IR Should Abandon the Notion of Aid, and Address Racism and Reparations.

3 July 2020 – Foreign Policy – I contributed to a collective analysis piece titled: Why is Mainstream IR blind to Racism? with the brilliant minds of BY , , , , , , ,  

Worldwide protests against police racism and brutality and the toppling of statues commemorating white supremacists have led to a public reckoning in the United States and many other countries—forcing citizens and governments to confront the historical legacy of systemic racism and the enduring inequalities it has created. A similar reckoning is long overdue within the academic discipline of international relations (IR).

Beginning with its creation as an academic discipline, mainstream IR has not been entirely honest about its ideological or geographic origins. It has largely erased non-Western history and thought from its canon and has failed to address the central role of colonialism and decolonization in creating the contemporary international order.
Foreign Policy asked nine leading thinkers in the field how IR has fallen short and how the research, teaching, and practice of it must change.”

below is my contribution – find the full text here.

IR Should Abandon the Notion of Aid, and Address Racism and Reparations

By Olivia U. Rutazibwa, a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth and a fellow at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study. She is a co-editor, with Robbie Shilliam, of The Routledge Handbook of Postcolonial Politics.

When I decided to study international relations 20 years ago, I was not interested in which among realism or liberalism—or the new kid on the block, constructivism—was the proper theoretical approach.

Instead, I came to study IR because, as a second-generation Rwandan born and raised in Belgium, I could not wrap my head around what happened in 1994. Then a teenager, looking at the existential distress of my family members—rather than at my schoolbooks—I understood that something apocalyptic was unfolding in Rwanda. The United Nations, meanwhile, was retreating from the country, after 10 Belgian U.N. blue helmet paratroopers had been murdered on the eve of the genocide against the Tutsi.

In the Belgian media, apart from the death of the Belgian troops, the events were recounted vaguely like any other seemingly ethnic conflict in Africa—with Belgium’s and other Western involvement underplayed or erased. Many Belgians are still unaware of Belgium’s colonial ties to both Rwanda and Burundi, nor are they clear, if at all conscious, about who killed whom.

My interest in IR came from the fact that I could not make sense of the fact that the U.N.—which, according to my IR textbooks, was a Western-led beacon of hope and salvation and the cradle of human rights—left a million people to die in 1994.

I therefore set out to study what is known as “ethical foreign policy”: international (i.e., Western-led) actors showing up for the other peoples of the world with the well-being of the supposedly receiving others proclaimed as the driving force behind their presence. Building on mainstream IR, usually dead silent about racism and colonization, at the time, I viewed more involvement (financial, political, and technical) as an ethical given.

Yet, there is no historical evidence that Western presence has ever enhanced the well-being of the previously colonized world. It took me a solid decade—and exposure to post- and decolonial approaches—to change my doctoral research question from: “When do Western actors not show up?” to “Should they be there in the first place?”

Ever since I discovered—through the works of colleagues like Errol Henderson, Meera Sabaratnam, Siba Grovogui, and Robbie Shilliam—that one can include analyses of race, racism, colonialism, and paternalism in the study of the international and present-day North-South relations, I have come to the conclusion that we should get rid of the notion of aid and the related discipline of international development, which, like IR, is built on a profound whitewashing of history and the erasure of the contributions of previously colonized people to wealth and advancements in the West. Indeed, the entire notion of aid is obscene—and racist. International relations that do not reproduce the logic of colonialism must instead engage with ideas of repair, dignity, and even retreat.

Taking the problem of racism seriously in the field of IR means viewing it not merely as an issue of stereotypes or cultural insensitivities, but as a colonial technology of life and premature death built on ideologies of whiteness and white supremacy.

Taking the problem of racism seriously in the field of IR means viewing it not merely as an issue of stereotypes or cultural insensitivities, but as a colonial technology of life and premature death built on ideologies of whiteness and white supremacy.

It is also not just about adding a bit of racism and colonialism and stirring. It means fundamentally rethinking the purpose of the discipline: Do we make it a science of the status quo or a science of the possibility of life—starting with Black lives?

Earlier this week, on June 30, the king of Belgium expressed for the very first time in history his regret for the countless brutal acts committed during the colonial era in the Belgian Congo—60 years after formal independence.

IR scholars who place race, racism, and colonialism at the center of their analysis know that it is about more than acknowledging the past. The scholarly imperative is to study and question the current international system built on racial capitalism, and to imagine alternatives. At best, Belgium’s belated gesture is the start of a conversation about repair and reparations, not aid—a conversation that mainstream IR, as it exists today, has not been able to ignite.

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