Let’s Decolonise Economics Education!

Words by Ali Al-Jamri

What does decolonising economics mean to you? How do we go about doing it? Over the past year, I’ve put these questions to students across the Rethinking Economics network. Many Rethinkers have a strong idea of the first part (what it means) and a looser idea on the second (what can be done).

In this blog post, I want to explain decolonising as a concept, breaking it into a ‘mind-set’ and a ‘process’, then applying this to economics education. At the end of this blog is a list of suggested actions you can take to start decolonising your curriculum, and a reading list for those of you interested in exploring the topic further. Please note, the book is by no means closed on decolonising! There is a rich debate happening on the subject today, and what you read next is an informed post on decolonising, it is not the be-all and end-all. If you think there’s something missing here, join us in conversation by email, facebook or twitter!

The Decolonising Mind-Set

Decolonising is first and foremost a mind-set, a mode of thinking, in which an understanding of race relations and power and privilege are held as fundamental. They form the foundation from which we pursue our inquiries.

So what does that mean? A decolonising mind-set holds the following things as essential:

1: The modern world we live in was built on the basis of the exploitation and enslavement of African, Asian, American and Australasian peoples by Europeans. Colonialism coincided with the development of capitalism, modern economic thought and global financial and state frameworks.

2: In order to successfully exploit these peoples, colonial states developed racism and concepts of racial superiority, which are specific types of bigotry, as justification for this exploitation.

3: The modern globalised economic and political system is built on a colonial and racist legacy and, while some of it has been undone, much (arguably most) of it has not.

4: The colonial and racist systems serve to render invisible the lives and voices of the global majority who are not European/of European descent.

5: A decolonising mind-set rejects the silencing of non-European voices, rejects racist structures, and seeks to redress this imbalance by reframing issues around the experiences of peoples who have traditionally been rendered invisible.

The Decolonising Process: Is There An End Goal?

Decolonising also describes the analytical process which builds on the mind-set outlined about. Decolonising is a process for systems change from racist to racial equality. Before we go any further, it would be useful to ask what a decolonised curriculum would look, as having an idea of the goal will help define the process. A decolonised curriculum would:

Acknowledge values as part of economics. It would acknowledge that power and privilege are inherent concepts in all societies, and any inquiry into society (including how that society operates economically) must consider power relations and how some groups are privileged over others. It would recognise that historical forces have long-standing effects on societies that still need addressing today, including racism, sexism, elitism, homophobia and other forms of prejudice, and that the object of study can be to further resolve social injustices.

Treat equally African, Asian, American, Australasian and European philosophy, methods, lived experiences, resources, readings and writings in the curriculum.

Take a critical, real-world approach, which includes the perspectives of marginalised people on the economy.

Be self-reflective and ask how we are taught about the world.

To unpack this, let’s look at an example of a decolonising curriculum. The University of West England’s “Emerging Economies” module (run by Dr Danielle Guizzo, a member of Reteaching Economics and D-Econ) investigates the rapid rise of selected global economies, including Brazil, South Africa, Russia and China. Students are encouraged to develop a critical analytical understanding of these states’ economic histories and the role of national and international actors, systems and institutions on them. The course provides a wide range of readings, drawing from economists from the countries being investigated. Seminars are used to explore the economic questions in depth and from multiple perspectives. You can read the module specification on UWE’s website. This module is reflective and investigates from the perspectives of the peoples and countries who are at the heart of the subject. It’s notable that a decolonising module is by its nature critical, real-world and pluralist – all the things we want to see in our economics education!

We should understand that decolonising is a constant process. We can continuously improve our curricula, institutions, and approaches to our subject of study, and there will always be more that we can do with each initiative. A “decolonised” curriculum is a utopian ideal. Colonisation cannot be undone, it can only be redressed. We cannot pretend that colonisation didn’t happen or achieve a mythical past where imperialism didn’t occur. We also cannot escape the fact that we have all been shaped by colonialism. As long as Western thought is considered the default and European languages dominate as the main form of communicating that thought, we cannot achieve a “fully decolonised” state of being.

Who Is Decolonising Important To?

The decolonising mind-set is important to everyone because every life has been affected by colonialism, racism and intersecting structures connected to the two. Decolonising should not be seen as a special interest for people of the “Global South”. Those of us living in the “Global North” continue to benefit from the colonial legacy and we need to acknowledge that fact in order to address it.

Although state-led imperialism is a thing of the past in most of the world, our globalised economy still operates along colonial structures. Consider the invisible workers in the “Global South” countries of Colombia, Bangladesh and China who grow our coffee, weave our clothes and build our phones. Those of us in wealthier circumstances depend on them for our way of life. They live on or under the poverty line to provide us with the goods we purchase while multinational, Western corporations like Starbucks, Primark and Apple pocket the profits. When we throw away these goods, our countries export the toxic household waste to West Africa and the Philippines. Our 21st century globalised consumer consumption follows the same exploitation witnessed in the colonial past. This can’t be separated from racism: these people are rendered invisible because their lives are considered less valuable by our society. No matter who we are or where we live, our lives are touched by systems that need decolonising.

It’s important to note: this isn’t about apportioning blame or pointing the finger. No one chooses their race, gender, or wealth. No one decides for themselves the privileges they are born into. A decolonising mind-set moves us towards holding a responsibility to understand our privilege and find ways to balance these differences.

It’s Not A New Thing.

In many ways, decolonising the curriculum is something that started happening as soon as Asian and African countries started gaining their independence in the 1940’s onwards. One of the first thing many of these countries did was rewrite the history of the colonial period being taught at schools. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, the celebrated Kenyan author and academic wrote his seminal work Decolonising the Mind in 1986. In South Africa, decolonising education has a long history which was super-charged by the recent, successful #RhodesMustFall campaign.

And any reader familiar with feminist economics should be able to recognise a similar line of argument in decolonising. Feminist economics places gender politics at the heart of its economic inquiry. It recognises that economics is male-dominated and patriarchal, and economic theories are written from a gendered perspective. Feminist economists investigate the invisible work women do in the economy, such as in the household, and the hidden pressures they face in the workforce which men, typically, do not (see Cahal’s fantastic Why Feminist Economics Is Necessary). Where the decolonising approach differs is its emphasis on racial discrimination. However no decolonising analysis is complete without an intersectional investigation: after all, if racism is rendering people invisible in our global economy, sexism doubles that disadvantage.

So How Do We Decolonise Economics?

If “to decolonise” is to pursue systemic change to create a racially equitable society, then decolonising economics is central to that. How do we act on it? There are several points of departure here. Here are some of the things we can apply the decolonising process to:

Economic thought. Far too often, students of Economics will learn of no non-Western economists or economic thinkers, or if they do, they will be few and far between – such as the polyglot Ibn Khaldun and the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. Yet there are economists writing in their mother tongues around the world, and when learning about global economies, we cannot rely only on English-language texts but have to look to others and their economic traditions.

Economic history. Capitalism, colonialism and slavery all arose at the same time, and their histories cannot and should not be separated, as the latter two shaped the development of the former. Whether colonialism and slavery were necessary for the development of capitalism is the subject of much debate, but no understanding of economics is complete without considering the colonial and post-colonial contexts.

“Development”. Often, the “Global South” is investigated as though it is in some way lagging behind the “Global North” in “Development”, a code word in which a “Developed” country is one which looks and feels like a Western European or North American country. This ignores the reality that countries, cultures and economies can have different trajectories unique from one another. It places on a pedestal the “Global North” model and way of life as one which all people should aspire to. In so doing, it places “Global North” lives as more important and valuable than “Global South” ones, and denies the role that the North’s consumption habits and economic models have had in causing and accelerating climate change.

Economic models. These are usually based on a Western understanding of economic organisation and are taught and applied in countries where they may have no bearing, because the context is too different (see for example what RE The Uploaders are doing to rethink labour market models for Nigeria).

Economic inquiries. Whose activities are we investigating in the analytical questions we ask? Are we considering their power and privilege over or under others? Have we acknowledged how they benefit from or are disadvantaged by a racialised economy? Are we asking how these imbalances can be redressed?

What Can I Do To Decolonise Economics Today?

We’ve sped through the theory and practice of decolonising. There is so much more to say, for which I point you to the selected reading list below.

There are big actions to be taken on decolonising economics. You can hold events and conferences around the subject of decolonising (Rethinking Economics For Africa are doing that this September), inviting speakers from marginalised communities and the “Global South” to speak. You can create an alternative, decolonising curriculum. You can campaign for the representation of non-Western thinkers, theories and methods to be introduced in your institution. There is a space here for ambitious campaigns.

But I’d like to end this post by suggesting a couple small actions you can take today to start decolonising economics and get the ball rolling. These are actions you won’t need any resources to pursue other than your own interest and motivation:

Investigate an economic issue through a decolonising lens. For example, you can decolonise questions of land ownership, global supply chains, food distribution or government infrastructure investment. Who benefits? Who is disadvantaged? How does that link to a colonial past and racialised present? What might you recommend to redress identified inequalities?

Write a short paper and avoid citing Western scholars. This can be difficult exercise, but an enlightening one. What writers will you discover when you go off the beaten path?

Create an alternative reading list. When you’ve got a few books and articles down, why not start a book club?

Most importantly, share your thoughts with each other! Over the coming months, Rethinking Economics will be arranging calls to bring together members of our network engaged in decolonising their curriculum. Stay tuned, and if you would like to know more and would like to participate actively with the RE network on decolonising, then email for more information!

Reading List

For those of you who might be thinking “How might I decolonise my curriculum?”, there’s a great Decolonising Toolkit from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, which can get you started thinking.

Rethinking Racial Capitalism, by Gargi Bhattacharyya.

Decolonising the Mind, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, is a seminal text on decolonising generally. It speaks to the decolonising mind-set, if not specifically to economics. An excerpt of the first two chapters is available here.

Decolonising the University, eds. Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial, Kerem Nişancıoğlu, is a fresh look at the university and its colonial legacy, and how to change it, and was written in the wake of the successful Rhodes Must Fall campaign by South African students.

For those of you who can’t commit to a whole book right now, check out this article on Open Democracy, Imperialism in a Coffee Cup, which employs a decolonising approach to an economic question: who profits in the coffee industry? Open Democracy has more articles under their Decolonising The Economy series.

If you want a “Global South” economist writing from their perspective, read Ecuadorian economist Alberto Acosta’s chapter on the oil and mining industries and the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. The entire book, Beyond Development: Alternative Visions from Latin America, is well worth a read.

If emerging economic theory appeals to you, then read the short introduction to Stratification Economics: the Role of Intergroup Inequality which identifies and examines the intentional and cross generational hierarchies which generate income and wealth inequality between social groups e.g. white privilege in the US and the Americas, and high caste privilege in India.

For more, check out the fantastic reading list our friends at D-Econ have put together here.

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