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Development – behind the single story

The past weeks I have had amazingly confronting classes as part of a course called Beyond Development. María Luisa Eschenhagen from Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana (Medellín, Colombia) firmly pulled the ground from under our feet. Challenging the Eurocentrism of the international development paradigm, we got introduced to the concept of coloniality and different ways of relating to the world. It is impossible to convey the richness of the classes in words, but I hope this article (and its follow-up to come) will stir up some thoughts.

By Inge Schrijver


Before going into development, we started to cover a wider historical context and the concept of coloniality. Colonialisation is territorial, using military force to physically dominate another country. This arguably is over nowadays. Coloniality however is still going on.It is subtler European domination and involves for instance structures of power and knowledge. There are three different forms:

  • Coloniality of power (see work of Anibal Quijano)

There is a global predominant structure of power. This is based on the articulation of the relationships race – work (certain jobs are done by people of a certain race) and space –people (certain areas or neighbourhoods are inhabited by certain people). These relationships are in accordance with the needs of capital for the benefits of white Europeans.

  • Coloniality of being (see work of Nelson Maldonado-Torres)

There is an imposition of forms of being, of who is considered a fully accepted human. Those non-European are dehumanised, inferior, non-existent.

  • Coloniality of knowledge (see work of Edgardo Lander)

Eurocentric knowledge is the only valid type. It determines who has access to knowledge, what is legit and what is not. Rationalities of other kinds of knowledge, for example indigenous knowledges, are removed, made invisible, exterminated.

columbus native americans



Coloniality is the domination of Eurocentric ways across the globe, and international development is rooted in this. To provide some background, we treated the advent of modernity. In the European view, modernity started during the Enlightenment. It was centred on the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), with the notion that people are responsible for their own thinking and decision-making (contrasted to feudalism where other people make decisions for you). A few other central ideas are that scientific knowledge is considered as universal, objective, and true. The industrial revolution was possible through the conversion of this scientific knowledge into technology. Moreover, in philosophy the idea of ‘man’ as an individual arose. The ultimate triumph of modernity is that it becomes universal, unifying all of humankind.

But this is not the only view. Several South American scholars identify, modernity’s start in 1492, with Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of the Americas. Imperialism and (post)colonialism are an essential part and coloniality a central concept of modernity, which cannot be understood without the economic aspects of exploitation and domination. They recognise that there is Eurocentric criticism of Eurocentrism (in Europe) and decolonial criticism from those who were dominated. They recognise that multiple forms of knowledge exist, and shift from the ‘one and only’ system of capitalism to different forms across the world.

To put it (overly) simply, Eurocentric modernity is the victory of a single story, of one form of ultimate (scientific) knowledge and a clear development path to be followed by everyone to get to the same stage. This in contrast with for instance the vision of the Zapatista movement in Mexico: “A world in which many worlds can fit”. (See also this powerful TED talk: The danger of a single story.)


Human relationship with or in nature

  Naturalism Animism Totemism Anologism
Interior + +
Physical + +

One example of many worlds is the different ways humans see their relationship with or in nature. Philippe Descola, a French anthropologist, formulated four ways people see this relation. The classic European view is naturalism, where humans and non-humans are physically similar, but because we believe to uniquely have a soul and the capacity to reason, our interiority is different. In animism it is the other way around: same interior, there is no difference between humans and non-humans, but physical differences. Tellingly, in such languages the word for human and for animal is the same.:no distinction can be made, all are humans. Then there is totemism, where both the interior and physical conceptions are the same, and anologism, where both are different.

These different perceptions are fundamental and determine how we as humans view the world – it is important to remember that this classification is made from a naturalist view, from the others it makes no sense. The development paradigm comes from the Western naturalist view. Indigenous or traditional knowledge and traditions are seen as primitive (or non-existent) compared to the more cognitive and scientific approach of the West.

And I am just as guilty of this. It is easy to judge that what you don’t know and can’t understand. Coming weekend I am going to a Shamanic dreaming workshop, something I would never have done a year ago and I don’t know if I will be able to connect to this spirituality, but I will try. And I will try to recognise coloniality, when I dismiss something because it is alien to me, because I cannot understand it intellectually, because it is a different way of knowing or being.

In a follow-up article I will treat the development paradigm embedded in the matters discussed above.

If you want to learn more:

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to María Luisa for proofreading this article and indicating all the Western traps I have fallen into (and probably still am in…).


Inge Schrijver

Inge graduated from University College Utrecht with a BSc in Earth&Environment and Chemistry and a minor in Economics. She was secretary in the 2015-2016 board of Studenten voor Morgen. Currently, Inge studies the MA Economics for Transition at Schumacher College in England. She publishes articles about her experience and learnings every once in a while.
Twitter @SchrijverEgni

Dit bericht heeft 1 reactie
  1. Super nice Inge 🙂 This is actually what I wrote my paper on in the Honours course! Schumacher College sounds amazing btw from all your articles 😉

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