Postcolonialism: The Lens Shifting Letter Fall 2018


natural resources neocolonialism pan-Africanism voluntourism postcolonial marginalization international development innovation decoloniality control community

July’s and August’s additions to our library ranged from the continuing challenges of postcolonialism and ongoing development efforts on the African continent, to the quiet (and not so quiet) advancements being made on multiple fronts.


EXTERNAL CONTROL | While many African countries are experiencing high levels of economic growth in this ‘postcolonial’ era, some question the merits of what has been termed the “ ‘Africa Rising’ narrative.” The worry is that much of the growth is fueled by exploitation of natural resources and indebtedness to foreign investors, with the benefits being shared with a small number of domestic oligarchs. As the interest rates grow on debt owed to the former colonial powers, economic growth is inhibited, and sometimes governments may not have sufficient resources to provide adequate social services. Additionally, the United States (US) and other western nations have substantially increased their military presence on the continent over the past decade based on the ostensible threat of ‘terrorism.’ Pan-Africanists, including such disparate leaders as Muammar Gaddafi and Nelson Mandela, have strongly opposed US involvement of any kind on the continent; they fear it as a neocolonial attempt to control African resources. The 1960 assassination of Congo’s prime minister and pan-Africanist, Patrice Lumumba, by western-supported opposition groups underscores the validity of these fears.

MARGINALIZATION | Unequal distribution of economic opportunities and the exploitation of marginalized people and populations persists in many African countries. In the 21st century, slavery continues to be a problem; by one measure in 2013, Mauritania led the world with 4% of its population enslaved. Indigenous people have been driven from their homes and hunting grounds in the name of wildlife conservation, but often, as exemplified by the plight of San people of the Central Kalahari in Botswana, commercial enterprises such as mining and big game hunting are allowed to continue. While the promising trend of microlending fails to have verifiably positive results for the borrowers, particularly when the underlying structural and political causes of poverty remain. Even in aid campaigns, African-based contributors are frequently shunted to background status, while prominent westerners who may have minimal impact are featured.

DECOLONIALITY | The process of ‘decolonization’ was and is messy; as independent, formerly colonial, nations must work through the processes of self-governance, suppressed ethnic rivalries, and realizing economic viability. Particularly vulnerable to conflict are nations where current yet arbitrary colonial borders have spawned separatist movements. The alliances formed during the Cold War also influenced national cultures, as many countries in sub-Saharan Africa gained independence at its peak in the 1950s and 1960s. In order to main critical infrastructure at the time of independence, some former French colonies, even though they are considered independent nations, continue to be required to keep their reserve funds in French banks, as well as ceding some control over matters of national interest. To counter this, some educators are working to remove the colonial narrative as the focus and framework for teaching African history. Particularly as colonial powers have re-written history, dramatically in some instances, as exemplified by a recent exposé of atrocities committed by the British during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya.

INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT | As we continually repeat at LensShift, even when backed by academic research and significant resources, good intentions are not enough. If they were, initiatives like the Millennium Villages Project would be a resounding success. Private philanthropy continues to have significant impact on international development initiatives; raising concerns about accountability and lack of independent oversight of the impact on lives they affect. Some experts worry that the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals of reducing global poverty while laudable, are unobtainable, as they don’t address the full range of of underlying causes of the problem. People concerned about the unintended consequences of international development efforts cite examples such as the donation of certain goods, such as t-shirts or shoes, undermining the local markets for these products. A long term study from Tanzania reports on the negative economic impacts of foreign aid for that country, while in the United Kingdom journalists and others have questioned that country’s foreign aid expenditures. Voluntourism is considered as another problematic aspect of international development, where many organizations fail to acknowledge that the limitations of volunteers ability to meaningfully contribute fails to match their overblown expectations.

INNOVATION | On a positive note, there are a number of reports of innovative and entrepreneurial efforts arising from all parts of the continent. At the new African Leadership University in Mauritius, the faculty is explicitly working to “decolonize” their social sciences courses to allow deeper exploration of the entirety of history and culture. Elsewhere, such as in South Africa and Congo, some areas may bypass the use of fossil fuels all together by providing these regions’ first reliable power from clean energy sources like solar and hydropower. And, ever so slowly, the message may be trickling out to the western mainstream that the value of foreign aid and investment from the west is dwarfed by the value of resources and capital (including interest on debt and illicit outflow) that moves from the global south. The “Doing Development Differently (DDD) Manifesto,” signed by 400+ respected members of the international development community, offers strategies for improving practices in the field.

IN THE COMMUNITY | Finally, we’d like to highlight a few examples of regional- and/or community-based development. Teddy “TMS” Ruge is a vocal proponent of listening to the beneficiaries of aid and local communities to guide and implement development work. Research in Zambia points to the positive impact of targeted cash aid to people living in poverty, and the subsequent establishment of such a government-sponsored aid program. Female social entrepreneurs from all over the continent were (2015) celebrated for their changemaking activities, provision of employment, and unique contributions to regional social impact efforts. The Humanitarian Leadership Academy offers an example of an organization working to provide a network of community members and organizations who are prepared to respond locally in times of crisis.

Many of these regional issues have similarities to those in other parts of the globe, we encourage you to continue to explore what you don’t know in order to see the world from a fresh perspective!


Check out our newly released Stream and Practical Guide on voluntourism:

Our new Stream “Exploring Voluntourism” leads you through four lessons using these guiding questions:

  • How does volunteerism look from another point of view?
  • What could be wrong about volunteering?
  • How does the voluntourism industry operate on the international level?
  • What are some possible solutions for the future of voluntourism?

LensShift’s Practical Guide: Voluntourism offers some thoughtful tips for the potential voluntourist.


Humor, data, image issues, stereotypes … the international development sector has it all! Keep an eye out for our upcoming and recently published LensShift resources. Thank you for your support!