Decolonising democratic innovations or decolonial praxis?

Temidayo Eseounu

Normative values such as inclusion, equity, representation and equality are intrinsic to the theories of participatory and deliberative democracies, which underpin democratic innovations (DIs). DIs aim to reform representative democracy and key theorists such as Graham Smith consider political equality in terms of presence and voice in the design of DIs to facilitate the involvement of those who are at the margins. Within the explosion of interest in the decolonisation agenda, there appears to be increasing conflation between normative values and what decolonisation is. This brief lecture from Foluke Adebisi and Genevieve Fuji Johnson’s seminar best describe my understanding of what decolonisation is and what it means specifically for democratic innovations. In summary, decolonisation aims to return and cede power and resources; therefore, decolonisation must disrupt because it highlights what we are fighting against. Decolonisation is a fight against the logics of colonisation embedded within institutions. It does not seek to reform colonised institutions, unlike DIs which typically focus on improving existing institutions to better incorporate groups at the margins by advocating for normative values.

I suggest that the agenda for decolonising DIs should start with the question: what logics of colonisation are operating in the theories that underpin DIs? Banerjee draws our attention to how the West ‘universalised’ their version of the enlightenment ideals of reason, modernity, science and progress through colonialism. Colonialism enabled the devaluing and disqualifying of local (indigenous) knowledge systems, thereby creating hierarchies of knowledge. Consequently, one step towards decolonising DIs would require ceding power in knowledge relations and a critical engagement of knowledges and practices from groups at the margin. Furthermore, Bhambra suggests that decolonisation will seek to address histories of domination and subordination, as a result of colonisation through means of material reparation.

In the context of decolonising DIs, a decolonisation agenda should centre knowledges and practices from groups dealing with the legacies of colonialism and seek to address their material struggles through the (re)distribution of resources. Centring their knowledges and practices will look like an ‘over-representation’ of groups impacted by the legacies of colonialism within DI processes. In reality, a (re)distribution of power and resources is hard to achieve, and it is therefore understandable that decolonisation scholars ask that we do not use the language of decolonisation in a tokenistic manner without pursuing meaningful change. Using the commonly quoted Tuck and Yang phrase, decolonisation is not a metaphor. It is not merely a symbolic academic exercise; it requires disruption, investment and sacrifice. Decolonisation will mean reversing more tangible aspects of colonialism, such as economic reparations or land returns to indigenous peoples. 

Where, then, does that leave the decolonising DIs agenda? Does this mean we do not attempt to decolonise because it might not be possible to achieve decolonisation? While I am sceptical about whether DIs can be decolonised since they are inherently about reforming the colonial state, it might be possible to transform them in ‘decolonial praxis’. Decolonial praxis in this field can start with answering Robbie Shilliam’s provocation, ‘who or what might be the agents of repair for the damage colonial legacies have wrought?’. I provide two short initial responses in this blog: theorists can engage with non-Eurocentric scholars, and the practice of DIs will cultivate relationships of respect, responsibility and reciprocity. This praxis will centre the knowledge of marginalised groups to eliminate oppressive hierarchies of knowledge.

Non-Eurocentric scholars are one group of agents of repair as they have been theorising (de)colonial logics long before the spark of interest in decolonisation was ignited in the Global North academe. These scholars include Claude Ake, Syed Hussein Alatas, Gurminder K. Bhambra, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Walter Mignolo, Aníbal Quijano, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Gina Starblanket, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang. By engaging with this work, DI theorists can learn from them to help recontextualise and reconceptualise the intellectual roots and routes of deliberative and participatory theories.

As someone who uses DIs, particularly those within the collaborative governance family, I have been reflecting on what decolonial praxis would look like for me. Firstly, it will entail a long-term commitment to long-term relationships with groups harmed by the legacies of colonialism and being accountable to them. Learning from other anti-racist scholars about working in service, I have been working closely with a network of organisations led by racially minoritised people over the last few years, using my research skills to serve the network’s agenda. I plan to continue to use my position within academia in the Global North in service to these communities. Next, decolonial praxis in the use of DIs will drive collaboration from the conception to the completion of the process, establishing collective ownership over the entire process, the data analysis, and its dissemination. For my next research project, I am hoping to work with a group of young Black people to design the research, collect and analyse the data, and disseminate the findings. This will put these groups’ voices and epistemological perspectives at the heart of the research in ways that step outside or might oppose what is accepted practice. Centring their voices and perspectives helps with reframing issues and problematises structures which harm their everyday lives.

I critically engage with different forms of knowing through practices such as Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism as a design practice in collaborative governance helps to practically engage young Black people in producing knowledge which seeks to transform oppressive systems. Using Afrofuturism as decolonial praxis seeks to create Black-centred dialectical spaces that are committed to empowering participants to act for change through shaping material and immaterial solutions to Black struggles. However, while it is anticipated that Afrofuturism can avoid the replication of colonial logics of knowledge hierarchies, this is only a small part of the decolonisation agenda. Afrofuturism as conceptualised here can start to repair the harm that the legacies of colonialism has enacted but it needs to be anchored in ensuring power and resources reparations.

Dayo Eseonu is Lecturer in Politics and Policy at the University of Lancaster. She completed her PhD in Politics at the University of Manchester. Her research uses critical race theory to examine racial equity in public services delivery. 


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