Development Requires (Epistemic) Justice

This statement is a result of discussions among members of the EADI Working Group on “Post-/Decolonial Perspectives on Development”

As researchers within the realms of development we strife to unify research, practice and the production of knowledges in general to jointly contribute to political, economic, ecologic and social change worldwide. This cannot be neutral: research and exchange, contestation and debate must be value-oriented. Especially in times when in an increasing number of countries academic freedom is under attack, we need to be vocal about injustices and inequalities and defend civil and civic liberties.

There is a fundamental difference between the values of academic freedom and claims to freedom of speech. Worryingly, the latter has increasingly become appropriated and abused to serve as justification for discriminating Eurocentric worldviews, white supremacist arguments and colonial apologetic stances. This contributes to a perversion of the socio-historical development of academic freedom. The right to express one’s views was the result of long social and political struggles. Academics demanding academic freedom, were those who fought social injustice, hegemonic structures and censorship. Academic freedom emerged as a value against oppressive structures. In contrast, contemporary apologetic scholars downplay atrocities and injustices perpetrated by the socio-historical forces such as colonialism. They claim to engage with history neutrally but thereby give voice to oppressive regimes. Their practices demand a legitimate space within academic circles while dismissing critical interventions as an assault on the freedom of speech and academic freedom and refusing to engage with them. They maintain that atrocities and traumatic experiences should be considered purely by the “neutral” logic of reason as an “authentic” tool to revisit history.

Development Studies is a multi- and inter-disciplinary field of study rather than a single discipline. Seeking to understand the interplay between social, economic, political, technological, ecological, historical, cultural and gendered aspects of societal change in a historical perspective means connecting local, national, and global levels. It is obvious that such research, exchange and rigorous academic contestation cannot remain focused on Europe – unlike much of the European research funding, which currently focusses on the SDGs and thereby fails to acknowledge their many blind spots. It can also not do without other perspectives and perceptions than those guided by European enlightenment, which claims to be universal but simply ignores other perspectives. Holistic knowledge production needs to reach beyond the frame formulated by Agenda 2030. It needs to contest and transform the Eurocentric lens. It should provide spaces for exploring differences through critical pathways of interculturality involving non-Western epistemologies and cosmovisions.

As development researchers we need to critically evaluate and reflect on our ways of doing research, question assumptions that may be inherent in our thinking and strive to de-link colonial biases of knowledge production and sharing from ways of researching, teaching and learning. As scholars we should revisit the basic paradigms of research, especially objectivity. If being value-free means being indifferent to the basic struggles of human and social rights it cannot be part of what it means to be an academic. Epistemic justice is at the very basis of sustainable transformations. We strive to give visibility and voice to attempts to build a just and sustainable future. We do this by serving as platform for critical discussions, contestation and debate that do not seek excuses for, but instead address historical injustices.[1]

[1] We are glad that in this endeavour we are part of a community of critical scholarship that contests and debates. For an important academic intervention on the topic we recommend Farhana Sultana’s recently published open-access article: “The false equivalence of academic freedom and free speech: Defending academic integrity in the age of white supremacy, colonial nostalgia, and anti-intellectualism” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies (2018) 17 (2), 228-57.

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