Postcolonialism, Responsibility, and ‘The Other’

By Benjamin Sacks

‘Responsibility is increasingly summoned as a route to living ethically in a postcolonial world’ (p. 418). So begins Pat Noxolo’s (University of Sheffield), Parvati Raghuram’s (Open University), and Clare Madge’s (University of Leicester) astute and occasionally scathing discussion of the current state of responsibility to and within developing countries. Published in the July 2012 issue of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, ‘Unsettling Responsibility: Postcolonial Interventions’ unravels traditional conceptualisations of responsibility and agency, at once highlighting recent, significant scholarship in the field and discussing possible new approaches to empowering peoples in developing countries.

Postcolonialism is often understood as a linear ‘give-and-take’; an attempt to rebalance wealth, resources, and power from highly developed, imperial states and their former colonies. But this singular approach is problematic at best. Joanne Sharp and John Briggs, for instance, both geographers at the University of Glasgow, admitted in a jointly-authored 2007 Geographical Journal article that they remained deeply divided over why postcolonial development had failed. Briggs, ensconced in development studies, pointed to ground level problems in developing states. Sharp, conversely, attacked the ‘dominating universalizing discourse of the West, and particularly the extent to which it suggests that it alone has the answer to development problems’ (p. 6). Their disagreement underscored the fundamental problem with the pervading model: the West empowered ‘The Other’ as and when it saw fit; the developing, or ‘Third World’, as victims, took whatever the West could offer.

‘Unsettling Responsibility’ seeks to alter this approach. The authors cite Doreen Massey’s (2004) and Matthew Sparke’s (2007) criticisms as catalysts for a new, multilinear system where ‘responsibility’ and ‘agency’ – both contested terms – are identified in developed and developing countries, supported, and adjusted accordingly (pp. 418-20). Responsibility is neither solely in the hands of the West nor in those of the developing world. Instead, responsibility and accountability operate on international, national, and local tiers, between developed and developing constituencies, various economic and social sectors, via contradictory legal structures, ‘ethical and moral economies’, and certainly through differing academic and administrative systems. Highlighting such factors, of course, complicates postcolonial discourse. In so doing, however, Noxolo, Raghuram, and Madge establish a potent framework that is applicable in a comprehensive range of situations, from Africa to Asia and the Caribbean.

Postcolonialism is an ironic term, for it implies that society has moved beyond colonial attitudes and aspirations, and is actively pursuing equality amongst countries’ standard of living. The number of Western-led interventions since the Second World War suggests otherwise. Further, ‘theories of responsibility’ utilised at ‘a high level of abstraction’ have only muddied geopolitical and anthropological analysis (p. 420). The authors recall G C Spivak’s Other Asias (2008) tenet that globalisation’s interconnectivity has created a plethora of ‘hugely uneven global relationships’ between the Global North and Global South. But importantly, responsibility and agency do not rest entirely with one side or the other: these relationships, however lopsided they may be, are the result of actors’ behaviour and decisions in both developed and developing states. In order to better analyse individual relationships of responsibility and dependency, Noxolo, Raghuram, and Madge contend that the language and processes surrounding ascription and agency must change, and that support should be provided where needed across the entire postcolonial relationship.

Pat Noxolo, Parvati Raghuram, and Clare Madge, ‘Unsettling Responsibility: Postcolonial Interventions‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Volume 37, Issue 3, pages 418-429, July 2012

Joanne Sharp and John Briggs, ‘Postcolonialism and Development: New Dialogues?The Geographical Journal, Volume 172, Issue 1, pages 6-9, March 2006

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