

There is evidence that race features as a marker of poverty today in the most deprived groups globally, so now is the time to think about all the mechanisms that we can use to bring about restorative justice and reparations.

This is a real opportunity for the sector to move towards hopeful alternatives, and really think about what legitimate structures are in development and thinking about what parallel institutions on regional and local levels could mean as well.

Watch the session: