By Judith Krauss and Andrea Jiménez Cisneros

On 15 and 16 May 2019, the Sheffield Institute for International Development (SIID) hosted its annual postgraduate research (PGR) conference, bringing together PGRs from across Europe and beyond with diverse disciplinary and geographical research foci. This year, the two-day conference organised by Sheffield PGRs for PGRs had as its theme “Decolonising development: Challenges, Innovations and Practices”. It encompassed a diversity of fascinating paper presentations, a great keynote by Prof Uma Kothari (University of Manchester), as well as a workshop on ‘decolonising development’ which we were privileged to lead. Given the inspiring ideas which the attendees formulated, we hope to share here some reflections on the themes developed together. 

The workshop began with an opportunity for the researchers to have small-group conversations about decolonising, choosing what aspects to focus on given the diversity of possible emphases: What is decolonising? What is decolonising development? Why is it important? Are we talking about decolonising theory? Decolonising ethics? Decolonising teaching? Decolonising institutions? A key goal for the workshop was co-creating a space in which, without assuming, interrupting or imposing, all attendees could develop ideas together about themes of their own choosing, while acknowledging that we are all learning what decolonising is and what it means in different contexts.

The four themes developed together through a world café approach focused on:

  1. Actionable steps in relation to decolonising research ethics, 
  2. What is decolonising, and how do we prevent it from becoming a metaphor?
  3. Linkages: decolonising knowledge processes and decolonising development, and the relationship between decolonising and development
  4. What does a decolonised Northern university look like ten years from now?

On the first theme of actionable steps for decolonising research ethics, a broad diversity of questions were raised. For instance, contributors discussed the merit of box-ticking exercises through standardised consent forms or other behaviours which a Northern university or funding body may deem ethical, compared with co-building ethics together with participants with an emphasis on what is appropriate in local contexts. Attendees highlighted the importance of sharing findings with participants first so as to reduce the risk of research being an exploitative process, as well as raising questions about who, according to universities and funding bodies, are the main audience of the research: participants, academic publications, Northern taxpayers/institutions? Both questions have important structural and institutional implications for what is required to pass a PhD viva or what is considered “impactful” research by donors.

The second question of what decolonising is, and how we can prevent it from becoming a metaphor, raised a broad diversity of issues across all aspects of “development”. In regards to what decolonising is, there was consensus among contributors that it was not a single moment, but an ongoing process requiring continual vigilance as well as equal distribution of power. A key question is whether we are yet in a position to decolonise or whether we are still engaged in a process of colonisation in terms of how the development industry, but also research processes are set up. Consequently, attendees felt that a key requirement for decolonising not to become a metaphor was turning decolonising theory into practice regarding both the development sector and its enshrined processes, but also curricula and training so as to avoid including more people in systems that are designed to oppress.

A third topic were the linkages between firstly decolonised knowledge and then decolonised development processes, and secondly the relationship between decolonising and development. A key question in relation to knowledge and development is connected to access to decolonised knowledge: it is not just about creating knowledge, but also making it usable in a way that is accessible to diverse stakeholders. Such structural barriers making a translation of knowledge into practice difficult also extend to questions around technology and e.g. the ability to access software. A link between research and action was considered crucial particularly in the context of linking decolonising and development, yet promoting theory-building from the global South was seen as another measure of success. The attendees equally raised the question of what the alternative would look like, suggesting for instance research which puts communities first, and research in which the global South gets to represent the global North. 

The final theme was what a decolonised Northern university would look like ten years from now, with contributors producing a variety of suggestions concerning all aspects of academic life ranging from teaching via research to staff and institutions. Beyond the important question of what a Northern university is or whether there should be a focus only on them, rethinking curricula, reading and reference lists was considered one teaching-related approach. Institutional question marks included prioritising environmental and social justice e.g. through supporting divestment or finding alternatives to international travel through e.g. videoconferencing. In terms of research, bringing in Global South partners early on in research development processes was deemed important. Ensuring that both publications and research conferences are as accessible as possible to Southern audiences was another concern. The relevance of recruiting was raised through the question of whether new criteria were required to diversify new staff, faculty as well as editorial boards in terms of welcoming diverse, decolonised ideas and epistemologies.

Special thanks go to Anna Colom for helpful comments on a draft version of this blog. We would like to thank all attendees very much: their insightful, measured and nuanced contributions taught us a lot and inspired in us great hope for the future of decolonising development and our institutions. 

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