My name is Kyende Kinoti and I have been interning with Feedback Labs over the past couple of months. As a Global Studies Major, I am particularly interested in the intersection of development, feedback, and decolonization. My blog post will explore these topics through an academic lens and I will also be using some academic terms.
This is not a new conversation, yet, the industry still struggles with the question of decolonization. Hence, the aid and development industry remains under deep scrutiny over its activities and relevance. Luckily, as more people take notice, templates are being offered on how to overcome colonial mentalities in aid and development, such as Feedback Lab’s op-ed on the importance of decolonizing design. Reading this template helped me identify three things that I believe are essential to this process and how feedback is a simple yet radical act of decolonization.
Epistemology is how we acquire and legitimize knowledge. When it comes to development, whose recommendations are considered “legitimate”? Dominant culture in development and aid often upholds positivist methods of acquiring knowledge. Thus, using science or proofs is often seen as more legitimate than say knowledge from lived experiences or passed down ancestral knowledge. The idea that knowledge can only exist in positivist forms is a colonial phenomenon – it creates a class of people who know, “the experts”, and those who should follow. This mentality breeds aid and development programs that try to improve people’s lives while ignoring the mastery that people have over their own lives. Ernest Sirolli gives a humorous TED Talk on this phenomenon. He speaks about his various failures with development projects on the African continent as a result of not consulting local knowledge. Sirolli elegantly critiques colonial epistemology and makes a strong case on why we should “Shut up and Listen!”
Ideally, decolonizing epistemology means having to recognize that no group of people have a monopoly on knowledge, and this makes collecting feedback pivotal to the success of any program.
Development is Autopoietic not Allopoietic
The terms autopoiesis and allopoiesis respectively mean self-creation and creation by another. In biology, development is viewed as an autopoietic process (evolution from within) rather than an allopoietic one (externally imposed evolution). Therefore, in biology, development is not linear – where there is a forward and backward – instead development is simply an organism evolving to best fit the environment that it is in. Contrastingly, development within aid and development is often viewed as a linear trajectory where some countries have already arrived at the finish line while the rest are simply playing catch up. What’s more is that the finish line itself is an externally imposed idea of ‘development’ which often follows western ideologies such as capitalism, neoliberalism and western representative democracy. Although these ideologies have worked for certain communities, to overgeneralize and impose them on others is part of colonial mentality.
Decolonization means recognizing that development is it not a linear race to the finish, rather, it is a cyclical process that is always informing itself, making changes, and reiterating when needed.
Essentially, every country is developing because they are all constantly changing and adapting themselves to their shifting environments. Hence, feedback is essential to autopoietic development because it allows each community to define and actualize for themselves how they would like to evolve.
Ontology is how we view our being, existence, and reality. Colonial ontology dictates that there can be only one reality and one way to be or exist, therefore, there can only be one world. Unfortunately, development and aid often adopt colonial ontology when it pushes towards a singular linear idea of development determined by western epistemology. To decolonize ontology would mean appreciating that there are infinite worlds possible and that they can exist simultaneously. Decolonization is not just making another world possible, rather, as the Zapatistas would say, it is creating “A world where many worlds fit.” And feedback is instrumental for creating a world where many fit.
Listening to feedback allows the industry to realize that many different worlds are already in existence, while, it also empowers communities to build a world that is most appropriate for them.
In essence, decolonization means accepting different forms of knowledge, promoting development from within, and embracing the different worlds that exist. And, to achieve this, feedback must be at the center of all aid and development work.
Kyende was the 2019 summer Strategy and Fundraising Intern at Feedback Labs. She is originally from Nairobi, Kenya and has also lived in Johannesburg, South Africa. Having spent the majority of her life on the African continent, Kyende has borne witness to the paternalism that is often found within development and aid projects being conducted on the continent. In these cases, she has identified that the lack of two-way communication and closed feedback loops were causing more harm than good to target communities, hence, this is what drew her to the mission of Feedback Labs. Kyende is currently a senior Morehead-Cain scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During her final year at Carolina she is writing a senior thesis on Decolonizing Development through a Paradigm Shift in Epistemology and Ontology, therefore, her internship with Feedback Labs plays an important role in framing her research. In her spare time Kyende enjoys creative writing, blogging, reading thrillers, being outdoors, and playing football (soccer, not American football).