Representational Controversies in International Development in Africa

Course for Graduate Class (10-15 students) in International Development, Spring Semester, Cornell
February 24 – March 31, 2017
Fridays, 10:10 a.m. - 1:10 p.m.

The relationship between power and the production of knowledge concerning development problems has been a preoccupation in international development at least since the postcolonial literatures of the 1980 and 1990s (Escobar, Ferguson, Sachs) inspired by the wider critiques by Foucault, Said and in Africa, Mudimbe’s ‘The Invention of Africa’ .  These works problematized the production and prioritization of development problems and agendas in Africa. The question arises: what has changed? In this course we examine cases relating to international development in Africa through which the nature of development problems is contested in the domains of environment, health, and conflict to probe current Power/Knowledge configurations, reflecting also on how globalized popular media (film and literature) have become part of this. 

Weeks 1-3 Professor James Fairhead
Week 1: Discourses of environmental degradation and the challenge of anthropogenic landscapes
Development plans are afoot to construct a ‘green wall’ to stop desertification, yet research suggests that the Sahel is greening. Plans are afoot to introduce new biochar technology to address soil degradation and climate change, yet research reveals that African farmers already deploy such ‘dark earth’ techniques. And plans are afoot to address the deforestation and forest fragmentation supposed to be behind the Ebola outbreak, but research suggests that there has not been such deforestation. This week uses these cases to ask what drives the production of ‘environmental problems’ in international development. 

Week 2: The concept of ‘culture’ in development:  the Ebola crisis 
The recent epidemic of Ebola in West Africa drew attention to the importance of ‘culture’ in addressing development (e.g. in problematizing mortuary practices) but also reignited its critique, as evoking culture led to stereotyping, stigmatization and deflection of attention from structural violence. This session will examine how the place of culture in development was debated, often heatedly, in different interpretations of what drove the Ebola epidemic and how best to address such events.

Week 3: Politics and representation in debates over the environmental drivers of conflict
The argument that environmental degradation and climate change is driving conflict is articulated more than ever by politicians and aid agencies. While there is intensified research examining direct relationships between changing weather and conflict, its flaws are overlooked and it obscures the more indirect ways that climate change may be related to conflict – through the globalized biofuel, carbon sequestration, biodiversity and food security policies that drive ‘green grabbing,’ inequalities  and associated conflicts. This session will explore how highlighting direct causal linkages depoliticizes conflict, and how attention to indirect causality repoliticizes it. 

Weeks 4 - 6 Dr. Nigel Eltringham
Week 4: Conflict and reconciliation: the role of tribunals in Africa
In response to the events in the former Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide, two ad hoc international criminal tribunals to prosecute and punish international crimes were followed by other tribunals, including the Special Court for Sierra Leone (2002) and the creation of the permanent International Criminal Court in 2002.  This session will examine the critiques that have been made in regards to Sub-Saharan Africa: that the ICTR was a ‘victor’s court’ that failed to prosecute the incumbent political party (the Rwandan Patriotic Front); that trials at the Special Court for Sierra Leone exoticized and sensationalized aspects of West African ‘culture’ while simultaneously failing to adapt to ‘cultural’ attitudes to truth in Sierra Leone; and, finally, that the ICC’s inordinate focus on Sub-Saharan Africa is evidence of political manipulation (eight of ten current ‘Situations Under Investigation’ are concerned with Sub-Saharan Africa). 

Week 5 Portrayal of Sub-Saharan Africa in Mainstream Cinema
This session will explore the relationship between global film, historical/anthropological knowledge of the context and local perspectives as a way into considering other contemporary forms of ‘western’ knowledge about Africa that shape development problems (news media, documentary, academic commentary and fiction literature) to reflect on continuities and discontinuities. It explores three dominant phases in mainstream, English-speaking, North American/European cinematic portrayals of Sub-Saharan Africa in the second half of the 20th century, ranging from heroic narratives of exploration (The African Queen 1951 and The Snows of Kilimanjaro 1952) to the unfulfilled promises of decolonization (The Last King of Scotland 2006). 

Week 6 Narrating Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa
Recent years have seen a profusion of ‘first-hand’ accounts of conflict and violence in Sub-Saharan Africa (A Long Way Gone: The True Story of a Child Soldier, 2008; Left to Tell: One Woman's Story of Surviving the Rwandan Genocide, 2014; I Am Evelyn Amony: Reclaiming My Life from the Lord's Resistance Army, 2015).  Drawing on comparative research from the Holocaust and Latin America, this session will assess this genre, asking, for example, why is this genre so prized in Western countries; what (hidden) role is played by the elicitor/editor; is ‘historical truth’ more valued than ‘psychological truth’ (but how can the distinction be made and by whom); and what might such ‘archetypal accounts’ obscure as well as reveal, emphasizing one kind of experience to the detriment of others? What insights do debates in such narrations provide for wider problematizing on the continent?