African alternatives to development: Ubuntu and the post

African alternatives to development:
Ubuntu and the post-development debate
Presentation at the Alternatives to Development Workshop,
Kassel, 1-2 Oct 2014
Post-development theory’s emphasis on
alternatives to development
• A key difference between post-development theory and other
alternative approaches to development is that post-development
theory insists that we need to reject the whole idea of
development and propose ‘alternatives to development’ rather
than a new form of development.
What is ubuntu?
• Usually described as a form of African humanism.
• Related to the saying ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’ (a person is a person
through other people’.
• Mogobe Ramose: ‘[Ubuntu can] be construed to mean that to be a human be-ing
is to affirm one’s humanity by recognising the humanity of others and, on that
basis, establishing human relations with them’.
• Drucilla Cornell: Ubuntu is ‘the African principle of transcendence through
which an individual is pulled out of himself or herself back toward the ancestors
and forward toward the community and toward the potential each one of us
• Desmond Tutu: Ubuntu recognises that ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably
bound up in yours’.
• Emphasis on treating people humanely, on interconnectedness, on belonging.
Ubuntu and post-development theory
• They seem to fit together:
• Advocates of ubuntu and PD both have a critical orientation towards Western ways
of life and Western philosophy;
• Both PD and ubuntu entail a project of retrieving and validating marginalised ideas
and practices coming from outside the West.
• Both have a respectful orientation towards so-called ‘traditional’ ways of life.
• Some ubuntu scholars talk about their interest in ubuntu in a way that reminds me
of PD.
• Ubuntu is already being used to articulate African alternatives in fields other than
Some hesitations
• Ubuntu could be described as a ‘narrative of return’.
• It is seen by some as an authentically African approach which falls outside Western
discourses and can be revived and contrasted with Western discourses.
• Ubuntu as a ‘glocal’ concept.
• ‘global discourses … give a particular expression to the meaning of local traditions such
as ubuntu, but in a way that also allows the resulting ubuntu to feed back into the
global discourse as a locally based critique and expansion of those very discourses’
(Leonhard Praeg).
• Engaging with or escaping ‘the colonial library’ (Mudimbe)
• Ubuntu’s hybridity does not mean it cannot be transformative or challenge
Western discourses.
• Ubuntu’s hybridity needs to be recognised otherwise we risk validating it purely
because of its perceived indigeneity – risk of deciding on validity of something
purely based on whether or not it is ‘African’/indigenous.
These hesitations also apply to the idea of
‘alternatives to development’
• Sachs: we need to ‘clear out of the way this self-defeating development
• Latouche: ‘The opposition between “alternative development” and
alternative to development is radical, irreconcilable and one of essence’.
• BUT is it possible to sweep development away and propose something
entirely other and new?
• Praeg: ‘what is new can never simply arrive in all its newness; … in order
for the new to arrive, the new … needs to engage the old, even repeat
the old, in a manner that cannot but violate, by contradicting, the new
that is being announced’.
Where does this leave us?
• Appeal of PD and ubuntu lies in its anti-colonial and decolonsing content
– we want to oppose and escape from the damaging discourses of
• But we have to engage these discourses from where we are – ‘we
[Africans] have always been consigned to responding from the place
where we ought not to have been standing’ (Quayson)
• Can our anti-colonial, anti-development discourses be both a product of
and a critical challenge to Western modernity?
James Ferguson’s shifts
• The Anti-politics machine considered a PD text.

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